Blonde on Blonde, taking their name from the then-new Bob Dylan album of that title, were spawned in 1967 out of a Welsh blues-rock band called the Cellar Set. Gareth Johnson played the guitar, sitar, and lute, while Richard Hopkins handled the bass, piano, harpsichord, cornet, celeste, and whistle, and Les Hicks played the drums. The addition of Ralph Denyer made them into a quartet with vocals; and Simon Lawrence, an alumnus of Roy Harper’s and Al Stewart’s early recordings, was with them briefly, as well, on 12-string guitar. The group took part in the Middle Earth Club’s Magical Mystery Tour, which brought them an initial splash of press exposure. They were also fortunate enough to open for the Jefferson Airplane on the latter group’s British tour. All of this activity led to an approach by Pye Records producer Barry Murray, who got them signed to the label, and through whom they released their debut single “All Day, All Night” b/w “Country Life.” Though decidedly guitar-based in their sound, the band’s music also used psychedelic pop arrangements that gave it an almost orchestral majesty which, when coupled with Johnson’s sitar and lute embellishments and Hopkins’ harpsichord and other unusual keyboards — with Hicks getting into the act on the tabla — gave them an appealingly exotic sound. Their live performances were frequently divided, à la Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, into acoustic and electric sets, in order to show off their full range.
The group issued their first album, Contrasts, in 1969, on the Janus label — that record showed more of the early but burgeoning influence of progressive rock, while retaining their early psychedelic coloration. That same year, the band played to the largest single audience of its entire history when they appeared at the first Isle of Wight Festival. They also issued their second single “Castles in the Sky” b/w “Circles'” and the LP Rebirth, both on the Ember label, which featured a new lineup — Denyer had exited the band to form Aquila, ceding his spot in Blonde on Blonde to singer-guitarist David Thomas. Richard Hopkins was replaced in mid-1971 by bassist-guitarist-banjo player Graham Davis, and it was this lineup that recorded their third LP, Reflections on a Life, at Rockfield Studios. It failed to sell any better than their prior releases, however, and the group broke up in 1972, shortly after that album’s release. The group’s albums are recognized as collector’s items on vinyl, and their first album, in particular, is a beguiling mix of psychedelia and progressive rock. But their debut single, “All Day, All Night,” is regarded in many quarters as their most significant release, a classic of late-’60s psychedelic pop/rock. (by Bruce Eder)
A popular support act for some of the biggest names in the underground music scene of the late 1960s, Blonde on Blonde were no shrinking violets when it came to holding their own beneath the staccato glare of the polychromatic liquid lights.
Signed to Pye Records, they released their debut Contrasts in 1969 – a collection of psychedelic proto-prog songs, with a couple of souped up cover versions thrown in for good measure.In doing so, they perfected a blend of guitars, sitars, abstract percussion, flute and the ever-faithful keyboard contingent.
‘Ride with Captain Max’ is a powerful start to Contrasts with breakneck guitars and a rhythm section playing as though the devil’s at its heels; giving way to mellow lyrical passages of acid-infused ponderings on “flying high”. This is quickly followed by the flute and sitar-charged, kaleidoscopic playground that is ‘Spinning Wheel’, a lysergic single malt distilled into a bottle of less than three minutes. And that’s just for starters.
Want more? Then the third track is a bracing version of the Incredible String Band’s ‘No Sleep Blues’. Yes, you read that right, the dreaded ISB. It seems that if you remove their tuneless whine and slapdash playing from the equation, there’s a half-decent song just screaming to be set free. But this is neither the time nor place for Incredible String Band bashing, there’s plenty of that elsewhere on HFoS. Blonde on Blonde’s rendering is hearty stuff and one of the highlights of Contrasts.
There’s also a cover version of The Beatles’ hymn of loneliness, ‘Eleanor Rigby’, on hand, substituting the orchestral accompaniment of the original for a stirring horn section. The Elizabethan-style olde-worlde psych of ‘Island on an Island’ is another notable example of the many pleasures that Contrasts has to offer.
Blonde on Blonde would jump ship to the Ember label and released two more albums of a more progressive nature, but it’s their debut that offers the most memorable moments and as such is a fine addition to the psych/proto-prog stylings that were doing the rounds as the 60s conceded defeat to the 70s.
Oh, and did I mention that the band took their name from the 1966 album of the same name by Bob Dylan? No? Ah well. (by Nick James)
Ralph Denyer (vocals, guitar)
Les Hicks (drums, percussion)
Richard Hopkins (bass, keyboards, harpsichord, cornet, celesta, whistle)
Gareth Johnson (guitar, sitar, lute)
01. Ride With Captain Max (Johnson/Hicks/Denyer/Hopkins) 4.57
02. Spinning Wheel (Johnson) 2.39
03. No Sleep Blues (Williamson) 3.17
04. Goodbye (Murray) 2.08
05. I Need My Friend (Denyer) 3.04
06. Mother Earth (Johnson) 4.50
07. Country Life (Single B-Side 1968) (Godfrey/Murray) 3.29
08. Eleanor Rigby (Lennon/McCartney) 3.15
09. Conversationally Making The Grade (Denyer) 4.03
10. Regency (Johnson/Hopkins) 1.52
11. Island On An Island (Johnson) 2.54
12. Don’t Be Too Long (Denyer) 2.30
13. Jeanette Isabella (Denyer) 3.43
14. All Day, All Night (Single A-Side 1968) (Lawrence) 3.26