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John Fiddler / Medicine Head

It’s fair to say that no one, not even us, the people who packed their shows, quite realised at the time exactly what Medicine Head were. They were loud. They had long hair. They were a rock band (well, two people who sounded like a rock band). By the time they’d sneaked blues into the charts under the guise of beguiling pop songs, outsiders found it difficult to look beyond the fact that Peter Hope-Evans was playing jew’s harp and John Fiddler, was playing his guitar while thumping a bass drum and hi-hat cymbals. What we all missed, of course, was that Medicine Head were actually the history of rock ‘n’ roll (and, as it turned out, the future) and blues and plenty of other strands of American music. All channeled unselfconsciously through two unlikely young men from the Midlands of England. With hindsight they were the spirit and the sound of grizzled bluesmen while at the same time their crashing, home-made two man band noise was the spirit and the sound of the incoming tide of punk, when the rest of the pop-making world was wearing Lurex trousers. One second they were angry young men, the next they were playing the sweetest songs imaginable.

With Medicine Head there were no guitar solos, no drum solos, no synthesizers, just hypnotic, blues guitar riffs and Peter’s awesome harmonica (including a 10-minute excursion on the roaring anthem To Train Time), all played through the rudest of amps. Memories of early thrashing, sweaty shows linger, like seeing no other band before or since “We were just blues guys, it’s sad that we had hits, should have stayed with albums,” muses John. Those hits included Pictures in the Sky, One and One is One, Rising Sun and Slip and Slide. A half dozen albums between ‘69 and ‘76, and, more recently, courtesy of Angel Air, Live At The Marquee 1975, Live at the BBC and Don’t Stop The Dance, were the sound of America infused with English innocence.

The band’s first tapes, recorded in John’s kitchen and sent to John Peel, were played to John and Yoko, who insisted Peel release them on his on his Dandelion label, untouched. Medicine Head later expanded and contracted, musicians came and went, including Peter, who joined up with Pete Townshend, another Medicine Head believer. John then joined the remains of Mott the Hoople as the storming post-glam rockers British Lions. The band rocked America but, ironically, considering Medicine Head’s early, stomping fury, couldn’t compete with punk.

Then came solo records on the Harvest label and, in 84, John joined the Yardbirds, re-named Box of Frogs. Their original singer, Keith Relf, had produced Pictures in the Sky, and had even joined Medicine Head on bass, and production, for the album Dark Side of The Moon. With John involved in all writing and singing, and playing guitar, nine of out 10 fans would have said it was a Medicine Head record for the Eighties, sharper, darker, but unmistakable. Producer Paul Samwell-Smith, Yardbirds bassist, gave a sizeable production credit to John, for his “assistance”. Guitarists included Jeff Beck and Rory Gallagher, and Back Where I Started featured harmonica from Nine Below Zero ace Mark Feltham, like Peter, a premier British harp sessioneer. Box of Frogs was number one rock album on Billboard’s airplay chart, and entered the USA top 40 “with a bullet”. Sadly, the other band members chose not to tour and the venture fell apart – but not before a second album, Strange Land, which saw John paired with Jimmy Page on the glorious, stripped down psychedelia of Asylum.

Medicine Head were on hold, yet the Medicine Head name only grew stronger. The records kept coming, courtesy of Angel Air (the live album, the BBC sessions and Don’t Stop The Dance, the unreleased gem from the end of the band’s hit-making, major label period) and Cherry Red (a recent re-release of their debut, New Bottles Old Medicine, and the 2009 career-spanning retrospective One and One: The Best Of).

Now, Medicine Head are back. John has crafted a Medicine Head album, every bit as inventive and exciting as the early work. Continuing the stripped down, lo-fi approach of New Bottles, John turned his back on studios and recorded when and where he felt the muse. Who’s Having Fun was recorded at a friend’s house in Richmond, a microphone on a chair by the window even letting you hear the bird song. Recorded both sides of the Atlantic, the record reflects Medicine Head’s origins, and echoes a new wave of artists such as Jack White, and their take on real music.

Inspired by this new beginning, John is taking Medicine Head on to the stage for the first time since the mid-70s. The spirit of the band’s heritage is there but – make no mistake – this is very much a band of today.

By Nick Dalton