This month’s wandering plutoid in rock obscuria’s endless night, a freakout for trad jazz trombone and electric guitar.
Chris Barber Drat That Fratle Rat!
THERE’S A SPECIAL feeling when you’ve been allowed to give an album you’ve never heard before a spin on the second-hand record shop stereo and within 20 seconds of it starting all the other customers’ façades of cool have crumbled in their desperation to know what it is. Chris Barber’s Drat That Fratle Rat! delivers that sensation on toast. The opening four-minute title-track suggests the great Indianapolis jazz trombonist JJ Johnson jamming with Clear Spot-era Beefheart while the soundtrack of an ominous Latvian film about international shipping plays out in the background. Then Rory Gallagher really cuts loose. Track two, The Falling Song, is a lovely plaintive seven-minute ballad pitched somewhere between Traffic at their most internal and Joe Cocker at his least bombastic. And whose is that lovely soulful voice? It’s Tony Ashton of Resurrection Shuffle trio Ashton, Gardner & Dyke, and he’s brought his bandmates along with him on bass and drums. Closing side one in a delirious – not to say psychedelic – miasma of laughing policeman trombone, Fegalemic Pegaloomer locates its instrumental nonsense poetry within some superbly funky undergrowth. It’s clear that you’re listening to perhaps the greatest trad jazz trombone/classic rock guitar crossover LP of all time, so let’s save side two ’til we’ve got some back-story. St. John Earp’s cover painting gives us few clues. With its hooded figure climbing a staircase to a ruined tower, it’s the sort of thing Roger Dean might have done for an imaginary Cymande concept long-player celebrating the works of JRR Tolkien. Even though he still makes the occasional live appearance, tracking down 88-year-old British jazz institution Chris Barber to ask him how all this happened presents something of an investigative challenge. Early website leads run ominously cold, but a serpentine trail leading from early the Old Grey Whistle Test presenter Richard Williams through two former members of Manfred Mann eventually elicits a welcome late-night phone-call from the great man. “We weren’t glorifying ourselves for playing weird stuff,” Barber explains. ”It was just like-minded people congregating together and trying to do things that hadn’t been done before. By the early ’70s there wasn’t so much gigging going on, but while Rory was recording with us we played one concert with him at a disused cinema in Swindon.” Far from the aberration that it might initially appear to be, Drat That Fratle Rat!’s very British kind of jazz-rock fusion is entirely in keeping with Barber’s status as one of the founding fathers of the British blues boom. Not only did he play bass on skiffle rosetta stone Rock Island Line with then band-member Lonnie Donegan in a historic moment of studio downtime, he also helped bring over the great bluesmen he met touring America on Musicians Union exchange tours for the early UK expeditions which would be the foundation of everything that came after. “It all went back to The Marquee, really,” says Barber. “We hated playing the 100 Club in the early ’60s – you can listen to a band OK there but the sound when you’re playing is awful, so we preferred to cross Oxford Street to Giorgio Gomelsky’s Thursday blues nights… the Stones were starting up and a lot of good things happened. That’s the spirit Drat That Fratle Rat! was made in, so it was fitting we made it in the Marquee Studios, which was in Richmond Mews, round the back of the club.” In terms of spirit, personnel and titular linguistics, Drat That Fratle Rat! had its genesis in two tracks from Barber’s previous LP, 1971’s partly live double Get Rolling! The off-kilter swing of Shoeman The Human features Stone The Crows drummer Colin Allen, and the amazing 14-minute Balkan folk-tinged tour de force Ubava Zabava (written by Barber, inspired by music heard in a Yugoslav restaurant while playing in Düsseldorf) goes about as far out there as British jazz ever has. The man with his hand on the tiller of Barber’s new direction was Canadian (but London-born) ukulele-player and guitarist Steve Hammond, who produced both albums. “He was a ver y interesting musician,” Barber remembers fondly of the man who replaced Noel Redding in Fat Mattress, “and he helped us bring together all these odd little ideas we’d had.” Among these ideas were song-titles which twisted jazz hipster-speak into what Barber calls “the British kind of nonsense” – a habit dating back through fellow jazz-buffs The Goons to Edward Lear. “It was just mishearings, changing words slightly so you used one where you meant another,” he says, “for example, the ‘Fegalemic’ in Fegalemic Pegaloomer started out as ‘phallic’.” Alongside these “words that were nearly other words”, Drat That Fratle Rat! offers the listener music that is nearly other music, in the form of an early ’70s British jazz rarity that might as well be a great late ’90s Jim O’Rourke album. Side two starts with the amazing Earth Abides – imagine one of Jim Parker’s chamber jazz rhapsodies for John Betjeman re-recorded by Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood Of Breath. Sleepy Louie brings Rory Gallagher back into the spotlight for a second woozy pub garden blues fantasia, before O’Reilly brings us home in bracingly abstract and fusion-friendly shape with a little help from – who else? – Third Ear Band stalwart and Space Oddity and Miles Davis’s On The Corner arranger Paul Buckmaster. It’s space-rock, Jim, but not as we know it.
“We weren’t glorifying ourselves for playing weird stuff.” CHRIS BARBER
’Bone idol: Chris Barber with electric friends: (below) guest player Rory Gallagher.