Author’s Note: This was published in Mojo sometime in 2006 in their ‘Buried Treasure’ spot, highlighting overlooked gems of yore. I think this was the last thing I had published in Mojo – though there might have been a few subsequent reviews in one of their spin-off ‘one shots’. It was time to move on, but I was delighted to bring a bit of attention to the great Pete French just as he embarked on a revival of Leafhound before doing so.
Growers Of Mushroom
DECCA SKL-R 5094
Tracks: Freelance Fiend / Sad Road To The Sea / Drowned My Life In Fear / Work My Body / Stray / With A Minute To Go / Growers Of Mushroom / Stagnant Pool / Sawdust Ceasar
Producer: Paul Lynton
Recorded: Spot Studios, London, late 1970
Released: October 1971
Chart Peak: n/a
Personnel: Pete French (voc), Mick Halls (lead gtr), Stuart Brooks (gtr), Derek Brooks (bass), Keith Young (dr)
Currently available: Repertoire
For decades the vestigial fame of Leafhound – explosive, soulful South London hard rock heroes who somehow missed the boat of global conquest – rested upon the mythical rarity of their one album. It stands alongside Led Zeppelin II, Free’s Fire & Water and Cream’s Disraeli Gears as a towering statement of unashamedly British hard rock at the turn of the ‘60s.
Powered by guitarist Mick Halls and his cousin Pete French – lyricist, and a vocalist of amazing power and individuality, loosely an amalgam of Jeff Beck Group-era Rod Stewart and Ian Gillan – the pair formed Leafhound from the remains of London blues stalwarts Black Cat Bones, whom they’d joined and kept going after the band’s sole 1969 Barbed Wire Sandwich LP. The opportunity with the Bones had come after a succession of bands for the cousins – The Switch, Joe Poe, Electric Eels – who had been playing together since Pete was 16, paying their dues in the Battersea scene centred around the Nag’s Head pub, which nurtured successful acts like Jethro Tull, Free and Fleetwood Mac.
Indeed, Pete and Mick’s first recording break came via former Mac bassist Bob Brunning, who had a deal lined up with Saga Records. Thus, Pete and Mick wound up fronting the Brunning Sunflower Blues Band’s 1968 LP Bullen Street Blues – named after the street where Pete was born. The cousins also contributed six songs to the album, some of which they’d been playing together since The Switch. But Brunning’s thing was never more than a stepping stone for the pair, more excited by Hendrix than pub-rock 12 bar plodding. With Pete getting by as a stonemason’s mate, the next move to rock stardom was sideways: answering a Melody Maker ad to become singer with more 12-bar merchants, Paul Kossoff’s former band Black Cat Bones. When Kossoff’s replacement Rod Price left to form Foghat, Pete jumped at the chance to bring Mick Halls in.
By mid 1970, bored with blues, the pair launched their bloodless coup, and the Bones became Leafhound, with Keith Young on drums and the Brooks brothers on bass and rhythm guitar: ‘The name,’ says Pete, ‘came from a Ray Bradbury story about a hound which a young boy loved to death, buried it in the woods and some time later came back from the dead… which is quite archetypal for this band!’
Sharing the bill with UFO at an agents’ showcase gig in Soho, with the likes of Chas Chandler in the audience seemed a big opportunity. Pete gave his performance so much that he blacked out, fell offstage, broke his shoulder ‘and, to everyone’s amazement, jumped back onstage again and finished the set! Then an ambulance turned up and took me to hospital.’ Chas Chandler may have passed, but the group secured management with the Lynton-Maitland agency – now viewed by Pete as ’a couple of fly-by-night herberts’. Nevertheless, through the agency they did secure an album deal with Decca – specially, £50 each and a day to may their mark. And they did just that.
Incredibly, Growers Of Mushroom was recorded in one 11-hour session: ‘When I look back on it now I can’t believe it. It was against the clock – we just kept going. The last track we did, ‘With A Minute To Go’, was literally named! We’d run out of songs so me and Mick just looked at each other and said, ‘Well, we’ll make something up…’’
Welded to a bunch of deceptively cleverly constructed riff-based songs, French’s intriguing lyrics they create a package that sends the listener scurrying to Led Zep II to see if anything is closer than a second cousin. It never is, but the two albums are magically cut from the same cloth – opening cut ‘Freelance Fiend’ being pure essence of ‘Whole Lotta Love’ with a side-order of ‘Voodoo Chile’:
‘Cream, Led Zeppelin and Free were the most formidable things we were listening to at the time,’ says French, ‘and also the Jeff Beck Group and the Who. ‘Sad Road To The Sea’ certainly lent itself to the Cream feel. I think with the other songs, like ‘Freelance Fiend’, we weren’t thinking of Zeppelin at all, actually. That one was just an idea that we were kicking around as a riff – and I was motivated lyrically by these stories from The Pan Book Of Horror Stories by Eric van Thal . The thing is, they’re not really directly connected to the stories of the titles. The titles just gave me the imagination to write the lyrics. ‘Growers Of Mushroom’, for example, was [in the book] the story of a woman slowly poisoning her husband to death with toadstools, and I thought ‘What a lovely title!’ Everybody thinks it’s a drug-crazed thing, but we weren’t into drugs at all. We were quite naïve. The most we had was half a pint of lager. And the musical template for that track was actually ‘Boris The Spider’!
The band splintered after the session – the Brooks brothers leaving when it was clear the new songs best suited a four-piece. Not one for grudges, Pete hoped they’d form a new Black Cat Bones, but they simply disappeared out of music. Fired up, and joined by bassist Ron Thomas, Leafhound Mk2 toured Germany and Norway and triumphed. Decca’s German licensee Telefunken rushed out their album with a single featuring Beatle-ish B-side ‘It’s Going To Get Better’ (recorded well before the LP, with Madeleine Bell on backing vocals). Back home, Decca didn’t seem bothered:
‘We did the tour, knocked ‘em dead, came back and no product was out. We thought, ‘What’s the point?’ and [at the end of 1970] called it a day. Pete and Mick drifted apart, Pete for a while trying to get something happening with drummer Cozy Powell before successfully auditioning for Atomic Rooster. And then, bizarrely, the Leafhound album was released in Britain:
‘It came out nearly a year after the band had broken up,’ says Pete, ‘and there was nobody to buy it. All that energy and effort and it all went down the tubes.’
By then, October 1971, French had recorded Rooster’s now classic In Hearing Of album (released a month before the Leafhound relic), and was touring the States with them – which led to being head-hunted for US supergroup Cactus, and a ‘70s career largely beyond the British Isles before retiring gracefully from rock in 1981. And then… in 2005, back in London, he’s tempted by a group of young fans to create a new Leafhound:
‘Mick Halls was over from San Diego recently and played with us – played all the songs without a rehearsal and blew everyone away. And he hadn’t played that stuff in 30 years! But I suppose it’s like riding a bicycle…’
With a barn-storming new track from his current Leafhound, Growers Of Mushroom was reissued by Repertoire in October 2005.