The rules of pop music were changing, and Roger Cook didn't want to be behind the times. The songwriter of such nuggets as "You've Got Your Troubles," "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing," "My Baby Loves Lovin'" and "Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress" had long balanced his work as a behind-the-scenes songwriter with a singing career. As one-half of David and Jonathan (with co-writer Roger Greenaway) and a member of Blue Mink, Cook was a familiar vocalist, and as a background singer, he added to the distinct sound of Elton John's earliest albums.
In summer 2011, RPM Records issued Cook's complete solo tenure for EMI's Columbia label via an expanded edition of Cook's 1970 album Study. The label has just continued the Roger Cook story with a new 2-CD anthology, Running with the Rat Pack (RPM RETRO D921). The Rats in question aren't Frank, Dean and Sammy, but rather the U.K. session crew that brought to life albums from Blue Mink, White Plains, The First Class, Edison Lighthouse and so many other groups both real and fictional. Rat Pack brings together two of Cook's released LPs (1972's Meanwhile Back at the World and 1973's Minstrel in Flight) and adds a previously unreleased album recorded by Cook and Blue Mink bassist/session stalwart Herbie Flowers. Though these albums lack the pure pop that made Study one of the most delightful surprises of 2011, they show Cook heading into uncharted and often interesting territory as a songwriter and vocalist.
On Meanwhile Back at the World, Cook and Greenaway must have been determined to shake off any notion that they could only turn out three-minute pop songs. The duo wrote every song, with co-writers on just a couple of them. The title track opens the John Burgess-produced, Jimmy Horrowitz-arranged album, a 7+-minute opus with impressionistic lyrics ("I feel that you're aware/I feel you're there/Somewhere..." or "People are tryin' to reach me/Then there's people tryin' to be where I am/Just as if it was something you could see...") and a sprawling musical canvas that includes both simple acoustic instrumentation and ornate strings. Those strings bring a sound reminiscent of prime Elton John, while Cook's vocals have a slight Neil Young tinge.
Though a brief snippet of the title song is reprised to bring continuity to the LP at its mid-point, Meanwhile otherwise isn't much of a concept album but rather a collection of songs with a similar feel. The story song "Greta Oscawina," about a fan's connection to a far-away movie star with a surname that suspiciously sounds like "Oscar winner" ("Greta Oscawina, I'm in love with you and everything you are"), is enjoyably light, with smooth saxophone woven throughout the song.
"We Will Get By" (written by the "Cookaway" team with Jackie Rae) and "Warm Days, Warm Nights" are two more lengthy tracks, both of which build from gentle piano-driven declarations to full-blown anthems. Their melodies might be too meandering to have made for successful singles, and the team hadn't mastered the long-form pop song form as Jimmy Webb ("MacArthur Park") or Paul McCartney ("Band on the Run") had. But Cook and Greenaway's pop instincts never wholly let them down, and there are some strikingly lovely phrases in both songs. "Warm Days" goes from that stark piano to intense gospel fervor within the framework of a love song. Among the album's choir of voices are Rosetta Hightower, Lesley Duncan and Tony Burrows. Cook also made tentative steps towards country-and-western, a field in which he would later prosper once he relocated to America and specifically, Nashville, with "Oh Babe." The album's closing song, an upbeat ode to "Sweet America" co-written with Bruce "Hey Baby" Channel, also has a twangy vibe.
Though Meanwhile Back at the World had its far-out moments, Cook planned an even more ambitious follow-up. Join us after the jump!
Spread across Disc 1 and Disc 2 of the new set is an unreleased album called Rose on Fire, credited to Cook and Herbie Flowers and again primarily written by Cook and Greenaway. Though tracks from this shelved long-player have appeared in the past under various titles, this set marks its first appearance in something close to intended form. It's a fantastic find, but it's not hard to see why the album wasn't originally released. It's a mélange of pop, rock, psychedelia and general weirdness!
"Rose on Fire" (included in both album and single versions) is a catchy country-flavored ditty which makes an appealing opener, but it all goes astray from there! The lyric "I feel so high" begins "Everybody's Singing Like Me Now," a trippy, carnival-esque track ("Turn me up, turn me down to the music/Look at me, I am free, can't you see...") with baroque flourishes in the strings. The boisterous track dissolves into goofy laughter, and it becomes apparent that perhaps Cook and Flowers' foray into Smiley Smile territory was just a few years too late? "Daughter of Someone" is equally strange, if jaunty, with breathy yowls and yelps punctuating the song. Flowers co-wrote six songs with Cook and Greenaway, including both "Everybody's Singing Like Me Now" and "Daughter."
The brassy, funky "Rat Pack," co-written by Sandie Shaw, gives this collection its title and is a precursor to M's 1979 "Pop Muzik," as Kingsley Abbott points out in his fine liner notes. A straightforward, pretty take on John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "Oh My Love" is an odd respite in the album from kooky strangeness, while two "People" songs ("People Need People" and "People of Mine") are two of the most commercial offerings. Brazenly flying in the face of what might have been expected from the poppy Blue Mink team of Cook and Flowers, Rose on Fire may lack cohesion, but it's a welcome addition at long last to the Cook catalogue.
Minstrel in Flight (1973) was more of a direct sequel to Meanwhile Back at the World, with a more country-pop style with a lighter dollop of lyrical psychedelia. Flowers returned on bass for this effort, with B.J. Cole on prominent steel guitar, Chris Spedding on guitar (a holdover from Meanwhile), Tony Newman on drums and Ray Cooper on percussion. The late Paul Young (of Mike and the Mechanics fame, not the singer of "Every Time You Go Away") was also featured on the album, co-writing "Carry On" and contributing background vocals. This time, there were a couple of covers among the "Cookaway" compositions, but Cook was typically fine form as a vocalist, whether drawling or more aggressively rocking his leads.
It's also a more low-key release, although Cook leaves room for the big stacks of chorus vocals he favored, including on the sprawling "Grey Highlands of Dawn." There's much stylistic variety from Cook and company: the haunting melody of "Eating Peaches in the Sun" has some similarity to Leon Russell's "A Song for You" but "Would I Say I Love You" is something akin to mariachi-country-reggae! The singer/songwriter tackles social relevance with "The Power of Your Big Brother" and revisits his own pop catalogue in a solo version of Blue Mink's "Stay with Me." The album's closer, "Mr. Magic Man," is the kind of big, hook-filled song Roger Cook could likely have written in his sleep. That doesn't diminish its charm, however.
RPM has reliably packaged the set with a 10-page full color booklet including Abbott's notes, plenty of label scans, photos of the master tape boxes to Rose on Fire (a.k.a. Cook 'n' Flowers Monster Album) and a vintage review of Meanwhile Back at the World. Roger Cook's place in the songwriters' hall of fame is already long assured, but RPM's series of reissues has shed a welcome light on his "parallel line" as a performer, a line which continues today. In fact, tickets are already on sale for upcoming U.K. gigs with Rogers Cook and Greenaway, and Madeline Bell. Dare we hope RPM will complete his solo catalogue on a future release?
Running with the Rat Pack is available now, and can be ordered at the link below.
Roger Cook, Running with the Rat Pack: Albums, Singles, Unreleased 1972-1973 (RPM RETRO CD D921, 2012)
- Meanwhile Back at the World
- I Am a Leaf
- Greta Oscawina
- We Will Get By
- Warm Days, Warm Nights
- Oh Babe
- I'll Bet Jesus is a Lonely Man
- Sweet America
- Rose on Fire
- Everybody's Singing Like Me Now
- Daughter of Someone
- Rat Pack
- Oh, My Love
- Sorry, Sad and So
- Hey, Mohican
- Lonely Me I'm Alone Again
- People Need People
- Fast Running Out of World
- People of Mine
- Rose on Fire (Single)
- Eating Peaches in the Sun
- Carry On
- Sad Stoned
- Grey Highlands of Dawn
- The Power of Your Big Brother
- Would You Say I Love You?
- Stay with Me
- Mr. Magic Man
CD 1, Tracks 1-8 from Meanwhile Back at the World, Regal Zonophone SRZA 8508, 1972
CD 1, Tracks 9-13 and CD 2, Tracks 1-6 intended for Rose on Fire, unreleased, 1973
CD 2, Tracks 8-17 from Minstrel in Flight, Regal Zonophone SRLZ 1035, 1973