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A Modernist Triumverate!
on 28 December 2011
RPM's built a great reputation over the years for unveiling the nooks and crannies of Britpop 60s history, from label overviews (Beacon, Strike, etc.) to great single-artist packages. But this might be the first time they've attempted such an ambitious package? Over three CDs, Looking Back tries to document the British beat/mod explosion in its various guises via 80s tracks. The packaging is exemplory, from myriad photos to reasonably accurate and informative liner notes. The front cover artwork is refreshing, too - not the usual Twiggy or scooter shots but something which somehow captures the excitement of soul clubs back in the mid-1960s.
But two questions hover over such compilations. The first is the M-word. Isn't Mod just being used as a sales tool? Mod music wasn't British, right? It was American soul, blues and R&B or maybe Jamaican ska and rocksteady. Well, the purists can argue amongst themselves. At least Looking Back qualifies its contents with the terms Freakbeat and Swinging London - two genres which aren't that specific. If we give the compilers the benefit of the doubt on the Mod term, we then notice that Looking Back seems to be loosely themed. Disc 1 concentrates on the Beat and R&B material, centring on its boom in 1963-1964. Horn sections, for the most part, arrive on Disc 2 - so this is soul, albeit mostly of the blue-eyed variety (although there are more black vocalists here than meets the eye). Disc 3 seems to reflect Mod's diaspora, with various styles across the late 60s. The kind of tunes, then, which get played on the Mod scene today.
The second question for any such compendium is to what extent this is merely recycled fare, i.e. you've already got everything elsewhere. Well, Looking Back does boast a lot of stuff we've all heard before (e.g. 'Crawdaddy Simone', though it sounds better than ever). However, RPM have unearthed maybe half-a-dozen previously unheard tracks, including a Who cover ('La La La Lies' by A Wild Uncertainty) and a splendid Hammond instrumental by mysterious band The Knave. Amazing to think these finds are still occurring in 2011. So if you've bought everything issued by the likes of RPM, Rev-Ola and Ace, you may have 75% of the content here. But how many of us have really kept up with everything? Also, the compilers do seem to have picked the pearls amongst the swine.
An extra mention of the sound quality. Often, these comps are let down by shoddy EQ'ing - so each track sounds OK but they don't play through well. No such concerns here. As a listening experience, Looking Back is superb. While this listener might not agre with 100% of the choices, there's no doubting the effort behind it.
Overall, Looking Back is essential for any discerning fan of British 60s music.