Best remembered in the U.S. for the classic "Hitchin' a Ride," harmony pop ensemble Vanity Fare formed in Kent, England in 1968. Comprising vocalist Trevor Brice, guitarist Tony Goulden, bassist Tony Jarrett, and drummer Dick Allix, the group originally dubbed themselves the Avengers; soon local entrepreneur Roger Easterby signed on as manager, orchestrating a contract with the Page One label and instructing the group to cover the Sunrays' "I Live for the Sun" for their debut single. With their sophisticated harmonies and clean-cut image, the Avengers needed a suitably genteel name, remixing the title of William Makepeace Thackeray's most famous novel to create Vanity Fare; "I Live for the Sun" cracked the U.K. Top 20 in the summer of 1968, although it would take the group a year to return to the charts, with "Early in the Morning" reaching the Top Ten on both sides of the Atlantic. Around this time, Vanity Fare jettisoned its tailored suits for neckerchiefs and fashions direct from Carnaby Street; more importantly, they also added keyboardist Barry Landeman, previously a member of Kippington Lodge, alongside Nick Lowe and Brinsley Schwartz; Landeman would prove the dominant instrumental element in the group's biggest hit, 1969's infectious "Hitchin' a Ride," which sold over a million copies in the U.S. alone. A North American tour was met with little interest, however, and soon after Vanity Fare returned to Britain. Goulden quit, quickly followed by Allix; Candy Choir guitarist Eddie Wheeler and Canterbury Tales' drummer Mark Ellen signed on as their replacements. The new lineup scored a minor hit with 1972's ballad "Better by Far," and concentrated on touring the cabaret circuit, performing as many as 14 dates a week; the grind ultimately forced Jarrett to resign, with former Tranquility bassist Bernard Hagley signing on for "I'm in Love With the World," Vanity Fare's first single for new label Phillips. In the wake of 1974's "Fast Running Out of World" their recording career screeched to a halt, but the group continued touring, including several passes through Scandinavia. During one trek to Denmark, Brice fell in love and quit the group, with singer Phil Kitto taking his place. Kitto also exited a few years later, with vocalist Kevin Thompson installed as frontman by the time Vanity Fare recorded 1986's "Dreamer," its first single in over a decade. With 1993's "Rain," their recording career again went into mothballs, but the band continues touring, with singer Steve Oakman replacing Thompson in early 2002.
With 26 tracks, this compilation gathers about as much Vanity Fare as can be stuffed onto one CD, all but two of the songs coming from the A-sides and B-sides of their 1968-1973 singles (there's also a 1977 B-side and one cut from their debut LP). Vanity Fare has passed into history as a band without a distinct identity that managed to get hold of a couple of excellent breezy pop songs, the hits "Hitchin' a Ride" and "Early in the Morning" (which are both here, naturally). This anthology does little to counteract that impression, though its thoroughness and high standard of packaging are commendable (even if the chronological sequencing of the tracks jumps all over the place). Most of their A-sides -- all of them penned by outside writers -- are well-harmonized mainstream British pop tunes of the late '60s and early '70s, sometimes leaning toward Beach Boys-influenced vocals, sometimes chewing on a bit of bubblegum, sometimes putting in a pinch of old-time rock & roll, and almost always exuding a faceless sort of good-time cheer. The Beach Boys influence bobs closer to the surface on their sole British Top 20 single besides "Hitchin' a Ride" and "Early in the Morning," "I Live for the Sun," which is itself a cover of a Beach Boys imitation by the Sunrays. Unfortunately, the Mike Leander-Eddie Seago team responsible for writing "Early in the Morning" came up with just one other song for Vanity Fare, the 1970 single "Come Tomorrow," which is a transparently inferior attempt to write something along the lines of "Early in the Morning," down to the pseudo-Eastern European melody and minor-keyed keyboards. More of a band personality, and somewhat more earthiness, come across on their original material. But even here they flit from sub-Beach Boys boppers ("Making for the Sun"), light soul-rock, earnest trendy pop with reflective lyrics ("Man Child" and "Stand"), and a Traffic and Spencer Davis Group-influenced organ-based workout ("Megawd (Something Tells Me)") without coming up with something special.