Thursday, 21 February 2019
Michael Chapman - Fully Qualified Survivor (1970)
Released in 1970
I recently heard Michael Chapman's 2017 album of bluesy Americana, "50". This was the first of his many albums I had ever listened to. Indeed, until that point, I had, shamefully, never heard of him. Inspired by that album, I decided to check out his earlier work and have found that this is a most interesting album - a sort of Roy Harper meets early David Bowie. It is folky but with definite rock leanings, particularly on the tracks that feature the relatively undiscovered guitar talents of Mick Ronson, before he took up with David Bowie full time (he had played on the 1969 "Space Oddity" album).
2. Naked Ladies & Electric Ragtime
3. Stranger In The Room
4. Postcards Of Scarborough
5. Fishbeard Sunset
6. Soulful Lady
7. Rabbit Hills
8. March Rain
9. Kodak Ghosts
10. Andru's Easy Rider
11. Trinkets & Rings
The first track, "Aviator" begins with a very Bowie-esque strummed acoustic guitar and some seriously delicious bass lines (played by Steeleye Span's Rick Kemp). It is eight minutes long and has a real air of mystery about it. There are similarities to the sort of lengthy folk/rock material that Al Stewart was putting out at the same time, both musically and lyrically. Chapman's voice has definite echoes of Bowie from the same period, but it has a sort of whiny grittiness that made it somewhat unique. There are hints of Dylan from "John Wesley Harding" as well, in places. The violin floats around in Van Morrison, "Astral Weeks" fashion, giving the track a haunting quality. Paul Buckmaster's strings are recognisable, particularly from the "Elton John" album from the same year. This is very much the sort of earnest, melodic and lyrically profound, meaningful music that was so de rigeur in 1970.
Another thing typical of the time was the guitar-picking instrumental, which we get here with the brief, pleasant tones of "Naked Ladies & Electric Ragtime". There is actually nothing electric about it, by the way, it is all acoustic. "Stranger In The Room" introduces electric guitar and some Beatles-esque drums, a Bowie vocal and another throbbing bass line. It is an impressive track, and somewhat surprising that this album, or Chapman's career, never really took off. This is up there with "The Width Of A Circle". Ronson provides some searing guitar lines throughout. Much as I love "Circle", however, this is just as good. It really is a bit of a revelation, actually.
"Postcards Of Scarborough" has a lengthy acoustic intro before some solid drums kick in and Chapman's voice and delivery arrives in a downbeat Leonard Cohen way. "Fishbeard Sunset" is forty seconds of pretty pointless guitar picking before we are launched straight into the muscular thump of the rock-ish "Soulful Lady". It features more excellent guitar and impressive drums. Despite the folky, wordy dreaminess of some of the album, Chapman also likes a bit of solid rock power. There is an appealing blues rock feel to this. "Rabbit Hills" reminds me of some of Mott The Hoople's early Ian Hunter slow rock ballads. The bleak, evocative "March Rain" finds Chapman sounding slightly different vocally - gruffer but a tiny bit slurred, as if he's just got up. He actually changes his vocal style several times, slightly, throughout the album. "Kodak Ghosts" is a mysterious Cohen-esque number with some sumptuous, subtle electric guitar from Ronson, a change from his trademark full-on riffery. "Andru's Easy Rider" is a slide guitar-driven blues instrumental that is another slight change in style, showing that there really is all sorts of stuff on this album. Another change arrives with the funky bass and bongo intro to the intoxicating "Trinkets & Rings". Chapman's voice has a mournful, haunting Jim Morrison feel to it, albeit with a throatiness. This is a quality, adventurous number. Quite why this album wasn't huge, I don't know.
It is said that Mick Ronson got the Bowie gig on the back of his work on this album. Maybe that is somewhat apocryphal as Bowie knew his work anyway from "Unwashed And Somewhat Slighty Dazed". Either way he was off to slam out glam rock riffs. Great as they were, perhaps his better work was to be found here. This certainly was a really good album and I highly recommend it.