Gravy Train – Part 2
The meaning behind the name, The early years, The Vertigo record contract, Gravy Train – The album
Gravy Train – Part 3
(A Ballad Of) A Peaceful Man, Second Birth, Staircase To The Day
Gravy Train – Part 4
A Potted History of Gravy Train by JD Hughes, Alone in Georgia, Barrett’s “Christian perspective”
Gravy Train – Part 5
Second Birth at Dawn, Staircase to the Day, After Gravy Train
Gravy Train – Part 6
Discography, Selected festivals and gigs, Licences, References/Links
Gravy Train were a progressive rock group from Newton-leWillows, Merseyside, England, formed by vocalist and guitarist Norman Barrett (b. 5 February 1949, d. 30 July 2011) in 1969. Also featuring J.D. Hughes (keyboards, vocals, wind), Lester Williams (bass, vocals) and Barry Davenport (drums), the band would record four studio albums. The first two were released on the Vertigo label, the latter two by Dawn Records.
A band so obscure even the All-Music Guide classified them under ‘Electronica’, despite the fact that Gravy Train have far less to do with Electronica than Mike Oldfield has to do with cock-rock. This time, though, the obscurity is actually quite explainable: Gravy Train is a band specially designed for being ‘dug up’ from among a hundred ‘third-rate’ ambitious ensembles of the early Seventies, although, to be sure, I don’t actually regret digging it up. If anything, they’re an excellent example for showcasing all that was right and all that was wrong with that epoch at the same time.
Stupid to say, but perhaps the most wrong thing was that there was so MUCH to do at the time many bands got their heads and minds totally whizzed up. You could go ‘underground’ and become an esoteric super-complex prog act, or you could appeal to the lowest denominator and go glam, or you could rally up hoardes of “rough boys” and go into hard ‘n’ heavy, or whatever. Many bands were able to carve out their own identity pretty soon, but obviously many more were not, and some were actually misled in their quest. Gravy Train, so it seems to me, belong to the latter group.
They started out quite promisingly. If you have read my reviews for the better-known bands, you might have noticed that occasionally I give the highest ratings to – or, at least, favour a lot of – records released by bands not in their supposed “prime”, when they’re at their most idiosyncratic and well-developed, but to earlier records, the ones that already betray signs of individual approach, but would otherwise be viewed as ‘immature’ or ‘compromising’. That’s due to several factors: often, earlier records tend to be more energetic and ‘innocent’, not at all marred by the ‘steady professional’ touch that robs away the spontaneity and even humanity of the music. Also, earlier records tend to be more eclectic, because the band is still choosing its route, so if the players are talented enough, a diverse mixture of successful approaches might be expecting you.
This is the case of Gravy Train – their debut album mixed elements of the Canterbury school, Sabbathesque heavy metal, Pink Floydish eccentricity and Jethro Tull militant folkishness together in one really intriguing pot. On the very first try, they had a steady base going for them – yet they never fulfilled the promise. Already the second album, (A Ballad Of) A Peaceful Man, while definitely not bad by itself, displayed a total lack of progression: much of the previous record’s stylistic and instrumental experimentation was totally abandoned in favour of a simpler, yet far less interesting commercialized approach to prog-rock.
The last two records are essentially just generic hard rock – listenable and occasionally even memorable, but its existence is not quite understandable in the light of the gazillion heavy bands that were baking albums in the mid-Seventies. In the end, their pathetic ‘undecidedness’ actually backfired on the band – the interesting sound of their first album was gone, and the commercial success never really came. Nowadays, Gravy Train are but a minuscule footnote in the history of Seventies’ music, and their records are really hard to find.
That said, if you do occasionally come across these records, try to get a peek at ’em. Unrealised as their potential was, these guys had a lot of it. Instrumental-wise, they were quite the pros, particularly the band leader, Norman Barrett, with his active knack for first-rate riffs, witty guitar tones and Hendrix-inspired soloing. The vocal melodies were occasionally fascinating as well, except that you really have to adjust to Norman’s vocals, the guy’s got maybe one of the ugliest screechy rasps I ever heard in my life. Good thing it doesn’t come across as obnoxious (see Dave Coverdale for that one).
Really, I don’t think I’ve ever heard one truly offensive Gravy Train number, even if occasionally the songs do get preachy and inadequate. I must say, though, I’m pretty miffed at these guys often falling prey to the cliches of Southern rock; as much as I’m partial to songs like ‘Alone In Georgia’, that’s a trick that only maybe would work once or twice. It’s pretty squirmy to have rednecky guys singing about the pleasures of country life and stuff, but it’s absolutely ridiculous to hear that from a bunch of refined British guys who started out as one hundred percent art-rockers. Anyway, find out for yourself if you dare.
Typifying the excesses that have frequently been denounced in their genre, UK progressive rock band Gravy Train recorded a series of albums for Vertigo Records and Dawn Records in the early 70s bedecked in grandiose, conceptual artwork. Their first, self-titled 1970 album was dominated by Hughes’ flute melodies, which earned the group initial comparisons to Jethro Tull, as well as extended rock riffs. One of the songs, ‘Tribute To Syd’, was an obvious salute to the genius of Syd Barrett. The follow-up collection, which sold poorly, was Ballad Of A Peaceful Man. Despite its relative lack of success, many critics considered it to be far superior to the group’s debut, with its complex arrangements, strong musical values and disciplined vocals attracting particular praise.
Though they continued to draw crowds on their extensive UK touring schedule, Vertigo became frustrated with their lack of record sales, leading to a move to Dawn. Second Birth is considered by most to be a disappointing effort, lacking the focus and drive of its predecessor. For their final album, 1974’s Staircase To The Day, the group experimented with Greek folk and classical signatures (notably on the Bach-inspired title track), while Roger Dean supplied the cover artwork. The group utilized a wide variety of collaborators for this album, including Russell Cordwell (drums), Jim Frank (drums), George Lynon (guitar), Pete Solley (synthesizer) and Mary Zinovieff (synthesizer/violin). Original drummer Davenport had now left, and the rest of the band elected to close their career after further moderate sales.
The Gravy Train were disbanded in 1974.
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This article was created, compiled and produced by Barry Grady. 25 January 2018.