The flurry of musical chair one-offs surfacing seems unstoppable in this age of let’s-see-how-deep-we-can-go-to-uncover-stuff-you-thought-was-lost-forever…Of course, if it’s just now getting to CD, you have to wonder how long it will be before iTunes scoops it up (is there a waiting list?). In the case of the Natural Gas project, it’s a no-brainer. The CD does an adequate job at recapturing musicians from famous bands who inadvertently pooled their resources together to see what would happen. It probably didn’t hurt to have Felix Pappalardi turning the knobs either.
The story of Natural Gas is like a million other chance meetings of the minds. In or around 1975, Badfinger guitarist Joey Molland accompanied one-time Uriah Heep/Colosseum bassist Mark Clarke for a weekend to the farm of Humble Pie drummer Jerry Shirley. A jam evolved, which included guitarist Clem Clempson (then with Humble Pie), and the next morning Molland, Clarke and Shirley, who had just left the comfy confines of the Pie, decided to form Natural Gas, a name credited to the drummer. The three briefly played with keyboardist Dave Kafinetti (aka “Viv Savage” of Spinal Tap, as well as a founding member of progressive rock band Rare Bird), but replaced him for the recording of the album with Peter Wood, who, among other accomplishments, co-wrote “Year Of The Cat” with Al Stewart.
With each member kicking in songs and ideas, Natural Gas recorded their self-titled debut in Los Angeles. Pappalardi edged former Beatles road manager and confidant Mal Evans out of the job of producing the record (Evans was shot and killed by a Los Angeles police officer on January 5, 1976). A clutch of songs filled with heart and soul in their corner, Natural Gas unwittingly became one of the first supergroups of their time to make an album meant for the masses. The 10 songs, plus three bonus tracks, making their first appearance on CD trace the initial stirrings and potential of a band that imploded under the weight of past alliances (internally) and shifting allegiances (externally).
Joey Molland had contributed plenty of lively tunes to the Badfinger arsenal, but they were largely overshadowed by the hits of Pete Ham. Natural Gas provided an outlet for the guitarist, who wrote or co-wrote six of the album’s songs. It begins with “Little Darlin’,” a mid-tempo rocker with a solid groove that opens the record. Moving forward, the mood changes and Molland nears an unnecessary nosedive on “Once Again, A Love Sing.” He regains his footing for the edgier “I’ve Been Waitin’” before zeroing in with the poignant “Dark Cloud.”
“I Believe In Love,” which could have easily been an outtake from Badfinger’s No Dice or Straight Up is a true group effort, co-written by Molland and Shirley, sung by Clarke and rounded out by Wood’s exquisite piano, a force through the record. User-friendly melodies flow freely from Clarke on “You Can Do It” and “The Right Time.” But when the bassist harmonizes with Molland on “Miracle Mile,” it’s like slipping on a comfortable pair of slippers.
The bonus tracks offer a satisfying glimpse into the raw talent of Natural Gas. A rehearsal of Molland’s “Christmas Song” captures a rough and ready vocal, some surprisingly stinging guitar work and a grittier basic track Pappalardi failed to build on for the final mix. The same could almost be said for the demos of “Little Darlin” and “Christmas Song,” which tap into yet another dimension that might have gives the record more depth.
Things fell into place for Natural Gas rather easily. The
album was well-received upon its release and a supporting tour with Peter Frampton,
who had just released Frampton Comes Alive, offered unparalleled
exposure. But for reasons unclear, Natural Gas sputtered out
of…well…gas! Molland returned to Badfinger; Shirley worked
with Fastway, re-established Humble Pie for a few years (he still owns the name),
and presently anchors time for Deborah Bonham, the little sister of Led Zeppelin
drummer John Bonham; Clarke has played with Rainbow, Billy Squier, Leslie West
and, most recently, Davy Jones; and Peter Wood worked with Pink Floyd, Roger
Waters and Bob Dylan before passing away in December 1993.
~ Shawn Perry