WHEN IS someone going to come out and say that, despite all the hype and hoopla, John Baldry is a non-talent poseur that would never have emerged from his well-deserved obscurity if he hadn’t had the good fortune to get his first Warner Bros album produced by Elton John and Rod Stewart?
Those two may owe him a lot from the days when he gave them their start, but the recent French album of Steampacket recordings proves that he was mediocre even then, and I can’t see that we owe him anything more than an honest evaluation.
Rod and Elton do the honors again this time, adding a few vocals as well, but not even the presence of Brain Jones and Otis Redding could salvage this album. But let’s give credit where it’s due. The production is excellent throughout, and the music is never any closer to revolting than it is to brilliant. ‘Come Back Again’ is nice, listenable studio rock, and ‘Armit’s Trousers’ is a brief but enjoyable piano solo – by Ian Armit. If you’re the type that buys an album for a couple of fairly good songs, you’ll want this one.
On the other hand, if you’ve already heard too many self-conscious, swaggering versions of ‘Seventh Son’ you’d best steer clear of it, as it manages to be both strained and lackluster at the same time. ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ is equally bland, though not overtly offensive. But who wouldn’t rather hear the Byrds’ or Joan Baez’ or anybody else’s version? The same could be said of ‘Iko Iko’. You can’t quite put your finger on what’s missing; the arrangement’s fine, he sings all the right words, and it’s well-produced. But the result is simply flat. If you want to hear this song done properly, check out Dr. John’s recent version, the finest thing he’s done in years, or even the Dixie Cups.
Maybe that’s my objection to Baldry: that he takes good songs from real artists and diverts attention from them with his lifeless copies. A case in point is ‘Jubilee Cloud’, which burns and glitters with joyful exuberance on John Kongos’ second album. Baldry sounds like he’s falling asleep about halfway through each verse, and the ultimate dullness of this track is so intense that I can’t help asking, “Why did he bother?” If they had as much taste as they apparently do loyalty, Stewart and John could do us all a big favor by lending their names to some of the really brilliant English comeback artists, such as Phillip Goodhand-Tait, who are being shamefully overlooked.
An embarrassing exercise in pure Music Hall like ‘Everything Stops for Tea’ makes me wonder what Baldry’s self-image must be. This concoction of sound effects and pointless dialogue amounts to no more than a weak swipe at England’s penchant for tea, which the Kinks at their worst were able to bring off with a hundred times more subtlety.
Basically, I think John Baldry is just a well-meaning schlep. He’s always had good taste, recognized worthy songs and musicians, and wanted to emulate them. Because he’s probably a likeable chap, they tolerate him, but I’m hard put to believe that anyone could listen to his music and take it seriously. I wasn’t quite sure of Baldry’s utter lameness until I listened to ‘Lord Remember Me’, which is his attempt at the type of bastardized gospel raveup that everybody from Leon Russell to Mylon has been able to whip audiences into a frenzy with during the last couple of years. It takes a real instinct for mediocrity to fail at such an undertaking, but Baldry does so with such effortlessness that you just have to marvel. With all the itinerant gospel choruses making the rounds these days, it take something to find a group that can sing this ineptly – and from all available evidence, I think that has to be the greatest talent John Baldry has.
© Greg Shaw, Rolling Stone, 25 May 1972