Album Review: The 23rd Turnoff – Michael Angelo

Depending on one’s mindset, the name suggests either a trademark late-’60s attempt to apply a psychedelic vibe to something ordinary, or merely something very pedestrian (as it were). The truth is that The 23rd Turnoff was an in-joke among the band members.

Based in Liverpool, England, The 23rd Turnoff had a sound that – listening today – evokes thoughts of early Al Stewart (specifically his 1966 b-side “Turn Into Earth”) or perhaps the Moody Blues circa Days of Future Passed. “Michael Angelo” is the group’s most well-known tune, and its dreamy vibe and tootling trumpet (a la the piccolo on “Penny Lane”) fixes it in the mind as a product of a very specific time.

As it happens, that song and its arrangement weren’t especially representative of the group’s work. The chirpy “Dreaming” feels a lot like Herman’s Hermits. Not a bad thing at all, but not very psychedelic. It is notable as having been recorded just three months before “Michael Angelo,” not for release but as an audition. For who, you may well ask. Why, producer George Martin, and engineer Geoff Emerick! (The band wouldn’t be signed to EMI, though).

For that elusive psych vibe, though, one need only listen to the third cut on this compilation. Another demo recording, “Flowers are Flowering” has the moody and mystical character that was all the rage in ‘67. Here the group sounds a bit like The Iveys (pre-Badfinger). It has a few subtly-applied effects, giving it a quality a notch or two above the garden variety demo tape. The drums are especially appealing.

“(Not) a Penny in My Pocket” is another Martin/Emerick session, but the same day as “Dreaming.” The melody is too familiar by half, and it’s shamelessly derivative in every way, conjuring thoughts of The Kinks crossed with, say, the Lovin’ Spoonful. Again, not bad in any way, but in ‘67 you had to do better to get noticed.

The whiplash between psych-leaning tracks and pop confections continues. “I’ll Be Round” is a studio demo that hints at what the song could have been with better production; it has a wind-up feel that suggests Sell Out-era Who, or The attack. Freakbeat, almost (but not quite). The dodgy quality of the audio (wobbly phase from what sounds like a nth -generation dub or badly worn acetate) doesn’t help, but it’s still worth hearing.

A demo of “Michael Angelo” suggests that while some the ideas for the arrangement came from the band themselves, the session-proper’s producer and arranger added many of its most distinctive qualities. And apparently writing (after a fashion) about great artists was a “thing” for The 23rd Turnoff. That would explain “Another Vincent Van Gogh.” Nice harmonies and Revolver-style bass work.

“Leave Me Here” is the only cut besides “Michael Angelo” that was released during the band’s run. The flip of that single, it sounds like a b-side: nice enough, in a Peter and Gordon vein. It does have an (exceedingly brief) Eastern-flavored bridge in its midsection. More of that would have been good.

“I’ll Be With you is another demo, with a waltzing feel not too far removed from “Michael Angelo.” “Mother’s Boy” is another demo, again with solid harmonies but lacking a strong melody. “You Sing your Own Song” is a fuzzed-out rocker that has vague echoes of The Beatles’ “Think for Yourself. “But only vague ones.

A third(!) version of “Michael Angelo” is included toward the end of the disc. Cut at IBC a month before the released version, it hints at the final version but isn’t quite there. The same session yielded another run-through” of “(Not) a Penny in My Pocket, and hearing it merely reinforces the fact that it’s a rewrite of the Spoonful’s “Daydream.” (You can actually sing “Daydream” along with the recording, and it fits.) The arrangement is better than the Martin/Emerick session, though.

A demo of “Another Vincent Van Gogh” is pretty solid; don’t be put off by the dub quality. Some nice guitar licks figure into the arrangement.

For all the detail provided for the other tracks, the inclusion of “Lovely Elisa Cope is Dead” will remain a minor mystery. The notes indicate only that it’s a ‘post-23rd Turnoff demo.” When? Who? Who knows? Not me. It sounds like the same guys, and the fidelity is a few notches higher than most of what’s featured here. Rock it does not, but it’s nice enough.

The set’s excellent liner notes do a fine job of documenting the short history of this little-known group. Certainly not the Great Lost Psych Tape of 1967, Michael Angelo remains worthwhile for those who – like this writer – have boundless curiosity about (and enthusiasm for) the dusty corners of British popsike.