It's hard to believe that Virgin Records, ultimately reaching questionable heights with Janet Jackson and the Rolling Stones, actually began life promoting progressive acts like Mike Oldfield, Henry Cow, and Hatfield and the North. With the exception of Oldfield, few groups would go on to great commercial success, but the truth is that both Henry Cow and Hatfield enjoy a cult-like status thirty years on that sees their small but significant catalogues continue to sell to new audiences tired of the girth and bombast of more commercially-successful groups like Yes and Genesis. Hatfield and the North in particular, with a combination of staggering instrumental talent that managed to completely avoid pretentious navel-gazing, and a completely irreverent sense of humour that belied more serious musical intentions, are often held up as the pinnacle of the renowned Canterbury movement.
Guitarist Phil Miller, drummer Pip Pyle, bassist/vocalist Richard Sinclair, and keyboardist Dave Stewart have all moved on with their careers. But with only two studio albumstheir self-titled debut and The Rotter's Club it's especially remarkable how Hatfield remains their best-recognized association and arguably the project that was most vitally a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Stewart's complex compositions, when combined with Miller's elliptically jazzier disposition, Pyle's flexible ability to maintain a groove through staggeringly complicated time changes, and Sinclair's supple bass and rich vocals, create a mix that remains as fresh today as when they were together. And though Stewart has railed out on occasion about the perils of improvisation, the fact of the matter is that while the Hatfields were about idiosyncratic long-form composition, they were also equally inventive and spontaneous improvisers.
With the release of Hatwise Choice , fans who never had the opportunity to experience Hatfield live finally have access to a series of BBC radio recordings and live performances where a more absurd sense of humour and rawer improvisational bent replace the beauty, clever craft, and dry wit of their studio recordings. While the material is largely drawn from their two studio releasesalbeit strangely retitled, giving fans the opportunity to "name that tune"and there is sparing use of overdubbing on the BBC shows, this is a completely stripped-down Hatfield: no Northettes on vocals, no guest horn players for additional texture. Just the quartet, in some cases faithfully recreating its material, in others completely reshaping and drawing fresh links between hitherto unrelated pieces. There's also the opportunity to hear the group in its earliest days tackling pre-Hatfield material such as Miller's "Nan True's Hole," renamed here to "Ethanol Nurse."
The sound quality varies, with the BBC tapes being superior to the live recordings. Still, the mastering job creates a remarkably consistent experience that makes Hatwise Choice the next best thing to having been there: for existing fans, truly manna from heaven; and for newcomers, a terrific introduction. Let's hope we don't have to wait too long for Volume 2.
Personnel: Phil Miller: guitar; Pip Pyle: drums, percussion; Richard Sinclair: bass, vocals; Dave Stewart: keyboards, tone generators.