At this point it was decision time. I thought about going through early Fleetwood Mac, which I will still do at some point. But instead, I headed for Ten Years After, seeing that I never really paid any attention to their early stuff. Whenever I went there, I would start with Cricklewood Green and follow the thread to the end. This time, I went back to the beginning.
Listening to their first three albums with new ears, I came away surprised. I'd always considered TYA to be Alvin Lee and his backup band. He wrote the vast majority of their original material, played lead guitar, and sang.
On these early albums, dating from 1967 and 1968, the band really showed its stuff. Leo Lyons (b.) Chick Churchill (k.) and Ric Lee (d.) turn out to be excellent musicians, easily on AL's level. They helped to found a sub-genre that would come to be known in the 70's as Boogie. Their followers would include Foghat (coming from the aforementioned Savoy Brown), Lynyrd Skynyrd, and many others. Now, they would be considered a jam band.
Their Wikipedia page calls them blues-rock and hard rock, and although I can understand why, I get the feeling that this evaluation was given by someone who doesn't really know them very well.
For one thing, they were heavily influenced by jazz, and could play it with authority. And yet, they do not fit in with what would later be known as jazz-rock fusion. Fusion, like Mahavishnu, Jeff Beck, Brand X and so on, was largely instrumental rock with lots of harmonic influence from jazz. What TYA did was a lot closer to hard be-bop. It swung! Check out their take on Woody Herman's Woodchopper's Ball.
This is not the version from Undead, but AL's band in 1983. I like actually seeing them play it. But TYA's version is just as hot, and about twice as long. (Actually, the caption says it is TYA, and that could easily be Lyons on the bass.)
And, yes, they did the occasional blues tune, but it's widely known that AL was a huge fan of Elvis Presley. In fact, the name Ten Years After refers to the fact that they took that name in 1966, a certain amount of time after Elvis' big breakthrough in 1956. And, yes, AL plays a lot of pentatonic scales, but I think his style owes a lot more to Scotty Moore, James Burton, and Carl Perkins than it does to Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, or the Kings. Alvin Lee is the love child of Moore and Johnny Smith, on acid.
It's also quite unusual for a band's second album to be a live one. Normally, a live album is kind of a Best-Of from earlier releases. Undead repeats almost nothing from their eponymous debut.
It's also fun to follow the evolution of what became their signature live song, I'm Going Home. Undead's version is quite a bit different from the Woodstock version, which is again different from the version on Captured Live. There's also a version of it on the live album released a few years ago from shows they did at the Fillmore in 1968 that fits between Undead and Woodstock. And, go on YouTube and there's versions AL did with his own band in the 80's and 90's.
The next stage of their development involved getting out from under the shadow of rockabilly and be-bop, and finding their own voice. Shhhh was released in August 1969, the same month they took the stage at Woodstock. When the movie came out, they immediately became one of the hottest bands in the world. Love Like A Man from Cricklewood Green got radio airplay, and they were clearly stretching out artistically.
Bad Scene from Shhhh set the stage, being quite the departure from what TYA fans had been used to. And yet, it's surprisingly familiar, being kind of a mash-up of all they styles they did on their first three albums.
You dig into that, and things like 50,000 Miles Beneath My Brain from Cricklewood, it was quite stunning.
The next stage began when they left their long-time record label, Deram, and signed with Columbia. Sometimes, you can look at one album and see the clear peak of a band's creative muse. With Ten Years After, that peak was A Space In Time. Yeah, I'm sure you disagree, tough. It's my blog, and I'm sticking with it. ASIT was, and is, the greatest album they ever did.
And the sad part about reaching your peak is; it's all downhill from there. But like any great band, that's not altogether bad. Just as the first albums were rough and raw, they were still great and hold up well over time.
It's been said many times that Alvin Lee never really liked fame. He said so at the time, as Woodstock and I'd Love To Change The World from A Space In Time were getting them known everywhere. He always claimed to prefer playing the small rooms and having the connection with the audience that they never could achieve in the huge auditoriums. We could start a big, long argument debating which live album was better; Undead or Recorded Live.
Myself, I feel that their fame worked to their advantage in the long run. It gave them the ability to fill a room just by posting their name. Alvin Lee made his living for the next 30 years just by being Alvin Lee. Even so, listening to Positive Vibrations today, you can see the cracks. They were running out of gas. I've always liked this album, and still do, but now it feels like outtakes from ASIT and R&R Music To The World.
There's even a coda to the TYA story:
The original band got back together in 1988, did some shows, and recorded About Time, which was released in 1989. The reviews were lousy, but I like the album. It certainly shows that Alvin Lee kept busy and evolved considerably in the 15 years since Positive Vibrations. And the other three were just as good and tight as ever.
That would prove to be the last time TYA went into the studio with Alvin Lee. But it would NOT be the end of the band. In the early 2000's they got Joe Gooch to sing and play guitar, and the newly revised band recorded Now. It's . . . good . . . in that, it's well done, Gooch can really play, sings well, the songs are . . . good . . . but . . .
Let's face it, the guy could probably approximate AL's vocals and leads on stage. Other than that, the album really did nothing for me. And, I haven't heard A Sting In The Tale yet, which features yet another guitarist/singer. Gooch, along with bassist Leo Lyons, left TYA to form their own band, so there's a new bass player as well. According to their website, they're still out there, playing mostly in Europe.
So, there's the history of a sorely under-appreciated band, and my take on them. Dig out that old stuff, get on YouTube, and let me know what you think.