Toe Fat - the improbable teaming of a slick, classy, 60's Soulster and three-quarters of an obscure Psychedelic/Blues outfit from the sticks - are one of those bands who invariably turn up in the middle of one of Pete Frame's Family Trees, the soile raison d'etre for their existence apparently being to act as the link between various seemingly disparate music and and groups. In Toe's case they provide the unlikely point of reference between Uriah Heep and Jethro Tull at one end of the spectrum, Cliff Bennett & the Rebel Rousers somewhere near the center, and the Bee Gees and Chas & Dave at the other. And yet although they were highly regarded, their albums critically well-received, and they'd begun to make a significant commercial impact in the United States, the band was abruptly terminated when their American management pulled the financial rug from under them following a stock flotation. Consequently, Toe Fat have rather been consigned to the ranks rather more for their album sleeve artwork and the subsequent career paths of their members than for anything they achieved under their own steam. Furthermore, despite their relatively short life-span (although they cut two albums they were together little more than a year) their history is both convoluted and confusing, a 50% turnover in personnel allied to a curious staffing credit on their album sleeves having led to mucho conjecture as to exactly who did actually play in the band. And yet - as this CD readily confirms - with just a little kinder shake of the dice they could so easily have evolved into one of that elite half-dozen or so English bands who carved out spectacularly successful American careers, far outstripping their popularity back home in dear ol' Blighty.
Now, way back in the late sixties, as Rock music got bluesier, heavier, and more self-conscious, a great many working muse's adapted to the changing musical and social climate simply by growing their hair, sprouting bushy sidebeards and droopy moustaches (the full beard was optional), widening their flares, dressing down, and going back to playing much the same stuff they'd been playing five years earlier - but several megawatts louder (and frequently with longer, considerably more self-indulgent solos). And Cliff Bennett was pretty much a case-in-point: following his split with the Rebel Rousers in the Summer of 1968 he grew his barnet, cultivated the regulation mutton-chops, underwent sartorial refit, and duly went Heavy. He recruited Billy J. Kramer's former backing group The Dakotas - by that time down to a trio, comprising former Pirates Mick Green (gtr) & Frank "All By Myself" Farley (drums), together with original member Robin McDonald (bass) - and added a four-piece brass section: billed as the Cliff Bennett Band, they subsequently set about trying to become London's equivalent of Blood, Sweat & Tears.
Bennett surely needs no introduction: but briefly, he'd formed the first line-up of the Rebel Rousers in the West Drayton/Hayes area way back in 1958 - they took their name from Duane Eddy's hit - with a sound, style, and repertoire based firmly on roots R&R. However, during the 60's they had evolved into a powerful R&B-flavoured Soul outfit and become one of the most in-demand bands on the live circuit, far more popular than their meager three entries in the Guinness Book Of Hit Singles would suggest. Bennett and his Rebels eventually parted company in less than wholly amicable circumstances: he wanted to get into rather more contemporary material - specifically, to move in the same direction as Blood, Sweat & Tears - whereas his band preferred to stick to their tried-and-tested good-time formula. Hence the (inevitable) split. The lads stayed together, initially as the Roy Young Band, eventually shedding half their members and evolving into Black Claw. Finally, in 1973, they slimmed down further and became Chas & Dave.
Meanwhile, the Cliff Bennett Band were struggling to get the right balance. The brass section had been jettisoned fairly early on, and then Green and McDonald had quit in March '69 to take rather more lucrative positions in Englebert Humperdink's Las Vegas-based backing band. They were replaced by Ken Hensley (formerly with The Gods) and a bassist no-one quite remembers, but is believed to have been Paul Bass. The multi-talented Hensley had indeed proven to be a real find: although he'd joined simply as a guitarist, he was a powerful frontline singer in his own right, equally adept on both keyboards and guitar, and a songwriter of enormous potential. This revised line-up had really begun to gel, both live and as a recording unit. They cut one single for Parlophone, "Memphis Street"/"But I'm Wrong" (R5792), but had broken up by the time of its release, grinding to a sudden and rather ignominious halt in June '69 following an accident during the course of which a long-forgotten keyboards player rolled the band's van, which duly burned out. All their gear - which was uninsured, unfortunately - perished with said van, and in the absence of a record or management deal drummer Farley was ultimately forced to quit life on the road in order to take a proper day job. However, Bennett & Hensley elected to stick together and try to form a new band - and eventually, following a couple of false-starts elsewhere, they decided to recruit a pair of the latter's former colleagues, viz: the Gods' rhythm section of John Glasscock (bass) and Lee Kerslake (drums).
The Hensley/Glasscock/Kerslake axis were in fact quite an experienced unit, having (along with guitarist Joe Konas) just cut two albums for EMI - and furthermore, the Gods had a messy, rather convoluted history themselves. They'd originally formed in Hatfield in '65 when Hensley (kbds/voc) and the preciously gifted 17-year old Mick Taylor (gtr) had teamed up with the Glasscock brothers, John & Brian, on bass and drums respectively. This first line-up lasted a couple of years, but had drifted apart in June '67 when Taylor was lured away to join his hero John Mayall. Hensley - by now based in Hampshire - reformed the band later in the year with new members, who at various junctures included Konas (gtr), bassists Paul Newton (later in Spice and Uriah Heep), Greg Lake (ditto King Crimson, Emerson Lake & Palmer, etc.) & Glasscock, and Kerslake (drums) - but they were never really a stable unit. Nonetheless, in the Summer of '68 they secured a deal with EMI and cut the superb "Genesis" (Columbia SCX 6286), an album which stacks up surprisingly well to this day. However, although a prolific studio band, cutting a trio of singles and a second album "To Samuel A Son" (SCX 6372) - which eventually came out in February '70, many months after they'd ceased trading - the cracks were already showing, and they were destined to break up again within just a few months. Which is roughly where Bennett came in.
In retrospect, it seems clear that the death throes of the Gods and the birth pangs of Toe Fat must have overlapped considerably, as the former were very much an operational recording band - indeed, they were still in the process of cutting their second album - long after Hensley had "left" in March '69 and they'd begun working with Bennett sometime later that Summer. But whatever the circumstances, EMI house producer Jonathan Peel (no, not the deejay) seems to have been the catalyst in their finally getting together, and so eventually, with their new line-up in place - i.e. Bennett (voc/piano), Hensley (gtr/kbds/voc), Glasscock (bass/voc), and Kerslake (drums) - they were up and running.
Having decided on a major realignment in musical direction - based largely on the new bluesier material which Hensley was writing - and realizing that a more "progressive" moniker was required to go with their new, heavier style, someone came up with TOE FAT. Bennett seems to recall that he and co-manager John Gunnell dreamed it up over dinner one night (apparently, it was the most disgusting name they could think of!) Initially, their live appearances were rather low-key affairs as Bennett's identity was still being kept pretty much under wraps: however, they set out on the UK colleges, pubs and clubs' circuits where they duly broke in their new material, on the back of which they scored an American record deal with Rare Earth, Motown's white/Rock-oriented label.
They cut their first album at Abbey Road with the aforementioned Jonathan Peel - who'd produced the Gods' albums and latter-day Cliff Bennett Band singles - at the controls. Peel brought in noted session flautist/harp-player Moxy (something of an Ian Anderson look alike/sound alike, as Bennett recalls) to augment the band, and "Toe Fat" came together with the minimum of fuss. Released in the US in March '70 (Rare Earth RS 511) it came out in the UK at the end of April (Parlophone PCS 7097).
And it was around this point that the gremlins began to get into the works. For some reason - which Bennett can't recall - Glasscock was erroneously identified as "John Konas" on the LP sleeve (possibly some confusion with the Gods' Joe Konas?), an error which would also be repeated on their second album sleeve. Furthermore, not long after the album's completion (i.e. well before its release) they'd suffered the shake-ups which saw first Hensley and then Kerslake fired - the latter on the verge of their first US tour. As Bennett recalls: "Our manager, Rik Gunnell, replaced Lee just three weeks before the tour. Lee was a great drummer, right enough, but he'd become a little unreliable, missing a couple of sessions and a rehearsal. And by then, Ken had already gone... he'd been a bit naughty with his songs, doing deals with two different publishers, which gave us a lot of grief with Motown. Rik had insisted that he'd have to go, too..." Ironically, both went on to almost instantaneous success: Hensley promptly joined Spice, just as they evolved into Uriah Heep, whilst Kerslake briefly formed the National Head Band before he, too, joined Heep. They were replaced by Alan Kendall (from Glass Menagerie) on guitar and Brian Glasscock, who'd of course been the original drummer in the Gods before Kerslake.
Oddly enough "Toe Fat" caused something of a furor upon its release, its Hipgnosis-designed sleeve being universally condemned as revolting: for example, to quote Chris Welch in Melody Maker - from a review in which he'd already waxed enthusiastic about the band's music - "... the whole album is dragged by the nauseatic Hipgnosis cover design. But if you throw away the cover and keep the record in a brown paper bag, it's worth having." Praise indeed!! The sleeve was even briefly withdrawn in the US, so that the woman's breasts could be airbrushed out (or some such nonsense). Ironically, a single - "Bad Side Of The Moon"/"Working Nights" (R 5829), the topside an early Elton John composition - had preceded the album by a couple of months, promoted via a suitably grotesque advertising campaign which had served as something of an early warning of the packaging to come.
Toe Fat's US debut - they'd opened for Derek & The Dominoes - served to propel the album into a number of regional charts. It was a huge seller on the West Coast, notably in and around LA, where an enormous 40' x 60' poster depicting the controversial LP sleeve had been erected near the Hyatt Hotel on Sunset Strip - which stopped traffic, caused a gridlock, and led to the LAPD asking Motown to remove it. The porters were indeed looking good: their US tour had been critically well-acclaimed, there had been the whiff of controversy, and they were already being mentioned in the same breath as British bands like Jethro Tull, Ten Years After, Savoy Brown, and the Climax Blues Band, all of whom were already far bigger Stateside than at home.
They returned to the UK where they continued to gig heavily, and then it was back into Abbey Road with Jonathan Peel where they proceeded to cut their follow-up album: but lacking Hensley's songs, they found it tougher going this time around (NB: Fleetwood Mac's Peter Green puts in an uncredited appearance on one track, the bluesy "There'll Be Changes"). However, they managed to complete the album - virtually on the eve of their second US tour, which they headlined - although the pressures of a relentless gigging/recording schedule had begun to get to Bennett, who was suffering from Glandular Fever. Nonetheless, he pulled around and the jaunt was a huge success, setting them up for the release of their eagerly-awaited second album.
But almost immediately upon the tour's completion - i.e. just as the album was about to come out - it all fell apart, their American management - the Robert Stigwood Organization - went public, and all their artists who weren't actually established chart names were dropped from the roster.
Consequently, by the time "TOE FAT TWO" hit the stores, they'd more or less called it a day: released in the UK (Regal Zonophone SLRZ 1015) the week before Christmas '70 (literally, the week that they'd returned from The States) it sunk without a trace... and when it came out in the US the following month (Rare Earth RS 525), it did much the same. With no band to promote it, the album was consigned straight to the cut-out bins - hence its collectors' value today.
But although their moment (and the glories) had been brief, Toe Fat had certainly made something of an impact in the United States - Bennett in particular finally earning a reputation (none of his earlier discs with the Rebel Rousers had meant much in the US). Indeed, such was his standing in the United States that he was offered the opportunity of replacing David Clayton-Thomas when he quit Blood, Sweat & Tears on 1972 - perhaps the ultimate irony in view of Bennett's ambitions a few years earlier. But he turned the opportunity down as he was unwilling to uproot his family - replicating a decision he'd made upon Toe Fat's demise a year or so earlier. "When he heard we'd split, Ken (Hensley) phoned and invited me to join Uriah Heep for an American tour... they were just breaking big in The States. But I was exhausted after Toe Fat's grueling tour, recovering from Glandular Fever, and I'd had enough... I was so disillusioned with the way it'd ended, I didn't want to know about anything." In hindsight, not the smartest career-move, Cliff Bennett subsequently formed the low-key Rebellion (who cut one eponymous album) before reuniting with Mick Green in the highly-touted Shanghai in 1974 - but by the late 70's he'd lapsed into semiretirement, just cutting the occasional single and turning out for one-off revival gigs.
NB: one further posthumous "Toe Fat" release "Brand New Band"/"Can't Live Without You" (Chapter One CD 175 - issued in 1972) would appear to have been erroneously credited, as Bennett insists that he cut this - backed by various ex-members of a Scottish band Spiggy Topes - during the "Rebellion" sessions in 1971.
And really, that's just about it. Following Toe Fat's split John Glasscock briefly joined Chicken Shack, and then spent a couple of years with flamenco/pomp rockers Carmen before joining Jethro Tull in 1975 (he sadly died in 1979 from complications following heart surgery). Brian Glasscock and Kendall both joined the Bee Gee's backing band, the former leaving in 1978 to become a founder member of the Motels, whereas Kendall has hung on in there with the Gibbs. Kerslake is still with Uriah Heep, having now clocked up nearly twenty-five years' service, whilst Hensley - now resident in the United States, having left Heep some fifteen years ago - released his first solo album in umpteen years "From Time To Time" (Red Steel RMC CD 0195) in 1994.
And meanwhile, with the passing of the years Cliff Bennett's star has risen considerably, and he has long since evolved into a living legend. Having spent many years away from music, establishing a successful freighting business, he is now in the enviable position of finding himself in huge demand on the revival circuit. He gets just about as many gigs as he can handle - going out as Cliff Bennett & the Rebel Rousers, often with a couple of the lads from his 60's line-up and can at long last command the sort of fees that a man of his talent and pedigree deserves. Hey - who says nice guys never get a result?
Robert M. Corich
additional information by Roger Dopson
acknowledgements: thanks to Cliff Bennett, Frank Farley and Pete Frame
Previous album Next album
Content Copyright © 1998 Jay Pearson
|LinkExchange Member||Free Home Pages at GeoCities|