Unicorn went through a number of names before the band settled on that mystical creature: The Senders, The Pink Bear, The Late Edition, The Late, and just plain Late. The band wasn't late at all - rather, they were right on time in combining their influences into a striking sound of their own. They'd started as a beat group and put those skills to use backing Billy J. Kramer; then, the discovery of the Southern California sounds of CSN became a major influence. Unicorn blended CSN-style harmonies with Beatles-inspired songcraft, Motown energy, and lyrics bearing a British rather than American sensibility, and the fusion was so spellbinding that it caught the attention of Pink Floyd's David Gilmour. Now, three of the band's LPs have been brought together as a new 4-CD box set from Cherry Red's Esoteric Recordings due out tomorrow, Friday, August 28. Slow Dancing: The Recordings 1974-1979 contains Esoteric's 2017 expanded editions of Blue Pine Trees (1974), Too Many Crooks (1976), and One More Tomorrow (1977) plus an all-new bonus disc of previously unreleased archival recordings. The set makes a strong case for this underrated group.
Blue Pine Trees, issued on the Charisma label, followed Uphill All the Way, the band's 1971 debut on Transatlantic. That album produced by Hugh Murphy emphasized covers - of James Taylor ("Country Road"), Neil Young ("I've Loved Her So Long"), John Stewart ("Never Going Back"), and Jimmy Webb (lead single "P.F. Sloan"). Lead guitarist Trevor Mee departed the band after Uphill, and was replaced for Blue Pine Trees by Kevin Smith. Bringing a country flavor influenced by The Byrds' Clarence White, Smith joined Kenny Baker (guitar/keyboards/vocals), Pat Martin (bass/vocals), and Pete Perryer (drums/lead vocals) in the line-up. The producer was David Gilmour who had become a fan of the band after seeing them perform at the wedding of Transatlantic's Ricky Hopper. He arranged for Pink Floyd's management to sign Unicorn and took an interest in every aspect of the album right down to the Hipgnosis cover. (Gilmour was at the same time guiding the career of the young Kate Bush, and even enlisted Perryer and Martin to play with her. "Passing Through Air" from those 1973 sessions was released as the B-side of her 1980 single "Army Dreamers.") Most significantly, Blue Pine Trees featured all original songs penned in whole or in part by the band members.
The sound of Blue Pine Trees is happily disparate. "Autumn Wine," with its Beach Boys name-check, is a moody ballad with prog overtones; "Rat Race" evokes "Long Train Runnin'"-era Doobie Brothers. (The Doobies were actually one of the bands Unicorn supported on tour; they did the same for Fleetwood Mac, Fleetwood Mac, Linda Ronstadt, and Billy Joel.) Beatles guitars are crossed with a country-rock chug-a-lug on "Holland," while "Nightingale Crescent" and "The Farmer" liltingly and amiably bounce in the mode of the Grateful Dead at their most mellow. Gilmour contributed pedal steel to the twangy "Sleep Song" and the harmony-rich "Just Wanna Hold You." The CSN-influenced "Ooh Mother" was selected as the lead single; the 45 version is included among the six bonus selections. The additional tracks also include B-sides "Bog Trotter" and "Take It Easy" (not the Eagles song, but comparably breezy), the majestic, string-laden non-LP A-side "I Believe in You (The Hymn)," a live BBC track, and the upbeat country-rock outtake "Volcano."
The laid-back sound of Too Many Crooks incorporated the twangy guitars, Laurel Canyon harmonies, and easygoing melodic rock of its predecessor...imagine the Eagles as produced by David Gilmour. Some cuts - such as the title track, featuring (once again) pedal steel provided by Gilmour - share a dark, impressionistic quality with Gilmour's famous band, but chief songwriter Ken Baker's melodies have a more pronounced pop leaning. The Fab flourishes continue throughout, particularly in the harmonies and in the finely-arranged production primarily played by the band but also the strings on the evocative "Disco Dancer," chosen as the first single. Gilmour liked "No Way Out of Here" so much that he recorded his own version in 1978 on his self-titled solo debut. The presentation here of Too Many Crooks has one previously released outtake ("So Far Away" - not the Carole King song - which first appeared on a 2006 Japanese CD reissue) plus four live cuts recorded in 1976 for radio promotional use, and the single mix of "Disco Dancer," which despite its title, retains the album's loose country-rock vibe.
Alas, 1977's One More Tomorrow proved to be the final Unicorn album. Capitol Records issued it first in the U.S., before Harvest brought it home to the U.K. in early 1978. While Gilmour returned to helm the album, the record label also brought in Muff Winwood. Muff had played with his younger brother Steve in the Spencer Davis Group before transitioning into an A&R role at the Island and CBS labels. Winwood was enlisted by EMI (parent of Harvest and Capitol) to add a more commercial sheen to the album. (The cover, a departure from the Hipgnosis-designed sleeves for Blue Pine Trees and Too Many Crooks, reflected this as well.) Winwood recorded four tracks with the band which would supplement the Gilmour sessions, and in fact, his quartet of productions was selected to lead off the LP.
Aiming squarely for a hit, Winwood brought along a pair of songs from outside writers - the first time Unicorn had recorded non-original material since their debut album. Covering John Fogerty's CCR ("Have You Ever Seen the Rain") and Eagles pal Jack Tempchin ("Slow Dancing," a contemporary hit for Johnny Rivers in 1977), Unicorn nonetheless sounded comfortable. Muff also helmed two Ken Baker songs - the catchy "New Shoes" and smooth, ironic "Get Along Fine." Surprisingly, Winwood's productions fit snugly on the album with Gilmour's; "The Night," like "Get Along Fine," would reside comfortably on a so-called "yacht rock" playlist. The SoCal-inspired country-rock of Crooks wasn't abandoned entirely, cropping up on songs like "Eric," "The Way It Goes" and the jaunty, breezy "British Rail Romance." The Byrds' influence is keenly felt on title track "One More Tomorrow," with Baker adopting a natural drawl for his rueful lyrics. Baker's bandmate Kevin Smith teamed with Roy St. John to pen the atmospheric "Magnolia Avenue."
One More Tomorrow was elegantly-crafted soft rock with impeccable musicianship guided, in large part, by Gilmour's deft and organic production touch (as well as his guitar on three cuts), but it, too, failed to make a chart impact. After a brief parting of the ways between Baker and his bandmates, resulting in a handful of singles, Unicorn quietly broke up. The bandmates went their separate ways, though all remained involved in music, in one capacity or another. This disc adds the non-LP B-sides "Give and Take" and "Nothing I Wouldn't Do" plus three demos, and two performances from the same December 1975 radio session.
The fourth and final disc in Esoteric's box set comprises The Archive Recordings, which is not to be confused with Omnivore Recordings' essential 2018 release Laughing Up Your Sleeve. Whereas that collection offered 20 demos originally recorded in 1973 -1974 at Gilmour's home studio, The Archive Recordings presents a broad spectrum of previously unissued tracks including outtakes, demos, and live recordings. Among these are numerous, enjoyable covers of Bob Dylan ("The Man in Me," "You Angel You," "Billy the Kid"), Kate McGarrigle ("Come a Long Way"), Hoyt Axton ("Bony Fingers," co-written with Renee Armand), Gene Parsons and Clarence White (the bluegrass instrumental "Nashville West") and Gram Parsons and Bernie Leadon ("The Man in the Fog") as well as Kenny Baker originals such as "Hold On" (think The Beatles meet Buckingham/Nicks-era Fleetwood Mac in a country-rock blender) and "Look Into Your Mirror," both as strong as anything on the three LPs.
While there are credits for each song, there aren't annotations placing these in the context of the band's career. That said, three tracks are full-band Gilmour demos (the reggae-tinged "Lovin' You," rockabilly-style "Don't Turn Away," and soft-rocking "This Old World") and one is an early, less-polished alternate version helmed by Gilmour ("Get Along Fine") while the lion's share of tracks are full productions by Pat Martin. Roughly half of the tracks are stated as having been sourced from original 1/4-inch tapes and sound stellar; the live tracks recorded from the soundboard to cassettes are clean and listenable but lack the studio recordings' fidelity. Happily, the live recordings reveal that the band's harmonies could successfully be replicated onstage, too.
Slow Dancing: The Recordings 1974-1979 is housed in a clamshell case containing a thick 44-page booklet stuffed with album art, photos, credits, lyrics for Disc Four, and an essay by David DiSanzo. Ben Wiseman's fine remasterings for the three core albums have been retained here, while Paschal Byrne has mastered the new material.
Unicorn never recorded another full-length album after One More Tomorrow, although one more single was eked out in 1979 with Rob Jacobs replacing Ken Baker who recorded a solo single concurrently. Their music has gained new attention in recent years, however, and Slow Dancing: The Recordings 1974-1979 is a jewel in that crown. Look for it tomorrow at the links below!
CD 1: Blue Pine Trees: Expanded Edition (Charisma CAS 1092, 1974 - reissued Esoteric ECLEC 2575, 2017)
- Electric Night
- Sleep Song
- Autumn Wine
- Rat Race
- Just Wanna Hold You
- Nightingale Crescent
- The Farmer
- In the Gym
- Blue Pine Trees
- Ooh Mother
- The Ballad of John and Julie (BBC Session 1974)
- Bog Trotter (Charisma single CB 231-B, 1974)
- Ooh Mother (Single Version) (Charisma single CB 231-A, 1974)
- I'll Believe in You (The Hymn) (Charisma single CB 255-A, 1975)
- Take It Easy (Charisma single CB 255-B, 1975)
CD 2: Too Many Crooks: Expanded Edition (Harvest SHSP 4054, 1976 - reissued Esoteric ECLEC 2576, 2017)
- Ferry Boat
- He's Got Pride
- Keep On Going
- Too Many Crooks
- Bullseye Bill
- Disco Dancer
- No Way Out of Here
- In the Mood
- So Far Away (Outtake, first released on Air Mail Archive AIRAC-1190, 2006)
- Weekend (Live - December 23, 1975 recorded for radio promotional use)
- Ferry Boat (Live - December 23, 1975 recorded for radio promotional use)
- He's Got Pride (Live - December 23, 1975 recorded for radio promotional use)
- No Way Out of Here (Live - December 23, 1975 recorded for radio promotional use)
- Disco Dancer (Single Version) (Harvest HAR 5105, 1976)
CD 3: One More Tomorrow: Expanded Edition (Harvest SHSP 4067, 1977 - reissued Esoteric ECLEC 2577, 2017)
- Have You Ever Seen The Rain
- New Shoes
- Slow Dancing
- Get Along Fine
- British Rail Romance
- One More Tomorrow
- So Hard to Get Through
- I'm Alright (When I'm with You)
- The Night
- The Way It Goes
- Magnolia Avenue
- Give and Take (Harvest single HAR 5126-B, 1977)
- Nothing I Wouldn't Do (Harvest single HAR 5131-B, 1977)
- In the Mood (Live - December 23, 1975 recorded for radio promotional use)
- Keep On Going (Live - December 23, 1975 recorded for radio promotional use)
- Rio De Janeiro (Demo - recorded at Easy Street Studio, 1977)
- Don't Tell Me I Know (Demo - recorded at David Gilmour's home studio, 1979)
- All Crazy People (Demo - recorded at David Gilmour's home studio, 1973)
CD 4: The Archive Recordings (previously unreleased)
- Come a Long Way
- Billy the Kid
- The Man in Me
- Hold On
- Loving You
- Don't Turn Away
- This Old World
- The Sweeter Life
- Look Into Your Mirror
- Bony Fingers (Live in the USA 1974)
- Corrina, Corrina (Live in the USA 1974)
- Nashville West (Live in the USA 1974)
- Lenny Dee
- In the Gym (Live on BBC Radio)
- Get Along Fine (Alternate Version)
- Man in the Fog
- You Angel You
- One More Tomorrow (Demo)
- Tell Me Straight