Album of the week: Just a Poke (1970)

Would recommend if you’re a fan of: Frank Zappa, Santana, Gong, Budgie

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Source: Album artwork

Words by Vanessa Pettendorfer

This brightly coloured eye-catcher of an album cover is a striking example of the album as a whole; sleeve design, title, band name and music fit symbolically together, so that every part indicates the other ones. Even those epic words by Om Shanti on the back cover underline the main theme of Sweet Smoke’s debut album:

“We’ve blazed a trail in our hearts, a place to watch our music grow, a place to rest, so walk our path, to sing a song for every soul, and with a vision of heaven in our hearts and the devil at our feet, we ascend this musical staircase, always crying, for we are the victims of love.”

Just a Poke will take you on a psychedelic journey along alternating rhythms and intoxicating sound explorations…

Founded in Brooklyn in 1967, the U.S. based psychedelic jazz-rock band Sweet Smoke (originally Sweet Smoke of the Happy Plant Pipeful) were creative from 1969-1974 in Germany; there they set up a commune with the support of sculptor Waldemar Kuhn, first in Emmerich am Rhein, then in Sulzfeld. They had planned to settle in the Netherlands, with Amsterdam being the ‘place to be’ at the time, and in 1972, they visited India for the obligatory stay in an Ashram. Mainly, Sweet Smoke toured across Europe (Germany, France and the Netherlands), playing at festivals or as opener for pop groups such as Focus and Golden Earring. Even before their time in Germany, Sweet Smoke had regularly played long-enduring gigs at a club in the Caribbean, where the guys had worked on their playing and improvising skills, a style similar to many late 1960’s U.S. West Coast bands. In 1974, shortly after the release of their third album, Sweet Smoke Live (1974), they broke up and split into different directions, mostly back to the U.S. to study and find other work.

Their debut studio album, Just a Poke, was released on EMI Columbia, in Germany, in 1970. It was also released in Italy, the Netherlands and France, but not in the U.K. Taken together with their presence on stage, Sweet Smoke were popular in those parts of Europe, yet quite unknown in the U.K. For a long time, the band were a mystery. Thanks to the internet, media and other networks, you can find information on their website, and for sure, this album now has its deserving place in the international psychedelic scene. Sweet Smoke released three albums of which the last two have an extended or different line-up. Still, among Just a Poke (1970), Darkness to Light (1973) and the live album, Sweet Smoke Live (1974), Just a Poke ranks the highest.

The album features four founding members, Andy Dershin on bass, Jay Dorfman on percussion and drums, Marvin Kaminowitz on solo guitar and vocals, Michael Paris on alto recorder/tenor sax/vocals/percussion, along with Steve Rosenstein on rhythm guitar and vocals. Just a Poke was produced by Rosie Schmitz and Winfried Ebert, along with engineers, Conrad Plank and Klaus Löhmer. Applying innovative studio technologies, Plank could easily be called the German pioneer of the electronic sound. In the early and mid 1970’s, he worked with progressive Krautrock and jazz-rock bands, Ash Ra Tempel, Kraan, and Guru Guru, but from 1978 onward he drifted into the new-wave and synth-pop dimension, getting involved with Brian Eno. Unfortunately, Jan Fijnheer, who designed the beautiful exotic album cover, is not mentioned. Credited is just the photographer, Joachim Hassenburs.

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With a total running time of 32:46 minutes, the record carries a total of just two tracks. Although there isn’t a long list of tracks, there is some confusion. The titles of the tracks got mixed up either on the sleeve or on the label of the record, so that even the experts slightly disagree. Lets take the best solution and rely on what the label tells. The tune on the A-side is called “Baby Night” and the other one on the B-side is “Silly Sally”. Proof is given by some text passages of the B-side, where it goes “Well, now, Sally-Sally-Sally, hey be with me tonight”, and the ones of the A-side with, “If you hear sounds of bitter weeping, to be sure the God of Night is sleeping, no time for mirth, much death and birth…”Anyway, in addition to a coherent session-like structure on a smooth jamming ground, the first tune features a delightful recorder melody, while the second one offers a stunning minute-long drum solo. Lyrics are not that important. The text passages rather provide a theme on which the band exuberantly jams and improvises.

“Baby Night” starts in a meditative folk manner, which is introduced by the lovely melody of Michael Paris’ alto recorder and only supported by the guitars. The gentle innocent voice of Marvin Kaminowitz is supported by dreamy flute sounds. One could assume that the first section refers to “In the World of Glass Teardrops” by Jeremy & the Satyrs from 1968, although it is not mentioned in the liner notes. Then there comes a recorder solo upon a swinging part which turns into easy jamming. Paris’ playing could be compared to the style of Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, with ‘airy attacks’ and the additional use of his voice. Unfortunately, the flute sound overlaps with the surroundings and gets opaque at times. Those blurred sounds can either be strange or elevating, depending on your preference. Then, the guitar clings on for a solo without fuzz. More jamming with stronger repetitive riffs follows. After a while, the vocals eventually come, throwing you back in a meditative mood, framed by conga sounds. This section’s theme is a text-reduced version of The Doors’, “The Soft Parade.” Another swinging interlude follows before going back to the theme at the beginning, now in a steady rhythm and more experimental way.

With “Silly Sally”, the accent now is more on audio effects. Michael Paris enters with a groovy melody on tenor sax, sometimes with reverb. Then, the vocals take over with seductive lyrics. Marvin Kaminowitz does a great job in using his voice as an instrument and jams with the rhythmic pulse afterwards. This is followed by the guitars’ wah-wah solo on the right and left channels, which releases into the bass solo. Now, turn your speakers louder, the album has reached it’s phenomenal climax – the drum solo! Jay Dorfman starts with Afro tribal drumming, soon, the sounds begin rotating around your head and develop into a thunder-like rolling or a tube-like rattling within three minutes. Mind the gap! This is hardcore! Such a handling of stereo effects, the ping-pong effect and phasing, similar to the drum solo in “In-a-gadda-da-vida” by Iron Butterfly’s Ron Bushy on their 1968 album from. After this awesome hallucinogenic trip, the track proceeds with a long Latin percussion interlude, and turns back to the groovy sax theme.

Integrative rhythmic and stylistic variations are in constant flow, with interchanging solo and single rhythm group parts. After the beautiful glass teardrops-intro, this record keeps you dancing the whole time. With its focus on studio effects and magical sounds, Just a Poke offers you a medium for the experience of extraterrestrial dimensions. For some people, several sections may simply take too long, and could run the risk of getting boring. Occasionally, you get the impression that the band simply didn’t want to come to an end. Nevertheless, it is a psychedelic masterpiece which should be part of your collection.

Copies are available on Discogs and Amazon. Alternatively, you can listen to it on Youtube or on Sweet Smoke’s MySpace website. As well as this, EMI Electrola released a remastered version on CD in 2000, which combines Just a Poke and Darkness to Light all in one.

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