An All-Star Rock Jam That Transcends Egos

Mike Heron

Mike Heron spent the early '70s collaborating with the likes of Richard Thompson, John Cale and Elton John. hide caption

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"Flowers of the Forest"

Mike Heron: lead vocals, guitar

Richard Thompson: lead guitar

Steve Winwood: organ

Dave Mattacks: drums

Rose Simpson: bass

"Feast of Stephen"

John Cale: piano, guitar, bass, viola

Simon Nicol: guitar

Gerry Conway: drums

Sue and Bunny, Lisa Strike, John Cale: backing vocals

"Warm Heart Pastry"

Mike Heron: lead vocals, guitar

Pete Townsend: guitar

Ronnie Lane: bass

Keith Moon: drums

John Cale, Sue and Bunny, Lisa Strike: backing vocals

Talk About 'Shadow Classics'

How does Smiling Men compare to other all-star projects of its era? Why isn't the album more widely remembered than it is?

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Heron art
  • Recording: Smiling Men with Bad Reputations
  • Artist: Mike Heron
  • Genre: Rock
  • Label: Elektra, 1971 (reissued Fledg'ling, 2003)

Based on star power alone, this nearly forgotten document of London rock circa 1971 should have been huge. Among the A-list friends gathered to support Mike Heron — the guitarist, singer and songwriter of the Incredible String Band — on his solo outing are Richard Thompson, Steve Winwood, John Cale of The Velvet Underground (then in the middle of making the Nico record), Ronnie Lane, Elton John and members of The Who.

In spite of all those egos, Smiling Men with Bad Reputations isn't a run-of-the-mill all-star circus. The supporting players change with every eclectic track, and no matter who's playing, the musicians surround Heron's wry lyrics and off-kilter melodies with detailed, atypical instrumental touches like Thompson's carefully threaded lines on the ambling "Flowers of the Forest" (audio). In the liner notes, producer Joe Boyd recalls that just before this project, when he realized that the Incredible String Band was in decline, he suggested that Heron make a solo foray — which, he confessed, "did nothing to dampen Mike's rockist urges." Heron's biggest leap in that direction arrives on "Warm Heart Pastry" (audio), which features the Who rhythm section credited as "Tommy & The Bijoux." A rattling, high-octane rock song, it pushes Heron far away from the elaborately appointed ISB sound, and suggests what he might have accomplished leading a hard rock band.

Though the album didn't sell in massive numbers, it remains one of the most significant summit meetings of its era, and a trove of vibrant rhythm-section work. Some tracks may sound dated, but it's hard to deny the underlying spirit — the sense of communal discovery, the shared interest in spontaneous musical interchange. It's easy to hear these guys keenly listening to each other and having fun throughout this snapshot from a time when every last cameo appearance and jam session wasn't plotted (or lawyered) like a celebrity marriage.

Listen to last week's Shadow Classic.

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Smiling Men with Bad Reputations

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