|Record Collector August, 1990
TIMEBOX AND PATTO
NICK SALOMAN REMEMBERS ONE OF HIS FAVOURITE GUITARISTS, AND ONE OF THE PROGRESSIVE ERA’S MOST CREATIVE BANDS
With the current interest in the Vertigo label, constantly escalating values, and a planned series of specialist reissues in the works, this seems a good moment to look back at one of Britain’s most ambitious rock bands of the late Sixties and early Seventies – and one of the country’s greatest guitarists.
In their six years of existence as Timebox and then Patto, they were continually being tipped as the next band to hit the big time. But it never happened. Their lack of success during the Timebox era can be blamed entirely on the fact that their records were deliberately aimed towards the charts; and Timebox were most certainly not a chart band. On stage, they favoured complex jazz improvisations and unorthodox rock patterns. And sadly for them, heartthrob pin-ups they were not!
When they signed to Vertigo and changed their name to Patto, things looked set to happen. But that’s the way it stayed, and despite a loyal club following, critical acclaim and a reputation as a musicians’ band, their inability to break out of the club circuit into the major league became too frustrating to endure, and they broke up in the spring of 1973.
Some nine years earlier, a North London band called the Bo Street Runners won
Ready Steady Go’s ‘Ready Steady Win’ beat contest. They signed to Decca,
and embarked on the obligatory slog round the beat clubs of Britain and Europe.
By the end of 1965, the Runners were at a low ebb, they had no singer, and they
were in severe danger of becoming yet another casualty of public indifference.
Gigging in Norwich, they’d been greatly impressed by the singer of a local
support band, the Breakaways. The man in question, Michael Patrick (Patto)
McGrath [sic - his actual name was Michael Thomas McCarthy], accepted organist Tim Hinkley’s invitation to come to London. He’d
planned to move there anyway, to join the National Youth Orchestra, but had no
hesitation in switching his vocal allegiance to the Bo Street Runners. He made
his recording debut on their version of the Beatles’ "Drive My Car"
|"Strange things happen in rock, but you'd never imagine that Timebox would have made it onto psychedelic compilations on this showing!"|
Meanwhile, back in Harrow, the Bo Street Runners decided to call it a day. Mick Fleetwood went on to staggering success in Fleetwood Mac, while Patto and Hinkley formed the Chicago Line Blues Band with ex-Pretty Thing Viv Prince on drums, Louis Cennamo (shortly to form Renaissance with Keith Relf) on bass, and ex-Blue Flames sax-man Mike Fellana. This particular conglomeration of talent was sadly shortlived, and Mike Patto was left to cut a solitary single for Columbia late in 1966.
Take 5 had stumbled into 1967, guitarist Kevin Fogerty quitting during a Butlins summer season. Halsall, who seemed to be able to play any instrument given to him, took over the guitar duties. They soon changed their name to Timebox, and with a line-up of Halsall (guitar/vibes), Clive Griffiths (bass), Chris Holmes (keyboards) and John Halsey (drums; ex-Felder’s Orioles), they embarked on what they hoped would be a new era. They recorded two singles with this line-up, "I’ll Always Love You" and the instrumental "I Wish I Could Jerk Like My Uncle Cyril", released in February and April 1967 respectively.
It was generally agreed that they needed a vocalist, and a late night jam session at the Playboy Club with Mike Patto and some friends solved the dilemma. Halsall asked Patto to join Timebox and the die was cast. They signed to Deram that autumn, and went into the studios with producer Michael ‘Teenage’ Aldred, a former Ready Steady Go dancer.
"Don’t Make Promises", a Tim Hardin song, backed with the cosmically titled "Walking Through The Streets Of My Mind", was released on October 20th 1967. Halsall’s vibes were well to the fore on a competent, but unremarkable, outing. A second single was issued a few months later, this time a lavishly produced cover version of the Four Seasons’ "Beggin’ ", which peaked at No. 38 in August 1968. The B-side, "A Woman That’s Waiting", was written by Ivan Zagni, guitarist alongside Patto’s old mate Tim Hinkley in Jody Grind.
They failed to capitalise on the moderate success of "Beggin’" with the follow-up, an embarrassingly weak attempt at soulful pop called "Girl, Don’t Make Me Wait". Halsall wrote the flip, "Gone Is The Sad Man", which despite some interesting chord progressions (unfortunately mixed way down), is still pretty ordinary. Timebox then dispensed with the production services of Michael Aldred, and wrote and produced their next single themselves.
"Baked Jam Roll In Your Eye"/"Poor Little Heartbreaker" was issued on Deram in 1969, and fared no better than their previous efforts. "Jam Roll" was a strange nursery rhyme-type song about Klaus The Martian; but the flipside was by far the best thing Timebox ever released. It’s an uncompromising slice of raw rock, much closer to their live sound than the rest of their recordings.
Towards the end of 1969, Deram house producer Wayne Bickerton took Timebox into the studios to cut an album. The results were apparently so dreadful than the whole project was shelved, but two tracks were salvaged for what turned out to be their last release on Deram, "Yellow Van"/"You’ve Got The Chance" in 1969. Once again, a straight pop A-side was coupled with a more respectable flip, and predictably it got nowhere. This time, Chris Holmes decided he’d had enough and quit. The Deram contract wasn’t renewed and it seemed a good time to take stock of the situation. Timebox had always been most at home going hell for leather on some small, sweaty stage, so they decided to concentrate on what they did best. They gave up trying for the elusive Top 10 hit, changed their name to Patto, and signed to Philips’ newly-formed progressive label, Vertigo.
With Muff Winwood as producer, the band went into Morgan Studios, Willesden to cut an album. "Patto" appeared in December 1970 in a lurid yellow gatefold sleeve designed by cartoonist Tony Benyon. It was received enthusiastically all round, getting favourable reviews and airplay on John Peel’s ‘Top Gear’ show. It succeeded in transmitting the excitement of the band’s live work, despite a rather primitive mix from Muff Winwood, who plumped for a particularly strange drum sound. The combination of good tunes, cynical lyrics, deft time and key changes, and superb playing, generated a lot of interest, and brought a whole new batch of punters to their gigs. The album sold pretty well, and of its eight songs, "Hold Me Back", "San Antone" and "Government Man" stayed in their live set right to the end.
Around this time, Patto added Bernie Holland on guitar for a very brief period, but apart from a Radio One ‘In Concert’ in 1971, he never recorded with them. He left soon after to replace Ivan Zagni in Jody Grind. Meanwhile, Patto were building a very healthy live following. A typical set would career from cerebral jazz workouts, through frenzied rock, to truly riotous sections of irreverent humour, and back again. The promo campaign in the music press, which read ‘Patto: Music To Loon By’, only told part of the story, though Halsall’s reputation as the guitarists’ guitarist spread, and many name axe-wielders were converted to his unique talents - Bob Fripp and Family’s Charlie Whitney among them.
Ollie and Mike Patto were asked to help out with Keith Tippett’s Centipede project around this time, though only Patto appears on the album. Patto also did the odd gig with Tim Hinkley and other old mates under the banner of ‘Dick and the Firemen’.
Towards the end of 1971 , the band booked into island Studios to cut their second album for Vertigo. With Muff Winwood producing again, they approached the sessions in a very different manner to their first set. "Patto" had been recorded with the minimum of everything (by choice rather than economics), but this was to be a much more crafted work. The band spent more time on overdubs and production, and became involved with the whole album package. They even designed the sleeve, an elaborate cut-out, gatefold affair executed by Roger Dean.
The album, titled "Hold Your Fire", was issued in December 1971, and once again was very well received, though the critics were more guarded than before. I still find it difficult to see why, as this was an exceptionally fine album, with songs and playing of a standard rarely achieved in rock music. Halsall’s guitar work was faultless, soft and lilting at times, then burning up the fret-board with furious runs. Patto’s vocals were strident, belting out the usual sardonic lyrics while Griffiths and Halsey laid down an unorthodox jazz-rock foundation. It wasn’t what people were expecting: there were no jokes, no looning, no anecdotes and, sadly, no hint of chart success.
Still not discouraged, Patto continued to blow headlining and support bands offstage. Then in January 1972, Robert Fripp arranged for Ollie Halsall to record a solo album for his new EG label. So with Halsey on drums, Harry Miller on bass, Gary Windo on sax and Max Von Schmaks on violin, Ollie went into Command Studios and laid down four long numbers, "The Russian Medical Fan Dance", "Peter Abraham", "And He Summoned Up The Tidal Wave", and "Number 3". Halsall christened his band the Blue Traffs after the dubious pastime of igniting flatulent emissions.
Meanwhile, the band’s next venture was a lengthy European tour with Ten Years After. They barely had time to unpack their kitbags before Joe Cocker’s manager, Nigel Thomas, signed them for a U.S. and Austral-asian tour. Before they left, however, they went back into Island Studios with the ubiquitous Muff Winwood to record a third LP. The sessions were deliberately loose, and after the straight approach of their two Vertigo albums, they made a conscious effort to reproduce their live looning on vinyl.
"Roll ‘Em, Smoke ‘Em, Put Another Line Out" came out on Island
in October 1972. It sold moderately well, but it has to rate as their poorest
album - though it does have some splendid moments, and "Loud Green
Song" features this particular expert’s favourite guitar solo of all
time! An unparalleled screaming rock work-out, it comes across like a deranged
punk anthem. Imagine the Pistols jamming with Hendrix, and you’ll get the
idea. But the rest of the album just doesn’t match up.
|"Ollie Halsall is the recipient of fine praise from latter-day guitar legend Bevis Frond particularly for his break during 1972’s "Loud Green Song’"|
After the split, Clive Griffiths was forced into retirement because of dodgy health. John Halsey took part in further looning with Grimms, while Halsall also played on that band’s "Rocking Duck" album. Later, through his association with Grimms’ Neil Innes, Halsey played Barry Wom in the Beatles spoof, "The Rutles". Ollie Halsall played all the guitar parts on the soundtrack and briefly appeared as the fifth Rutle, Leppo!
Mike Patto, meanwhile, had a brief stint as a record company executive with A&M, keeping his hand in with occasional gigs with Dick and the Firemen. The lure of gigging proved too strong for Patto to abstain for long, and he joined a late line-up of Spooky Tooth, singing on their album "The Mirror".
Ollie Halsall was never short of work , of course. He played on several albums as a sessionman, and eventually joined Jon Hiseman’s Tempest. Initially he shared guitar duties with Alan Holdsworth, but he soon proved to be more than adequate on his own. Halsall cut one album with the band, the impressive "Living In Fear", which came out on Bronze in 1974.
But it wasn’t long before Patto and Halsall were colleagues again. This time they formed Boxer with ex-Jeff Beck and May Blitz drummer Tony Newman, and ex-Koobas and Van Der Graaf bassist Keith Ellis. They cut their first album for Virgin at the Manor in early 1975 with former Patto recording engineer Richard Digby-Smith promoted to producer. But "Below The Belt" fell into the old trap of failing to convey the band’s excellent live sound. The original sleeve design was banned, incidentally, and a second design concealed Stephanie Marianne’s naked naughty parts on the back cover. A few of the original sleeves did get out, however.
A single was lifted from the album, coupling "All The time In The World"
with the non-album "Don’t Wait". Shortly after, the band recorded
another album, which got as far as the promo stage. It was titled "Blood
Letting" and was a definite improvement on "Below The Belt",
featuring a strong cover of the Beatles’ "Hey Bulldog" and the
remarkable live cut "Teachers". But for some reason the album never
made it into the shops.
|"Boxer, the band formed by Mike Patto after the dissolution of Patto, brought their own brand of lunacy to progressive rock for a series of collectable albums.|
And there the Patto story ends. Perhaps the best illustration of the excitement they generated in concert occurred some two years after they had split up. On a Friday night in July 1975. at the Torrington in Finchley (one of Patto’s regular gigs and the scene of their farewell show two years earlier), the four original members played a one-off benefit for the family of one of their old roadies, who’d been killed on a trip to India. The queue stretched round the block, literally hundreds were locked out, and inside Patto were playing like they’d never been away. They performed songs from all four albums, with some of their stage favourites like "Mummy", "Shakin’ All Over", and "Stairway Of Love". It was the best way to remember them, belting through "Loud Green Song", "Hold Your Fire" and "San Antone".
Patto were a truly great band - and there is still a whole wealth of unissued gems just waiting for release, like Patto’s fourth album, Boxer’s "Blood Letting", Ollie’s LP with the Blue Traffs, plus all the songs recorded for various BBC sessions. And it would be interesting to see if the Timebox album was really so terrible. So all you reissue labels, get to work!
|TIMEBOX AND PATTO DISCOGRAPHY
Reproduced with kind permission from Nick "Bevis" Saloman. Thanks, Nick!
Eric Swain (Barnabus Swain's brother) was the roadie for which they did that benefit reunion concert at the Torrington in 1975. It was on a Sunday, not a Friday. And it was not a one-off. They also did benefit gigs in 1975 at Dingwalls (Camden Lock), and the Black Swan (Sheffield).
According to Mike's interview in a 1976 Trouser Press, he actually worked as head of promotion for Good Ear Records after leaving Spooky Tooth. He then left the record company to be in Boxer.
Mike died of lymphatic leukemia, not throat cancer.
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