The Class of 1970: Debut Album from If
[Yep, it’s 2021. We’ll be getting to lots of albums turning 50 in The Class of 1971, but there are a couple we didn’t get to last year. This is one of them.]
As the progressive rock/jazz fusion movement was beginning to explode, numerous bands were joining the ranks started by Miles Davis and his acolytes and Frank Zappa, Colosseum and others. Soft Machine joined those ranks in 1970, and so did If, another group from the U.K. The band formed in 1969, and from 1970 to 1975 the group issued eight studio albums, and a live album (Europe’72) appeared in 1997.
By the time If recorded their eponymous debut, which was released in summer of 1970, the original septet had already undergone three personnel changes. The lineup through 1972 and the first four albums included four original members: Terry Smith, guitar; Dick Morrisey, saxophones, flute; Dave Quincy, saxophones, flute; and J.W. Hodgkinson, vocals, percussion; and the three new members: John Mealing, organ, piano, backing vocals; Jim Richardson, guitar; and Dennis Elliott, drums.
The album was recorded at Island Studios, London, and issued in the U.K. on Islands Records and in the U.S. on Capitol ST-539. It was produced by Lew Futterman, a Concert House Production, with Frank Owen on sound. The shiny silver album cover was designed by CCS Advertising Associates. Times for tracks are in (parentheses), composer credits in [brackets].
“What Can a Friend Say?” (6:28) [Quincy] opens with flute and then flute and tenor (Quincy? Morrisey?). Mealing enters on organ before Hodgkinson’s strong voice bursts through. Smith’s guitar sound isn’t muted, but it has a soft edge to it through most of the album, very effective. The break with tenor solo is superb, and Richardson and Elliott make a dynamic rhythm section. This is great, high-powered jazz rock, and they play it with joy. Smith has a fine feature washed with organ.
The undisputed “greatest hit” by If has to be “What Did I Say About the Box, Jack?” (8:20) [Morrisey]. The live album has a 20-minute version, and “Box,” as they called it, was the centerpiece of the set I saw them perform in 1973 opening for Frank Zappa. Richardson offers a beautiful bass line, followed by a simple tempo from Elliott before flute and tenor kick the song into gear. The first solo is a long one on flute with the band percolating underneath, the playing very much an homage to Rahsaan Roland Kirk before the band jumps back in.
Smith then takes a lovely guitar solo drenched in organ and Hodgkinson’s percussion. Elliot’s drumming here is key. The tension continues to build before the tenors return to the head of the tune on top of his guitar. And out spills an otherworldly tenor solo, so magnificently gorgeous; Morrisey wrote the tune; let’s presume it is he. Mealing stars again in the background on organ. The group returns for one last run through the theme. Every listen reveals more and more.
Mealing on piano opens “Raise the Level of Your Conscious Mind” (3:11) [Fishman-Marsala] before Hodgkinson digs into the simple but thoughtful lyrics, Smith prominent in the background. The harmony and unison playing of Quincy and Morrisey on tenors is perfection.
“I’m Reaching Out on All Sides” (5:14) [Quincy-Fishman] is a beautiful ballad. Smith opens on very soft guitar, then joined by vocal and organ through the first stanza before the twin horns punctuate the chorus. They continue as Smith begins a long solo, then let Mealing’s organ support Smith, who works his wah-wah pedal during the solo. The horns and Hodgkinson return. His words at the end are:
I’m reaching out on all sides;
I’m stabbing at the truth instead of lies.
I want it said when I am gone:
I moved the world just one step on.
“Woman Can You See (What This Big Thing is All About)?” (4:07) [Hodgkinson] is an uptempo gem with a throbbing pulse and horns again punctuating the vocals perfectly. Organ, bass, and drums are driving this one straight ahead. Soprano sax takes a really fine spin here, organ again in outstanding support.
“Dockland” (5:21) [Runswick] is another tender ballad opening with percussion and then alternating breathy tenor and then two tenors. Mealing adds harmony vocals here, and Smith’s solo has a sharper edge to it. The song was written by original bass player Daryl Runswick.
The album closes way uptempo with “The Promised Land” (4:31) [Quincy]. Mealing gets a well-deserved feature here with Smith supporting and Hodgkinson on tambourine. The lyrics are as applicable now as they were 50 years ago:
You and your stupidity, all that respectability, don’t need it.
You just preach morality and live beyond reality, forget it.
There’s another way of life that’s happening all around you.
If you knew what living meant it would astound you.
Come, come with me, to the promised land
Come, come with me, to the promised land
You gotta come with me, to the promised land
The remastered version of the album also includes the 7” single versions of “Raise the Level of Your Conscious Mind” and “I’m Reaching Out on All Sides.”
This edition of the group would release If 2 in 1970 as well, then If 3 in 1971. If 4 came out in 1972; the live album Europe’72 wasn’t published until 1997. The group would eventually become more rock-oriented, but these five albums are filled with fine jazz/rock fusion.