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Many years later... Ten years after

Why the British blues rock band Ten Years After and guitarist Alvin Lee need a rediscovery

brunch Updated: Apr 01, 2017 21:36 IST
Sanjoy Narayan
Alvin Lee, front man and lead guitar player of British blues-rock band Ten Years After, was known for his superfast style of playing
Alvin Lee, front man and lead guitar player of British blues-rock band Ten Years After, was known for his superfast style of playing(Getty Images)

There’s a YouTube video of Ten Years After performing the song I’m Going Home from the Woodstock festival in 1969. Uploaded in 2012, the video is from the iconic film made on the festival and showcases the British blues-rock band’s striking sound, notable for front man and lead guitar player Alvin Lee’s superfast style of playing. Forty-eight years ago the hour-long set that the band played at Woodstock catapulted them to fame and may have pioneered the concept of “shredding” or playing lead guitar at very high speed. Lee died in 2013 but he left Ten Years After in the late 1980s and that marked an end to their trademark sound.

The YouTube video mentioned above has garnered nearly eight million views and Lee’s lead lines in that nearly 12-minute song have, for many rock guitarists, become a sort of Holy Grail. It’s a pity though that Lee has remained an underrated guitar player and Ten Years After, a group that isn’t the instant go-to band that it should be for anyone interested in the blues-rock genre. That’s a pity also because there is no dearth of albums to explore the sound of Ten Years After. There are eight great studio albums by them to check out all released between 1967 and 1974 and at least four live ones that are even better.

The year before the band played their set at Woodstock on August 17, 1969, sandwiched between Country Joe & the Fish and The Band, Ten Years After released Undead, a live recording from a performance in a small London club. The band members were in their early-to-mid 20s, the sound is raw, but the music is amazing. Besides plying their own compositions, they played a few standards, including a unique version of George Gershwin’s Summertime that segues into a tune titled Shantung Cabbage, composed by drummer Ric Lee (no relation to Alvin). The band’s line-up then – the two Lees on guitar and drums, along with Chick Churchill on organ and Leo Lyons on bass – was their best and Undead is an album worth a dive into.

After Woodstock brought fame for them in the US, they released a few more live albums, including the stellar Live at the Fillmore East 1970. As in many of their performances, that album has originals as well as covers. But the covers all have the distinctive Ten Years After touch – Alvin Lee’s scorching breakneck-speed lead riffs, of course, but also little touches to the lyrics. In Good Morning Little Schoolgirl, a blues standard first recorded in the 1930s by the harmonica player, Sonny Boy Williamson, Lee takes the lyrics and gives it a ribald twist. I don’t recall the original version (or subsequent covers by anyone) to include a verse that goes: “I won’t bore you, yeah Baby, I won’t bore you all night long/ Yes, I do Baby, I want to ball you/ I want to ball you all night long/ Tell your mama and your papa/ Baby, baby, doing nothing wrong, child/ I’m doing nothing wrong, yeah.”

Yes, I know it could seem a bit disturbing those lines but that was what Ten Years After was, irreverent, and even a bit nonsensical when it came to the lyrics department in their own compositions, but it is their music and Lee’s superlative guitar work that should give them a status of immortality. On the same Live at the Fillmore East album, they do versions of the recently deceased Chuck Berry’s Sweet Little Sixteen and Roll Over Beethoven, rendering them with the trademark guitar virtuoso of Lee. The same performance includes a nearly 11-minute completely absorbing tune called The Hobbit led by drummer Ric Lee.

Ten Years After’s studio albums are equally enjoyable. Stonedhenge (1969), Cricklewood Green (1970), A Space in Time (1971)… are all great albums with a sound that is remarkable on the original recordings from an era when studio technology was still quite primitive. I am always biased towards live albums though, and to fully enjoy Ten Years After, my personal playlist has three of their live recordings – Undead and Live at the Fillmore East but also 1983’s Live from the Marquee Club, London. Plus a bonus: that YouTube video I mentioned that has got millions of listens!

Let’s Eat Grandma formed by Jenny Hollingworth and Rosa Walton (Getty Images)

Tailpiece: Sometimes a band you want to check out only because of its name. So when I heard of one called Let’s Eat Grandma, I couldn’t help but give them a listen. It was a pleasant surprise. Formed by two women, Jenny Hollingworth and Rosa Walton, in Norwich, the British duo has a full-length album titled I, Gemini on which they hop genres, use unusual instruments such as the glockenspiel, sing in childlike voices and record the whole thing in a nuclear bunker in Norwich. The net outcome is quite charming. Recommended!

From HT Brunch, April 2, 2017

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