REISSUE OF THE MONTH

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AS A psychedelic artifact, 1968’s July is enjoyable, competently executed, but not particularly mind-blowing. Beneath the effects exists a halfway decent rock combo struggling to be heard — 

one that audiences wouldn’t experience so unadorned until after the Millennium. Had the band survived commercially during its initial run, the album may be regarded in retrospect as a youthful misstep, not commanding top dollar among record collectors. July’s history as a group, especially as its members aged, is far more compelling than its posthumously venerated debut.

However, that does not discount the Herculean effort and affection that produced the 6-CD July: The Complete Recordings (Grapefruit). David Wells’ booklet essay is exhaustive if slightly bemused, as it details the scuffed trajectory of five young West London musicians winding from the early ’60s into the turn-off-your-mind epoch, a kingdom overseen by such acts as Pink Floyd and The Pretty Things (with whom they shared bills), and finding little footing. The band speaks of the record today as a rushed, failed experiment, falling victim to bizarre executive decisions, from its inexplicable cover (“None of us liked it at the time,” guitarist Peter Cook admitted, “but it’s grown on us.”) to the selection of representative singles. It sounds as if July had little to do with the songs beyond writing and recording them; the members were banished from the mixing table by a draconian producer and recalled the sessions as nightmarish.

 

Overall, July unfolds in full accordance with such contemporaries as Piper at the Gates of Dawn and S.F. Sorrow. “My Clown” guzzles studio manipulation in buckets. “Dandelion Seeds” warps itself in loops, drowning in lysergic imagery and a dreamy midsection that floats atop its own ragged flow, then tucks itself into bed. “Jolly Mary” is English to its rudders, from the whimsical scenarios presented in its lyrics (“she’s a super-duper craft, a smashing little boat”) to its execution, like a Sorrow outtake set on the high seas with a Beach Boys swerve. It folds into the equally crumpets-and-tea-with-acid “Hallo to Me.” Sitars fuel the helium-flecked hallucinogenic “The Way.” Sometimes vocalist Tom Newman flails in trickery or ululates at an inhuman velocity (a deliberate speed effect); Newman himself describes his performance thusly: “I sang like a wanker, a complete prick — a quivery, frightened little jerk. I hated the album.”

It’s an interesting ride, July, albeit top-heavy with the sonic tomfoolery of its time, Sgt. Pepper wiped clean with a grimy washrag. Here it’s augmented by the single versions of “My Clown” and “Dandelion Seeds,” plus a far better, crushing take on “The Way,” with the non-album track “Hello, Who’s There,” released in October 1968 to utter disinterest in its music-hall march and toothless pomp. “I hated it,” Cook reflected. “They turned it into a joke number.” July couldn’t buy a break anywhere.

Its material is better represented on The Second of July, a collection of ’60s-recorded Newman/Cook demos released in 1995 that gives these songs, in their primitive form, a youthful ebullience missing from the eventual uptight, corsetted LP. Second is way more fun — “A Bird Lived” breathes with genuine whimsy, and the unadorned Newman/Cook harmonies throughout are delicious (“You See Me, I See You,” “Move on, Sweet Flower”); “Hallo to Me” is wonderfully simple, free of cravat, lapels, and pill-bottle echo — and features numbers that never made the album, like the ridiculously enjoyable “The Stamping Machine” or the guitar tangles of “Friendly Man” and “The Girl in the Café.”

Fast-forward to the Millennium, when the long-fractured band, much to its amusement, discovered that its sole release had achieved cult status, a much-sought-after rarity as some kind of unfairly maligned masterpiece. So its lineup did what came naturally: they reunited, albeit as The Tomcats, their mid-‘60s, pre-July moniker, and worked up a new album, Temporal Anomaly, which remained unreleased until this set. Gone are the psychedelic trimmings to allow room for straightforward rock ‘n’ roll as represented by such tracks as the ominous-sounding “If” and “Dreams” (the otherworldly effect is better here than on July), plus the burbling “All the Hours There Are.” “Magical Days” and “Regeneration” recall their more infamous incarnation (July’s “Let’s Do It Again,” let’s call it), which they’d reconvene as proper for 2013’s Resurrection.

This rejuvenated July found a more appreciative audience with an album that recognized their contribution to a bygone era — for good, ill, or middling, it no longer mattered — while pushing in other directions. It revisits the bulk of Anomaly, bearing new material in “Can I Go Back Again,” a throwback tickled with a trickle of sitar and a dollop of old-timey oscillation against a more polished riff (mountains of Beatles nods) and “King Bee,” another psychedelic tableaux with distant screaming guitars and studio effects.

Our belated epilogue concludes with The Wight Album, a sprawling 23-track effort assembled at Tom Newman’s studio on the Isle of Wight and released on the last day of July 2020. Cook and Newman remain the standard-bearers and, now in their 70s, reflect on mortality in slightly post-’65 Fab hues on a longed-for past (“Mods of Ryde”; the sonically fractured, inventive, pensive “Let Me”; the sitar-flavored “Catchin’ Up”) while railing at present-day foibles (“Special Guy,” “Animals,” “We Are the Masters,” “Protest Song”). “Love ’n’ Love” casts a wistful eye toward faded relationships from an aged, if not exactly more mature perspective.

Ghosts occasionally invade the works as late guitarist Tony Duhig surfaces with “Dandelion Seeds’” backward guitar effects on “Mods of Ryde,” vocal phasing receives workouts in “Henry’s Squirrel” and “Seeking the Hacksaw Blades,” and “The Game,” a previously unrecorded leftover from the band’s youthful feast, gets its moment in the postmillennial sun. As a whole, The Wight Album stands sturdily as one final yawp at a universe that squandered its potential, in part from the postwar breed that helped foul it up. Weirdly, despite its length and wizened age, it’s superior to July as a generational document, well-produced by Newman sans label meddling. July, in full command of its vision at last.

 

This is where July: The Complete Recordings ultimately succeeds: as the fascinating story of a band that loses itself only to rediscover its voice at twilight, refusing to allow a botched introduction — despite its pricey status among discographers — to fully define its legacy. “Tom and I aren’t quite ready yet to sit around in our pyjamas all day,” Cook quipped in the set’s accompanying essays. Leave that to the listener with a lot of time to fill with a tale well told. (cf)