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Very much of their era
on 2 September 2010
Like Curved Air who I reviewed recently Ten Years After were one of the 50 to 60 bands who comprised the classic rock era of the late 60's / early 70's.
When I was at school we had a lunchtime club called the Contemporary Music Society which really consisted of older boys playing records to us younger pupils and occasionally talking about them. I can barely remember most of the sessions. The only ones I do recall were ones on Mott the Hoople, before they became mainstream, The Velvet Underground and Love - the latter was quite funny as the boy presenting it just kept playing the records until the teacher demanded he say something about this band none of us had ever heard of.
However the one that remains most vivid in my memory was the one on TYA, mainly because the boy presenting kept saying he hadn't got most of the records he was talking about. However he did play Sweet Little Sixteen, so he must have had the album `Watt.' At the age of 12/13 I thought this was one of the most exciting things I'd ever heard (I didn't even know it was a Chuck Berry song at the time!) and resolved to investigate TYA further. I never did of course and it wasn't until I became an adult that I purchased a vinyl compilation of the band. I actually think the version of Sweet Little Sixteen is actually quite poor now!
As with many bands of that era it's easy to forget how big TYA were at the time. Although they were probably only a bottom of the premier league band in the UK, not in the same league as Zeppelin, The Stones or the Who or even Deep Purple, they were for a time superstars in the States. Alongside Humble Pie, a band of similar status, they had the most tours of the United States of any British group of their era. Although they had negligible singles success, their albums sold well and they were a regular fixture on the festival circuit, appearing at both the Isle of Wight and Woodstock, Alvin Lee's guitar histrionics lending itself perfectly to the live experience.
Despite the many compilations over the years I don't think there's been a definitive comprehensive compilation of TYA. I own the double disc Anthology 1967 - 71, which I had to buy from the U.S as it isn't available here. However this doesn't have anything from the albums released after 1971; most noticeably 1972's `Rock and Roll Music To The World' (TYA's most recent release when I caught up with them) and 1974's `Positive Vibrations', albums that contain some of the band's best material.
Similarly this compilation is also not definitive as it covers the Chrysalis years, therefore there is nothing from the first three albums: `Ten Years After', `Undead' and `Stonedhenge,' or the outtakes album `Alvin Lee & Co'; a couple of early non album singles are also missing. I'm Going Home, far and away Ten Years After's most famous song, is also missing. This compilation isn't therefore really a best of, but a collecting together of the albums `Sssh,' `Cricklewood Green,' `Watt,' `A Space In Time' and `Rock and Roll Music To The World' in their entirety together with a couple of other singles and B sides.
It does therefore feature Love Like A Man, the band's only British hit and I'd Love To Change The World, their biggest American single, which after I'm Going Home are their other most famous songs. However 1974's `Positive Vibrations' album is again missing.
There are therefore a total of twelve tracks that overlap with the Anthology, which is ultimately a much stronger collection, as not only does it feature the best of their early material but it creams off the best of `Sssh','Cricklewood Green,' `Watt,' `A Space In Time,' although as already indicated you don't get anything from `Rock and Roll Music To The World' on that anthology. The US Anthology also contains decent liner notes, whilst this collection features a paltry paragraph and a few lines from a 1969 interview with Alvin Lee.
Coming to the music and it must be observed that, exciting live band as they were,TYA did lack enough decent original songs to propel them into the company of the aforementioned Zeppelin, et al. Their music was very much of its time, although by these albums the blues of their early period had been largely left behind, when they tried to break out of their default boogie style, they did struggle somewhat, never making a completely successful and satisfying album, and their attempts at originality tended to rely on dated production gimmicks such as phasing and sound effects.
`Cricklewood Green' is usually regarded as their greatest album and it does feature Love Like A Man; the jazzy Me And My Baby and the psychedelic 50,000 miles Beneath My Brain are also strong tracks, however I would contend that'Rock & Roll Music To The World' is actually their best; the title track is excellent whilst Choo Choo Mama is perhaps their best rock and roll song. Indeed TYA are at their strongest on these types of numbers; Baby Won't You Let Me Rock n Roll You and `Going Back To Birmingham (not featured here as it's on Positive Vibrations' ) are similar numbers. When the band tries to diversify away from the blues or boogie, for example by playing acoustic, much of the time they are boring as the songs aren't strong enough.
This was ultimately their problem. Alvin Lee originally disbanded the group in 1975 because he said he was fed up of being a travelling jukebox, but ultimately they were a boogie, blues rock band and no more. They could be compared to Status Quo as a boogie band and, although Alvin Lee was a better guitarist than anybody in Status Quo, they lacked the Quo's pop sensibility. As a blues band they could be compared to their great contemporaries Fleetwood Mac, but Lee lacked the song writing prowess, singing and originality in playing of Peter Green, whilst as a heavy rock band TYA didn't match up to Zeppelin, Purple or Sabbath.
In conclusion, although Alvin Lee was one of the fastest, flashiest guitar players on the block, TYA didn't have the songs or the sound to ever be anything more than a good band of their era rather than a great band who could transcend eras. A single, or at the most double, disc compilation of the best material from all their albums is all the TYA most people would want.