Big Sleep - Bluebell Wood (1971)
Album: Big Sleep - Bluebell Wood (Remastered Edition)
Released: 1971 (2007)
Genre: Progressive Rock
Source: Esoteric - ECLEC2008
2007 digitally remastered reissue of this Welsh band's only album, originally released in 1971. The band members (formerly with Eyes Of Blue) would all soon head for greater things in bands such as Gentle Giant, Man and Wild Turkey (formed by ex-Jethro Tull bassist Glenn Cornick) and Rick Wakeman's band. An album that features many fine songs and styles, Bluebell Wood has been sought after by collectors for many years thanks to its influence and place in the history of British Progressive Rock and in the annals of Welsh rock. Remastered from the original master tapes, Bluebell Wood has never sounded so good. Eight tracks. Esoteric. -
This is a really obscure album, reissued for the very first time on CD. It was originally released on B&C's (the precursor label to Famous Charisma) 'progressive' Pegasus imprint in 1971 and which I never knew existed until this reissue. The band was previously known by the name Eyes of Blue and had two records out under that name. For this, the personnel changed a bit and includes some well known names: John Weathers on drums (soon to join Gentle Giant), Phil Ryan on keyboards (Man), vocalist Gary Pickford-Hopkins (Wild Turkey) and more. This is good proto-prog with some hard rocking parts. Includes liner notes by reissue co-ordinator Mark Powell. - Wayside Music
Big Sleep were a Welsh band whose inflence was far beyond their sole album offering released in 1971. The band members (formerly with Eyes Of Blue) would all soon head for greater things in bands such as Gentle Giant, Man and Wild Turkey (formed by ex-Jethro Tull bassist Glenn Cornick) and Rick Wakman's band. An album that features many fine songs and styles, "Bluebell Wood", (originally released on the highly collectable Pagusus label), has been sought after by collectors for many years thanks to its influence and place in the history of British progressive rock and in the annals of Welsh rock. This release is sure to appeal to followers of Man and Gentle Giant in particular. - Freak Emporium
Bluebell Wood is described as a ‘long last classic of progressive rock from 1971’ and rightly so. Including John ‘Pugwash’ Weathers, Gary Pickford-Hopkins and Phil Ryan in their line-up the music is commercial yet challenging. “Watching Love Grow” is a song with an unforgettable chorus that you’ll swear you’ve heard before! “Free Life” owes much to “Dear Prudence” in the chord progression with a touch of Procol Harum in the interplay between guitar (Ray ‘Taff’ Williams) and piano and some extended organ soloing.. “Aunty James” is a classic slice of 60s psychedelic pop with some fine playing particularly in the energetic drumming.
The album does become increasingly ‘progressive’ and there is a lot of interesting music packed into the 6:34 of “Saint and Sceptic” with a classical Renaissance (the band) touch and nice use of strings and electric guitar, multi-tracked ‘chorus’ and an organ led jazzy section.
There is also a jazz feel to the title track recalling in various parts Genesis, The Nice (in the instrumental interplay) and Santana in the invigorating guitar break.
Highly recommended - Phil Jackson, Progressive Ears Album Reviews
Released in 1971 on the Pegasus label, Big Sleep's “Bluebell Wood” represents a brief stepping stone between the Eyes Of Blue and several other groups who feature in Man's history. Big Sleep was the name chosen in an attempt by Mercury's UK A&R chief Lou Reizner to revitalise the Eyes Of Blue, but the group never performed live under the new name and folded within months of its release. Of the players in this short-lived project, Phil Ryan would quickly join Pete Brown's Piblokto! for a few months before teaming up with Clive John and forming the abortive Iowerth Pritchard and The Neutrons. Phil's next step was to join Man. John 'Pugwash' Weathers would follow Gary Pickford-Hopkins into Wild Turkey and then join Graham Bond's Organisation before Gentle Giant beckoned. Weathers would eventually become Man's longest-serving drummer, taking the stool between 1983 and 1995.
"Bluebell Wood" is an accomplished album although the quirky nature of the production does sometimes fail to integrate the music into a seamless whole. Sombre in overall feel, Phil Ryan described it in 1976 as "the most miserable LP - it makes Lou Reed look like the Bay City Rollers!" With two keyboard players the album is laden with piano/organ textures and, as Martin Mycock noted in his 1993 TWC review, "Overall the album is definitely more coherent than previous [Eyes Of Blue] efforts with more emphasis on instrumental work - rightly so with players of the calibre of Taff and Phil". The album opens with 'Death Of A Hope' from John Weathers which features a liberal sprinkling of strings and an almost orchestral arrangement. Gary Pickford-Hopkins supplies the next track, 'Odd Song', with its subtly syncopated acoustic beat. Another, more successful Weathers song follows, 'Free Life'. The five remaining tracks all stem from pianist and bassist Ritchie Francis and these nicely bridge the gap between sixties pop and seventies progressive rock. 'Aunty James' includes some simple but beautifully appropriate organ fills from Phil Ryan, and then 'Saint And Sceptic' is introduced with some baroque if unimaginative wah-wah guitar from Williams. The title track, 'Bluebell Wood', is a progressive tour-de-force, mainly instrumental but with an occasional quasi-mystical lyric thrown in to season the recipe. 'Watching Love Grow' is a straight-forward acoustic-tinged ballad which leads to the final track, 'When The Sun Was Out', which seems slightly misplaced being a more obviously commercial number, perhaps conceived as a single - Manband Archive
Big Sleep may not be a name that many people are familiar with but the group members play an import role in the history of progressive rock. The group originally formed in Wales in the mid 1960s and signed to the nascent Deram records releasing two singles, including the fantastic Supermarket Full Of Cans. The commercial, but not critical, failure of these singles saw the band being dropped by Deram resulting in a change of guitarist and drummer. The group carried on gigging around the UK and were picked up by Mercury records with whom they released two albums, The Crossroads Of Time in 1968 and, a year later, the slightly more progressive In Fields Of Ardath. Success still eluded the band who, on the suggestion of their manager, changed their name to Big Sleep signing to the Pegasus label (probably best known for releasing the first two Nazareth albums). Bluebell Wood was released in early 1971 although disillusionment had set in and the band split a few months later without ever playing live, promptly disappearing into obscurity.
So why the interest in the reissue? Well, as mentioned, the musicians in the band all went on to have a great influence in the emerging prog rock scene. Pianist, vocalist and bassist Ritchie Francis stayed with Pegasus to record a widely regarded solo album; vocalist and guitarist Gary Pickford Hopkins joined Wild Turkey, the group formed by ex-Jethro Tull bassist Glenn Cornick, and also went on to sing with the Rick Wakeman Band; organist Phil Ryan, drummer John Weathers and guitarist Ray "Taff" Williams all played in Pete Brown's Piblotko! and The Neutrons. Ryan was also an important member of Welsh stalwarts Man who in their later years was joined by Weathers after the split of the famous band he was associated with, namely Gentle Giant and who, at one time, had also played in Wild Turkey as well as appearing on the Neutrons album!
The album kicks off with a plaintive, orchestrated ballade with the pessimistic title Death Of Hope. By 1971, the blending of orchestra and rock band was quite an accomplished practice and consequently the piece works well, although probably not as an opening number. Odd Song continues the downbeat atmosphere with a lovely acoustic opening where the acoustic guitar is accompanied by some fine piano playing by Ryan. The switch to electric guitar and upping of the tempo results in a sound similar to what Man would later develop. Free Life, the second song to be penned by drummer Weathers (he also composed the opening number), features some dramatic, high register vocals and a structure that makes it understandable why Weathers was rapidly picked up by Gentle Giant. Again Ryan makes his mark with some fine organ work and Williams contributes a great solo.
The remainder of the songs on the album were all composed by Francis, which may explain why he was retained by the label for a putative solo career. Aunty James is the closest to the material that Eyes Of Blue recorded, particularly on their second album, while Saint And Sceptic is another orchestrated piece that displays the progressive attributes of the era. A baroque beginning introduces a brief section with a rather incongruent wah wah guitar before the orchestra comes in at full force to drown it out. A more jazzy section leads into a reprise of the opening section completing a fine song and fine end to what was originally the end of the first side of the LP. Title track Bluebell Wood is a 'lost' seventies prog classic, largely instrumental with some beautiful melodies played on saxophone, great harmony vocals and every member of the band contributing to a piece that is every bit the equal of something like Caravan's Nine Feet Underground.
Calming things down after the epic 11 minutes of Bluebell Wood comes another acoustic ballad, Watching Love Grow. Excellently sung by Pickford Hopkins it is very much of its time but that doesn't stop Francis inserting some rather fluid bass runs that one would not usually expect in such a number. Final track When The Sun Was Out is a poor way to end the album with a rather nondescript song that has none of the interest of what has come before. A basic rock and roll song that maybe should have been consigned to a b-side or left on the cutting room floor, but as it as the end of the album you can easily stop the album at the end of the previous track!
Bluebell Wood is an interesting album and one that is important in the history of the development of progressive rock, both in terms of the transition from the end of the psychedelic sixties to the golden age of prog and in the development of several groups that were important in the genre. On this evidence I would love to hear the Ritchie Francis solo album so until Esoteric get round to releasing it if anyone has a copy please get in touch! - Mark Hughes, DPRP : CD & DVD REVIEWS
Released in early 1971 on B&C Records' short lived "progressive" imprint Pegasus, "Bluebell Wood" was the sole album offering by the band Big Sleep. Although a relatively obscure release, the album can now been seen as a crossroads for its members, most of whom went on to be part of bigger and more successful groups such as Man, Gentle Giant and Wild Turkey. This is not to say that Big Sleep were in any way inferior musically to the aforementioned acts, as their musical values and instincts were as strong as any of these groups. It is simply to say that Big Sleep's album failed to enjoy the promotion it deserved which was surely hindered by the band's failure to play concerts prior to its release and the fact that the band had effectively ceased to exist by the time the album appeared.
In reality Big Sleep was a new identity for the Welsh band Eyes of Blue. Formed in Neath, South Wales, the first line-up of the group featured Wyndham Rees on lead vocals, Gary Pickford-Hopkins on vocals and guitar, Ritchie Francis on bass and keyboards, Melvyn Davies on guitar and David Thomas on drums. In 1966 the band secured a contract with Decca records' newly formed Deram label, releasing the single "Heart Trouble" b/w "Up and Down" in November that year. Although the single failed to chart, airplay on the UK pirate radio stations such as Radio Caroline and Radio London ensured that Deram took up the option to release a further single, "Supermarket Full of Cans" / "Don't Ask Me to Mend a Broken Heart" in the early months of 1967. The failure of the single to improve upon the fortunes of its predecessor meant that Eyes of Blue were dropped from Deram's roster soon after.
Despite this setback, the band continued to gig throughout the UK and eventually came to the notice of American record executive Lou Reizener, who had recently moved to Britain to become head of Mercury Records newly established British division. By this time Melvyn Davies and David Thomas had departed to be replaced by John "Pugwash" Weathers on drums and Ray "Taff" Williams on guitar. Signing to Mercury Records, Eyes of Blue made their album debut with "Crossroads of Time", released in the Autumn of 1968. An amalgam of R&B, jazz, classical and psychedelic influences, the record featured some highly imaginative cover versions of The Beatles' "Yesterday", Love's "7+7 Is" and Graham Bond's "Love is the Law" and "Crossroads of Time", alongside original compositions. A reworking of Handel's "Largo" proved a high point of the album and also served as the choice for the A-side of the band's next single. Around this time the band also acted as backing musicians for sessions by American singer/songwriter Buzzy Linhart on his album "Buzzy".
In November 1969 the second Eyes of Blue album, "In Fields of Ardath" was released by Mercury. Prior to sessions commencing Wyndham Rees had departed the fold, but the new line-up produced a more "progressive" album which was produced by Quincy Jones. Although gaining favourable reviews and some airplay, the album failed to make the desired commercial breakthrough and the album would be the final offering from Eyes of Blue.
The musicians in the band still continued their relationship with Lou Reizener who acted in a managerial capacity for the band. Suggesting a change of name could be advantageous, the moniker Big Sleep was adopted and the group headed further in a "progressive" direction. With sessions taking place at Chappell Studios in London, the stylistic feel of the compositions was varied. The album opened with "Death of a Hope", a dark reflective orchestral piece written and sung by John Weathers. "Odd Song" by Gary Pickford Hopkins was an acoustic song interspersed with some wonderful piano playing from Phil Ryan before heading into an electric rock closing section almost reminiscent of fellow Welsh rockers Man. John Weathers' "Free Life" was one of the highlights on the album, featuring a superb organ refrain from Ryan. The remainder of the record would comprise Ritchie Francis compositions, beginning with "Aunty James" a new take on the styles explored on the two Eyes of Blue albums. "Saint and Sceptic" was further evidence of this, being an adventurous tour de force that began with a baroque composition before heading in an orchestrated psychedelic direction and then deviating to a jazz route before returning to its baroque beginnings. It proved to be an excellent closing track to the album's first side.
The excellent eleven minute opus "Bluebell Wood" which opened the albums second side was perhaps the album's crowning moment, beginning with an introspective vocal before taking off into a "progressive" jazz direction leading to an extended instrumental finale. "Watching Love Grow" was a simpler, but no less effective, melodic track that acted as a counterbalance to the previous extremes of "Bluebell Wood". The album closed with "When the Sun Was Out", a straight forward traditional rock song.
Despite the quality of their music, Big Sleep failed to play a single concert to promote their recently recorded work. Ritchie Francis decided to work as a solo artist, recording an album for Pegasus, whilst Phil Ryan and John Weathers departed the band to join ex-Cream lyricist Pete Brown's band Piblokto! Phil would remain with Pete's band for some months before returning to Wales to form Iowerth Pritchard and the Neutrons with former Man member Clive John. The project failed to get off the ground with Clive John returning to Man, bringing Phil with him into the line-up to record the album "Be Good to Yourself at Least Once a Day". Ryan would record a further album with Man before departing to form The Neutrons with Taff Williams on guitar (also a member of Piblokto!, being in the final incarnation of the band) and featuring John Weathers on drums. Weathers by now had joined progressive rock outfit Gentle (Giant after a stint with Wild Turkey and Graham Bond's band.
Wild Turkey, a group formed by ex-Jethro Tull bass guitarist Glenn Cornick would comprise Corniek, Ciary Pickford-Hopkins, former Man drummer Jeff Jones, Tweke Lewis (later a member of Man) amongst others and would record two fine albums for Chrysalis records, "Battle Hymn" and "Turkey". Gary Pickford I lopkins enjoyed a successful career as vocalist with Kick Wakeman's band and in 1995 Wild Turkey reunited to release the album "Stealer of Years" ami have recently recorded the "live in the studio" offering "You and Me in the Jungle". Following the release of two albums for United Artists, the Neutrons broke apart and Phil Ryan returned to Man to record the album "The Welsh Connection" and remained with the group until their demise at the end of 1976. Ryan continued to collaborate with Man on and off after the bands reunion in 1983 and also continues to work with Pete Brown.
Big Sleep was an effective nurturing ground for many talented musicians who enjoyed greater notoriety and success with other groups. With this Esoteric Recordings reissue (remastered from the original analogue tapes) their only album receives its first official release on CD. Savour once more the melodic diversity of "Bluebell Wood". - Mark Powell
Phil Ryan - Organ, Piano
Ritchie Francis - Bass, Piano, Vocals
John "Pugwash" Weathers - Drums, Vocals
Raymond "Taff" Williams - Guitar
Gary Pickford Hopkins - Vocals, Guitar
1 Death Of A Hope 05:35
2 Odd Song 03:54
3 Free Life 06:29
4 Aunty James 04:44
5 Saint And Sceptic 06:36
6 Bluebell Wood 11:26
7 Watching Love Grow 02:35
8 When The Sun Was Out 03:42
Big Sleep - Bluebell Wood (1971)