Purchasers of National Health's 1977 debut album might have looked at the band's lineup and figured that the group was Hatfield and the North with a new bassist, but the back-story was actually more complicated. The band was originally conceived by keyboardists Dave Stewart of the Hatfields and Alan Gowen of Gilgamesh as a merger of the two groups, which would have resulted in a rather massive nine-piece aggregation. But this grandiose scheme arose precisely at a time when rock listeners and, of course, labels were turning away from progressive rock toward punk. Or, as Stewart wrote in the liners to the 1990 East Side Digital comp National Health Complete, toward "some of the most crass, simplistic, brutal, ugly and stupid music imaginable, in an atmosphere where an admitted inability to play one's instrument was hailed as a sign of genius...." Well, true enough, but Stewart did pick "rock" as his art form, and rock has always been mainly for teenagers and twentysomethings, so maybe he should've seen punk coming. Plus, nobody likes a whiner. Anyway, back in the mid- to late '70s, National Health would briefly fight the good fight against all that crassness, simplicity, brutality, ugliness, and stupidity. Prior to this debut album's release, however, the struggle proved sufficiently daunting to force a paring down of the initial Stewart-Gowen dream to a quartet lineup consisting of Hatfields members Stewart, guitarist Phil Miller, and drummer Pip Pyle, plus bassist Neil Murray (later of Whitesnake fame; go figure) -- with Gowen relegated to guest status along with former Northette vocalist Amanda Parsons, Canterbury mainstay reedman Jimmy Hastings, and percussionist John Mitchell (later of Nixon/Watergate fame; no, sorry, that was a different John Mitchell from a different country).
At times, National Health's four lengthy multifaceted suites present the Hatfield-esque instrumental Canterbury sound at its most accomplished. Gowen, with writing credits for "Brujo" and "Elephants," came to be known for a jazzy, improvisational sensibility in contrast to the more thoroughly scored compositional approach of Stewart, who penned "Tenemos Roads" and "Borogoves," but National Health presents a perfect meld of their styles, utterly without tension between them. There are vamps over which Stewart, Gowen, or Miller solo (great fuzz organ from Stewart; fluid Moog from Gowen; inimitable phrasing and tone from Miller), but most notable is the music's organic flow through its twists and turns of melody, harmonics, rhythm (Pyle again proving both his dynamism and sensitivity), texture, and timbre. Music this complex and densely varied, particularly in the rock realm, seldom feels as light and breezy. Parsons' high-flying soprano vocals, whether she is singing wordless "la-la-las" in the Hatfield style on "Borogoves" or doubling Stewart's memorable "Tenemos Road" theme, add considerably to the ethereal mood. The result might be considered an equal-parts mash-up of Tarkus and Light as a Feather, as inconceivable as that might sound. What the heck, throw in some Stravinsky. It's rare to hear music as wonderful these days. Whine, whine, whine.