Having once owned the cheap vinyl compilation of the same name, I've been looking out for this collection on CD for a few years. Apart from the running order and an extra mix of the hit, 'Neanderthal Man', it's the same. That isn't surprising as it consists of the band's entire output: an album and a few singles.
Eric Stewart bought a Manchester recording studio in the late 1960s with money he'd made from his time with The Mindbenders and renamed it Strawberry Studios after his favourite Beatles song. There he hooked up with fellow Mancunians Kevin Godley and Lol Creme who had been collaborating for a few years. This music then is the result of a new partnership experimenting and casting for ideas. With hindsight, it can be viewed as the first footing of 10cc, two years ahead of that band's debut. The fourth 10cc member, Graham Gouldman, was already a working acquaintance. He'd played in a beat group with Godley before contributing material to The Mindbenders' final album. Here, however, he appears on just one track.
With such a diverse collection of songs, none of the tracks can be said to be representative of the whole. The gentler songs feature Godley's angelic vocal. Of these, 'How Many Times' seems only part-formed whereas 'Take Me Back' is very satisfying. 'Fly Away' meanwhile is the most delicate track, perhaps too sugary. 'All God's Children' with its fuller arrangement and 'Today' are, however, outstanding. The latter is a simple song wrapped in a beautiful acoustic guitar, organ and string arrangement.
The grittier tracks come in several shades. 'Desperate Dan' is a comic, throwaway bar room boogie; 'Run Baby Run' is a sardonic, bluesy song featuring Stewart's vocal and guitar prowess; 'Loser', sung by Creme, has more urgency. All of these have merit, but the fast, funky 'Um Wah Um Woh', with its intricate vocal arrangement, tops them all. So does the title track, which moves furiously through moods and tempo changes, starting with a jazzy slant and featuring a section which would be lifted wholesale for 'Fresh Air For My Mama', a track from the first 10cc album.
The band apparently hated 'Lady Sadie', but it's one of my favourite tracks, picking up momentum as it progresses. There is though a big question mark over the thirteen-minute opus, 'Suite F.A'. Lol Creme commented that the public probably wasn't ready for it, but I suspect that it was the other way round. The first of the three sections is satisfying: mellow guitar and a choir, the kind of sound Mike Oldfield would achieve on his early albums. Creme's vocal too is good. It loses momentum after this, however, and offers little to make the listener sit up.
On the whole, this is an interesting and entertaining album, but does contain a few wrong turnings. Although probably only of interest to 10cc fans, it is the best of the quartet's pre-10cc work. The 'Strawberry Bubblegum' collection, by contrast, consists of conveyor-belt pop which was churned out to pay the bills. They can also be found backing Ramases on 'Space Hymns' (don't bother) and Neil Sedaka on (I think) 'Emergence'.