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The Purple Gang The Purple Gang
Album: The Purple Gang Strikes!
Label: Talking Elephant
Tracks: 17
Website: http://www.talkingelephant.co.uk

I'd waited a long time to hear the whole of this album, and somehow missed out on its 1996 CD reissue on Essential, so its 50th anniversary has proved an ideal opportunity for the initiative to be taken to make it available again. The Purple Gang's album Strikes was first issued on the Transatlantic label in 1967, and stylistically represented what might be termed "the other side of the coin", occupying a kind of parallel musical universe to that of the heavy rock/pop-based psychedelic acid-trip which provided the most obvious soundtrack to that annus mirabilis. Stockport's Young Contemporaries Jug Band were rebranded and rechristened The Purple Gang (and re-imaged in gangster suits); but they still took their principal musical cue from the jug band, Lovin'-Spoonful-style, with more than a soupçon of vaudeville, and just a little weirdness and British whimsy, thrown in for good measure. The result could best be described as proto-Mungo-Jerry, perhaps. (Across the other side of the pond, The Grateful Dead had also started from a similar musical axis, that of jugband, albeit with some old-timey, but had instead headed off in the opposite direction, farther out into the realms of electric acid-rock and drug-fuelled improv. Coincidentally, however, both bands' debut albums contained a cover of Viola Lee Blues.)

Of course, the album's lead track, Granny Takes A Trip, has been by far the most frequently anthologised example of the band's output. It was in its original context as the band's debut single that it achieved instant notoriety by being banned by the BBC, who dubbed it "a song with a dubious title designed to corrupt the nation's youth" ha! for that title was in fact just the name of a boutique in Chelsea). Ah, but in truth how inoffensive this charming ditty, and what a ludicrous over-reaction on the part of the "authorities"…

All but two of the album's eleven tracks were compositions by two of its main-men Joe Beard and Geoff Bowyer (the other chief protagonist being vocalist Peter "Lucifer" Walker), and the band's instrumental lineup remained mostly acoustic (guitar, washboard, piano, kazoo, harmonica, mandolin and jug, with a guest bassist) on the sessions, which were produced by Joe Boyd. The album's jug-dominated musical mood alternated between vogue-ish barrelhouse chintzy whimsy (Granny, Kiss Me Goodnight Sally Green, Mr. Aldred Jones, Auntie Monica) and rootsier, bluesier numbers (Bootleg Whisky, Freightliner, Rising Sun), with a dash of vo-dee-o (Overseas Stomp) and curveball eccentricity (The Wizard, The Sheik). It all stands up well today, and the Purple Gang musical signature is a distinctive one that extends beyond the flippant mere novelty status usually accorded the band by virtue of history (the unfortunate fate of Granny, which although typical was far from all the band had to offer).

This anniversary reissue comes with six bonus tracks. Four of these had previously appeared on CD as part of the aforementioned Essential reissue, whereas the final two are versions of Boon Song, a Syd Barrett composition (normally titled Here We Go), that was gifted to the band by Syd himself (after he'd dropped in to the album sessions) as a potential followup single. One of these tracks bears a "Purple Gang Jug Band 2006" credit, but frustratingly there's no provenance given for either the second Boon Song or the previous four tracks. They sound to have been recorded quite a bit later than the original album, at times more of a psych-infused, studio-produced vibe but still recognisably with the Purple Gang mando-jug-piano trappings. There's no sleeve note to speak of (aside from the snippet of information on the rear cover stating that Joe Boyd produced Granny Takes A Trip just one night after Pink Floyd's Arnold Layne), and the inside of the package, while sporting a montage of archive photos and captions, gives us no clues as to the recording dates for the bonus material. We know that the band has kindof re-formed intermittently, in various guises, since the late-1990s, and that Joe Beard and Gerry Robinson heave been playing and recording as a duo, but I can't find reference anywhere on this package to any album releases or recording sessions post-Strikes, aside from a partial production credit to John Wood. So this otherwise magnificent and really valuable Talking Elephant anniversary reissue is spoilt for the proverbial ha'porth of tar by containing virtually no background or supporting information, and thus represents something of a sadly missed opportunity.

David Kidman