Spooky Tooth

TrackAlbum
Love Really Changed MeIt's All About
It's All About A RoundaboutIt's All About
Waitin' For The WindSpooky Two
I've Got Enough HeartachesSpooky Two
Evil WomanSpooky Two
The Wrong TimeThe Last Puff
Son Of Your FatherThe Last Puff
WildfireYou Broke My Heart So I Busted Your Jaw
Sunlight Of My MindWitness
Ocean Of PowerWitness

 

Spooky Tooth photo

Spooky Tooth (l to r): Mike Harrison, Greg Ridley, Gary Wright, Mike Kellie, Luther Grosvenor

 

 

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Spooky Tooth playlist

 

 

Contributor: Rob Millis

Alongside Traffic, another early foray into British white music for Chris Blackwell’s hipper-than-hip Island Records was the Carlisle-cum-Black-Country group The VIPs. Significant for having Keith Emerson in their ranks at one point, the band were recast for Swinging London times as Art; scored top hipster points by providing the free-form freak-out sounds of underground artists Hapshash and the Coloured Coat’s first foray into music (yes, I’ve owned a copy; yes, it’s incredibly dated; no, I wouldn’t pay the trouser-soiling price for an original red vinyl Minit copy if I were you) and those very artists furnished the album cover for Supernatural Fairy Tales, the sole Art album. Which didn’t sell.

One trouble was that the group lacked a prolific writer; Art will forever be known for their cover of Steve Stills’ For What It’s Worth appearing on the much-loved Island sampler You Can All Join In. Faced with the scrapheap or taking on American-born singer, writer and keyboardist Gary Wright (who’d impressed Blackwell), the band – Carlisle lads singer and pianist Mike Harrison and bassist Greg Ridley; Midlanders Mike Kellie (drums) and Luther Grosvenor (guitar) – chose the latter and were recast as Spooky Tooth.

It’s All About was the first album and very good it is too. Amid inspired covers from such sources as Janis Ian, Bob Dylan and John D. Loudermilk (Tobacco Road; a hit for the Nashville Teens whose organist John Hawken enters this tale later) sat good originals, new man Wright collaborating with Harrison, Grosvenor and frequently producer Jimmy Miller. The band had something unique: two contrasting singers who each played keyboards. Harrison, authoritatively bluesy in voice, playing groovy harpsichord sounds (later sensibly switching to electric piano); Wright singing in dramatic falsetto and laying down slabs of full-fat, greasy organ. The two keyboards format had become popular – Procol Harum saw to that; they’d witnessed the 1966 Dylan UK tour and thus none other than Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel demo the format. Yet Spooky Tooth’s two lead singers had one up on Brooker/Reid and chums; ignoring the matter of a huge hit or two!

Despite that Jimmy Miller sound (you know: warm but airy, Olympic Studios in Barnes, lots of woody percussion, think Traffic or Let It Bleed) a unique format and some great songs, the album didn’t take off as hoped and nor did singles Sunshine Help Me (another You Can All Join In chestnut) nor the impeccably arranged Love Really Changed Me (my first Topper selection). An interesting non-LP 1968 single was released: a cover of the Band’s The Weight which the group format almost begged for.

Logically-titled Spooky Two emerged in March 1969 in five colour variants of the monochromatic sleeve: truly one to make pink label Island collectors flap their hands and dribble. Widely regarded as their finest moment, Gary Wright wrote more alone, although to my ears his collaborations remain strongest, not least opener Waitin’ For The Wind (Grosvenor, Harrison and Wright) and perhaps the most mature, soulful offerings were Feelin’ Bad and I’ve Got Enough Heartaches from Wright and Kellie. Originals aside, the standout for many was a song by one Larry Weiss: Evil Woman, a dramatic belter with Harrison and Wright trading lead vocals ushering the first side of the LP to a thrilling climax. We can’t move on from Spooky Two without mentioning Better By You, Better Than Me – not on my Topper Ten, but the very song which hard rockers Judas Priest covered and a couple of Stateside fruitcakes blamed subliminal messages within for their suicides. Whatever.

Spooky Two still hadn’t sold like billy-o at home, but amazingly had made the Billboard top 100 across the puddle. The group had other more immediate concerns. Or Immediate concerns: bassist Greg Ridley jumped ship soon after recording Spooky Two and became a founder member of Humble Pie. His replacement, Andy Leigh, is seen in any clips of the band playing material from Spooky Two, but wasn’t around long and it’ll soon become apparent why. Enter Pierre Henry, French avant-garde-a-clue composer.

The abridged wheat-from-chaff story is this: Henry was signed to the French label who distributed Island locally and thus Spooky Tooth found themselves commissioned to provide the backing music for a musique concrete project called Ceremony (An Electronic Mass). They obliged; they shrugged it off as session work until Chris Blackwell decided that this would be the next Spooky Tooth album. Spooky Trois? Not exactly.

What is it like, then? Well … interesting … but effing hard work. Underneath the sounds of various bits of enthusiastically wielded ironmongery and somebody blub-blub-blub-blub-ing de temps en temps you can hear Spooky Tooth letting rip with abandon; in the spirit of Let It Be Naked, a mix sans Monsieur Henry might make an interesting listen.

Blackwell later acknowledged the gravity of his miscalculation. You can’t think badly of him; he’d thrown his all into breaking Spooky Tooth and in the heady times, a collaboration with someone genuinely ‘out there’ like Henry had merit on paper. But made flesh – another UK flop, a terrible embarrassment for the band and a missed chance or at least stolen thunder of what “Spooky Three” might have been, given the hallowed USA market had already flirted coyly with them. As many UK bands did reasonably well at home but never even made a ripple in America, it must have seemed to their contemporaries as snatching defeat from the jaws of victory and Gary Wright – conspicuously co-credited with Henry for the debacle, right on the front cover, poor sod – effectively fell on his sword. New bassist Andy Leigh bailed out too; like his predecessor, he’d become a founder of a quickly successful act: Matthews Southern Comfort, whose hit cover of Joni Mitchell’s ode to the Bethel music and arts fair was just around the corner.*

Spooky Tooth endured in name during a bitty, no-man’s-land 1970. Harrison, Kellie and Grosvenor remained a nucleus and put out The Last Puff (the title confirmed that they were winding down) with help from sundry Grease Band members. With only one song from Wright (Topper 10 choice The Wrong Time – bizarrely it also appeared on Wright’s own debut solo LP; if that was what we could have expected from the third album that never came, weep on …), this album relied on outside covers, including I Am The Walrus and Topper 10 choice, Elton John’s Tumbleweed-era Son Of Your Father. A touring line-up of the remaining trio plus Steve Thompson (Mayall; Stone the Crows) and John Hawken (Nashville Teens; Renaissance; Strawbs) hit the road and ironically Spooky Tooth became stars – in the notorious film Groupies. And then they were gone.

The Last Puff had been billed ‘Spooky Tooth featuring Mike Harrison’ and it is clear why: Harrison made two solo albums for Island in ’71-’72 (Grosvenor, too, cut an LP for Island before moving onto Stealer’s Wheel and thence Mott the Hoople) but yet again they didn’t make him a star. Wright fared better – his solo debut Extraction (A&M) saw him work with bassist Klaus Voorman; thus was Wright introduced to George Harrison and omnipresent on Harrison’s albums thereafter. Wright put a band together called Wonderwheel but decided being the sole frontman wasn’t his thing; he and Harrison (Mike, not George …) reformed Spooky Tooth during late 1972.

With Kellie and Grosvenor both unavailable and no lasting bassist since Ridley, new ‘Teeth’ were drawn from recent solo ventures. Wright’s Wonderwheel begat drummer Bryson Graham and guitarist Mick Jones; from Harrison’s Junkyard Angel came bassist Ian Herbert, although the role would soon pass to Chrissie Stewart (who’d later play with Frankie Miller). The new band was rock solid, if not quite the old magic of Spooky Two and the slow-burning funk of the rhythm section and Harrison’s electric piano underpins Wildfire, my choice from 1973’s ill-titled You Broke My Heart So I Busted Your Jaw. Later in ’73 came the (IMHO) even stronger Witness – better songs, a better sounding album and Mike Kellie back on the tubs (not to knock Graham; a fine drummer). It’s probably the best studio album after Spooky Two and thus a whopping two Topper choices are from it – Ocean Of Power and Sunlight Of My Mind. The former showcases Stewart’s world-class bass – a fitting holder of the Ridley baton; the latter has that old guitar and organ magic of yore and amid the screechy rock singer histrionics of the times, Harrison sounds effortlessly classy.

Mikes Harrison and Kellie called time after Witness; the former replaced by the late, great Mike Patto and the latter again by Bryson Graham for one more seventies-era album The Mirror. Some reasonable performances there but (even as a Patto fan) for me: no Mike Harrison, no Spooky Tooth. Kellie ended up in the Only Ones, a seemingly odd fit that worked; Mick Jones, of course, did very nicely out of his next project, Foreigner.

That’s not quite it for Spooky Tooth. The original line-up except Wright reformed in 1999 and cut Cross Purpose. Lacking Wright, you could make the easy joke “…but is it Art?”. Ridley, an incredibly well-respected bassist from both Tooth and Pie tenures, died in 2003. A Wright/Harrison/(sometimes)Kellie reunion occurred shortly after for live dates but no albums. They’re on YouTube but have a care: Gary Wright’s red satin outfit and one of those dreadful keyboards worn like a guitar is something you can’t unsee, a shame because both Harrison and Kellie were on great form. The two Mikes sadly both left us in 2017-18. There is some footage of Mike Harrison playing a blues club in Germany in 2012 and that gritty, soaring voice never deserted him. As for Mike Kellie, it’s almost impossible to Google him and not see a lot of love for this evidently very gentle, humble soul. His own website states that he was delighted to have finally become identified for work he did for Traffic; he was always very fond and proud of his fellow Black Countrymen and Island Records big brothers who ‘made good’ – you’ll find his lovely tribute to the late Chris Wood on YouTube.

Spooky Tooth: yet another tipped-for-the-top band who were courted by the right label, mingled with the upper echelons of rock royalty and yet – like so, so many – it just wasn’t quite in the tea leaves for them. And a happy 50th birthday to Spooky Two, the masterpiece.

(*Given that Matthews Southern Comfort contained an ex-Fairportee and an ex-Spookster, I’ve always been at a loss to work out why Blackwell didn’t have them signed to Island before you could blink. It is worth remembering, however, that Blackwell is a multi-millionaire and I am no such thing – and the old saying “don’t try and teach your father how to f*ck” might be apt.)

 

 

 

Mike Harrison (1945-2018)

Mike Kellie (1947–2017)

Greg Ridley (1947–2003)

 

 

Spooky Tooth fan site

Spooky Tooth – The Lost Broadcasts DVD (on YouTube)

Spooky Tooth at Discogs

Spooky Tooth facebook

The Official Gary Wright Website

Luther Grosvenor discography

Spooky Tooth biography (Apple Music)

Rob Millis is a phoney; a hack. He’s not a writer, nor a professional musician and has a formal nine-to-five as the sales analyst/trainer in one of the ‘big three’ self-storage businesses in the UK. Somehow, he has found the time to have written for Shindig! magazine in addition to Toppermost. He has provided Hammond organ, Wurlitzer electric piano and vocals for such names as Dave Kelly, Micky Moody, John Fiddler and was honoured to play with Man at the memorial concert for his friend, the late Phil Ryan. Rob resides in the borough of Richmond-upon-Thames, where (as we all know) the blues was first invented..

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
The Band, George Harrison, Elton John, John Mayall, Mott the Hoople, Renaissance, Stealers Wheel, Strawbs, Traffic

TopperPost #816

5 Comments

  1. Alex Lifson
    Oct 12, 2019

    Hi Rob, love your bio. It’s the best thing I’ve read along with this essay, all morning. Anyway, thanks for the essay. To be honest, I never knew too much about Spooky Tooth. The first thing I ever heard by them was their version of I Am The Walrus. played only once on Montreal radio, but enough to make an impression. Surprised to see no mention of The Mirror, which got plenty of airplay and seemed to be a hit. Then of course, it was the perfect set-up for Gary Wright’s Dreamweaver, which is still played to death on oldies streams, all around the world.

    • Rob Millis
      Oct 13, 2019

      Thanks!

  2. Peter Viney
    Oct 12, 2019

    Excellent job, Rob, especially in explaining the later years and that they didn’t become a huge US stadium act, as they were better with better songs than most that did. Authoritative stage image too. I’d never sussed how badly Ceremony screwed them before. If I had to choose two records to define their early live appeal it would be Sunshine Help Me and Better By Me Better Than You. I’d have to include the latter because it out-Creams Cream. I would find a place for their cover of The Weight, which was a 45. They were the first band I ever saw play this live, and no, it’s not as good as the original, but it’s still extremely good. It is indeed “all about Spooky Two” for me. I’m with you on Waitin’ For The Wind, the first song I’d choose … what an incredible first 30 seconds of just drums. Then I’d have to have That Was Only Yesterday. Probably Hangman Hang My Shell On A tree … no, I want the whole album. You’re a brave man going much later. I Am The Walrus makes Vanilla Fudge sound subtle. I even bought Cross Purpose, but can’t recall playing it a second time.

    • Rob Millis
      Oct 13, 2019

      Peter, I bought Cross P too and it was well recorded – I liked the Karl Wallinger song Sunshine – but not nearly meaty enough. Out Creaming Cream – I deliberately avoided anything too ‘heads down’ in an attempt to show how they weren’t just another lumpen riffy band, but you are right, they could cut heads in that department with the best. Brave man? Funnily enough it was during the writing of this piece that I revisited Jaw and Witness again, and started to see the beauty of it. I think Sunlight of My Mind is a classic example: it IS your typical 1973 Gibson and Marshall rock and not That Was Only Yesterday, but with a proper singer and the beautifully melodic interludes that not every rock song would have had, the very bits that make you go “yeah, okay, it IS Spooky Tooth after all”.
      My big problem with Zep and Deep P and UK 70s post-Cream fare of that kidney has always been the screeching vocals (so yes, I thought Coverdale livened up the latter act no end). Mike Harrison was effing great.

  3. Peter Viney
    Oct 14, 2019

    Absolutely agree on Led Zep, Deep Purple etc vocals. Try Mike Harrison’s “Smokestack Lightning” album (Island 1972) recorded in Muscle Shoals. Luther Grosvenor is credited with acoustic guitar. Mike Harrison’s vocal is my favourite, but having two major vocalists was a bonus. Here is “What A Price” from that 1972 solo album but you may find 12 minutes of Smokestack Lightning excessive.

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