Wally was an English rock band in the mid-seventies that played a mixture of prog rock and country, often labelled as progressive country. They hailed from Harrogate, Yorkshire and were led by singer-songwriter Roy Webber (lead vocals, acoustic guitar). Back then they recorded the albums Wally (1974) and Valley Gardens ((1975). After the second album they disbanded, but in 2009 they made a comeback which resulted in the re-release of those two albums and the recording of a new one. Therefore a lesson in history and an overview of their albums seem to be appropriate here.
Maybe the most important event for the band's career was the participation on the New Act competition in 1973. It was organized by Melody Maker, a well-known music magazine in those days. Wally made it to the finals at London's Roundhouse. However, they didn't win but they came to the attention of 'Whispering' Bob Harris, one of the judges of The Old Grey Whistle Test. The ultimate winner Druid recorded two fine progressive rock albums: Toward The Sun (1975) and Fluid Druid (1976). The runners-up prize for Wally was the recording of a session for Harris's BBC radio show The Monday Program. He took the band under his wings and succeeded in getting a record deal with Atlantic Records.
The eponymous debut album was co-produced by Harris and no one less than Rick Wakeman. The album shows a band that music wise had a lot to learn. The music is a fine mixture of prog rock and country. The lap steel guitar played by Paul Middleton, and the violin played by Pete Sage are responsible for the country-like sound, but the music contains elements from Irish folk music as well. They're closer to being a folk band than a symphonic band on this debut. The use of the Mellotron, Hammond organ and harmonium fooled some people since the only track that comes near to prog rock is the fourteen-minute track To The Urban Man containing some strong psych sound effects and fuzzy guitar layers. Another track that approaches prog music to a certain extent is the opening track The Martyr. It's an eight-minute, mostly instrumental flight of fancy that almost seamlessly moves between prog and pop. Three bonus tracks are included to this re-release: the unknown studio tracks Right By Me and Yes I Would and a live version of Your Own Way. These songs go well with the flow of the album; they sound almost similar to the original material. After its release the band got managed by Brian Lane, best known as the manager of Yes. He organized a series of tours for them that would take them to countries like Japan and the United States. They also supported Yes and appeared on The Old Grey Whistle Test.
For their second album Valley Gardens, Nick Glennie-Smith replaced Paul Gerrett on keyboards. This line-up change led to a far more progressive rock sound, although the country and folk influences are still present. The impact of touring with Yes can be noticed as well on the entire album. The bass sounds a lot like Chris Squire's and Rick Wakeman-like synthesizer parts can often be enjoyed like on the strong title track and the epic piece The Reason Why which filled the entire B-side of the original LP. Due to the strong guitar parts and the female backing vocals the influences of the music of Pink Floyd can be heard as well on many compositions. There's even a link with Kansas caused by the use of an electric violin. All in all Valley Gardens is an enjoyable album for devotees of progressive rock. This remastered version contains two bonus tracks as well: strong live versions of the unknown piece Green Room Smiles and from the album track Nez Perce.
Continuously touring finally took its toll and led eventually to a split after which Atlantic decided to cut their losses and pulled the plug. However, only few people know that they kept playing as the backing band of the popular French singer Michel Polnareff during a tour in Japan in 1975. Maybe it's interesting to know what became of the members after they broke up. Well, Roy Webber set up a graphic design company primarily working for Yorkshire Television, but also with the Royal Armouries Museum. Pete Sage went to Germany to work as a sound engineer for the pop group Boney M. Nick Glennie-Smith was proposed to be the potential replacement for Wakeman in Yes, but he went on to be a leading session musician and soundtrack composer. Guitarist Pete Cosker died in 1990 as a consequence of an overdose of heroin. Drummer Roger Narraway metamorphosed into a talented lead guitarist and Paul Middleton retreated to the North Yorkshire Dales, becoming a carpenter and occasionally venturing out to play with Roy Webber in the country rock band Freddie Alva And The Men From Delmonte. He now gigs on a regular basis with his own band The Angst Band, featuring fellow band member Frank Mizen on pedal steel guitar and banjo. Paul Gerrett died of a heart attack in 2008.
After a thirty year hiatus, the surviving members of the original line-up − complemented by Frank Mizen on pedal steel and Will Jackson on guitar − performed to a full house in April 2009 in their home town of Harrogate. A DVD of the concert called That Was Then was released later that year. In February 2010 the band released Montpellier comprising new recordings of demos from the band's earlier incarnation, along with new material by both Webber and Middleton. I was very curious to know how this new album would sound because I liked Wally's second album. However, as soon as I got a copy of the album it turned out that the sound of Montpellier was quite similar to that of their debut album. In a way the overall sound of the new album strongly tends to progressive folk rock, even more than on their debut. The music is still rather strong as you can especially hear on the opening tune Sailor. Even bands like Iona and Clannad crossed my mind while listening to the album, but as one of the song titles already indicates: the Thrill Is Gone.
A second 'reunion' concert took place in April 2010. Funds from ticket sales were used to erect a permanent memorial for Cosker and Gerrett. A recording of the 2010 reunion was released as a live album called To The Urban Man. A third reunion concert was scheduled for 2011 again in Wally's home town. What the future will bring to this British band is still unknown, but I'm glad that they returned and hopefully, someday, they will release another stunning album like Valley Gardens. Until that moment I'll play their back catalogue on a regular basis.
Wally ***, Valley Gardens ****, Montpellier *** Henri Strik (edited by Peter Willemsen)
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