The Birth of Brand X – Part I

virgi ps 24.tifBrand X is a band that originated in the mid 1970’s out of London. While best categorized as jazz-fusion, Brand X incorporated rock and progressive genres into their work.  Their official debut album Unorthodox Behaviour was released in 1976, but the musicians who made up the band were quite busy before that record was released. The founding members on that brilliant album included Robin Lumley (keys), John Goodsall (guitars), Percy Jones (bass), and Phil Collins (drums). Jack Lancaster (winds) also plays on a couple of tracks for that first album and was an important part of their launch. Morris Pert (percussion) joined on their second album and from that point on there were several personnel changes until they disbanded.

Many of us learned of Brand X because of Phil Collins’ involvement. In the same year as their debut, Phil had taken over vocals for Genesis after Peter Gabriel departed, and the band released Trick of the Tail, which also sports some of his most aggressive and creative drumming with that band. For Brand X, Phil took his playing to a new level – arguably at the top of his powers, with bassist Percy Jones as a backing duo foundation for blistering rock-infused jazz-fusion that’s in a class of it’s own. Most progressive rock fans were drawn in and developed an appreciation for the jazz-fusion form, if they had not previously.

But to properly begin the story of this seminal group, we need to step back to the few years before their debut, back to when this gang was busy jamming together whenever possible in the kitchens, pubs and studios of London. Most importantly, before the debut, Jack Lancaster and Robin Lumley wrote and released two albums – Peter and the Wolf and Marscape, which included playing by all of the members of what became Brand X, along with other guests.

Both albums were re-mastered by Jack Lancaster last year and are available on Gonzo Multimedia.

I had the opportunity this month to talk with Jack, Percy, and Robin about these works, and the origins of Brand X, and will cover these discussions over several posts. Let’s start by taking a look at these works, starting with the first release for RSO Records, Peter and the Wolf.

lancaster_patwThe original Peter and the Wolf was written by Sergei Prokoviev in 1936 in Stalin’s Soviet Union. It’s been adapted many times over the years since then, utilizing classical, rock and other frames. The “prog-jazz-fusion” and sometimes rocking version of Peter and the Wolf as conceived by Jack Lancaster and Robin Lumley includes some of the themes from Prokoviev but also a lot of free form jams written and then improvised by the contributing musicians. Vivian Stanshall is the narrator, and the players joining Jack and Robin include Phil Collins, Cozy Powell, Gary Moore, Manfred Mann, Bill Bruford, Stéphane Grappelli, Alvin Lee, Brian Eno, and others.

It’s a successful adaptation straight through – the story is shared intact via our narrator, and the musicians come up with clever ways to interpret the original tunes that represent Peter and his animal friends in the original work. Favorite themes as interpreted here include “Peter’s Theme”, “Cat Dance”, “Grandfather” and “Wolf” each of which shine. The album was considered a favorite by fans and the management of RSO Records, such that Jack and Robin set off to make a second album.

marscape_lp_us_frontMarscape the follow up album was an original work written by Jack and Robin in France and recorded at Trident studios in Britain. Again the future members of Brand X play with them on Marscape including John Goodsall (guitars), Percy Jones (bass), Phil Collins (drums) and Morris Pert (percussion). Also joining for Marscape were Bernie Frost (voices), and Simon Jeffs (koto). It’s by nature a tighter and more focused work than Peter and the Wolf, and should be a key selection in any fine music collection.

Of this album, the authors wrote that the concept: “was a magical journey to the planet Mars… a kind of soundtrack to an imaginary movie, our intention was picture-making through music, so we conceived Marscape as one piece, divided up into audio sketches of the events emotions that might be experienced by voyagers traveling from Earth to the red planet. By the end, we surmise that the visitors realize that they are not visitors at all, but have actually returned home after a very, very long time away.” This perfectly sums up what a listener could imagine from the evocative thematic piece.

Tracks include “Sail on Solar Winds”, “Homelight”, and “Dust Storm” each of which coveys the nature of the lonely and angry red planet. A standout track is “Hopper” which refers to the “machine for negotiating the rough Martian terrain” and which sports Phil’s signature skipping beat to a tune reminiscent of “Baby Elephant Walk.” Also gorgeous then a bit chilling is “With a Great Feeling of Love” that is described in liner notes as two parts – one “an inner warmth and feelings of affinity” and the next an “outer cold and icy silence.”  Themes are developed early on and repeated to excellent effect, drawing the listener into the album and it’s concept. Again, the musicianship is first rate.

These Lancaster/Lumley albums are wonderful and compelling preludes to the work of Brand X and classics in their own right. Highly recommended for fans of that band, or of acoustic and electric jazz-fusion. In the coming posts I’ll share recollections from Jack, Robin, and Percy on these times as well as the initial early work of Brand X.

3 thoughts on “The Birth of Brand X – Part I”

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  2. Thanks Douglas, I subscribed to your blog several month ago and I have been pleased with the variety of material that comes to my email box. Progressive rock and jazz fusion have been my favorites since 1976 when I was introduced to Genesis, Brand X and Weather Report. It’s great to see your passion for the genre(s) and to be introduced to new bands I missed or was vaguely aware of.

    1. Thanks Brad -its great to hear and I appreciate you taking the moment. spent a lot of time this week and last on the piece about Gryphon -they are playing live again after 39 years, in Britain. am staying up late tonight to try to get David Gilmour tickets as it’s been 9 years for him! rock on…

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