Album Review: Blues Image — Next Voyage

Among pop, soul, jazz, blues and other genres, there’s a long (and often dubious) tradition of artists re-recording their hits. Little Richard did quite a bit of it – as did Jerry Lee Lewis, and the results often paled in comparison to the originals, which were still easily available at the time of the remakes. So why, then, did they bother? As my dear wife advises whenever there’s a question without a ready answer, “follow the money.” In those cases, the artists weren’t sharing in the profits of the original recordings – of their own work – so they re-cut the tunes in a bid for a bit of well-deserved cash.

These days, with the rise of phenomena such as sync licensing (one of the few means for professional musicians to make any serious money at all), artists are re-recording near-identical versions of their songs for similar reasons. Underrated ‘80s band Translator did just that last year with their hit “Everywhere That I’m Not,” going so far as to enlist the help of famed producer (and friend of the band) Ed Stasium to mix the track.

Listeners of a certain age may well remember “Ride Captain Ride,” a Top 10 smash single by one-hit wonders Blues Image. The catchy tune told the fictional tale of a ship full of sailors that set sail. Never to be heard from again.

A similar fate befell Blues Image. Their self-titled debut album only made it to the #112 spot on Billboard’s album chart. The follow-up, 1970’s Open crept up to #147. And Open was in fact the record that included the hit single! It did, however, apparently sell a million copies. The group’s third and final release, 1970’s Red White & Blues Image failed to chart at all.

Co-composer of “Ride Captain Ride,” guitarist-keyboardist Mike Pinera left the group during the recording of Open, so he wasn’t even on board to enjoy the band’s brief shining moment. He was on to other things, joining with Larry “Rhino” Reinhart as one of two guitarists in the post-Erik Brann (i.e. post-In a Gadda Da Vida) lineup of Iron Butterfly. (He’d leave and rejoin that band at least three more times in the coming decades).

With all that, the story of Blues Image would seem to be most easily summed up with a brief essay or two, accompanied by the single of “Ride Captain Ride.” But as it happens, the band re-formed in the late ‘70s, at which time they cut a remake of their own hit, included on a small-label released album of the same name (because, hey, why not?).

Fast-forward once again, this time to 2010. An album called Ride Captain Ride: Anthology of Classics finds the then-current lineup of Blues Image offering up not just another recording of their well-worn classic, but three of ’em (the other two are billed as a “psychedelic space” and a “Spanish” version). If that – plus covers of “Incense and Peppermints,” “Rocket Man,” “I Can See Clearly Now” and “Spinning Wheel” – strikes you as appealing, please note that copies of the disc sell for more than $200.

Happily for those who might actually want that CD, the 2023 version of Blues Image (yes, really, billed with the phrase “featuring Mike Pinera”) has helpfully – wait for it – seen fit to re-re-re-record “Ride Captain Ride” yet again.

On the face of it – setting aside for a moment the artists’ motivations for doing so – the existence of Next Voyage is inexplicable. In fact it may (or may not) be a remastered, repackaged and re-titled version of a 2017 album called Timeless.

But here’s the thing: it’s good. Opening with a strong horn section on “Butterfly Bleu,” it moves into a heavy blues imbued with a late ‘60s vibe. The horns are well integrated, making Blues Image sound more like a rocked-up Blood Sweat & Tears. When one realizes that the song is a kind of self-cover (it was featured on Iron Butterfly’s Metamorphosis LP) it loses some of its appeal, but when weighed on its own merits, it’s effective stuff.

The other tunes explore similar heavy-plus-horns territory, and again, on their own merits the tracks are solid. A cover of “In a Gadda Da Vida” is mercifully trimmed down to ten minutes, and the horns add some interesting texture that really works. The lead vocals demonstrate a desire to replicate Doug Ingle’s voice, and they largely succeed.

The centerpiece of this album, however, is an extended work titled “Captain’s Suite.” Employing actual horns in a quasi-classical style, it begins with a movement called “Next Voyage.” From there it moves seamlessly into a note-for-note re-creation of “Ride Captain Ride.” You’ll be forgiven for thinking it’s the original 1970 recording. (I don’t know how it compares to the 1977 or 2010 versions, and candidly, I don’t care.) Again, if one can consider the tune without context, it’s really good. But context and the real world do loom, don’t they?

The suite’s third section is a lively instrumental called “Safe Harbor.” And then comes the fourth and final section. Give yourself zero points if you’ve guessed what it might be. Yes indeed: another version of the ubiquitous “Ride Captain Ride.” The good news is that orchestration melds nicely with the core-band arrangement.

Guitar ace Pat Travers guests on some tracks, as does Jonathan Cain (“of Journey,” as he apparently wishes to be billed) plays some Wurlitzer Electric Piano. But it’s the strings, brass and choir that really add the most to the core group of Pinera and his present-day musical associates.

Do you need this album? Probably not. If you found yourself listening to it, would the experience be an enjoyable one? It’s highly likely that the answer would be yes. It’s expertly put together, and both the arrangements and production values are top-notch.

But it’s only fair to note that unless you’re a Blues Image completist, you may well be able to live without Next Voyage. Meanwhile, if you’re interested, used copies of the original Open LP can be had for as little as $4 on; the “Ride Captain Ride” 45 r.p.m. single will set you back a fraction of that; one could be yours via Discogs for 25¢ plus shipping.