One good thing about the advent of the compact disc, twenty five odd years ago now, is that it has allowed the re-evaluation of neglected music. While it may be in decline thanks to digital downloads, the last few years especially has seen a growing number of releases of long unavailable, formerly vinyl-only kiwi music: the Toy Love album, the Flying Nun boxset, the numerous compilations coming out through Failsafe, and releases by many of the important 1960s bands. Now, after a couple of CD compilations, we get the complete works of Upper Hutt’s The Fourmyula.
In Nick Bollinger’s recent book 100 Essential New Zealand Albums, arguably the biggest surprise was his inclusion of an unreleased album by The Fourmyula (along with two of their four previously released albums). With The Complete Fourmyula (EMI, $49.95), we have the first legitimate release of that hitherto largely unknown album, plus the rest of the Fourmyula discography.
Whether you know the band or not, pretty much everyone will recognise their pastoral anthem ‘Nature’, however that song is but a small part of their oeuvre. As with many 60s bands, The Fourmyula made a clear distinction between singles and albums—the singles weren’t merely marketing for the albums, and often consisted of tracks not available on the albums themselves. Disc 1 is a chronological collection of all their A and B-sides, starting with the classic ‘Come With Me’, and throwing up still great tracks like ‘Alice Is There’, ‘Home’, and ‘I’ll Sing You A Song’.
Disc 2 and 3 both contain two full albums each, while Disc 4 is the ‘new’ album Turn Your Back On The Wind. The publicity info points out that The Fourmyula had nine hits in 22 months and released four albums in 13 months—exceptional in this day and age, but not so much so back in the late 1960s. Beyond these facts, what really struck me was that these guys were barely out of high school when they signed their record contract, and some of the musical ideas they possessed were fairly complex—even though there is also a naivety to some of the song lyrics. Their debut album was released in October, 1968; their second LP in February, 1969. And if a mere four months between releases wasn’t impressive enough, the first album was half cover versions, while the second album was the concept album Green ‘B’ Holiday, with all songs penned by the band.
Side One on their self-titled debut was original songs, Side Two the cover versions, and it is Side One that really stands up. The covers just don’t excite in the same way. Green ‘B’ Holiday is the story of a band on the road, and there’s a certain charm to the little snippets of conversation introducing the songs, but it is the songs that really entice. The influence of The Beatles is never far from The Fourmyula, but that’s not to say that they were copyists—certainly the Finn’s are much more Beatlesque in their sound than The Fourmyula was. You can hear snatches of Beatles moments, and there’s that same musical exploration at play, particularly with what is possible in the recording studio.
Their third release, Creation, continues with the Beatles references but also throws in other folksy 60s bands, resulting in a beautiful, timeless album. One thing that I really enjoyed was their great use of stereo. It’s something that isn’t utilised to the same extent these days, but on Creation each channel often contains different instrumentation/vocals—just perfect for the iPod. This is the album that contains what has become their signature piece, though the rest of the tracks are of equal quality.
Interestingly, The Fourmyula started as a covers band and it seems that they remained a covers band through to their breakup. Apparently they didn’t play much original material live, meaning the albums seem to offer a different band. The live album on Disc 3 is the weakest thing here. It sounds the most dated, and is only really interesting for the less than reverential version of The Beatles’ ‘Daytripper’ (and good on them for their irreverence), and the self-penned ‘Let It Be’, which to my ears sounds like a rehash of a better known, though unreleased at the time, song of the same name. While Live foreshadows the heavier sounds on Turn Your Back On The Wind, it doesn’t have the quality or invention of the studio material.
As for that once elusive unreleased albu—it’s okay. It is definitely heavier than their earlier material, clearly influenced by the bands they were hearing in London—Led Zeppelin et al.—but it is still distinctly The Fourmyula. Some commentators have suggested it sits well with the rash of recent bands who have been mining similar territory. To me it sounds like an early 70s album—it’s there in the production and the performance—and the songs don’t seem as strong or original as the Green ‘B’ Holiday and Creation.
As you’d imagine with over 80 songs here, there is a range in quality. The studio albums all stand up to varying degrees, and are all worth giving a spin. The singles are a bit patchier. There are some fabulous A-sides, but the B-sides are generally not as strong. What really surprises is how timeless much of the material sounds. There’s definitely a 60s influence going on, but the production often doesn’t betray the era. Strangely, even a song like Mr Whippy, a track that should be a ridiculous piece of dated kiwiana, sounds fresh and contemporary.
Although I already knew some of this material, this collection opened my ears to just what The Fourmyula created. Their best songs should have been worldwide hits, and I really hope that The Complete Fourmyula will see them discovered by old and new ears alike.
The aforementioned Nick Bollinger got to write the accompanying essay—a nice overview of the band’s development and career. It includes contemporary interviews with the band members, and even though it runs to 12,000 words, I got the impression that there is a much bigger story there, particularly of their days of struggle in the UK. Perhaps the book is on its way.
There’s no doubt that this is an important release, the long overdue archiving of a great local band. It’s quite likely that the appeal of releases such as this will be limited to old fans, but there’s so much here that should be heard by many more people. While I’m not going to suggest that every song is vital, or even that every original album is essential, there’s certainly enough great material on these four discs to justify the $50 expense.