I’m sure we have all bought a vinyl album on the strength of the cover alone, some were absolute rubbish (I own up to a Faust album, which was unfathomable, amongst others) and there were gems you were delighted to own. One such gem for me was Pathfinder by a band unknown to me before this, called Beggars Opera. I bought it even though the cover was tatty from many hands marvelling at the way it folded out from a standard LP size to a huge poster of a space-suited figure on horseback. Record shops didn’t seem to mind that too much and, anyway, it meant I got it at a discounted price… £2 10s! That poster adorned my bedroom wall for a few years… bearing in mind it was 1972 and I was in my early teens. (It is also on the Vertigo swirl label, although the ludicrous values that label seems to warrant these days, didn’t exist at the time).
Beggars Opera was a Scottish band, consisting of Ricky Gardiner (guitar, vocals), Martin Griffiths (vocals), Alan Park (keyboards), Raymond Wilson (drums) and Gordon Sellar (bass), and are still active with some stalwarts still present. However, it is their third album we are addressing and they had gained a reputation as a progressive rock band (when that meant something) across Europe. (Ricky Gardner went to record with Bowie and co-wrote and performed on ‘Passenger’ with Iggy Pop).
My music of choice then, as now, was heavy rock and blues… my fledgeling record collection consisted of Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, Rory Gallagher, Black Sabbath and similar. This purchase certainly fit right in, but it was different in many ways. The overall sound with the guitar and keyboards is heavy progressive in the vein of early King Crimson, crossed with a healthy slab of Iron Butterfly and straightforward heavy rock rounded out with a slice of quirkiness all of their own.
‘Hobo’ opens side one of the album with a piano and bass led riff and, although, comparatively lightweight compared to the rest it has a catchiness and clever instrumentation that draws you in. A nice, short, Blackmore like solo adds to the draw, as does the piano and organ solo that leads to the fade. Next comes a cover of a mawkish and, frankly crap, song written by Jimmy Webb. (He was also responsible (guilty?) for ‘Witchita Lineman’ and ‘Up, Up and Away’). It was also covered by Richard Harris and Donna Summer and was still horrendous. Here, however, it takes on a new and magnificent life, even if the lyrics are still daft!
‘McArthur Park’ is drenched in mellotron, piano and organ, and with this clever interpretation of the original elevates into a prog classic. The bass and drums are ingenious in the way they wring the rhythm by the neck without overpowering and the instrumental section after the bridge ups the tempo but flows brilliantly. ‘The Witch’ comes in with a scream and then a pounding beat that echoes Jeff Beck’s ‘Silver Lining’ but evolves into an organ-led rock song with the added bonus of intricate guitar backing and then a great solo. Granted, the fade does go on a bit, but the guitar behind the repetitive “we burned her at the stake…” and the otherworldly screaming makes it bearable.
The title track, ‘Pathfinder’ is sheer brilliance with the wah’d guitar and insanely catchy beat. The solo is excellent and the bass/drum/guitar section works a treat. ‘From Shark to Haggis’ is a song of two parts and moods: the first builds from a quiet hi-hat start to more wah-wah guitar before the tone changes, incongruously, from the shark to the slowly increasing Scottish party rhythms of the haggis: an instrumental with drunken hollers thrown in, while the guitar emulates the bagpipes. It all works and you will be smiling during the haggis bit! ‘Stretcher’ begins with an almost symphonic piano intro, before the brilliant drum and bass pairing come in with rock-solid backing. This instrumental relies on a guitar melody, expanded with multi-tracking to a symphony of its own. ‘Madame Doubtfire’ is nothing to do with Robin Williams: it is an up-tempo rocker that embodies all of the skills of this formidable lineup. There is even some Vincent Price-like cackling towards the end, before a Speed King like wig-out! I guess this will remind some of Alice Cooper in his Killer/Billion Dollar Babies era, but it is most definitely Beggars Opera.
This is one of those albums that, on the surface, has little to make it stand out, apart from the cover. Dig deeper, however, and I guarantee you will be rewarded with songs that grow with every listen and lodge themselves as firm favourites in any playlist. It is worth effort believe me, even if they’re other, more recent stuff doesn’t quite live up to this epic.