I’ve talked about UK garage-soul band The Action and their fairly essential slab Rolled Gold here before, but up until now there haven’t been a lot of movements in the reissue of post-Action material by the always entrancing and sorely overlooked Mighty Baby. Sundazed has some fairly straight-forward issues of their two LPs and there have been a couple of live boots and unofficial runs here and there, but this attempt by Cherry Red to gather the complete recordings may well be the most ambitious yet, not in the least because it finally gives a fair look into the band’s scrapped third album Day of the Soup, which would see the band move even further from pop song structure and into the kind of live-driven, fluid psychedelia that loomed large on the American West Coast. They may be the most accomplished British band hooked into the style and they’ve long been overlooked by fans of the genre.
Now, The Action always gets their plaudits as a band scooped up and aided by George Martin, and they’re often touted as one of his best non-Beatles endeavors, but Mighty Baby is much more than just what became of members of The Action as they slid from R&B and blue-eyed soul into the waters of psychedelia. The band would form and swap a few members in the years before their 1969 debut, recording some demos under the name Azoth before landing at the small but solid Head Records. The band had a hard time pinning down a name and their moniker, Mighty Baby was actually picked by the president of the label. Whatever the thinking, the name stuck, though it might not have helped them in their appeal for wider audiences.
Their debut, which is included in the set along with several bonus tracks that differ from previous reissues, shows the band slipping out of the shadow of The Action. They’re still working with the acumen of players from the world of tight-screwed R&B, but beginning to soak into the sandy-haired looseness of The Dead, The Byrds, and followers like Mountain Bus. On their swan song they move even further into the Cosmic Americana that had fueled their sound on the debut, creating a yearning record that pushed boundaries and began to incorporate their tendency to stretch in the live setting. This is especially pronounced on the longer numbers like “Happiest Man At The Carnival,” “Keep On Juggin’,” and “Virgin Spring.” Each of these pushes them past typical ‘70s single territory and towards the 8 and 9-minute marks. The bonus tracks on this disc, represent the band’s pre-Mighty Baby territory with demos featuring exiting member Reg King. These are as solid as anything in their catalog, and they serve as a proper bridge between The Action and what would crystalize on their debut.
The box also pulls their live prowess into view with two fan recordings – Malvern 1971 and Glastonbury 1971 both of which showcase the band’s tendency to push their live shows into improvisational territories, much like their American counterparts. Each features a version of live staple “India.” The band had wandered into a new territory both personally and musically prior to this shows. Many of the members had taken up Islam at the time and began to incorporate qualities of the Dervish lifestyle into their work, while letting things on stage take a more experimental direction. The band often went on stage without any idea of what they’d play, lost in the interplay of sound and this comes out particularly in the Glastonbury version. The Malvern set, while interesting, suffers from some odd recording qualities. Its a curio nonetheless.
While never recorded for a studio version, “India’ would serve as a huge influence on their “lost” album. The more jam-oriented structure would lead to the core of the multi-part “Now You Don’t.” Here, again, the sound is not as pristine as it could be, but the ideas hold and even while it’s obvious that the commercial appeal of this album would have been even more limited than A Jug of Love, it’s enlightening to hear the direction they were taking. The rest of Day of the Soup is uneven, with contributions from Family members on “Winter Passes,” and some stripped sound versions of other live material. “Now You Don’t” is the clear highlight of the set and well worth the price of admission. The box rounds out with a recording of the band rehearsing instrumentals for Jug of Love, but these are probably the most “fan-only” material of the bunch. What comes of the box is a complete vision of where The Action ended and Mighty Baby began, and even moreso, where they collapsed. The band was never built to last, but the moments where they figure out a sort of strained brilliance are all on display here. This might be for the most hardcore collectors, but I’d recommend it for even tangental fans of West Coast psychedelia, live improv, and Cosmic Americana. The Brits made it their own, even when they were uncomfortable in their own sound.