John Fiddler / Medicine Head


Medicine Head

It's fair to say that no one, not even us, the people who packed their shows, quite realised at the time exactly what Medicine Head were. They were great fun. They were loud. They had long hair. They were a rock band (well, two people who sounded like a rock band). And they were very personable to young chaps in their fourth year at grammar school who appreciated all of that sort of thing. Certainly by the time they'd started sneaking blues into the charts with the likes of (And The) Pictures In The Sky under the guise of beguiling pop songs, outsiders found it difficult to look beyond the fact that one of them, Peter Hope-Evans, was doing something with a jew's harp and the other, John Fiddler, was playing his guitar while sitting behind a bass drum. What we all missed, of course, was that Medicine Head were actually the history of rock 'n' roll (and, as it turned out, the future) and blues and plenty of other strands of American music. All channeled unselfconsciously through two unlikely young men from the Midlands. Not something you'd understand in your teens, but with 20-20 hindsight... They were the spirit and the sound of grizzled bluesmen while at the same time their crashing, home-made two man band noise, in a period when the rest of the pop-making world was wearing Lurex trousers, was the spirit and the sound of the incoming tide of punk. One second they were angry young men, the next they were playing the sweetest songs imaginable (His Guiding Hand, from their debut album, New Bottles, Old Medicine, was even memorably played during our school assembly, during a brief period when students were invited to select appropriate music for the occasion).

Medicine Head 1974 In Medicine Head music there were definitely no guitar solos, even more definitely no drum solos, and certainly no synthesisers (except the guest appearance of a Mellotron on the One And One Is One album). Just tape-loopy, bluesy, boogieing guitar riffs coming round and round, riffs that made - and still make - you want to smile and dance, all played through the rudest of amps. And then there's Peter's awesome harmonica huffing and puffing, coming down like a steam train on vitamin supplements, who thought nothing of 10-minute solos, particularly on the roaring favourite To Train Time (originally on the album Heavy On The Drum with a stomping live version on One And One). Even today memories of those early thrashing, sweaty shows linger as a highpoint of youth, like going to see no other band before or since "We saw ourselves like San Francisco Bay blues guys," says John. "We didn't consider ourselves musicians. It almost seems sad sometimes that we had hit records, it might have been better to have stayed an album band." Listen to any of their records - half a dozen albums between 1969 and 1976, another album's worth of dedicated singles tracks and the recent Angel Air album Live At The Marquee 1975 - and there are road songs, and the train songs, and girl songs. The sound of America infused with English charm and innocence. John and Peter went at it for well over half a decade, through thick and thin, the group bobbling, uneasily, through different line-ups, Peter leaving and then returning, eventually going through a spell as a five-piece. But while every record was touched with that Medicine Head magic, they were never a big group at heart.

Two Man Band captures the best of their, well, two man band outlook on life but combines it with flourishes from the best of British musicians, including Ashton, Gardner & Dyke and Family piano man Tony Ashton, Mott the Hoople keyboard whiz Morgan Fisher (later to rock the States with John in British Lions and form a lasting friendship), and pedal steel virtuoso BJ Cole, who has played with everyone from John Cale to The Verve. The result is Medicine Head at their most innnocent, John's rootsy, bluesy, poppy songs reinvented so that even the gentle rockers are imbued with a dreamlike quality. Rock 'n' roll for a still summer's afternoon. It was to be the band's final album. They went out in a laid-back fashion, the music hand-crafted to perfection. Released on CD for the first time, the album includes three bonus tracks, the freewheeling single Me And Suzie (Hit The Floor), and the almost-forgotten, under-rated B sides Moon Child and Midnight, both Medicine Head at their softest and best. "Pete Townshend helped us out on the album," says John. "We were broke at the time, being sued by all sorts of people because we didn't want to carry on as we were, as a five-piece. Our deal with Polydor had ended and Pete just suggested that we make a record at his Eel Pie studio. I got in touch with Chas Chandler, who had produced Slade, and he liked it and so it came out on his Barn label. It was basically Pete and myself with some friends. And we were still playing live then, just the two of us, often to punky-type audiences. We were akin to punk in spirit, and that's where we failed as a full band. The heart and soul was so diluted that we lost direction. We'd had to draft people in because we'd got trapped by the "That's not how the record sounds syndrome. Back in the old days we'd have just wound up the amps and had the sweat flying." It wasn't exactly a comeback, yet, says John: "We'd lost a lot of credence by then, what with all the changes. I felt shattered, drained but we started getting our audience back. The single off Two Man Band, it's Natural, was getting a lot of play and got into the lower fifties." But Pete decided, for the final, time to go his own way. That was the end of the track for John and Peter whose relationship had always been somewhat, aah, precarious, and emotionally turbulent. The pair still haven't played together since.

British Lions

John finished the Medicine Head date sheet with the help of Morgan Fisher and guitarist Roger Saunders, only recently out of a job when the five-piece disbanded. Almost immediately John, who'd never been glimpsed without his long hair, droopy moustache and glasses, had, to everyone's surprise, reinvented himself as a rock star frontman. Flash clothes and, it has to be said, distinctly dodgy permed hair, for the post-glam British Lions, the tail end of Mott the Hoople with a new head. Oddly, what appeared to be a culture clash actually worked, John's supercharged chugging, strumming electric guitar and rocking romantic songs proving the perfect foil for the laddish Mott outlook on life. Of course, while early Medicine Head were the embodiment of the lo-fi punk spirit, the Lions were somewhat at odds, or at least were seen to be at odds by both public and record company, with the actuality of punk in the late Seventies. A couple of singles on the by now drifting Harvest label, one Medicine Head, one under the Fiddler name, came and went almost unnoticed. Well, not exactly true...completely unnoticed, even by the most dedicated fans.

Box Of Frogs

Then came what is the best Medicine Head album never to be a Medicine Head album, with John taking charge of yet another headless band... the Yardbirds. The irony wasn't lost on anyone. Keith Relf, the original Yardbirds singer on songs like For Your Love had moved on to produce Medicine Head's (And The) Pictures In The Sky, and to be bassman in the three-man, Peter-less line-up that recorded the album Dark Side Of The Moon. Before being electrocuted in a studio accident in 1976, the year of Medicine Head's demise. But while it wasn't a Medicine Head album it wasn't the Yardbirds either, both record and band called - and whoever came up with it should be shot - Box Of Frogs. Anyway, with John involved in writing all the songs, singing them all and playing that chugging electric guitar, in a blind tasting nine of out ten fans would have said it was a Medicine Head record for the Eighties. Snappier and rockier than of old - given the Lions experience, no surprise - but unmistakeable. Producer Paul Samwell-Smith, veteran Yardbirds bassist, was forced to give a sizeable cover credit to John, who'd previously established his production credentials on Two Man Band, for his "assistance". The opener, Back Where I Started, even featured harmonica from ex-Nine Below Zero ace Mark Feltham - who vies with Peter even today for the position of Britain's premier harp sessioneer. Peter, incidentally, now stands in on occasion for Feltham in ex-Pretenders/Paul McCartney guitarist Robbie McIntosh's band. The album was a sizeable college radio hit in the States and should have meant a life in the fast lane but the others had done the Stateside star thing before, vetoed a tour and, needless to say, the whole thing ended in tears. Relations remain fraught - at the end of the Nineties John and I went to see the Yardbirds (shortly after Ray Majors had quit as lead guitarist), and the meeting was, well, strained.

John Fiddler

While John then went on to try various abortive projects he was content to work in his home studio and watch his children grow up and it was the end of the Eighties before I stumbled on him playing solo with an acoustic guitar. But John acoustic isn't an evening of quiet introspection... it's a full-blown one man band rock 'n' roll experience. Standing alone on stage turning a half-empty hall into a jumping joint was a speciality touring with the Blues Band and the Manfreds (for whom ex-Medicine Head drummer Rob Townsend is a stalwart. Another is his regular holiday stint playing the human jukebox for hours each night in the bar of the Sporthotel Strass, owned by the rock 'n' roll loving Erich Roscher in the Austrian ski resort of Mayrhofen.) From the early Nineties a couple of shows stand out as being up there with the best John's ever done. One, at London's sweaty Mean Fiddler, with John's chugging electric guitar ringing out once again, backed by the likes of Ray (helping out on bass) and ex-Cockney Rebel/10cc keyboard man Duncan Mackay. Shortly after that in Feltham, Middlesex, the band were joined for a steaming show by Morgan Fisher, over from his new home in Japan. Since then John's been his own man, doing the quirkiest of solo shows. Earlier this year he took over the packed non-music bar of his local, the Marlborough, in Richmond, Surrey, and made friends with a Friday night crowd of all ages as he prowled amongst them. He's fronted a blues club in Phoenix, put out his home-made cassette State Of The Heart and then - quite astonishing after 30 years - his first solo album Return Of The Buffalo (even bigger in its Angel Air form, The Big Buffalo). He's now back living in Phoenix and, infused with the energy of the endless summer sun, is working on a new band, perhaps Medicine Head, perhaps not, but certainly taking Medicine Head's rootsy, bluesy, rocking sound and creating the lasting legacy the band deserves. Curiously, given their music, John and Peter never got to play the US. Now could finally be the moment for John to pick up the music and run with it. Medicine Head with a dry, dusty desert backdrop. From the train whistle that opens Two Man Band, leading into the airy streamliner strum of it's Natural, through the eerie, pedal steel-tinged Sun's Sinkin' Low and the haunting Too Much Love, this might have been Medicine Head's finale but unlike most farewell albums it's got the feel of a fresh new beginning. It truly is timeless music.

By Nick Dalton (reprinted with permission)