Tea and Symphony-An Asylum For The Musically Insane.

Label: Magic Box.

When the original lineup of Tea and Symphony was founded in Birmingham, England, in the late-sixties, they were an acoustic group who have since been compared to Marc Bolan’s Tyrannosaurus Rex. The group was founded by Jeff Daw, James Langston and Nigel Phillips, but when they played live they were sometimes augmented by guest musicians. 

That was also the case when they recorded their debut album An Asylum For The Musically Insane in 1969, which has just been reissued on vinyl by Magic Box. It’s a reminder of an ambitious, oft-overlooked and underrated album that sadly, never found the audience it  deserved. However, looking back, commercial consideration was never Tea and Symphony’s raison d’être.

After the group was formed in the late-sixties, Tea and Symphony soon became familiar faces on Birmingham’s vibrant music scene which was thriving. However, Tea and Symphony were unlike most of the groups playing locally. Their stage shows which were regarded as “strange” and gig goers weren’t used to a band who combined music and theatrical content in their sets. This was something that they would add to over the next year or so.

Before that, Tea and Symphony became the first local band to appear at the now famous Mothers’ club, in the Birmingham district  of Erdington. It was previously the Carlton Ballroom, and was run by John ‘Spud’ Taylor and promoter Phil Myatt, until it closed its doors on the ‘3rd’ of January 1971. By then, over 400 artists and bands had played their ranging from the great and good of rock right through to aspiring and up-and-coming bands like Tea and Symphony.

They were following in the footsteps of groups like Pink Floyd by using light shows and projecting films onto the stage. However, they went further when they added a mime artist to their act. 

This was Jonathan Benyon who at the time was also known as Cockroach, and roadied for Tea and Symphony as well as Locomotive. However, he was also the mime artist Dr Smock, who wore a surgeons gown and danced under a strobe light.

Mime wasn’t just a gimmick and according to James Langston was an important part of their music:  “The mime is very much related to what is going on musically. Our music has a lot of mood changes and we improvise to a certain extent…I think audiences who haven’t heard us before sometimes find our music very strange because of its originality. I see Tea and Symphony developing as a mini travelling theatre.” Alas, that didn’t happen.

In 1969, Tea and Symphony headed out on tour with Tamworth-based progressive blues group Bakerloo. The tour transformed both their careers when they were signed by Harvest, the new EMI imprint.

Later in 1969, Tea and Symphony began working with producer Gus Dudgeon,  who previously, had been working Ten Years After. By then, their sophomore album Stonedhenge had enjoyed success on both sides of the Atlantic, and so would Ssssh when it was released in August 1969.

When Tea and Symphony headed to Trident Studios, in London, for their first session with Gus Dudgeon they recorded a cover of Procol Harum’s Boredom which became their debut single. It was an accessible and radio friendly song that had commercial appeal. On the B-Side was the Jeff Daw composition Armchair Theatre which was more like Tea and Symphony’s true sound and featured on their debut album An Asylum For The Musically Insane.

Despite Tea and Symphony’s  debut single Boredom having commercial potential, it failed commercially upon its release in 1969. This was disappointing for the group who hoped that their debut album would fare better.

For An Asylum For The Musically Insane, Tea and Symphony’s songwriter-in-chief Jeff Daw penned Armchair Theatre, Feel How So Cool The Wind, Sometime and The Come On. He also cowrote Maybe My Mind (With Egg) and Terror In My Soul with Nigel Phillips who contributed Nothing Will Come Of Nothing. James Langston the other member of the group wrote Winter and the one cover versions was Fred Neil’s Travellin’ Shoes. These tracks became An Asylum For The Musically Insane.

Recording took place at Trident Studios, with producer Gus Dudgeon and engineer Barry Sheffield.  Jeff Daw, James Langston and Nigel Phillips played an interesting and eclectic collection of acoustic and electric instruments and were joined by several guest artists. This included bassists Ron Chesterman and Mick Hincks, drummer Bob Lamb and Gus Dudgeon who added percussion on album that was very different to the majority of the albums being released in 1969.

Most groups were releasing albums that had commercial potential. This sometimes meant compromising and got in the way of artistic integrity. However, Tea and Symphony wanted to make an artistic statement and weren’t it seems, willing to compromise. Their debut  album An Asylum For The Musically Insane was totally different from anything that was released at that time. 

Critics on hearing the album couldn’t make up their mind about Tea and Symphony’s debut. Some called the album “brilliant,” others “bizarre” and others regarded the music as “self-indulgent.” That was a word that was often used to describe albums of progressive rock. Usually when the critic didn’t understand, or take the time to understand what a group were trying to achieve. That may have been the case with Tea and Symphony’s musical statement An Asylum For The Musically Insane. It was way an album that was way ahead of its time.

When An Asylum For The Musically Insane was released by Harvest later in 1969, the album failed commercially. For the group this was disappointing, but they wanted to be successful on their terms and weren’t willing to compromise.

That was the case on Armchair Theatre which opens An Asylum For The Musically Insane finds Tea and Symphony doing things their way. They flit between genres including folk and incorporate elements of vaudeville as they combine their vocals with an eclectic selection of instruments on this wonderfully eccentric track. It’s just a musical amuse bouche though.

Initially, Feel How So Cool The Wind is eerie and atmospheric, and as soon as the vocal enters there’s an element of drama as the wind blows. What follows is a story of demon worlds where it looks like someone is about to freeze to death. However, there’s a  twist in the tale with a barroom singalong. Sometime is another adventure in acid folk, and features just a hand drum, guitars and bass. Jeff Daw and James Langston share the lead vocal and are accompanied by backing vocals which have been treated with echo. This is effective and plays a part in the song’s sound and success. It gives way to the lysergic and Eastern sounding Maybe My Mind (With Egg) before the bluesy sounding The Come On closes side one.

Terror In My Soul opens side two and as it unfolds, Tea and Symphony’s love of theatre is apparent. There’s an element of drama as the tension builds as a guitar is strummed briskly and a flute adds to this sinister sounding song that is one of the album’s highlights. A bluesy harmonica sets the scene on a captivating cover of Fred Neil’s Travellin’ Shoes which is rich in imagery. So is Winter which veers between haunting, atmospheric and cinematic. Providing a backdrop for the vocal are a carefully chosen selection of instruments, a myriad of sounds  and even birdsong. They play their part in what’s an outstanding track. Closing side two is Nothing Will Come Of Nothing, and as a harpsichord plays, there’s no hint of what’s to come. Soon, a piano accompanies a dramatic, powerful vocal before surprises aplenty are sprung.  Meanwhile,  every instrument seems to have been perfectly chosen as the arrangement waltzes and swings and seems to head in the direction of free jazz before preferring an apology. It’s not needed and instead, Tea and Symphony should take a bow as one of the great lost albums of the late-sixties comes to a close.

An Asylum For The Musically Insane was an ambitious and unconventional album where Tea and Symphony flit between and fuse disparate musical genres. This includes everything from avant-garde, blues and classical to folk rock, progressive folk,  psychedelic rock and progressive rock. As they do, they use acoustic instruments as the basis for many arrangements and the vocal arrangements were very  different to the majority of albums. They’re sometimes theatrical and dramatic as if Tea and Symphony are playing parts in a play. That is no surprise as the group loved theatre and it was always part of their sets. They decided to incorporate an element of theatre and drama into their music. Alas, this was something that some critics and record buyers neither understood nor were willing to embrace.

Maybe a wonderfully eccentric album like An Asylum For The Musically Insane was the type of album a more established group could’ve risked releasing? It was maybe too soon for Tea and Symphony who were just beginning their recording career. However, they were musical mavericks and were determined to do things their way.

Most groups who were signed to by a label of the stature of Harvest would’ve “played the game” and recorded an album that had much more commercial potential.  Even if deep down, they may have wanted to make a musical statement with an ambitious album that was very different to everything else on the shelves of record shops. That was the case right down to the distinctive album cover. 

Tea and Symphony succeeded in making a musical statement with An Asylum For The Musically Insane which is akin to a musical roller coaster with twists and turns aplenty during the nine tracks.  It was an unconventional album where the music that is well worth discovering and persevering with. Not everyone will “get” the album when they first listen to it. However, after several listens they’ll have discovered the delights of Tea and Symphony’s oft-overlooked debut album An Asylum For The Musically Insane, which is a hidden gem full of subtleties and nuances where the imaginative and multi-talented Birmingham-based trio dared to be so different, and thanks goodness they did.

Tea and Symphony-An Asylum For The Musically Insane.

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