The Greasy Truckers Party, as a double-LP set, was the Great White Whale of many a music lover's collecting efforts in the 1970s and '80s -- always talked of being sighted by others and ever-eluding the best efforts. So in 2007, some 30-plus years later, the idea that the original eight-track master tapes had survived, and could be retrieved and -- more to the point -- would be retrieved by someone who cared enough to do something with them (and, equally important, had the time and budget with which to do anything with them) seemed a remote possibility, at best. But here it is, on three very fully packed CDs, the complete sets of Man, Brinsley Schwarz, and Hawkwind (with Magic Michael & Friends thrown in for good measure), a legendary performance on a legendary night for each band. For those unaware, in the world of British underground rock, the Greasy Truckers Party, as it was billed at the London Roundhouse on February 13, 1972, looms about as large as the Monterey International Pop Festival does in American rock lore; it wasn't the biggest gig ever played by the bands involved, but for reasons of exposure, and resulting word-of-mouth, and the excerpted live album that followed, it came to define what they were capable of, and who they were. Man, who'd shown a lot of promise on their early records leading up to this event, ripped the envelope with the show they put on that night. Hawkwind, who'd enjoyed some recording success and made a big splash at the previous year's Glastonbury Fayre, was boasting a partly new lineup, with a rhythm section comprised of ex-Rocking Vicar Lemmy on bass and Simon King on drums -- they overcame some initial technical problems to do a live set that, despite being abbreviated in earlier releases of this performance, loomed large in their legend for more than a decade. And included in that set on this release is their first-ever performance of "Silver Machine," the song that -- with Lemmy shifted to lead vocals a few months later -- would propel the band to the number three spot on the U.K. singles charts. And then there was Brinsley Schwarz, who were in many ways the most improbable act on this bill -- where the other two groups were known for doing extended jams, running as much as 20 minutes at a clip, the Brinsleys did short songs mostly based on American country music and other traditional forms; indeed, their opening number, "Country Girl," sounds like a lost outtake from the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and is about as far removed as can be from the heavy electric jams of Man that preceded them, or the space rock extravaganzas of Hawkwind, who followed.
The triple-CD version of Greasy Truckers Party is a somewhat more challenging musical animal than that old double album. It's also psychically spellbinding, when it isn't musically dazzling, and there are moments where it's both for long stretches. Man's set comes off very well, their hour's worth of jamming working even better in context and worth the price of admission for any fans of hard rock guitar, and of Deke Leonard's work, especially. It was after hearing this set that their label chief, Andrew Lauder developed a sudden enthusiasm for live recording, and it's easy to see why -- "Spunk Rock" in all of its glory would sell anyone on that, without a false note struck, and even the excessive moments in songs running 20-plus minutes have their place in this setting. Hawkwind fares a little less well, mostly owing to the technical problems inherent in recording a heavily electronic rock sound live. It's easy enough for fans of their sound to compensate mentally for the shortcomings, however, as most of what's supposed to be present is there, just not always balanced properly -- the difficulty lies in the small moments, actually, such as Robert Calvert's vocals, which are difficult to make out on much of "Silver Machine." The best set here, however -- despite a few minor glitches -- is by Brinsley Schwarz, whose set is just about worth the asking price of the triple-CD box. Their 14 songs more than live up to expectations, and this set more than rises to the 27-plus years' worth of expectations anyone may have held waiting to hear it. By the time Brinsley Schwarz get to "Surrender to the Rhythm," you're almost past surrender (as is the crowd, who -- after some initial confusion -- took to the Brinsleys); indeed, listening to that performance, you may suddenly feel, for one moment, unstuck in time, thinking like it was still 1972-1973, that Ian Gomm (who sounds fantastic), Nick Lowe et al, are the best band you've ever heard in your lives -- and maybe the best band you'll ever hear. It's also fascinating to hear the crowd -- most of whom were obviously there for Man and Hawkwind, gradually embrace the Brinsleys' more roots-oriented sound as their set progresses (some other acts on the bill were heckled mercilessly, and never made it to the recording), to a loud round of applause and calls for "More!" after "Surrender to the Rhythm." Magic Michael, who fills out the last ten minutes of disc two, was a London hippie eccentric who was sort of the U.K.'s answer to David Peel -- a future collaborator with Captain Sensible and Rat Scabies of the Damned, he's an acquired musical taste, but a startling cultural artifact of the time, and as long as his presence didn't keep any music off of the collection, you'll be glad that he's here. The packaging on this set is excellent as well, re-creating poster art and advertising and offering biographical information even on the acts that didn't get to perform (there was a power failure) or whose sets, interrupted by hecklers and fights, proved unusable. One couldn't hope or ask for more, 35 years after the fact.