Bruce Ruff: vocals
Janick Gers: guitar
Phil Brady: bass
Malcolm Pearson : keyboards
Graeme Crallen: drums
White Spirit (named for the cleaning fluid?) were formed in Hartlepool (north-east England) in 1975 by the still-teenaged Janick Gers (of Polish extraction) and Graeme "Crash" Crallen, surviving the late '70s Punk Wars and finally settling on a stable lineup in 1979. They released a single on Newcastle label Neat the following year, Backs To The Grind b/w Cheetah, a fine debut, sounding precisely nothing like any other new(-ish) hard rock outfit around at the time, with its catchy Deep Purple feel, exacerbated by Malcolm Pearson's grinding Hammond. They were quickly picked up by MCA in a deal with Neat, alongside The Tygers of Pan Tang and Fist, two immeasurably inferior bands. Fame and fortune beckoned. Or not...
White Spirit was recorded at Gillan's Kingsway Recorders studio, that outfit's John McCoy producing and doing a pretty good job, I have to say. Like the Neat single, the album almost sounds like a band out of time, Pearson's keyboards, Gers' Blackmore-influenced guitar work and much of the material giving it a mid-'70s feel. And you have a problem with that? Of course, time grants perspective to many things, music included; at the time, though, they were perceived by some (are you listening, Mr Barton?) as lumbering dinosaurs in comparison with Iron Maiden's quicksilver riffery, Def Leppard's incipient commerciality or old-timers Saxon's self-consciously 'metal' approach. Sales probably weren't helped by the cheapo sleeve design, not dissimilar to Whitesnake's contemporaneous Ready an' Willing. Pity its popularity wasn't comparable.
Midnight Chaser: Those Purple comparisons come lurching straight out of your stereo on Midnight Chaser, which kicks off like a dead ringer for Highway Star, complete with ripping Hammond solo. Gers' guitar work at the close gives us a taste of what's to come. Not the album's most notable track, but its best opener.
Red Skies: The first of the album's more thoughful tracks, Red Skies fades in with an organ/acoustic guitar arpeggio, building up to an epic riff and a tale of life on dying Mars. The unison synth/guitar part that follows the chorus is killer, as are the filthy organ-led lead-up to the guitar solo and the solo itself, an instantly memorable textbook Gers melodic effort. Red Skies appeared on EMI's Mutha's Pride compilation EP (an unusual format, it has to be said), in a slightly different mix that doesn't fade in. Rather better, methinks.
High Upon High: This has the distinction of sounding like absolutely no-one else, which isn't something you can level at most 'genre' bands. Its upbeat feel has hints of Yes, while still obviously being White Spirit; its fantasy-inspired lyrics actually fit the track's feel without sounding too dated. Pearson's mono- and string-synth work dominate the track, Gers' guitar reined in for once, although he provides its highpoint, the post-chorus melodic motif. High Upon High had also appeared a few months earlier, this time on Metal for Muthas II, in what sounds like the same mix, but without the fadeout, coming to a very satisfactory close.
Way of the Kings: Another melodic guitar motif opens this mid-paced stomper, lifted by Crallen's snare work in the run-up to the chorus and Pearson's killer synth solo. It even survives a clichéd 'stop/start' bass/drum part halfway through to almost define the hard rock/prog crossover boundary.
No Reprieve: Originally opening side two, a distant organ squeak presages the first of the track's two melodic keys/gutar duets, the band's Purple/Heep combo never sounding better. Another killer Gers solo and another memorable chorus make this the album's fifth world-class track.
Don't Be Fooled: Naughty, naughty... If you thought Midnight Chaser sounded like Highway Star, Don't Be Fooled rips off (of all tracks) Smoke On The Water, albeit with an extra chord in the riff in a vain attempt at a claim for originality. It's even in the same key... Saying that, the rest of the song's decent enough, although it's probably the album's weakest point; even Gers' solos sound a bit lifeless. Filler, basically.
Fool for the Gods: How else would you close an epic album than with an epic track? The ten-minute Fool For The Gods opens with a Floyd/Styx-esque string synth part, Ruff giving it his all on a suitably epic set of lyrics, A.N. Other intoning them in sonorous tones in the least soulful 'call/response' duet you'll ever hear. Once the track kicks off properly, featuring yet another melodic instrumental motif and one of the album's best vocal melodies, it doesn't actually last much longer than anything else on the album, but the lengthy intro helps to up its length, in true prog style. Much like the title track to Sabbath's 'comeback' album of the same year, Fool For The Gods closes with a beautiful mock-medieval acoustic guitar part, aided and abetted by string synth and percussion, highlighting a side of Gers' playing rarely heard in his current employment.
Bonus tracks: Unlike some NWoBHM albums (Angel Witch springs to mind), White Spirit hasn't gone through several CD reissues, each supposedly sounding better than the last and adding more tracks/discs. In fact, it's only been reissued once outside Japan, as a double-disc edition on Castle in 2005, now, tragically, out of print and apparently commanding high prices on eBay. The bonus tracks actually outweigh the actual album, although the compilers still managed, infuriatingly, to miss a rather inconsequential b-side, studio muckabout Arthur Guitar. Strangely, I'm quite sure it was listed in pre-release tracklistings, then was mysteriously nowhere to be found on the finished article. Hmmm.
Anyway, what we actually get (in no particular order) is both sides of the Neat 7", the Midnight Chaser single edit and its excellent flip, Suffragettes, the slightly longer Metal for Muthas II/Mutha's Pride versions of Red Skies and High Upon High (at last! Compile your own iTunes version! I did...), several demo versions of various tracks and a piece recorded with their last lineup, Watch Out, that ended up on a handful of compilations in the '80s.
White Spirit were never a fashionable name to drop, but who gives a shit about fashion? I'd go as far as to say that White Spirit is one of the best albums to come out of the whole NWoBHM explosion, despite its supposedly 'dated' sound. It's all in the composition, stoopid... I mean, not one bad track? Beat that, Maiden! Unfortunately, they, er, did. I love this album, to the point where Gers' two most memorable solos sometimes cycle round inside my skull for no readily apparent reason. Is it merely the nostalgia effect? Hopefully not. Y'know, the biggest compliment I can give this album is to say that it could easily date from 1975, although that hardly helped its chances at the time, of course.
The album sold less well than all concerned had hoped, so with commendable dedication to artist development, MCA dropped the band a few months after its release. A motorway crash did nothing to help the downbeat mood in the band, Ruff leaving soon after and Gers defecting to join Gillan, replacing Bernie Tormé, starting him on the road to fame and fortune with the aforementioned Iron Maiden a decade later. The remaining members actually pulled it back together, recruiting vocalist Brian Howe (later of Bad Company) and guitarist Mick Tucker, recording Watch Out and a rehearsal tape that shows the seeds of a decent, if slightly more mainstream second album.
Ruff went on to do very little, Pearson played with The Sweet, amongst others, Brady was still musically active a decade later, while Crallen and Gers' replacement Tucker played briefly with Motörhead copyists Tank. Sadly, Crallen died in 2008 after a fall on a London street. Gers, of course, went on to play on two Gillan albums before completing his degree, eventually hooking up with Bruce Dickinson, being offered the Maiden job when Adrian Smith bailed out. Commendably, upon Smith's and Dickinson's returns, the band opted to keep him on (unlike, unsurprisingly, Dickinson's hapless replacement, Blaze Bayley), loyally shifting up to a three-guitar lineup, which is where we find him today.
White Spirit is once again unavailable; I mean, what the hell's going on? If there's enough demand to push second-hand prices through the roof, surely it's worth someone's time to re-reissue it? Isn't it? And you can stick Arthur Guitar on this time, too.