Life at 33 1/3: Under the spell of Zelda Plum

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Juicy Lucy, Juicy Lucy (Vertigo)

Record sleeves were important back in the old days when you were 17, browsing through the albums at the local second-hand store, the miserable amount of cash you could raise burning in your pocket.  Some of the city’s aging music journalists who despised progressive and alternative rock must have been regular customers, as you could come across brand new records that had just been reviewed in recent editions of New Musical Express and Melody Maker.  The albums had hardly been played, you could strike gold in there.

I was a sucker for cool experimental labels like Harvest, Island, Deram, Charisma and – yes, perhaps the coolest of them all – Vertigo.  The early releases on these labels took you on a trip into the mystic.  And the music was always wrapped in those incredible gatefold sleeves.

Vertigo was introduced to the world in the autumn of 1969. “Juicy Lucy” was their second release, and you simply couldn’t ignore it.  Not with that sleeve.  It probably should have been X-rated.  Both the Dutch and the US versions came in a moderated sleeve design, choosing a less explicit version of burlesque dancer Zelda Plum and her assorted fruits.

Luckily it was the UK edition that ended up in my local second-hand shop in Oslo, Norway.  And there she lay, Zelda Plum, the ageing dancer in the nude, slightly covered up in fruits, the juices running down her thighs, eyeing me under dark and heavy and very English makeup, with a playful expression on her face.  She triggered fantasies of submission and abuse.  I was 17 and completely lost.

Juicy Lucy.  What a band name, what a sleeve!  I just had to own it.  I shall not dwell too much on the sleeve’s different areas of utilisation, it’s after all the music that counts.  And luckily it was just as dirty and hard-hitting as I had hoped for.  The original British blues boom was fading by 1969, being replaced by a harder version, still in transition on its way towards what we now would call heavy rock, the blues fingerprints still highly visible (as can be heard on the first two Zeppelin-albums, both released in 1969), and it was getting quite common for groups to take detours down the side roads to what we now call Americana.

The British electric blues was opening up, some got tougher, some got rootsier, they didn’t quite know where they were going.  That’s what makes the best recordings from this period so fascinating.

Juicy Lucy’s debut album was a remarkable fresh statement then, and still is.  It sounds very American, gritty, traces of the Deep South, some blistering guitar performances, the kind that makes your fingers bleed.  The ultimate teaser is the album’s hit single, their version of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love”, three absolutely sensational minutes where the combination of Glenn Ross Campbell’s breakneck slide and Ray Owens bloodcurdling grunt of a voice (Captain Beefheart meets Screamin ‘Jay Hawkins) delivers savagery times ten.

Californian Campbell already was a cult hero at the time as he had led the highly influential psychedelic rock band The Misunderstood, that moved to London in 1966 and had John Peel as their manager.  The Misunderstood unfortunately lived up to their name when it came to commercial success and eventually disbanded.  Campbell then started Juicy Lucy and immediately became their center-point on stage, thanks to his wild gymnastics on the lap steel guitar.  Search for “Who Do You Love” on YouTube, and you will see what I mean.

Of the album’s nine songs, six were written by the band members while the three covers were picked from Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and Buddy Miles.  It’s Americana, sometimes with a brutal punch and a snake bite to it, other times looser, even laidback as in the mandolin-tinged and swampy “Just On Time” (check out that wonderful, slow swaying horn solo).  The album’s longest track, “Are You Satisfied?”, is also the quietest, a vibrant, slow simmering mantra, half unplugged, that puts you into a trance-like condition, ready for Zelda Plum.

The band members play multiple instruments, so Campbell’s signature slide doesn’t own the soundscape alone (he doubles on mandolin and marimbas), their keyboard player also blows the saxophone and they got another guitar player too.  But they stay close to the roots at all times, the dust roads and the swamps of the Mississippi Delta, masterly re-created and preserved in a recording studio in London in 1969.

A phenomenal debut album.  The sequel “Lie Back And Enjoy It”, is not inferior, but Juicy Lucy was a completely different band by then.  People left and were replaced fast as lightning early in 1970.

Released: October 1, 1969

Produced by: Gerry Bron and Nigel Thomas.

Contents: “Mississippi Woman” (Juicy Lucy, Ray Owen)/”Who Do You Love?” (Bo Diddley)/”She’s Mine” (Ellis, Thomas)/”She’s Yours” (Ellis, Thomas)/”Just One Time” (Hubbard, Campbell)/”Chicago North-Western” (Hubbard, Campbell)/ “Train” (Buddy Miles, Rich)/”Nadine” (Chuck Berry)/”Are You Satisfied?” (Dobson, Mercer, Thomas)

Personnel:

Ray Owen – lead vocals

Chris Mercer – saxophone, organ, piano

Neil Hubbard – electric and acoustic guitars

Glenn Ross Campbell – steel guitar, backing vocals, mandolin, marimba

Keith Ellis – bass, backing vocals

Pete Dobson – drums, percussion