Monthly Archives: August 2013

Lost Treasure of the Aztecs

During the past few weeks I’ve been trying to make some sense of all the LPs, CDs and other musical stuff that fills up our apartment. This has been tried before – but this time I’m really, really serious about it. Okay?
Previous attempts to create order have always yielded some long-forgotten gem (or clunker) that might bring on nostalgia, revulsion or even puzzlement. Last night, foraging in some old cardboard boxes I made a truly amazing discovery. In amongst some long discarded 70s party albums, like a diamond in some dog shit, there it was.
A promotional copy of  ‘Blondel’s Last Hurrah’ by The Aztecs seemed to levitate magically, like the Holy Grail, out of the box and into my trembling hand.

Peter and Abe Savage were brothers from Bristol. In the 60s they had been in the vanguard of the folk rock movement as Gog and Magog and gained notoriety with their stage show, described as ‘bacchanalian‘ by the New Musical Express. Their success heralded the now familiar steep decline fuelled by an excess of just about anything and everything. Ralph J Gleason wrote a famous faux obituary for them in the December 1969 edition of Rolling Stone.
But the music community gathered around them and the brothers spent a year getting clean at an ashram near Salisbury. And this is where legendary producer, Mike Vernon, had found them in the spring of 1971. Vernon had worked with the Savage brothers at Decca in the 60s and was now looking for an act to headline his own, new, Blue Horizon label.
Peter had been working on a concept album built around a mediaeval song cycle of roundelays and madrigals,, loosely based on the story of the minstrel Blondel‘s search for the imprisoned King Richard I – ‘The Lionheart’. Vernon was enthusiastic for the project and in short order the brothers were back in the studio, as The Aztecs, with a host of luminaries from the British rock scene, Eric Clapton and a young Christine McVie amongst them.
Apparently, the first six tracks were recorded without a hitch in 2 days. But when the brothers’ erstwhile manager ‘Campy’ Campion, arrived uninvited, the situation disintegrated rapidly. Campion had only recently been released from prison where he had served time for supplying prohibited substances. Vernon tried to intervene but Campion had a Svengali-like hold over the Savage brothers and within hours the situation had deteriorated to the point where most of the other musicians and technicians simply left the studio, never to return.
To his credit, Vernon stayed on and, augmenting the six tracks already completed with some earlier demo tapes, he patched together an album of 10 tracks lasting about 43 minutes.
The album only ever appeared in promotional form because the various legal complexities and court actions that emerged following the debacle in the Blue Horizon studios injuncted a commercial release. The Savage brothers returned to Bristol and developed a plastic extrusion plant – which they still own.
Listening to the album again last night was an odd experience. The music has certainly dated but its intensity, particularly the title track, remains undiminished. Abe’s sole contribution, ‘King John in the Wash’ made me laugh a little. It made me think of Pentangle fed through a Led Zeppelin strainer somehow.
But I’m pleased to have rediscovered The Aztecs. They hold a special place in the pantheon of hippy icons and, best of all, the rare and vintage record site tells me that ‘Blondel’s Last Hurrah’ will pay for a week in Queenstown.


Author’s Note
The (apocryphal) explanation for the name ‘The Aztecs’ lies in Peter’s amusement at his brother’s discomfort following a trip to Mexico – where it is said that Abe suffered from a bout of Montezuma’s Revenge.

The Triumph of Everyman. John Mayall – Crusade (1967)

I have to say right off that I’ve neglected John Mayall. Shunned him, forgotten about him, flicked past his discs, undervalued him. I’ve taken him for granted. Yet Mayall was as much a part of my discovery of blues music as, say, Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters or Alexis Korner.  I need to take stock.
I saw the Bluesbreakers play often in the London of the mid-sixties. In their first incarnation they’d struggled to get a foothold. I didn’t think that John was much of a frontman. But with the arrival of Eric Clapton in 1965, things changed for the better. The Bluesbreakers album was hugely successful and is now considered a classic.
In those days, line-ups were fluid, to say the least – and between 1965 and early 1967, Clapton and Peter Green job-shared with the Bluesbreakers. Green was on hand to record A Hard Road, another acknowledged classic. But by May, 1967, both men had left – Clapton to form Cream and Green to start up Fleetwood Mac.
The vacancy was filled by 18-year-old (soon to be very , very famous) Mick Taylor. And it’s Taylor who plays lead on Crusade. John McVie (probably flitting between the Mac and Mayall) is on bass, Keef Hartley on drums, Chris Mercer and Rip Kant on tenor and baritone respectively. Mayall plays everything else and does the vocals. The album, recorded in 2 days in July, 1967 at Decca studios, is a cracker.
The original mono album has 12 tracks, some of them penned by Mayall, some of them covers. All of the material is strong and repays repeated listening. In particular, Mayall’s The Death of J B Lenoir stays in the mind. Its haunting piano line and Mayall’s impassioned vocal, as he mourns his hero, creates a fitting elegy to a great bluesman.
Of note, too, is Snowy Wood, an instrumental written by Mayall and Taylor, that showcases Taylor’s playing.(I’ve been listening to some Buddy Guy recordings from when Guy was in his pomp. It’s fair to say that there are similarities of brilliance in the styles of the two men)
What the album does, is allow Mayall to stretch out, show his range and enjoy himself. Everything from jazz-tinged or funk-driven through to 12 bar straight ahead Chicago is here. It really is a tremendous listen.
So – there it is. I should have listened harder the first time around. But I’m making up for it this time around. John is approaching 80 and he’s still touring  – still playing the blues.

Author’s Note
There is an expanded version of this album available on CD. It contains a further 10 tracks from the 1969 compilation Thru the Years. I believe that Hughie Flint plays drums on some of these tracks.