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Magazine > Music Reviews > Gravy Train - Part 2
Gravy Train - Part 2
Published by Sthelensnow on 27/1/18 (508 reads)

Gravy Train - Part 2

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The meaning behind the name
The early years
The Vertigo record contract
Gravy Train - The album

The meaning behind the name

Freelance journalist, broadcaster and lecturer John O’Regan wrote that despite recording four albums, Gravy Train's "success rate did not befit their choice of name". The term, "Gravy Train", he commented, was Northern Slang for "an occupation or other source of income that requires little effort while yielding considerable profit".

The group gathered a considerable following among British Progressive Rock audiences with incendiary live performances, along the way recording the debut Gravy Train (1970) and its follow-up Ballad of a Peaceful Man on Vertigo, while a switch to Dawn Records yielded two further albums in Second Birth in 1973 and Staircase to the Day.

"Musically Gravy Train played melodic Progressive rock" — John O’Regan again — "with the accent on hard rock riffing alternating with quieter moments with the flute high in the mix topped with solid personable vocals from singer/guitarist/chief songwriter Norman Barrett. Gravy Train eventually foundered in 1975 through a combination of bad luck, poor business decisions and lack of success . . . However, with renewed interest in British and European Progressive Rock of the early 1970’s, Gravy Train’s output has garnered a considerable amount of interest from collectors and music fans alike. Their albums . . . have all been re-released on CD to positive feedback."

The early years

The original line-up had a considerable pool of talent from which to draw. Liverpool-born John Hughes had been a classically trained pianist. As a teenager, he played saxophone, self-taught, with various Merseybeat groups in the 1960s. O'Regan quotes him from an e-mail interview in March 2006 as saying: "Playing with a big soul band, Spaghetti House, I met bassist Les [Williams]. We formed a progressive rock band, where I played mainly flute and recruited Norm whom Les knew."

Norma Barrett Label image
Norman Barrett

Singer/guitarist/songwriter Norman Barrett was born in Newton-le-Willows, halfway between Manchester and Liverpool, in 1949. After leaving school, he honed his guitar skills in local bands The Hunters (with whom he sometimes later still performed) and Newton's Theory, whilst holding down a day-job as a trainee accountant. After passing his accountancy exams, he turned professional, moving to London in the late Sixties with Newton's Theory.

Les had played in a St Helens-based band called The Incas, J.D. Hughes had been playing in Spaghetti House, and Barry had been part of a jazz outfit called The John Rotherham Trio. Les and Barry moved to join J.D. in Spaghetti House. Barrett commented: "A mutual friend introduced me to the others who were looking, as I was, to form an original songs band, and not the usual covers band that we had all been used to up until that time". J.D. Hughes said: "We began rehearsing at St Helens Cricket Club in the summer, I think, of 1969. I was still living at home in Liverpool, Les Williams and drummer Barry Davenport were from St Helens and Norm from Earlestown, Merseyside."

The band’s influences mined a richly varied canvas: The Beatles, Jethro Tull, Roland Kirk and John Coltrane (J.D. Hughes), Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles (Norman Barrett), and The Beatles again (Les). For Barry Davenport it was jazz drummers Art Blakey, Buddy Rich and Joe Morello.

"Barry's influence was immense in the early days," J.D. Hughes explained. "It was mainly his idea to write in unusual time signatures and arrange unison/harmony atonal instrumental passages. We all enjoyed long 'freak-outs' where we freely improvised, feeding off each other’s ideas". On his departure after (A Ballad of) A Peaceful Man (he did play on three tracks on Second Birth), the writing became more melodic, much of the repertoire coming from Norman Barrett. However, the band still indulged in occasional "freak-outs".

The Vertigo record contract

Gravy Train signed a contract with Vertigo Records, the in-house progressive label run by Philips Records (now Universal Music). Jonathan Peel produced Gravy Train’s first three albums — Gravy Train, Ballad of a Peaceful Man and Second Birth. The first record was preceded by a single, the J.D. Hughes/Norman Barrett collaboration "So You’re Free", recorded at Olympic Studios, London and also produced by Jonathan Peel. "I wrote the chorus, and Norman wrote the rest," Hughes remembered.

Gravy Train - Vertigo – 6360 023 - Vinyl LP, Album, 1970

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.

A1 The New One
A2 Dedication To Sid
A3 Coast Road
A4 Enterprise
B1 Think Of Life
B2 Earl Of Pocket Nook

Bass, Vocals – Les Williams
Drums – Barry Davenport
Flute [Alto, Simultaneous Alto And Tenor], Vocals – J.D. Hughes
Vocals, Lead Guitar – Norman Barrett
Lyrics By [Written By], Composed By – Gravy Train
Producer – Jonathan Peel
Design [Cover Design], Photography By – Hipgnosis
Engineer – Keith Harwood

Released in a textured gatefold cover on a 'swirl' Vertigo label.

Gravy Train Label image


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This article was created, compiled and produced by Barry Grady. 25 January 2018.

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