Graded on a Curve: Humble Pie, Eat It

When it comes to most 1970s double LPs, you can count me out. Especially the live ones. Bands almost inevitably saw them as an opportunity to stretch out, and engage in long, boring, and masturbatory free form shenanigans. Whole sides given over to one song! And in some cases, such as The Allman Brothers’ Eat a Peach and Canned Heat’s Living the Blues, TWO sides dedicated to one song! But look on the bright side. Should you ever decide you want out of this world, all you’ll have to do is put on Canned Heat’s 41-minute version of “Refried Boogie,” and presto! Suicide by ennui.

England’s Humble Pie was as guilty as the rest. On the band’s 1971 double live LP Performance: Rockin’ the Fillmore, Steve Marriott and company dedicated whole album sides to both Dr. John’s “I Walk on Gilded Splinters” and Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ Stone.” Rockin’ the Fillmore is not so much an album as a tar pit, perfect for sinking slowly into on Seconal, Nembutals, and all the other great downers that made the seventies the Decade of Drool. I did my fair share and they were fun, especially when it came to basic motor skills, so much fun indeed that I once attempted to force a forkful of spaghetti into my forehead.

But Humble Pie redeemed itself with the 1973 double LP Eat It, because (1) I spent a lot of time listening to it as a kid, (2) there was simply no beating front man Steve Marriott—the legendary former guitarist and vocalist for The Small Faces—when he was at the top of his game, and most importantly (3) only one of its four sides is live. Amazing! Not a 40-minute track to be found! And what’s more its mix of hard rock originals, quieter numbers, jacked-up soul classics, and good old hippie blooz inexplicably works, thanks to the wonderfully grainy voice of Marriott—one of rock’s most unheralded lead singers—three of the greatest backup singers ever, and a band proficient enough to master songs from any genre under the sun.

Eat It makes me sad that more people aren’t into Marriott and Humble Pie. Indeed, the band is perhaps best remembered as the launching pad for Peter Frampton, wimp, who was one of the Pie’s original ingredients upon its formation in 1969. But back in the day Humble Pie was heralded as one of the first “supergroups,” with Marriott and Frampton being joined by former Spooky Tooth bassist Greg Ridley and drummer Jerry Shirley. They released a series of successful LPs before Frampton departed—or came alive, as it were—following Rockin’ the Fillmore. He was replaced by Clem Clempson, whose name makes him sound like a follower of Charles Manson, and the Pie achieved its greatest success with 1972’s Smokin’. They followed Smokin’ with Eat It, which is odd because most people smoke AFTER they eat, but these are Brits we’re talking about, and they’re an inexplicable bunch. Who else could have given us Lord Haw-Haw, spotted dick, and the War of Jenkins’ Ear? I don’t know about you, but I refuse to trust a country willing to call a food spotted dick, much less to wage a 9-year war over somebody’s ear, mine excluded.

Eat It is Humble Pie at its most eclectic. Each of its four sides emphasized a different aspect of the band, and the concept works. Side One featured Marriott-penned rock songs, such as “Get Down To It,” which plays to Marriott’s keyboard skills and makes maximum use of the band’s backing singers Clydie King, Sherlie Matthews, and Billie Barnum (aka The Blackberries), with the immortal Vanetta Fields filling in, although I don’t know where. “Good Booze & Bad Women” opens with an odd drone before erupting into an old-school rocker, with Marriott playing harmonica fills when he isn’t singing his soulful lungs out. Throw in the Blackberries and one cool Marriott guitar solo and you have yourself a solid rocker—it won’t singe your ears, but it has legs, people.

“Is It for Love?” emphasizes Marriott’s incredible vocal chops, ditto those of The Blackberries, and is one slow and pretty soul tune, with Ridley’s bass laying down the law until the tempo picks up somewhat and the song gets even lovelier if that’s possible. Some nice organ, and that bass, and for some reason this one reminds me of a Faces song, probably because I can definitely hear Rod Stewart singing it. “Drugstore Cowboy” is a countrified tune in the Stones style, only with a tinge of soul and a big chorus that will send you, guaranfuckingteed. And just when you think the jam that ends the song is going nowhere Marriott comes in with some big bad guitar riffs that save the tune.

On the second side soul predominates, and the band opens with a positively sublime version of Ike and Tina’s “Black Coffee.” It makes a strong case for Marriott being the best white soul singer around, and his interactions with The Blackberries have to be heard to be believed. Meanwhile the guitar lays down riffs like Thor’s hammer, The Blackberries sing, “It’s where it’s at/It’s where it’s at,” and Marriott shuts things down with a definitive “That’s where it’s at.” Meanwhile, the band’s take on Ray Charles’ “I Believe to My Soul” is a slow and slinky number punctuated by lots of great guitar including a great wah wah solo, a sax solo by one Sidney George, and loads of spot-on vocalizing by The Blackberries, who couldn’t sing a soulless note if their lives depended on it.

Next up is the great “Shut Up and Don’t Interrupt Me,” which may well be the best song on the album. A rollicking soul number highlighted by Ridley’s bass and George’s sax, Marriott is in top voice as are The Blackberries (“Shut up!”), and I can distinctly remember playing this song over and over as a kid, amazed by the vocal give and take and especially by the moment one of The Blackberries says, “You make me sick.” If this review achieves nothing else, I encourage you to check this song out. Finally, the band’s cover of Roosevelt Jamison’s “That’s How Strong My Love Is” is a powerhouse gospel number with a swirling organ, some snake-handling Pentecostal piano, and the echo-laded vocals of both Marriott and The Blackberries. Especially fine are the moments when Marriott joins The Blackberries. This one will make you feel sanctified, brothers and sisters, but be careful—the last time I listened to it I started speaking in tongues.

Side 3 emphasizes the band’s more laid-back side, and opens with the delicate but sprightly acoustic number, “Say No More.” Marriott sings about all the things he doesn’t need, actually makes the lines, “If you’re a foot/Then I’m sock/Wear me well” work, and it’s all over before you know it. “Oh, Bella (All That’s Hers)” is similarly delicate, and features some nice pedal steel guitar by P.J. Cole. This one doesn’t move me—the melody is too tentative for my liking—but it features some fine singing, and that pedal steel guitar almost makes it work.

As for “Beckton Dumps,” it’s my second favorite song on the LP and features Marriott singing about a day at home. The syncopated riff is great, his guitar sound is inimitable, and the band kicks ass. But Marriott’s vocals make the tune—he sings it in high humor, throwing out a “get ‘em boy!” after name-checking his dog, who can be trusted to “grab the fuzz if they bust in.” Then the song slows down and Marriott the soul man returns, before the tune builds back up, Shirley’s drums producing a fierce tattoo, and the band shuts things down on a big blues note. Perfection, and once again reminiscent of The Faces at their best.

Side 4 as mentioned is live, and while I personally would have preferred that the band highlight some of its finer originals, such as the funky soul of “30 Days in the Hole,” the heavy metal “Hot ‘N’ Nasty,” or the psychedelic “Stick Shift,” they were at least wise enough to stay away from putting one goddamn song on the side. It opens with Marriott’s “Up Our Sleeve,” a heavy metal number that has Marriott shrieking to be heard over Shirley’s drums, and features lots of the great guitar that is the only thing missing on sides one through three. The song rumbles along like an out-of-control locomotive, and Marriott’s the conductor with his hand on the dead man’s switch. They follow it up with their take on the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women,” which opens with Marriott singing, not saying, “We want to play a tribute to the Rolling Stones.” Unforgivably lame, it is, as is their attempt to turn the Stones’ countrified number into a soul tune. Marriott’s vocals are as usual supernatural, but they aren’t superhuman, which is what it would take to make this one work.

The album closes with an unfortunately extended version of “(I’m a) Road Runner,” which features some extraordinarily cool guitar work and lots of funky singing, but doesn’t merit its 13 and one-half minute length. And Marriott makes things worse by stopping the music to engage in some hairy hippie hoohah about how he doesn’t care about your religion or whether you’re white, black, or polka-dotted because we all have to live together, maaaaan. Fortunately Humble Pie follows this bromide with some of the fiercest guitar you’ll hear anywhere, but things go downhill again when Marriott stops the music again to engage in some call and response with the crowd. Which is always the problem with these long-stemmed live numbers; criminal noodling resulting in sad stultification leading to audience malaise, although once again the downers must have helped.

Humble Pie was a weird bird; Marriott was a god, which is proved by the fact that it took The Faces not one but two musicians to fill his shoes. But Humble Pie rarely lived up to its potential due largely to middling songwriting, and although it charted well at the time, the band has not dated well. As a result, the Marriott of Humble Pie—who died tragically in April 1991 when a fire swept through his 16th Century home—is in my opinion seriously underrated as a vocalist and guitarist. When I think of Steve Marriott I don’t just think of the Small Faces’ Marriott; I think of the Marriott who gave us Humble Pie’s “Beckton Dumps” and “30 Days in the Hole,” to say nothing of the band’s revelatory interpretations of such songs as “Shut Up and Don’t Interrupt Me” and “Black Coffee.” At his best Steve Marriott may have been the best white soul vocalist in the world, and that’s an assessment with which even Jenkins’ ear, wherever it is, would agree.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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  • Dale Haskell

    Nice to see someone stand up for this album,warts and all. Thanks for the post!

  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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