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Saturday, June 5, 2021

Charge - Charge (1973 uk, stunning hard acid psych downer blues rock, 2013 xpanded eition)

Some treasures take a while to reveal themselves. When South Coast-based underground heavy rock trio Charge decided to record a 99-copies-only demo album at the beginning of 1973, sadly it failed to set in motion a chain of events that would culminate in fame, fortune and all manner of rock star excess. Instead, the album was ignored by the major record companies to whom copies were sent. Though they never recorded again, the band continued to play the local live circuit for a further couple of years before calling it a day after the tragic death of their drummer, Pete Gibbons. That terrible event seemed to represent the final chapter in the brief and highly obscure Charge story - just another local rock band who'd achieved a measure of regional popularity, enjoyed some good times and been left with numerous fond memories, but were destined to remain completely unknown by the wider world.

And that's the way it was until the best part of two decades later, when a  battered copy of the band's album was sold at a car boot fair for the price of a few pennies. Serendipitously falling into the hands of an individual who was looking to start a reissue record label specializing in obscure late Sixties/early Seventies rock and folk albums, the Charge LP was deemed to fit the bill perfectly. No attempt was made to trace the band: instead, the composer credits that had been on the original LP were removed, one song title that may have given a clue as to the band's whereabouts was altered, and an additional track was artificially created by a crude remix of elements from the side-long suite 'Child Of Nations'. Housed in an irrelevant 17th Century art print, the album was offered to the public for the first time {the original 1973 pressing had never been commercially available}. Only pressed at this stage on vinyl, the album obviously only reached a very limited number of people - mainly early Seventies progressive rock enthusiasts who were hankering after a new thrill. But sales were considered to be good enough to justify a CD release, which appeared in 1995. This version removed the 1992 remix track and was housed in a slightly different detail of the same painting, with a sleeve note that consisted of Tolstoy extracts and an anonymous, jingoistic note on the back cover about "the genius of the British race'.' 

Despite the fact that the demo album they had recorded in their youth was now on sale in both vinyl and CD formats, the surviving members of Charge - guitarist/singer Dave Ellis and bassist Ian MacLaughlin – remained blissfully unaware of the fact. Until, that is, one day in 2010, when Ian decided on a whim to visit a record fair for the first (and, thus far, last) time. Flicking in a distracted manner through the vinyl racks, he was surprised to find an album by a group who shared the same name as his early Seventies band. He was even more taken aback when he turned over the front cover to discover from the song titles that it was actually the album that he, Dave and Pete had recorded in a Luton demo studio nearly forty years earlier. And even that was nothing compared to the surprise he got when, on telling the stall-holder that he was a member of the band who'd recorded it, he discovered that it would cost him £15 to buy a bootleg pressing of his own album...

But everything happens for a reason (or so they say) - and here we are, o that original demo alburn's 40th anniversary, with the first-ever authorized reissue of the Charge LR Furthermore, it transpires that, twelve months before they'd recorded that alburn, a previous incarnation of Charge – at that point called Baby Bertha - had cut an even more limited (just 50 copies) album at the same derno studio. Another fearsome slab of early 1970s bluesy hard rock, the Baby Bertha LP has now been included in its entirety as a bonus offering on this new and definitive version of the Charge album... finally available legitimately after all these years.

Charge and Baby Bertha had their late Sixties roots in  areham, a Hampshire market town situated between the cities of Southampton and Portsmouth. In mid-1969, guitarist and singer Dave Ellis formed his first band, Relative, since returning from overseas, where he'd been a serving member of the British army. With a name inspired by Family (who'd been thinly disguised as Relative in Jenny Fabian's notorious novel Groupie], the band were primarily a product of the British blues rock boom that had sprung up over the previous year or two. Personnel changes were fairly frequent, with Dave Ellis the only real constant until the arrival of bassist Ian MacLaughlin. The two men would strike up a personal and musical rapport that, more than forty years later, continues to endure.

In late 1971, Relative gave way to Baby Bertha, whose line-up was Dave Ellis (guitar, vocals), Roger 'Prof Perry (rhythm guitar), Ian MacLaughlin (bass) and Des Law (drums). By now Dave had been writing songs for some time, and the band decided to make a demo album to showcase their live sound. In January 1972, they booked some time at SRT Studios, a Luton-based operation who advertised in Melody Maker. Playing live in the studio, Baby Bertha cut nine tracks: a mean and moody version of Fleetwood Mac's 'Looking For Somebody' was joined by a playful cover of the Fats Domino chestnut 'Blueberry Hill', but the remaining seven songs were original Dave Ellis compositions. Several tracks - most obviously 'Blues ForYou', 'The Struggle' and the Chicken Shack-style 'Lost My Woman' - confirmed that Baby Bertha were still essentially a heavy blues band, but the likes of 'Song For The Nights' and the thunderous closing track 'Can You? Will You?' suggested a gradual shift to Led Zeppelin/Deep Purple/Free-inspired hard rock territory. There were even occasional hints of a commercial sensibility, with 'Goodbye Good-Day' and 'Now You're Out Of My Life' boasting as many radio-friendly pop hooks and melodic ideas as anything that Slade were doing at the time.

Charge still stands as one of the buried treasures of the early Seventies British underground scene. Notwithstanding the fluff-on-the-needle production, there's a vitality and rawness to the album that suggests that Charge must have been a sensational live band. The opening track, 'Glory Boy From Whipsnade' (truncated to 'Glory Boy' on those unauthorised reissues), is a perfect encapsulation of the band's sound, with Dave's Lemmy esque vocals to the fore over a maelstrom of Hendrix-esque, hard-riffing downer rock. (Some forty years later, Dave has no idea why he referenced Whipsnade in the title - although, given that Whipsnade Zoo was just a few miles down the road from SRT, it's entirely likely that he simply saw the name and liked it when the band were travelling to or from the studio.)

Side One of the Charge album was completed by To My Friends' and 'Rock My Soul' - two further superb slabs of heavy progressive rock which confirm that, in addition to the band's extraordinary blend of power and swagger, they also boasted an outstanding songwriter in Dave Ellis. They also had a greater sense of ambition than many of their rivals, as can be heard on the epic anti-war song suite that took up Side Two of the album. Clearly inspired by Dave's time in the army, 'Soldiers', 'Battles' and 'Child Of Nations' could easily have fallen into the trap of maudlin sentimentality or awkward crassness, but they retain a sureness of touch that's bolstered by the band's sheer instrumental energy and drive.

All that, of course, is an outsider's point of view, delivered some forty years after the album was made. At the time of the recording, the band felt it to be a deeply unworthy document of their live sound, while they were also aware that the total running time of about thirty minutes was a bit on the miserly side (apparently they briefly considered re-recording a couple of tunes from the Baby Bertha LP simply to flesh out the LP, but in the end decided against it). Whereas Baby Bertha had been limited to 50 copies, Charge was pressed in a total quantity of 99 copies (100 or more would have left the band liable for Purchase Tax, the forerunner of VAT), though once again the albums were manufactured without any outer sleeves. As with the Baby Bertha set, a few copies went to family and friends, while the remainder were despatched to record companies in what proved to be a vain attempt at earning a recording contract.

Although record company interest wasn't forthcoming, Charge did become a very popular live band on the South Coast, building up a sizeable fan-base in the two or three years that they were active. However, tragedy struck in mid 1975 when Pete Gibbons - still only 25 years old at the time - suffered a fatal asthma attack. Crushed by the death of a dear friend and a great musician, Dave and Ian couldn't even contemplate continuing the band without him, and Charge were also laid to rest.

Both Dave and Ian went on to play in numerous other bands, but we leave the Charge story at that point. As already mentioned, it took a bootleg release in the early Nineties to belatedly bring their music to a slightly wider audience than it received during the band's lifetime. Hopefully this first-ever legitimate issue of the Charge album, coupled with its previously-unknown-to-exist predecessor, will widen that net still further. After all, music this good really does deserve to reach as many people as possible...
by David Wells, October 2013

1. Glory Boy From Whipsnade - 4:02
2. To My Friends - 5:04
3. Rock My Soul - 3:45
4. Child Of Nations - 16:54
5. Looking For Somebody - 4:28
6. Goodbye Good-Day - 4:18
7. Lost My Woman - 2:29
8. The Struggle - 5:06
9. Song For The Nights - 5:03
10.Blues For You - 3:37
11.Now You're Out Of My Life - 2:39
12.Blueberry Hill - 1:53
13.Can You? Will You? - 4:18
All songs by Dave Ellis except track #5 by Peter Green
Tracks 5 - 13 as Baby Bertha

*Dave Ellis - Vocals, Guitars, Vox 
*Ian McLaughlin - Bass  
*Pete Gibbons - Drums

Baby Bertha
*Dave Ellis - Vocals, Guitars
*Ian McLaughlin - Bass  
*Roger "Prof" Perry - Rhythm Guitar
*Des Law - Drums