Listening to the Keef Hartley Band……

Thanks to the generosity of a friend, I’ve been catching up on a body of work  that had previously passed me by, namely the half-dozen or so albums recorded by the Keef Hartley Band for Decca Records between 1969 and 1973.

The fact that it’s taken me the best part of 40 years to catch up with this stuff is down to a couple of issues.  Firstly, bands led by drummers have never been my cup of tea somehow…..they’ve always tended towards being somewhat iffy, in my opinion.  For every Peter Erskine or Manu Katche, there are a dozen Cozy Powells or Buddy Riches or Sandy Nelsons.  The worry, always with drummer-led bands,  is that the drums will take over and that every number will have a 12-minute drum solo at its heart.  The second reason I never got to grips with the Hartley band is simply the fact that back in the day, there was just far too much other stuff to listen to.

I first became aware of Keef Hartley as a member of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers during the 1967-8 era.  Hartley played in the Mayall band that featured horn-players like Dick Heckstall-Smith, Henry Lowther and Chris Mercer, and once he formed his own band , Hartley, too,  showed a great fondness for reeds and brass players with several ex-Mayall alumni joining him, notably Lowther, who became the band’s arranger.

I had a nice photo of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers with Keef Hartley here taken by this guy – or so he says anyway.  He contacted me to threaten legal action unless I took down the photo he allegedly took back in 1968.  I thought I would instead post a photo of him so you can see the kind of arseholes that infest the Net.  By the way, he is auctioning off copies of the original Mayall/Hartley photo on some skanky website for about SKr 300 a pop.  Perhaps that’s how he can afford such a big glass of wine.  Perhaps the person who took the photo of this scumbag will now contact me to threaten legal action as well.  Perhaps the world is going mad. Göran Heckler, what a guy, what a shining advert for humanity.  Anyway, let’s get back to Keef Hartley before the cops show up….

When Hartley left Mayall’s band in 1968, he approached Mayall’s label, Decca, with his new project and they responded positively.  The new Hartley band’s focal point was probably  singer/guitarist Miller Anderson, whose strong singing voice was to prove a mainstay.  Also on board was a stellar reeds and brass section that featured Henry Lowther’s trumpet and violin alongside Lyn Dobson on sax & flute, Harry Beckett on trumpet and flugelhorn and Chris Mercer on tenor sax.  The resultant album,  released in 1969 , was entitled ‘Halfbreed’ (possibly a reference to Hartley’s  predilection for dressing up in Native American regalia) and is quite simply the outstanding album of Hartley’s career.  The album is topped and tailed by humorous dialogue between Hartley and John Mayall, but the music inbetween is rarely anything less than excellent.  Stand-out track would probably have to be the ten-minute spectacular  ‘Born to die’, but it is far from being the album’s only highlight.   These were really heady days for the band, who became one of the lesser-known participants at the 1969 Woodstock Festival, where they drew favourable comparisons with American band Blood, Sweat and Tears.

The Keef Hartley Band either arriving at or leaving from the Woodstock Festival in 1969

‘Halfbreed’ was followed in fairly short order by a second album entitled ‘The Battle of NW6’, perhaps in reference to some internal squabbles among band members that erupted around this time.  ‘NW6’ was generally another good album with the cast and crew now including the likes of new Rolling Stone Mick Taylor , keyboardist Mick Weaver, who had by now abandoned his ‘Wynder K. Frog’  pseudonym, reeds & flute player Barbara Thompson and flautist Ray Warleigh.  The songs on the album were generally shorter and less memorable for the most part, but the high-class musicianship on view compensated for that.

By the time that the KHB’s third album – ‘The Time is Near’ – was released in late 1970, Miller Anderson had assumed most of the songwriting duties and the results failed to match the quality displayed on previous albums.  1971’s ‘Overdog’ was also rather less memorable, even though more ex-Mayall sidemen were drafted in  – this time Jon Hiseman and Johnny Almond.

Hartley’s affection for large ensembles probably reached its apogee with the 1971 recording of ‘Little Big Band’ at London’s Marquee Club.  This raucous recording utilised  a 10-piece brass/woodwind section and featured many of the standout tracks from Hartley’s earlier albums.  Thereafter, Hartley’s output was largely subject to the law of diminishing returns. Miller Anderson left the band in 1971 and though he and Hartley were reunited in a band called Dog Soldier about 1975, it was a pretty ill-judged sub-heavy metal venture at best.

In the late 70’s Hartley was quite often to be found alongside bassist Rick Kemp, supplying simple backing for Hull folk singer extraordinaire Michael Chapman.  Since then, he has effectively been in semi-retirement from the music biz, though a ghostwritten biography ‘Halfbreed – A Rock and Roll Journey That Happened Against All The Odds’  did appear in 2007.  Nowadays apparently, he’s more likely to be involved in making  bespoke chairs or cabinets than he is to be playing the drums.

11 responses to “Listening to the Keef Hartley Band……

  1. Richard Strelitz

    Thanks for sharing your appreciation of the KHB. Of all of the attempts to merge jazz with rock or blues, KHB stands out with excellent charts and for providing full voice to the brass and reeds. I’m not sure I would agree with your rankings, especially for top 2 spots. I urge you to listen to Mayall’s Bare Wires to discover the inspiration for Keef. Where can I get his book?

  2. Thanks for the post Richard……

    Never really got to grips with ‘Bare Wires’ as an album though I do like ‘Jenny’ and ‘No Reply’. In terms of Mayall albums, my own preference would be for ‘Blues from Laurel Canyon’ and ‘The Turning Point’. As for Hartley’s book, there’s a copy on EBay for $265 or thereabouts, suggesting that it’s pretty hard to come by. KH’s own site says that it’s OOP. Sorry I can’t be more helpful.

  3. Interestng read, Remember seeing the KH big band at Harrogate Opera House, support act was none other than David Bowie….and the cost? 25 pence!

    • On this sad day I was just thinking that that was the one and only time that I saw David Bowie – fond memories.

  4. “And if you told that to the young people of today…..”

    Thanks Keith; that truly was a bargain night out. Can’t quite match that though I still have some old gig tickets from that era and was amazed to see that I saw Dire Straits on their first major tour at Manchester Uni S.U. for £0.70 – and that was as late as 1978.

    Is it me or do ticket prices for gigs seem to have gone through the roof in recent years? Perhaps it’s because they’re not selling as many records these days….or maybe it’s just greed.

    If my daughter could see me writing this she’d be rolling her eyes and giving me the standard lecture about not living in the past!

  5. Well, I don’t live in England any more. Big names don’t often come here (Thailand) but, when they do, you can usually get a decent seat for around twenty pounds.

    A lovely gig I went to shortly before leaving the country was in Scarborough. It was a reunion gig of The Mandrakes (Robert Palmer’s original band) doing a one-off for charity with the man’s place taken by his brother.

    One of their tours was as support to Hendrix and their guitarist (Rob Southwick) got on very well with Jimi. At the end of the tour, Rob was the proud owner of Hendrix’s guitar, signed! After Palmer left the band, Rob decided to become a teacher and, as a broke student, renovated that guitar to make it look new, including sanding off the signature, and sold it for 50 pounds. What would it have been worth now? However, he managed to trace that guitar and borrow it for the gig.

  6. It’s one of those ‘Man who turned down The Beatles’ type stories, isn’t it?

  7. John Mayall just reported that Keef Hartley died at the end of November 2011.

  8. @keith351 — I was at that Harrogate gig, with Bowie (solo, acoustic) as support! It was my first gig, age 14.

  9. It was one of my first too Chas and I must have been a similar age!

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