Graded on a Curve:
Leaf Hound,
Growers of Mushroom

Psychedelics! Hallucinogenics! LSD! Mushrooms! Peyote! STP! I couldn’t wait to take them after reading Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, but I had trepidations. I was afraid they’d transport me to some far-off psychic realm and deposit me there for good, and I’d end up like Syd Barrett with Quaaludes melting in my hair, talking to my long-dead great-grandfather, the one who was dragged to death by horses. So I asked a more experienced buddy, a macrodoser who once dropped acid every day for a month, how long the trip would last. And he replied insouciantly, “Oh, anywhere from six hours to the rest of your life.” I wasn’t what you’d call reassured.

I only tripped a few times, because as it turns out I’m Woody Allen neurotic and far too fragile a psychic specimen to be messing about with my delicate brain circuitry, but had I been the Captain Trips type who knows, maybe I’d have heard Leaf Hound’s great Growers of Mushroom. Alas, I gave up hallucinogenics on the fateful night I dropped acid, then spent the next six hours down on my hands and knees looking for it.

But it’s never too late to rejoin the counterculture, which I have done by burning my draft card (okay, so it was a pay stub from work, but it’s the symbolism that matters) and checking out all the semi-obscure psychedelic bands from that time I can find. And the band I like best, by many many micrograms, is Leaf Hound. The British band only released one LP, but it’s a work of true genius. It has everything you could possibly want in an album—great vocals, great guitar, great songs, even great cowbell. I love this album and want everyone to know about it, because it’s like Owsley-quality blotter acid for your ears and guaranteed to cause you to turn on, tune in, and turn it up.

Leaf Hound was formed in 1969 in London, a city in England. Originally called Black Cat Bones—under which name they released the 1970 LP Barbed Wire Sandwich—they changed their name and recorded the great Growers of Mushroom in 1971. Leaf Hound’s members included Pete “Fried” French on vocals, Michael “Mick” Halls on lead guitar, Derek “Peaking” Brooks on rhythm guitar, Stuart “I’ve been dosed!” Brooks on bass, and Keith “Shrooms” Young on drums and percussion. They played a powerful combination of hard rock, psychedelia, and blues that sounds like what is nowadays called “stoner rock,” and various hipper-than-thou stoner rock bands have cited Leaf Hound as an influence. That’s the good news. The bad news is Leaf Hound split up not long after Growers of Mushroom was released, so we’ll never know what sonic heights they might have reached had they stayed together.

A quick word, before we go any further, on the LP’s title. Growers of Mushroom brings to mind a group of hippies standing around a giant psilocybin mushroom, a psilocybin mushroom the size of a quaint little house, with a door you can walk through only to reemerge hours later a new person, naked and holy and in possession of the wisdom of the ages. Or at least to me it does. It’s either that or the same band of hippies crouched in a circle around a single normal-sized mushroom, saying things like, “I thought it would be bigger” and, “Maybe we should have grown more than one” and, “How are well all supposed to get zonked on that?”

Anyway, it’s important to note that Leaf Hound were definitely not the type of psychedelic band that went in for sitars and tablas and all that Eastern rigmarole that the Beatles popularized during their acid period. No, Leaf Hound were rockers, first and foremost, and had a certified zero George Harrison quotient. In short, these guys weren’t into the whole East meets West thing, had no intentions of ever traveling to the remote Himalayas to meet Yogi Berra, and had far less interest in levitating than in one-upping Led Zeppelin. Which on some songs, they do.

The LP opens with a bang in the form of “Freelance Fiend,” which features a snarling, Hendrixesque guitar and some great cowbell, to say nothing of French’s frantic vocals. If the guitar riff on this one doesn’t hook you nothing will, and the solo is lean and mean and builds to a climax while French sings, “Well, I ain’t nothin’ but a freelance fiend.” It’s an undiscovered diamond of a song, as is the eight-minute “Sad Road to the Sea,” a more meditative (for these hard rockers) tune that boasts a beautiful melody and some strummed guitars, to say nothing of a fantastic guitar solo. It reminds me vaguely of Led Zeppelin. And it picks up towards the end and gets really frenzied, with Hall tossing off a guitar solo that, I swear to God, gives me wood.

“Drowned in My Life” opens with some portentous bass and then morphs into a big funky blooz, with a monolithic guitar riff that once walked the earth crushing Neanderthals underfoot, and French totally ruling the tune with his vocals, which parse the difference between Jeff Beck and Robert Plant, sans the high notes. Meanwhile, Hall plays yet another sanctified solo, over which French lays his claim to being one of rock’s most inexplicably overlooked vocalists. “Work My Body” opens slowly and comes complete with laid-back blues riffs and French’s vocals, but the band kicks it up a notch with Hall playing a long and frenzied solo. “Don’t you leave me dying by the wayside,” pleads French in the quiet section that precedes yet another exercise in controlled mayhem, with Hall upping the ante by freaking out before a triumphant organ surges in, and leads us all to French’s final unhinged vocals.

“Stray” is very very Zep, and features some great drum work as well as the omnipresent badass guitar riffs and a tremendous guitar solo by Hall. There’s a short and quiet interlude during which French talks, then the song kicks back in, and this is a great one you owe it to your grandchildren to listen to and pass down to them as a family heirloom. “With a Minute to Go” is an atmospheric tune that reminds me of Grand Funk at their very best, and features a great melody that French tops with his trademark croon. “You can pull down the blinds/And cut out the lines,” he sings, before Hall plays a solo that is utterly sublime. Then French falls into a cadence that has Bobby Plant written all over it before the song fades out.

It’s another lost classic, as is the psychedelic title track, which is heavy on the drums and features some surrealistic lyrics, and makes me think of top-notch Cream. The organ is great, and French sees his dreams before the song speeds up and goes out with pride and glory. “Stagnant Pool” is a power-rocker or a power tool, one or the other, with Hall serving up big power chords while French contributes his usual gritty vocals. And it comes complete with a wah-wah guitar solo that’ll leave your jaw hanging open, before quieting down so that French can do some whispering, before kicking back into overdrive and dead ending against a wall.

“Sawdust Caesar” is a mid-tempo rocker featuring a mind-bending guitar solo that goes on and on, God bless its soul. Its syncopated melody is guaranteed to convert you, but if it doesn’t Hall plays another short solo at the end that is certain to do the trick. As for the tunes on the 2005 CD reissue “It’s Gonna Get Better” opens with piano, and reminds me, much to my chagrin, of that Red Hot Chili Peppers song about the bridge that always makes me throw up in my mouth. Fortunately the chorus comes in and its great, with some cool organ, excellent guitar, and French really letting loose. After that the number goes anthemic on your ass, and I totally love it. As for “Hipshaker” and “Too Many Rock ‘N’ Roll Times,” they’re both straight-up rock’n’rollers and great party tunes.

The former features some titanic Pete Townshend power chords and Young going berserker on the drums, while the latter has an opening riff I know I’ve heard before but just can’t put my finger on? ZZ Top? No. Steve Miller? Could be. Jesus, it’s driving me almost as crazy as the guitar solo that dominates the song. Man, I hope somebody can tell me where that riff comes from or I really may end up like Syd Barrett, and—guess what? My friend Jeffry Cudlin, musical expert and writer extraordinaire, just identified the riff and it was from Steve Miller’s “Jet Airliner” as well as “Crossroads.” Thanks, Jeffry! Oh, and before shutting up I should mention the great distortion on Hall’s guitar just before French goes out repeating, “Poor me.”

I may just be a freelance fiend, but Leaf Hound’s Growers of Mushroom is a bona fide brilliant LP without a single weak cut on it, and how many albums can you say that about? This is early seventies hard rock at its very best, and the break-up of Leaf Hound is one of rock’s great what ifs. It’s impossible to know if they’d ever have broken through to superstar status, but I for one rate them higher than most of their much better-known compatriots. Deep Purple? Pah. These guys could have kicked purple ass. Ditto dozens of other bands.

The only thing worse than a great band that fails to fulfill its initial promise on subsequent LPs is a band that never gets around to recording a second LP. None of Leaf Hound’s members ever went on to greatness, although French did stints with both Cactus and Atomic Rooster. But neither of those bands, while cool, can hold a candle to Leaf Hound, the band that got away. And all I can say is fuckityfuckingfuck, that sucks.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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