It’s probably splitting hairs to refer to this as either the sole album from
the group The Way We Live, or the first Tractor album. The album is really both,
and neither. In any case the original is impossible to find today, but the
reissue CD with bonus material is easy to find (although, despite the claims on
the liner notes advertising, Ozit Morpheus recordings are probably NOT on the
shelf at your “local record store”).
Steve Clayton and Jim Milne, the long-standing collaboration that also spawned Tractor, got their start with these mostly simple but very engaging three-track recordings commissioned by John Peel way back in 1971. The ‘band’ was really just the duo of school-friends Clayton and Milne, backed at various times by various acquaintances in order to fill the occasional gig between school work and other activities. One-time band manager John Brierley had built a studio in his home where Clayton and Milne spent several months recording what would become this album. Among those who received a demo copy was the late DJ John Peel, who was at the time working to develop his Dandelion Records label. Peel liked what he heard and convinced the duo to travel to Birmingham in the spring of 1972 to re-record the demo at Spot Studios and on to then-Marquee Studios, which at the time was outfitted for eight-track recordings. The album was mixed there and released in 1972. By the time the album released the band was already working with Peel to develop their sound and had settled on the new name Tractor. The Way We Live’s only release received critical acclaim but little commercial success, and the original vinyl is one of those almost mythical rarities that most of us mere mortals will never get our hands on.
The record was reissued somewhere along the line by Repertoire, but the most accessible version is the 2003 Ozit Morpheus CD reissue, which is the one I have. This version includes 11 bonus tracks. While normally I don’t have much interest in the cutting- room floor chaff that gets added as ‘bonus’ material to many reissued old records, in this case there are some hidden gems and on whole the added material is worth listening to. There are two other impressive touches to the Ozit release: first, the extended booklet which contains comprehensive liner notes, original album artwork, photos, and narratives by both Clayton and Milne, as well as Tractor collaborator Chris Hewitt and the late John Peel himself. And second, the CD itself features a textured thermal label with a cut-out of the original album cover painting by Steve Clayton. My one complaint is the lack of printed lyrics in the liner notes, which I think would have been a major improvement. But all told this is a very impressive package and well worth the modest investment.
As for the music, there is an interesting mix of sounds here, ranging from rather straightforward hard rock to folk to psych, but all amazing considering the richness of sounds that came out of just two guys. The opening “King Dick II” sounds a bit like an early Black Sabbath bluesy recording to me, but with more like a Paul Rodgers era Bad Company-sounding vocal. This is probably the heaviest song on the record, and while the instrumentation is very well done, overall its just average. A few extra points for some very lively electric guitar, what sounds like duelling basses, and Corky Laing-like dirge inspired drums.
The band shifts almost 180 degrees for “Squares”, a staid, mellow and acoustic acid folk number with an inspired electric bass line. The first few times I heard this I thought it was outdated tripe, with nonsensical and bong-inspired lyrics like
“Life is a circle of emptiness; each day is a circle of emptiness. It’s not knowing the road, it’s also knowing the load.”
But the more I listen to this the more I like the interplay of quiet guitar with the persistent bass, and considering the relative seclusion in which these two developed their sound and the fact that this was 1971, the sappiness is probably excusable.
“Siderial” is a great acoustic guitar instrumental with a bit of an Indian flair to it and some very precise percussion that combine to make this an engaging if somewhat surprisingly out-of-place tune. This one fits well with the more Latin-flavoured instrumental “Madrigal” which comes toward the end of the album.
Besides “Squares” the other tune that really cements this as a folk album is “Angle”, another acoustic work with sappy and somewhat nonsensical lyrics
“you can’t know now but I see the way ahead - you’ll die no doubt, but your words will not be dead. Your curse will live on those who come here after”
No idea what that’s all about, but “Angle” is another well-done folk number with nice acoustic guitar and comfortable vocals.
The band heads into Mountain territory with “Storm”, with Jim Milne sounding an awful lot like Leslie West and Clayton laying down some very tight electric guitar work. For anyone who grew up during the early seventies this track should make an instant connection, and will undoubtedly remind you of any number of bands or old favourites from that era.
And speaking of reminding you of something, “Willow” kicks off with a guitar riff that will be instantly recognizable from the opening chords of Zeppelin II’s “Whole Lotta Love”. For some reason though I’m not really pissed about the apparent copping of Jimmy Page. Clayton seems to be trying to effect a Robert Plant vocal as well, but both of them ending up sounding just different enough that this doesn’t come off sounding like a rip-off (almost it almost surely was).
The longest and most original track is saved for last. “The Way Ahead” has a little bit of a sixties Beat feel to it at times, but the driving beat and spacey, harmonized vocals combine with a pretty unusual chugging guitar riff to make something that is as close to a signature sound as anything else the band did here. A first-rate effort.
And that is why I like some of the bonus material here – because it sounds more creative and innovative than several of the tracks off the original album. “Watching White Stars” for example was first recorded in that three-track John Brierley home studio in 1970, and the organs and gentle vocals give this one a timeless feel. “Marie” is a heavily acoustic number first recorded at the Dandelion Studios in 1971, and remixed for the 1992 reissue on Repertoire. This one includes some studio chatter as well, and the stark contrast of the remixed effort to some of the other stuff here really underscores just how long ago and in what humble circumstances this band did some of their earliest work.
“Stoney Glory”, “Stairway to the Stars”, “Most Had Man”, and “Easier to Say” are later recordings, mostly done in the early 21st century at a time when Tractor were getting active again and this Ozit reissue was being put together. These are more like modern folk tunes with country leanings – well done, but not really in the same vein as the early work.
And “Let Earth Be the Name” is the most unusual song here, recorded in the late sixties on what sounds like only a couple of tracks and as an entirely acoustic number. Despite the hollow-sounding mix this is a great example of sixties acid folk.
“Northern City” was thrown in for good measure from a 1977 Tractor single b-side. This one reflects the freer-formed blues cum pop sound of that era. Really, this duo has an uncanny knack for recording things that evoke their era while managing for the most part to not sound dated.
Finally, “The Big Dinner” and “Watching White Stars” are included here but without any narrative history in the liner notes. They both sound like they came from the 2002 recording sessions for the Repertoire reissue though and are okay but unexceptional.
All told this is a very nicely done package that serves not only to provide a glimpse into what would have otherwise remained a legendary and mysterious prog folk cult recording; but also manages to provide a well-documented and comprehensive retrospective for the brief-lived ‘The Way We Live’ version of Tractor. Highly recommended to all serious and purist progressive music fans, as well as anyone who digs prog folk or just wants to hear something different and obscure. Four stars.
review in progarchives.com