fri 19/07/2024

Music Reissues Weekly: Bowes Road Band - Back in the HCA | reviews, news & interviews

Music Reissues Weekly: Bowes Road Band - Back in the HCA

Music Reissues Weekly: Bowes Road Band - Back in the HCA

Delightful but previously unknown early Seventies British art-school album

Bowes Road Band's Ted Rockley is cast in an Andy Warhol light

The acronym “HCA” in the title stands for Hornsey College of Art, the North London college which, in late May 1968, was occupied by its students and a few staff in a high-profile protest which went on into that July. What was wanted were changes in how student union funds were disbursed and how the college was run. Ultimately, barbed wire and dogs were employed to end the dispute.

Earlier, future Kink and neighbourhood resident Ray Davies had been a student there. Seventies pop star Lynsey De Paul also studied at the college. In November 1966, Pink Floyd played there with lighting equipment devised by the Light and Sound Workshop, part of the HCA’s Advanced Studies Group. The mechanical artist Bruce Lacey, there in the late 1940s, kept his ties with the college after leaving – he was celebrated in song by local band Fairport Convention.

Bowes Road BandLater, after the HCA was absorbed into Middlesex Polytechnic, attendees included a significant amount of students who became integral to the punk and post-punk era: Viv Albertine (The Slits), Graham Lewis (Wire), designer Neville Brody, Stuart Goddard (the future Adam Ant), Gina Birch and Ana da Silva (The Raincoats).

Missing from this pop-cultural roll call is music generated by anyone while they were attending the college. Now, Back in the HCA, the previously unknown 1973 album by the Bowes Road Band has been reissued to plug the gap. The street in question is north of Hornsey – the HCA was spread across multiple sites. Part of the Fine Art department was housed there in an old school. In 1972, four graphic design students came together to make an album with no intention of playing live. It was recorded between January and July 1973 at Waverley House in Crouch End, home of the college’s Co-ordinated Studies recording studio. Once it was completed, 50 copies were pressed. Making the album was an exercise.

And that was it – copies went to band members or were given away. The Bowes Road Band’s album was unheard of, undiscovered by collectors. This changed when a copy turned up at a Berlin flea market. The band members were then sought out and it was found that synthesiser and woodwind player Ted Rockley had the master tape in his attic. Hence the reissue.

Bowes Road Band_Phil RawleAs an album which was unknown rather than obscure, its reappearance from oblivion is a welcome surprise. Even if had been heard of and had become a collector’s staple, it would still be notable. What Rockley, Alan Lewis (drums, vocals), Dave Pescod (vocals, acoustic electric and guitars) and Phil Rawle (bass guitar, lead guitar, vocals) were responsible for (sundry other HCA students helped out on other instruments) is a delightful example of lightly jazz flavoured early Seventies British art-rock hinting at Kevin Ayers and The Kinks, with leanings towards a baroque folk rock. The reissue does not, though, tell the full story: it is of six tracks from the original album rather than the whole thing. Three cuts are not heard as, according to the press release, the label “decided to mine the six most cohesive tracks for the reissue.” Isn’t this strange rewriting of history unnecessary? Surely listeners can determine what's good for themselves. (pictured left, Bowes Road Band's Phil Rawle during the recording of Back in the HCA)

Nonetheless, what’s here in a reproduction of the original sleeve is wonderful. Sonically, the production is professionally pin sharp. The new Back in the HCA begins with “Grass is Grass,” which has a melodic similarity with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Woodstock.” This warm though autumnal song is jazzy, pastoral and lilting. There’s a hint of Donovan. Next, the equally assured, misty, psychedelia-edged “Tomorrow’s Truth.” The song has odd snatches of backwards drums and white-noise synthesiser swoops. Third and last on Side One is “Goodbye to Rosie,” on which a Ray Davies introspection cosies-up to Honeybus. Side Two is as great: especially the gently freaky, Ray Davies-evoking “Doctor Doctor.” Back in 1973, Bowes Road Band would have fitted snugly into the rosters of the Island or Virgin labels. But once the album was recorded and pressed, there was no intention of doing anything further. Oblivion beckoned.

A whopping 50 years on, this transient, previously forgotten band finally gets its day in the sun. Furthermore, the reissue of Bowes Road Band’s exceptional Back in the HCA enhances Hornsey College of Art’s status as a pop-cultural hothouse.

@MrKieronTyler

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