The Complete Series, Volumes One-Six
Other Side OSBOX001/2011
What I enjoy about Circus Days is that it sounds like a trip through someone’s record collection. Where the legendary Nuggets always seemed a tiny bit ashamed of its pop step children, Circus Days is not embarrassed by the schmaltzy and the orchestrated. Where Rubble is massive, organized and often very serious, Circus Days is messy and fun.
Truth be told, that bit of rock criticism is not exactly profound. In fact, Circus Days is a stroll through a very small portion of the Strange Things archive – the massive record collection of Phil Smee. It’s a sometimes click-filled, low-fidelity and often wacky look at British pop dating from the mid-60's to the early 70's. The original 6 LP's (condensed to 4 CD's) were released in 1990 on Bam Caruso in conjunction with Strange Things magazine.
It seems almost pointless to review the recordings. Circus Days appeals to a fairly specific audience, all of whom probably own the original set in some form or another. The collection broke ground for fans of British pop when it gave us early compilation appearances by John Pantry, the Mirage, Jason Crest, the Factory, Nick Garrie and others. Some of these acts have been well mined over the years but just as astounding is the number of artists whose only appearance is on Circus Days.
It’s no secret that several of the band names were invented just for the collection or culled incorrectly from acetates. For instance, a very early Supertramp demo appears as the Idle Hands and the Teenage Opera-like “Ice Cream Man,” released as a single by a studio band named Kidrock, appears as Clover. But the invented names are another story. It’s enough to know that many of the recordings are very rare.
Appreciation for the music depends on the eclectic nature of your taste. The styles range from sublime orchestrated pop like “Alice” by Jon Plum to novelty psych by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore to the Cortina’s catchy bubblegum track “Phoebe’s Flower Shop” and to organ-driven progressive pop like “Reputation” by Shy Limbs. There’s also plenty of slightly heavy psych and rock too. Buried on each album are mystery tracks cleverly surrounded by vintage radio advertisements. Despite the variety of material, each album is its own experience and even a drug-free trip through the series proves rewarding.
Where Rubble is massive, organized and often very serious, Circus Days is messy and fun.
In the late 90's the Circus Days series was picked up on CD by the Voice Print label but within a few years went out of print again. That brings us to 2011 where we find ourselves presented with 2 separate versions of this box set. Late last year Past and Present (known in the collector’s world for their hideous sound replication and cheap packaging) released the first set. In the meantime, one of the original partners in Past & Present left to form Other Side and their release – the one being reviewed here – became the version officially sanctioned by Phil Smee.
The CD's come in mini-LP sleeves housed in a well-designed clamshell box. The restored original LP artwork adds to the whole experience. The booklet inside is very attractive and bulky with band photos, 45 labels and other memorabilia. Since the original series was not annotated, it’s an advantage to have the booklet to guide you. The only complaint is that the liner notes can leave the reader somewhat confused – especially when one of the fake band names comes into the picture. The sound is very good given the crunchy nature of the original recordings. The biggest appeal of the Other Side set is the price. At the time of this review it can be purchased from Amazon UK for under $50. Not bad for 6 CD's and 104 very rare tracks.
So coming back to the point about this being the “official” Circus Days box set: that designation is kind of silly. The recordings were not licensed for the original Bam Caruso sets and they are not, as far as we know, licensed here. However, unless your morals are such that you can’t bring yourself to buy a well-conceived bootleg, Circus Days is a classic series worth owning. Justify the purchase with a donation to your church, mosque or synagogue.
March 13, 2011