Family Dogg: a tail piece

‘Icky,’’pallid,’ ‘unctuous’ says a Record Collector reviewer somewhat unkindly about Family Dogg: A Way of Life: Anthology 1967-76 whilst Shindig cloak a lack of enthusiasm behind an acknowledgement that the Dogg were a ‘solid’ music machine who seem to have avoided any obvious pitfalls.  So a case of best let sleeping Doggs lie, then.

The alleged Dogg unctuousness is maybe that actorly smoothness I mentioned in my review.  That, and a desire to be taken seriously, especially as Rowland, in particular, was very much the music industry insider.  I think Rowland, Hammond and Hazlewood were looking for a credibility steal from the likes of Simon, Dylan and Rodriguez (the latter somewhat retrospectively).   The fact that both albums were gatefolds tells us something about what the group were striving for as does the choice of socially conscious material.  If there is unctuousness, it’s pretty much pierced by tracks like Jesus Loves Me and, well, Family Dog (not that I’m saying they’re actually funny or anything…).

Those Dylan covers were never going to go down well with Bobsessives.  But I really dig that ‘of matchsticks yeah!’ vocal response in Love Minus Zero.  What could possibly be unctuous about that?  If you want to hear Dylan as yawn-inducing cabaret, try Hollies Sing Dylan, where the only thing Blowin’ in the Wind is the smell of scampi in a basket (I say that as a Hollies’ fan and in the knowledge that the band could produce barn-storming Dylan covers, as a 1968 live at Lewisham Odeon recording of The Times They Are a Changing testifies).

As for the arrangements, weren’t they part of what the well-dressed late ‘60s pop song was all about?   When you listen to Steve Rowland’s vocal in ‘A Way of Life’, you just know that man wears a cravat.

Yesterday’s inventiveness is today’s pretentiousness.  It’s a dog eat Dogg world out there.

The Family Dogg: A Way of Life: Anthology 1967-76
The Family Dogg:  It’s Just a Way of Life

The Family Dogg: A Way of Life: Anthology 1967-1976

Double CD on RPM Records, Released 21st April 2014

Family Dogg CD cover

This is a truly comprehensive compilation weighing in at over fifty tracks across two CDs.  All single A and B sides are represented together with both the 1969 and 1972 albums in full and a slew of more obscure material.  There is a nicely produced and informative sixteen page colour booklet.

The Family Dogg was essentially the brain-child of producer Steve Rowland along with singer-songwriters Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood. Steve Rowland had produced Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich for over a year prior to The Family Dogg, scoring big chart successes with the likes of ‘Hold Tight!’, ‘Zabadak!’ and later ‘The Legend of Xanadu’.  You can hear how his production skills were brought to bear in Family Dogg’s cover of The Bee Gees’ ‘The Storm’, using layered instrumentation and repeated chant-like passages of boy/girl harmonies to create a sense of gathering drama.  The material Family Dogg had to work with was more melodically ambitious, less gimmicky than DDDBMT.  The production needed not to overwhelm the melodic appeal, so no whip-cracking here, though generously applied reverb provides a sense of dignified vastness.

The more upbeat material works best – I’ll Wear a Silly Grin (definitely a step up on The Critters), Julie’s Just Gone, Jimmy Webb’s ‘Pattern People’ and a super-charged Save the Life of My Child with some great soaring strings towards the closing fade.  A tight rhythm section drives these faster numbers as well it might – many of the earlier arrangements were by John Paul Jones with fellow  Led Zeppelin members to be Jimmy Page and John Bonham providing backing.  Familiar names such as Alan Parker, Alan Hawkshaw and Clem Cattani also lend quality support. Listen out for those nice flashes of ‘60s brass.

Smooth style

Vocals, shared between the three men but mainly Steve Rowland, are of the smooth style, the same vein as the smooth school of acting of that time – (Gerald Harper, Peter Wyngarde).  Indeed, Steve had been an actor before entering the music business and there is something slightly actorly in his vocal delivery – not a theatricalism but a rather well-judged quality, a sort of inflected seriousness of intent.

The Family Dogg was Steve Rowland first and the male triumvirate second.  Although a vital element in the group’s sound, the girls tended to play second fiddle to the guys, allowed only one lead vocal each on the first album.  Indeed, the women were replaced at a quite alarming rate – Pam ‘Zooey’ Quinn, Christine Holmes and Ireen Sheer were the mainstays.  This turnstile tendency became something of a music press joke at the time – ‘no change to Family Dogg line-up this week’.  Whilst admitting that penchants for women and fast cars sometimes got the better of him, Steve Rowland says that the press and media never understood the flexible concept of the band’s line-up, although this was something not at all uncommon at the time.

Only one in-house composition made it onto the group’s first album, strange, perhaps, given that Hammond and Hazlewood were quite capable of penning commercially successful songs for the likes of Leapy Lee (Little Arrows), Joe Dolan (Make Me an Island) and Blue Mink (Good Morning Freedom).  The group’s thoughtful signature hit, A Way of Life, also came from outside courtesy of Cook-Greenaway.

Hammond and Hazlewood’s departure to the US essentially spelt the end of the band by early 1970.  A surprisingly spartan, non-UK released cover of Early Bird’s ‘Sympathy’ was credited to ‘Steve Rowland and The Family Dogg‘.

Rowland’s talent-spotting skills proved their worth again when he took up an option to produce little known American songwriter Rodriguez.  Forty years later, this decision bore remarkable fruit as Rodriguez became an internationally hailed star whose story was told in the acclaimed 2012 film Searching for Sugar Man.

Six Rodriguez songs appear on the second and final Family Dogg album.  The View from Rowland’s Head is very much Steve’s project, as the title suggests, although Mike and Albert are still credited as members. The album embraces a diversity of styles – pop, rock, soul, gospel, country – the overall feel being less poppy, less overtly ‘produced’ than its predecessor.  Guitars are a bit more to the fore and a reflective, socially concerned mood sometimes underscores proceedings.

Slow build

The opener, I Wonder, again shows Rowland’s liking for the slow, repetitive build, this time breaking out into an impressive gospel chorus.  Riker’s Island, a Hammond/Hazlewood song marries a chain-gang chorus to searing sound effects.  Sweet America would not be out of place on Lou Christie’s 1971 album Paint America Love.

But my favourite track is Crucify Your Mind, a Rodriguez song given a lovely spacious production.  Combining a sense of inevitability with an almost cruel defiance in defeat and laced with bleakness throughout, it bears comparison with Scott McKenzie’s excellent Like an Old Time Movie.

And that was just about it for The Family Dogg save for Uptown, Uptempo Woman, a 1976 afterthought which perfectly incorporates the careful observations of Randy Edelmann’s piano solo original into a Family Dogg sensibility.

Work with Jerry Lee Lewis and later The Cure, The Thompson Twins and Japan beckoned for Steve Rowland.  Hazlewood and Hammond both found US success and one time member Kristine Sparkle (née Holmes) penned Cliff Richard’s ‘Devil Woman’.

This is a highly enjoyable collection of intelligent but commercial pop with a sunshine feel.   Some of the more obscure unreleased tracks might be of fairly temporary interest but an exception is the mysterious CD2 Track 23, Maresca-Curtis’s Joe South-like Child of Clay, given a production gloss which sounds like a great single in the making.

The Family Dogg: a tail piece 
The Family Dogg: It’s Just a Way Of Life