Thursday, 29 December 2011

Far out! How Medicine Head helped me through my first year at university

It sounds like the stuff of nightmare: it’s the early 1970s, and here are two hippies from the Midlands trying to play raw, rootsy 12-Bar Blues, but without a proper band. They don’t murder classics – they write their own material, which sounds as if it’s been written under the influence of acid, and then deliver it in a style that suggests a heavy intake of grass and downers.

One of them has specs, a droopy tache and shoulder-length centre-parted hair: he does all the singing (usually double-tracked – he doesn’t have a powerful voice), plays electric guitar and harmonica, and foot-pedals a thunking bass drum in a somewhat rhythmically erratic manner. John Fiddler is a one-man band, and yet – for reasons which are never explained – he has a slightly better-looking partner sporting what Zadie Smith calls a "Jewfro" hair-do, whose sole contribution - perhaps fittingly - appears to be to play that undemanding instrument, the Jew’s harp. 

Medicine Head should have been awful. Instead, they were terrific.

I have absolutely no idea what made me buy their second LP, Heavy on The Drum, during my first year at university – probably their superb, hypnotic first hit single, “(And The) Pictures in the Sky”, released on John Peel’s Dandelion label in late 1971 (I say “hit” – it climbed to 22). And the title probably helped – I was all for heavy drums.

I suspect many first-year Oxbridge undergraduates felt like I did - an undeserving fraud rubbing shoulders with the UK’s intellectual elite (shome mishtake, surely!) Some of them compensated for their sense of unworthiness by instantly turning into crusty, middle-aged dons; others chose chippiness, emphasising their lower-class roots by drinking lots of beer in t’ college buttery, thickening their provincial accents, and droning on about football all the time. Boarding school types either estuarised their accents or started nancying about the place like Sebastian Flyte. Medicine Head were my equivalent of comforting nursery food during those early months – a reaction against ubiquitous, poncey Prog Rock: after a morning being baffled by philosophy, some really basic music was the equivalent of nursery food - familiar and undemanding. 

Not all the music I listened to that year was crude. In between properly discovering classical music, the albums I played most often included Neil Young’s Harvest, Paul Simon’s eponymous solo debut, Van Morrison’s His Band and Street Choir, Fairport Convention’s lovely Liege & Lief and the Blind Willie McTell compilation album, Atlanta Twelve String (it may have been authentic acoustic blues, but it was packed with intelligence). But thudding away underneath all of them was John Fiddler’s bass drum.

My favourite track was "There’s Always a Light" (too obscure to be featured on YouTube - if you're at all interested, it's on Spotify) – the lines “Pull a peach from a tree/Take the man out of me” ran through my head for months on end. No idea why. After a year, when I honestly thought I’d go mad if I heard any of the tracks on it one more time, I gave the album to a friend. I’ve often regretted doing so, because I've missed it, and because Heavy on The Drum is now a bit heavy on the pocket - a Japanese import CD is going for £71!

Medicine Head should have disappeared from the scene after that early burst, really: too odd, quirky, rootsy and niche to make it in the era of Led Zeppelin- style stadium cock rock, the acoustic Laurel Canyon noodlings of CSN&Y and Joni Mitchell (and a zillion less-talented variants), and Glam (if you can find anyone less “Glam” than John Fiddler, you win a prize). But bugger my wig if they didn’t  have two splendid Top Twenty hits in 1973 – those terrific chuggers, “One and One (Is One)”, which got all the way to No. 3, and "Rising Sun”, which got to 11. With pleasing symmetry, they once again reached 22, this time with “Slip and Slide”, in February 1974. (One of the many anomalies about Medicine Head was how often they sang about dancing, despite the fact that John Fiddler always gave me the impression that he’d fall flat on his face if he ever seriously tried to shake a leg. Another  is that the fiddle was one of the few instruments Fiddler didn't play.)

The duo split in 1976. Fiddler went on to sing with the less famous members of the Yardbirds in a group called Box of Frogs (no, I haven't the foggiest) and has been in and around the music industry ever since. Earlier this year, he released the first Medicine Head album in 34 years – Fiddlerosophy. I hope it did well – it sounds pretty good – because there are few musical figures to whom I feel more genuine affection and gratitude.

Thanks, man!



  1. Of all your posts, this one is the most surprising. Scott the Hippy Slayer and Medicine Head? I always liked them in a listen but not buy way, but they are about as far from your rockabilly roots as Mahler is from Frank Zappa. By the way, it is possible to like Joni, Led Zep and Med Head at the same time and as you have belatedly discovered, Led Zep is a bit more than cock rock.

    Can we expect the Fulminators to cover One and One at some point?

  2. Disagree, Ex-KCS - I think Medicine Head share a lot of Rockabilly's main attributes - crude, basic, lots of echo, great beat, absolutely no over-production and with roots in the Blues and R&B. I have catholic tastes, admittedly - I was going to mention that I later went on to buy Gary Glitter's first LP - much to the horror of arch-Hippy capitalist, Andy, the proprietor of the record stall in the market who went on to build a chain of record shops. "Why are so many students buying this crap?" he protested. "It's rubbish!" Mind you, he had a bloody great display of the same LP within a few days.