Early demo tapes from Unicorn, a country-rock group and protégés of Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, show that the underappreciated British group had an authentic yet radio-ready sound that should have caught on. Despite a number of lucky breaks, the well-deserving band never lit commercial fire. But now there’s a new archival release from Omnivore Recordings, curated by Executive Producer David DiSanzo. Laughing Up Your Sleeve, a new 20-track collection of home-studio recordings from the early ‘70s hints at what could have been.
There’s a long a fruitful tradition of cultural cross-pollination between England and the United States; the history of rock and pop music is filled with examples of artists from one country absorbing the influences of the other, creating something new in the process, and then serving it back to listeners across the Atlantic.
And with all of that transatlantic activity, some groups were bound to get lost in the shuffle, even if they were very good. One such band was Unicorn. First coming together (with an embryonic beat group lineup) in Southwest London in 1963, by the early ‘70s the band had developed its own original style, based around the songwriting of Ken Baker. Unicorn’s songs drew from both rock and country, with a sound not miles away from what another British group, Brinsley Schwarz, was making.
But Pat Martin, Unicorn’s bassist, says that his group developed its signature sound completely separately from the band featuring a young Nick Lowe. “Probably, there were several things that we were both influenced by,” he says. “I know they loved The Band, and that was one of our favorite groups in the States.” Martin gets to the heart of what set Unicorn apart from other bands. “Obviously we were very American-influenced, but Ken Baker’s words are very, very English.”
Throughout the 1970s, Unicorn’s stable lineup included Martin on bass, Kevin Smith on guitars and mandolin, lead vocalist and drummer Pete Perryer, and songwriter Ken Baker on guitars and keyboards. All four musicians sang.
The eight years between forming and inking a deal with Transatlantic Records would be succinctly summed up in the brief liner notes printed inside the gatefold jacket of the group’s long-playing debut, Uphill All the Way. That potted history hits the high points: “They were all 13 years old … youth clubs were their circuit … at 17, they left school and turned pro … Billy J. Kramer signed them as his backing group … they did 10 radio and TV spots … small gigs and national tours.” The short essay ends with this: “They tightened up their harmony and wrote new material, influenced by groups like Traffic, and writers like Neil Young. They learnt from them. But they never copied.”
The album was produced by Hugo Murphy, “the guy who went on to produce Baker Street for Gerry Rafferty,” Martin says. “When he produced us, he was an apprentice to the famous producer Shel Talmy. He was the bees’ knees in England.” Uphill All the Way didn’t sell in great numbers, but the quality songwriting, singing and playing on the record would eventually lead Unicorn to future opportunities.
Ricky Hopper, a “record plugger” at Transatlantic had taking a strong liking to the album track “P.F. Sloan,” a cover of the Jimmy Webb tune. “He got us some really good plays on the radio,” Martin says. But the promotions man soon left the label, and the members of the group thought that meant the end of their association with him.
“But one day he phoned me up out of the blue,” Martin recalls. “He said, ‘I’m getting married. Can the band play at my wedding? I can’t afford to pay you, but there will be a lot of famous people there.” Martin chuckles at the memory. “We all thought, “Oh, yeah, yeah. We’ve heard that before.’ But he had done us a really big favor, so we agreed to do it.”
The famous guests at the early 1973 wedding included David Gilmour. His band was in ascendancy; Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon was storming the charts and earning critical accolades. “David came up to us during the break and said he really liked our original numbers,” Martin says. The famed guitarist especially liked “Sleep Song,” a tune Martin describes as “partly about going to the dentist.
“David thought it was amazing,” Martin says with a laugh. “He’d never heard anyone write a song about going to the dentist! And so he asked for my number.” Gilmour had recently received the first money from sales of The Dark Side of the Moon, and he had built a brand-new recording studio in his new home. One of the first things he did was call Pat Martin.
“Look,” Martin recalls Gilmour saying, “I’ve just got this studio, and I’m testing it out. Would you guys like to come up and demo your original songs? I’ll be experimenting, so I don’t know how good it’s going to be.” On behalf of the band, Martin immediately said yes.
At the appointed day and time, the four members of Unicorn arrived at Gilmour’s home studio, bringing along all of their own gear. Their host greeted them, saying, “If you want, you can use any of my stuff.” Martin recalls looking admiringly upon Gilmour’s wall of guitars. But then they got a look at the studio. “It didn’t have a control room,” Martin laughs. “It hadn’t been built yet! He just had the equipment in one room without sound separation.” Gilmour recorded Unicorn’s demo session using headphones instead of the customary studio reference monitors.
Martin says that he, his band mates and the post-production mixing engineer were united in their amazement at the results. “We couldn’t believe the quality,” he says. “You do have things like guitar coming out on the snare drum mic, but he did such a good job. It sounds so good!”
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