THE ALBUM THAT WAS RELEASED 45 YEARS AFTER IT WAS ORIGINALLY RECORDED
The Gordon, Ellis & Steel story
"The amazing story of the back-to-the-land singer-songwriters and righteously obscure rural rockers whose music failed to find an outlet the first time round"
In the early 1970's, Rick Gordon, Ross Ellis, John Steel and Chris Howard, were a bunch of friends, in their late teens and early twenties, from Mill Hill in north London, who, having met at a local church youth club, came together through a mutual love of music and beer to form a band called Gordon, Ellis & Steel.
Rick and John first met through Chris's sister Jenny. Rick had dated Jenny but they split when Jenny had met John. Perhaps surprisingly, Rick and John became friends and soon realised they were into similar music. They both played guitar and could harmonise well together, and after a few jams and rehearsals, the pair played their first gig at a folk night at the Union Church Youth Club in Mill Hill.
Realising that they had the makings of a band, they recruited friends Ross Ellis on lead guitar, Chris Howard on bass and John Ellis on drums to complete the line up.
Taking their inspiration from the then emerging American west coast country-rock sound and artists like the Eagles, Jackson Browne, Loggins & Messina, Crosby Stills Nash & Young and The Byrds, they began writing songs and gigging, and soon built up a local following, playing mainly around the north London pub circuit along with wine bars, youth clubs, folk clubs, church halls, private parties - any venue that would let them play, often only for free beers.
Rick & John
Regular gigs included Hampstead Town Hall, The Howff in Primrose Hill, the Duke of Lancaster in New Barnet (of The Stranglers secret gig fame), the Salisbury Hotel in High Barnet and the Dublin Castle in Camden.
Other particularly memorable gigs included a girls’ boarding school in Hertfordshire (it's best not to ask), The National Liberal Club in Whitehall (that one raised a few eyebrows) and a working man’s club somewhere in south-east London, where the bands brand of ‘soft country-rock’ didn’t go down too well with the club's regulars, and they ended up jamming ‘Jonny B Goode’ several times in order to prevent from being thrown off stage and beaten up.
A highlight was playing London's legendary Marquee Club.
Through a mutual friend, 'Bloodshot Bill' Bradshaw, the band was introduced to Vic Keary, who invited them to play an audition gig for him at The Belmont pub in Chalk Farm.
Keary owned Chalk Farm Studios, in Belmont Street, opposite London's Roundhouse and handily next door to the pub. The Belmont was a musicians’ hang out and was frequented by the likes of Siouxsie and the Banshees, Mick Jones, Jimmy Nail and Lemmy.
As a result of that gig, Keary was sufficiently impressed to offer the band a recording deal and he agreed to produce an album for his label, Mushroom Records.
I thought they were an exceptionally talented band
So, with contracts signed, the band went into the studio and over the next year, set about recording their first album and putting their collection of songs down on tape.
Chalk Farm had originally been set up by Rick Minas and Bruce Rae in 1964 as RayRik Sound Studios. It reopened in 1968 as Chalk Farm Studios, having been purchased by Vic and his partner Emil Shallit.
Vic would become one of the most important names in the production of UK reggae and Chalk Farm the recording centre for the Jamaican reggae scene in London, being the only UK studio that could properly replicate the Jamaican Ska/Rock Steady sound. Vic recorded many hits for labels like Trojan Records, including Bob & Marcia's
Young, Gifted And Black, which reached number 5 in the UK singles chart.
Eric Clapton's Cream, then produced by Robert Stigwood, recorded several tracks for their debut album Fresh Cream at the studio and Grammy Award winning band America recorded several of their early tracks at the studio in 1971, and these appear on their 2015 album Archives Vol 1.
Vic went on to record artists as diverse as John Otway & Wild Willy Barrett, Mungo Jerry, Nick Lowe and The Sweet. At one time, eight of the top 50 singles had been recorded at Chalk Farm, six of them mixed by Vic.
With Mushroom, I wanted to give people the
chance to listen to all genres of music
Vic Keary at work, Chalk Farm Studios
As the band wasn’t paying for the studio time, they had to record during 'dead' time, when other more established artists or paying clients weren’t, which meant mostly at weekends or during the night. The tracks were mostly recorded 'live' with just a guide vocal, and then overdubbed with final vocals, harmonies and additional instruments.
Rick remembers: "With the pub being next door, and working mainly at night and at the weekends, the sessions took on a party atmosphere, often lasting most of the night, and our abiding memory is they were always a lot of fun. It was a very creative time and we relished every moment being in the studio environment and working on our songs. I believe that happy, relaxed vibe permeated through into the recordings."
However, some of the late night jam sessions, which it is rumoured involved bottles of Jack Daniels, were not included on the album for public health and safety reasons!
The band were joined on the sessions by several other musicians, who contributed with violin, pedal steel guitar and mandolin. Their names have sadly been forgotten.
Most notable, however, was Ken Elliot, Keyboards, and Kieran O'Connor, drums & percussion, who at the time were playing together as Seventh Wave. Sadly Kieran passed away in 1991. Rick again: "The significant contribution to those Chalk Farm sessions by Ken, Kieran and all the guest players must be acknowledged."
Mushroom Records' lifespan was sadly all too short. By the time the band had finished recording the album, the label and studio were struggling financially and Vic was forced to close them down. As a result, the album was never released.
A few cassette copies of the raw tapes were made and sent to various record industry contacts including record producer Micky Most, who lived in Totteridge, and former Bee Gees manager David English, who the band knew from Mill Hill Village Cricket Club, where they had played several gigs. The story goes that English's wife dumped the cassette in a skip when having a clear out while he was away touring. That was the last known copy of the recordings.
By the late 1970's, punk had become a major cultural phenomenon in the UK and bands like the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and the Damned we dominating the British charts. West Coast country rock had become a niche sound and publishing deals were hard to find.
The band continued to write songs and gigged for several more years. They recorded some later compositions at a studio in Edgware, run by Alan Warner of the British 60's hit band The Foundations. Eventually, though, the members all moved on to other projects.
Rick spent a couple of years playing in bars and clubs in the holiday resorts of the South of France, and a short spell playing small jazz and piano bars in Lyon's Old Town, with his old school chum Phil, while Ross headed for Scandinavia and joined a touring band.
Rick & Phil in Provence, Côte d'Azur
Ross later joined Rick and Phil in France and for a further year the trio worked nightly entertaining holidaymakers and playing the occasional private party, one being for the Bich family, founders of the Bic ball-point pen empire, at the family cliff-top villa overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.
At the end of the season, Rick and Ross headed to Mallorca where they continued to work as a duo, to much local critical acclaim.
Press cutting featuring Rick & Ross in Mallorca
Chris continued to play with a number of successful bands, gigging in and around London, most recently with the six-piece jazz/blues combo, Salamander.
Meanwhile, the Chalk Farm recordings and unreleased material were largely forgotten about and eventually became lost in the mists of time.
Fast forward some forty-plus years.
The band had always been conscious that the Chalk Farm sessions were 'unfinished business'. As the years ticked by, they began to regret not fully completing the album or at least keeping their own copies of the recordings.
In 2015, in order to make a final effort to see if any recordings still existed, Rick decided he would try to find Vic. After a bit of internet searching, he found him. He was by this time running a successful business, designing and building specialist, all-valve, studio equipment in Harlow in Essex.
Emails were exchanged and a meeting organised. Over lunch at a Harlow pub, Rick, Ross, Chris and Vic recalled the days at Chalk Farm. The guys soon learned that Vic had indeed saved copies of the original recordings and, despite having been stored away in a cardboard box for so long, the tapes had not deteriorated and were still playable.
Unbelievably, the songs and recordings that were assumed to have been lost four decades earlier, still existed.
Rick explains: "That meeting with Vic was somewhat surreal. The last time the four of us had been in the same room together was over 40 years ago, and here we were chatting and reminiscing about the time at Chalk Farm as if it were yesterday. And listening to those songs again for the first time in so long, transported us right back into the studio. It was spooky but really exciting at the same time."
Early in 2017 one of the tracks, Don’t Wait Till The Morning, was included on a compilation album released by Vic on the Grapefruit label by Cherry Red Records called Spaced Out – The Story Of Mushroom Records, which tells the story of Mushroom Records from its roots in the psychedelic era and its evolution across the early 1970s.
Amazingly, one of the GES tracks had finally made it into the public arena.
Not only that, it was receiving good reviews!
An unearthed gem is the country rock trio Gordon, Ellis & Steel’s
Don’t Wait Till The Morning
-Its Psychedelic Baby Magazine-
It was felt the songs had stood up well to the test of time and merited being made available to the public, so the suggestion of releasing a further selection of the songs as an album was made. Some re-working, cleaning up and over-dubbing, mainly guitars and extra vocals, was done and the songs remastered.
In a somewhat bizarre twist, Cherry Red Records had by now acquired the Mushroom label and its entire back catalogue and therefore owned the Chalk Farm recordings. The band found themselves having to negotiate a royalty deal with Cherry Red for their own songs.
However, a suitable deal was struck and the album Looking Forward Thinking Back was born.
Whilst Rick, Ross and Chris had remained in contact over the years and continued to work and record together from time to time, they had lost touch with John. With the release of the album imminent, it was important they locate him, so a search was initiated and after several months and the eventual assistance of a search company, they found him.
Perhaps just as surprising as the tapes being rediscovered, all the founding members of the band were still alive and well and now happily reunited.
The project begun 45 years earlier was now finally completed.
Since its release in March 2018, the album has been very well received and has been widely played, particularly on the Americana and country radio stations, both in the UK and USA. It has received many good reviews. Red Rose Country Radio described it as 'a cracking album'.
In 2019, one of the bands tracks, ‘My Little One’, was included in a 3 cd compilation box set entitled 'Across the Great Divide – Getting It Together In The Country' issued on the Grapefruit label by Cherry Red Records. The album includes artists such as Rod Stewart, The Faces, The Hollies, Traffic, Fairport Convention, Mott The Hoople, Procol Harum, Heads Hands & Feet and many more!
It is described as "the first compilation to shine a light on this curiously neglected stitch in the constantly-evolving British rock tapestry of the late Sixties/early Seventies. Joining huge names like Rod Stewart, Traffic and Fairport Convention are cult underground acts, mainstream Sixties pop groups updating their sound, a post-Dylan wave of back-to-the-land singer/songwriters and a clutch of righteously obscure rural rockers whose music failed to find an outlet at the time."
So, what next? The band are currently back in the studio and in the process of re-recording some of the songs, to put a modern twist and feel to them, with a view to releasing a new EP later this year.
Watch this space!