Album Review: Terry Knight and the Pack / Reflections

The standard critical rap on Terry Knight and the Pack is that they’re historically significant primarily for what their members did after the group broke up. Musically they’re not given a lot of respect — primarily, the story goes — because of Knight’s shortcomings as a vocalist.

There’s some truth to both assertions, but stopping there sells the group short. Leader and vocalist Terry Knight did go on to a tumultuous career as manager (and later, persistent legal adversary) of Grand Funk Railroad, a group that included former Pack members Mark Farner (guitar) and Don Brewer (drums). And Knight wasn’t the strongest vocalist; indeed he occasionally found himself out of his depth on some Pack tunes.

But Terry Knight and the Pack were an important part of that Midwest scene that gave rise to The Rationals, MC5, ? and the Mysterians, the Stooges, the Amboy Dukes and many others. What these Michiganders all had in common was aggression in their music. While they all traveled in different styles, the common thread was a heavier take on rock music than was found in most other regions.

The Pack’s material was a mix of covers and thinly-veiled rewrites. But some historians simply expect too much of them. Were they as heavy as the Litter? Perhaps not. Did their covers of the Yardbirds (“Mister You’re a Better Man Than I”) and Rolling Stones (“Satisfaction”) measure up to the originals? They did not. But then neither did the acts compiled on such collections as 2131 South Michigan Avenue or the Trash Box always produce immortal music. And y’know what? Taken on its own terms — as opposed to measured against the output of major acts with longer careers — the music on the two albums Terry Knight and the Pack produced is pretty fine.

From a historical vantage point, those interested in hearing this music have — until quite recently — been dealt a pretty poor hand. Terry Knight and the Pack were signed by Cameo-Parkway, the Philadelphia based label that would eventually fall under the control of Allen Klein‘s ABKCO. Klein — a figure familiar to students of Rolling Stones and/or Beatles history — persisted in caching all of the C-P material in the vaults, frustrating music enthusiasts across the land.

Alas, the vaults are now opening. In 2010 Collectors’ Choice released a single CD combining the group’s 1966 self-titled LP with 1967’s Reflections. Across these two dozen sides, listeners will find a group that’s several notches above the garden variety garage bands immortalized on countless comps. And despite Knight’s alleged limitations as a singer (this is rock’n’roll after all, people), both albums find him attempting a wide variety of styles, many of them fairly ambitious.

For a stab at earnest yet gentle Youngbloods-styled folk rock, “A Change on the Way” is a credible effort, written by Knight himself. The Yardbirds cover features some pretty fiery guitar work, and a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Lady Jane” strikes just the right baroque rock vibe. And for fans of the Stones’ “Play With Fire,” there’s Knight’s “original” composition “I’ve Been Told.” It’s hard to believe he didn’t get sued for that one. But as shameless ripoffs go, it’s quality stuff.

Knight’s original “What’s On Your Mind” has the honor of inclusion on one of the most celebrated bootleg compilations of all time, Michigan Nuggets. It’s also a catchy tune.

The first album features classy string arrangements and effective augmenting instrumentation. If you can get past the spoken intro to the cover of “I (Who Have Nothing)” the group turns in a suitably melodramatic rendering of the song.

Reflections kicks off somewhat ill-advisedly with “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show,” a number more of the sort one might expect from Kim Fowley. The second album takes an approach that’s both heavier and more refined at once. The waltz “Come With Me” is built around a piano figure punctuated with tambourine and acoustic guitar picking. The Barri-Sloan composition “This Precious Time” is immediately recognizable as that composing team’s sort of song. Though it is more than a bit reminiscent of We Five‘s “You Were On My Mind” — and while it may well have been hit-bound had it been instead recorded by (for example) the Turtles — in the Pack’s hands it’s still a pleasing performance.

Listeners with a fairly comprehensive knowledge of the era’s pop music can have a fun time playing spot-the-source on Knight’s rewrites — it’s easy from the title alone to guess who “Dimestore Debutante” rips off — but they shouldn’t let that get in the way of enjoying plain old good songs. “Dirty Lady” takes a scoop of Donovan and stirs in Spanish flamenco stylings, and Knight shows that while his voce isn’t world-beating, he had admirable vocal control.

And the highlight of the whole set — “Love Goddess of the Sunset Strip” — is a sexy slice of exploito-grooviness: “yeah yeah” indeed. The fake Theremin is a hoot. Reflections makes occasional use of horn charts on songs like “The Train,” but overall the second LP comes off more like a self-contained band effort. Even “Satisfaction” is given an ambitious Vanilla Fudge-meets-Motown arrangement.

The CCM reissue is sourced from the master tapes, but fidelity isn’t anything to get excited about. The fault (as such) lies almost certainly with the original production by Knight. It’s not distracting, but neither is it on a par with the sound quality turned out by the major studios of the day.

Anyone interested in Midwest rock of the 1960s should give Terry Knight and the Pack / Reflections a spin. Ultimately, it’s worthwhile for its historical importance (and rarity) alone, but it’s also some perfectly good second-string rock music from that classic era.

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