Monday, April 27, 2020

The Countdown 5 – “Complete Recordings 1965-1969”

Members of the Galveston Bay, Texas’ rock scene of the middle to late 1960’s, The Countdown 5 were part owners of the renowned Houston recording studio Andrus Productions, where producer Walter Andrus recorded many bands, including the 13th Floor Elevators and Fever Tree. While the group never got the big break to record an LP, they did manage to release several singles on a variety of labels, and while none hit big in the US, years later the group did learn that one of their singles had actually topped the charts in Germany for a short period of time. Finally, nearly fifty years after the band called it quits, their entire recorded legacy has been compiled on a two CD collection by Gear Fab Records, and quite a treat it is.

The band consisted of Mack Hayes who possessed a wide, versatile vocal range and was quite comfortable fronting the band, while the rhythm section of bassist/vocalist Tommy Murphy and drummer Tommy Williams was indeed formidable, always solidly holding down the band’s bottom end sound, Left handed John Balzer was one of the most talented, versatile and innovative guitarists of the day as well as being a fine singer in his own right and Steve Long’s keyboards gave the band their special style of 1960’s Texas rock, while he also contributed saxophone to the group’s sound. The Countdown 5’s recorded repertoire was mostly original material, with Hayes and Balzer being especially prolific writers, mixed with tasty covers of tunes written by the likes of The Isley Brothers and Johnny Otis. 

The Countdown 5 – Complete Recordings 1965-1969 (Gear Fab Records, 2018)

Disc one of the set opens with a series of rhythm and blues numbers, beginning with the saxophone led “Bamboo Hut,” a Balzer composition taking its title from the Galveston Beach club that the band often played. This was the Countdown 5’s debut single backed by a faithful cover of The Isley Brothers r & b standard “Shout,” highlighted by the band’s call and response vocals. “Do What You Do Well” was the a-side of their second single, with Long’s keyboards and the group’s vocal harmonies on display. These songs also contained the group’s Texas rock foundation reminiscent of Buddy Holly and The Bobby Fuller Four. Without question one of the collection’s highlights is the hard rocking “Uncle Kirby (From Brazil)” with its heavily echoed vocals from Hayes reminiscent of The Beatles and Balzer’s fuzzed out guitar filling the air. The tune contains a ‘George of The Jungle” chant giving it a danceable quality. Balzer also contributes a couple of hot solos to the track which unbeknownst to the band at the time found its way into European discos in the 1970’s and was a hit in London and Paris among other places. The versatility of The Countdown 5 is apparent throughout. Their cover of Johnny Otis’ “Willie And The Hand Jive” has a Bo Diddley feel while remaining rather loyal to the original. By contrast “We Are All One” features delicate, melodic vocal harmonies and harpsichord while “Shaka Shaka Na Na” is a dance number with its title becoming a repeated chant, yet Balzer’s fuzz guitar and a driving beat driven by Williams’ drums gives it lots of energy. Like “Uncle Kirby (From Brazil)” the song found its way into European discos and in fact topped the German Billboard charts for a period of time in 1968, a fact not discovered by the band until long after the fact. In “Money Man” the band exhibits Eastern influences, its gentle guitar intro emanating a raga feel. The songs repeated chorus of “Don’t Try To Impress Me” is accentuated by Balzer’s lead guitar slashing in and out, and the tune features not only another hot solo by Balzer but also a tasty organ interlude by Long. Two tracks from disc one come from compilation appearances, namely, “Candy” and “Sweet Talk” both feature Balzer’s guitar, snarling lead on the former, and hot dashes of stinging fuzz on the power pop latter. Also included on disc one are stereo versions of four of the single sides, with the bouncing beat, organ led “Time To Spare” and the previously mentioned “Uncle Kirby (From Brazil)” and “Money Man” in particular standing out. The track is rounded out by the acetate of “Something On Her Mind” a mid tempo keyboard driven tune spotlighting the band’s vocal harmonies.

The second disc of the set features eighteen unreleased tracks recorded at Walter Andrus Studio and two radio spots for a New Year’s Eve show. The first track, the interestingly titled “Don’t Buy Meat From The Milkman” sounds like Crosby, Stills and Nash, well before their existence, with its gorgeous vocal harmonies, tasty guitar and delicate keyboards added for texture. “Big Big Man” is folk rock melody with banjo and keyboards complementing luscious vocals. “Unfair To Me” is a snappy rocker featuring numerous tempo changes and the group’s ever present vocal harmonies. “Good Woman” is a mid-tempo song with a fuzz intro by Balzer and Farfisa organ by Long leading up to a fuzz filled solo that plays the song out. “I Gotta Keep What I Take” shows more Eastern influence with its insistent guitar riff, another fine lead guitar line, more Farfisa and a restrained guitar solo. Long’s harpsichord, Balzer’s understated guitar and vocal harmonies give “So Pass Me By” a Beatlesque feel. Just as quickly the band switches gears to the upbeat rocker “What Can You Do When You’re Down” with Balzer’s lead guitar pushing the beat as he throws the tempo into overdrive. The tune’s tempo slows, but only long enough for Balzer to fire it up, his lead guitar stabbing to and fro. The group’s mellower side shows through on “When I’m Gone Away” a ballad with handclaps and percussion taking charge. “Legs” is a real head shaker, and a nice dance tune, complete with an a capella section, yet filled with pumping Farfisa organ and fuzz guitar. “Sallazar” spotlights Balzer’s acoustic guitar and more Crosby, Stills and Nash style vocal harmonies. Despite its title “Stone Fire Garden” has a gentle acoustic intro which gives way to delicate vocal harmonies with horns added for accent. “One Way Traffic” brings Joe South to mind, as its vocals harmonies accompany pounding drums and driving guitar with a twist of organ added for good measure. The disc closes with three gentle numbers, “These Few Things” with its delicate vocals and “I Gotta Leave You” with swirling organ, gentle rolling guitar and sensitive lead vocals, set the stage for the final song, a cover of the theme from the musical “Hair” another melodic tune with horns added for accentuation. The set closes with two radio spots for a New Year’s Eve gig by The Countdown 5, indicative of the group’s versatility and a most fitting end to the complete works of a sadly overlooked and underappreciated works of this talented, versatile Galveston Beach quintet.

“Complete Recordings 1965-1969” comes in a double slimline jewel case and is accompanied by an 8 page full color booklet containing a forward by Gear Fab owner Roger Maglio, an essay by Mack Hayes, wonderful photos of the band and artwork from the band’s singles released on the Toucan, Pic, Cinema, Hansa, Cobblestone, Polar, Saint Martin and Audiodisc labels, and other band memorabilia. This collection will be of interest to garage bands, especially the Texas variety, as well of fans of mid to late 1960’s rock in general and comes most highly recommended. 

– Kevin Rathert 


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