Graded on a Curve: Spooky Tooth Featuring Mike Harrison,
The Last Puff

Spooky Tooth: The funniest band name this side of Foghat! And for the longest time that’s all I thought I needed to know about Spooky Tooth. I mean, I knew they spawned that super-enlightened astral entity known as Gary “Dream Weaver” Wright, but I never felt like any great desire to, you know, listen to them, because the few Spooky Tooth songs I had happened upon (“Evil Woman,” Better by You, Better Than Me”) reminded me of Deep Purple, and the way I’ve always looked at it one Deep Purple is already one Deep Purple too many.

But I was wrong, which are the words I plan to have engraved upon my tombstone if I don’t go with Rick Derringer’s immortal “Did somebody say keep on rockin’?” And the proof I was wrong lies within the grooves of 1970’s The Last Puff, which is the only “Tooth” LP to be credited to the unwieldy moniker Spooky Tooth Featuring Mike Harrison.

Why do I like this LP by “The Tooth” when I’m not so wild about the other LPs I’ve heard by the band? Well, it’s less ‘eavy in that bombastic Brit blues rock manner, for starters. On this one the band opts for grit over high-volume crotch wank, and it doesn’t hurt that the songs are solid but not flashy. Sure, the Joe Cocker song sounds like a Joe Cocker song and the Elton John song sounds like an Elton John song and yes the Beatles song sounds like a Beatles song, but the lads in Spooky Tooth—which included a future member of Mott the Hoople and several former members of Joe Cocker’s Grease Band—put their unique spin on all of ‘em, and in my humble opinion actually trump the Fab Four on the Beatles’ number.

Only two of the LP’s cuts are by the band, and one of them doesn’t really count because it was cowritten by Gary Wright, who’d split by the time “The Tooth” got around to recording The Last Puff. Which leaves the title track, which is an instrumental written by Chris Stainton—the legendary keyboard player formerly with The Grease Band—as a showcase for Chris Stainton. But like I say it’s no biggie because whether “The Tooth” are interpreting David Ackles’ great “Down River” or TV Theme Guy Mike “The Rockford Files” Post’s “Nobody There at All” they give it their soulful best. The rhythm section is tight, Harrison’s vocals are great, Luther Grosvenor (who would go on to adopt the nom de rock Ariel Bender when he moved on to Mott the Hoople) plays excellent guitar, and Chris Stainton is, well, Chris Stainton, and his every note is above reproach.

The LP’s only discordant note is struck by “I Am the Walrus,” which the band hits out of the ballpark (better than the orig, in my opinion) but which sticks out like a giraffe at the pony track amongst the band’s other, more humble, offerings. Don’t get me wrong. It’s far freaking out and guaranteed to blow your gourd. But this song on this album makes about as much sense as Ted Nugent slapping “House on Pooh Corner” on Cat Scratch Fever.

The album’s only hard rocker is Gary Wright’s “The Wrong Time,” and it’s just groovy thanks to a great riff, some excellent six-string fandango by Grosvenor, Harrison’s Robert Plant Jr. vocal stylings, and the great bottom provided by former Grease Bander Alan Spenner on bass and Mike Kellie—who has played with just about everybody including J. Christ over the course of his long career—on drums. My personal fave is the band’s take on the Elton John/Bernie Taupin Tumbleweed Connection-era composition “Son of Your Father.” It’s one of those great early country-tinged E.J. songs that get overlooked in the face of the King of Pudge’s Glam-era work, but it has punch and spunk and a great chorus and by God it’s the shit. Harrison sings the hell out of it, Grosvenor’s guitar delivers a metallic K.O., and Stainton’s organ playing would make Captain Fantastic himself proud.

The title track features some truly soulful piano by Stainton, who backs himself on organ. It ain’t the nazz but it’s more than just a buzz, to paraphrase the great Ian Hunter. The band’s interpretation of David Ackles’ melancholic but stately “Down River” reminds me a bit of Procol Harum, and that’s good; Stainton’s piano and organ playing are both superb, and Harrison’s echoing vocals bring it on home. As for “Nobody There At All,” who’d have thunk Mike Post had it in him? The theme to L.A. Law, sure. The theme to The A-Team, why not? But this baby is Grade A country rock and a roots delight, and “The Tooth” serves it up with the heart and panache you’d expect to hear only by The Band. As for “Something to Say” it’s a Joe Cocker song that gets the funky Grateful Dead treatment, with Grosvenor playing like Garcia and the rhythm section going all rubber band on ya. And Stainton’s piano is a revelation as usual.

“The Tooth”—as you’ve no doubt deduced it amuses me to no end to call them “The Tooth”—delivered up plenty of good music besides the songs on The Last Puff. “Feelin’ Bad” is a lost early seventies classic, as are “Hangman Hang My Shell on a Tree,” “It’s All About a Roundabout,” and the band’s oddball take on Bob Dylan’s “Too Much of Nothing.” And there are plenty more where they come from. But The Last Puff is the one Spooky Tooth album I’d choose to own because while it doesn’t have a title as, er, memorable as 1973’s You Broke My Heart So… I Busted It Your Jaw it’s the most consistently excellent and stylistically coherent platter they ever served up, “I Am the Walrus” notwithstanding. So maybe it is the nazz after all.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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