Few artists have bridged the worlds of rock and theatre as successfully as Murray Head. Singing the music of others, actor-singer Head scored two major hits on both sides of the Atlantic with 1973's "Superstar" from Jesus Christ Superstar and 1984's "One Night in Bangkok" from Chess. Far lesser known, however, is his discography as a singer-songwriter. Head imbued his own compositions with the same vibrant life as those famous songs by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Tim Rice, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, and it's no surprise that much of his own solo work shares with them a flair for the theatrical. Last year, Intervention Records reissued Head's 1972 solo debut Nigel Lived as a lavish 45 RPM 2-LP, "Artist Approved" edition pressed on 180-gram vinyl. This 45th anniversary release breathed new life into a fascinating and all-but-lost concept album. Now, Nigel Lived is available, too, on a hybrid SACD, playable on all CD players, with the label's same hallmarks of quality.
The sprawling Nigel Lived takes the form of a musical diary, pictured on the LP's back cover, "found" by Murray and set to music. Considering the past tense of the title and the designation of Side One as "Success" and Side Two as "Failure" (each original side is now pressed on two sides of one LP, owing to the 45 RPM format), it's not difficult to see where Head took this tale of a young musician bound for London with dreams of the big time. How he told the tale, though, is truly extraordinary, as he blended studio recordings with "on location" recordings made throughout the West End of London. This experimental drama springs to vivid life on Intervention's pristine and sonically rich reissue, which captures the original album's tremendous and quite wide, dynamics, and creative use of stereo.
Characters and scenes are presented throughout Nigel Lived, likely drawing on the artist's own life experiences (although thankfully, unlike Nigel, he very much still lives today). Head's songs, based on the diary entries reprinted within the heavy-stock gatefold sleeve, are a varied lot, suiting his versatile gifts and expressive range as a vocalist. Naturally background singers are present, too, for additional vocal color.
On the original Side One alone, Head's Nigel trades in the country for the city, at first pining for the past but soon embracing, and succumbing to, pleasures of the flesh and beyond. To depict these vignettes, Head takes in influences of folk ("Pacing on the Station," in which Nigel Perkins first ventures out of his small town), blue-eyed soul ("Big City," with Chris Mercer's frantic tenor sax capturing the energy of the metropolis), rock (the cacophonic "The Party" and driving "City Scurry"), and ethereal balladry (the acoustic "Ruthie," its yearning vocal lines somewhat recalling young Paul Simon's prettiest). The artist's knack for an attractive melody particularly serves him well on "Ruthie" as well as the gorgeous, if too short, "When You Wake Up in the Morning." (One could hear the makings of a single in the cascading arrangement of the latter.)
Nigel's "Failure" is conjured with everything from rollicking, rootsy rock ("Why Do We Have to Hurt Our Heads," featuring Graham Preskett's wild electric violin and Peter Robinson's barroom piano) to the haunting strains of a church organ ("Pity the Poor Consumer") or the cabaret jazz setting of "Dole" (with piano, bass, guitar, and saxophone). On the withering "Pity," Nigel asks, "Money madness, is that all that's left/There must be more to life/Profit motive, the key to success/But it leads to such grief and strife" - a sentiment that wouldn't seem out of place today.
Musicians including Caravan flautist Jimmy Hastings, clarinetist Tony Coe, King Crimson drummer Michael Giles, and percussionists Cozy Powell and Ray Cooper were among the first-call session veterans playing on the album, while American arranger-conductor Nick DeCaro wrote the sparing but potent horn and string charts for Head's ambitious rock opera. DeCaro's baroque strings, three-dimensional as remastered by Kevin Gray, bring the tension to the taunting "Nigel, Nigel," while his unique orchestration for "Miss Illusion" employing pipe organ, bass marimba, and his own accordion characterizes the adventurous spirit of the album. The artist and musicians pulled out the stops for "Religion" (unusually utilizing steel drums and a choir) and the harrowing multi-part finale "Junk," chronicling Nigel's descent into despair and addiction.
The LP edition is pressed at 45 RPM on four sides of vinyl, far surpassing the original edition (which squeezed over 22 minutes of music on the first side, and 27 on Side Two). Though the diverse instrumentation is crisply pronounced here, the bass truly shines with a newfound presence and heft. The label confirmed the sources of this beautiful-sounding record as recording engineer Phill Brown's 1/4″ 15-ips analog tapes from 1972. Intervention's attention to detail isn't solely restricted to audio; the jacket and 8-page book printed by Stoughton are sturdy and attractive, and the LPs have orange labels as close as possible to the original CBS designs.
The new hybrid SACD, housed in a Super Jewel Box, boasts equally splendid sonics and presentation. It was mastered direct-to-DSD by Kevin Gray from Brown's analog tapes, and while it particularly shines when played on an SACD player, it's still an engaging, powerful listen on standard CD. The SACD edition replicates the 8-page booklet with handwritten libretto, though the scrapbook/diary design is naturally more impressive at LP size (bound within its gatefold).
Nigel Lived is a multi-textured album that deserves a close listen, if possible while following along with the libretto. Head would later write more instantly accessible songs; it's not that traditional melodies are absent from Nigel Lived, but they're presented in a subtler fashion than would have been acceptable on radio of the era. The album is also clearly meant to be enjoyed as a whole. Though Nigel Lived never hit the stage itself, Intervention's LP and hybrid SACD reissues make it clear that it is to be cherished alongside Head's performances on Jesus Christ Superstar and Chess, as well as within his own stellar discography.