Sunday, July 29, 2012

Automatic Man - cosmic funk prog anyone?

File this one under ‘Buried Treasure’.  In 1976 I bought an album called Automatic Man on hearing their single My Pearl  and in the knowledge that the band included one of my favourite drummers, Michael Shrieve, formerly of Santana. 

It’s an oddity for sure, with its mixture of funk, rock guitar and cosmic lyrics.  It still sounds good today though. Last year I heard one of the tracks played over the PA at a large festival, so I figure there must be a few people out there who think the same way.
How did  this cosmic funk prog band come to be?  When Mike Shrieve left Santana in 1975, he was keen to  develop a band project and so got together with guitarist  Pat Thrall and jazz keyboard player Todd Cochran, also known as Bayete.  Shrieve met Thrall when he  collaborated with Steve Winwood and the Japanese percussionist Stomu Yamashta on the ‘Go’ albums.  An established recording artist in the jazz field, Bayete had the songwriting skills, and it was his influence that would prove to be the greatest in terms of the band’s direction. The fourth member of the band was bassist Doni Harvey.

They were signed by Island Records and moved from San Francisco to London, recording at Olympic Studios in Barnes with engineer Keith Harwood.  The result was a collection of songs high on melody and set to a background of synthesiser swirls, wild guitar solos and with Shrieve’s dramatic flourishes propelling the whole thing.  The balance of the rock and funk elements was pitched just right, making the album accessible and appealing, potentially, to a wide audience.
The problems came when they tried to reproduce it live.  The band played in Europe and the US in 1976, but by all accounts they struggled to capture the magic of the album. Since much of its dynamic was due to the layered synth lines and the various effects applied to the guitar and drums, it’s easy to see how they might have found it hard to reproduce.

Expectations had been high though; the record was good and the album artwork had been expensive to produce, so Island were looking to recoup. But the single just scraped into the top 100 and the album failed to capture a wide enough audience.  The band, minus Shrieve, moved back to the US. Bayete and Thrall recruited a new rhythm section and recorded a second album, Visitors, which lacked the panache of the first album. Shrieve was the big name in the band and without his distinctive style, there was even less interest in the second album. Automatic Man disbanded in 1978.

Mike Shrieve said: “I put a lot into Automatic Man. We had great players, Pat Thrall on guitar, Bayete - Todd Cochran, a genius on keyboards, David Rice on bass at first, then Doni Harvey. We rehearsed every single day at my house in San Francisco, I bought instruments for everybody, my girlfriend at the time, Maria Ysmael, cooked wonderful dinners every single night. We moved to London to do the record, which we were really excited about. We just couldn’t seem to get it together live, though. We had a falling out and the rest of the band moved to LA and made another record without me, and that was that.”

Todd Cochran's career continued to thrive as he wrote and performed with artists including Aretha Franklin and Peter Gabriel. Pat Thrall went on to work in the fusion field with musicians including Narada Michael Walden and Alphonso Johnson. He joined the Pat Travers Band and later worked with Glenn Hughes.
Doni Harvey continued to play sessions and for a time was a member of the fusion band Nova. I saw Nova play a support slot at the Hammersmith Odeon around 1978. Harvey obviously modelled himself on Jimi (right down to the spelling of his name – and see back cover photo of Automatic Man) and on this night he was pulling all the Jimi shapes and moves. It was remarkable but also faintly ridiculous.

In 2004, a remastered version of Automatic Man was released by Lemon. Tom Karr of Progressive World gave the disc a five star rating in his review:  "People have a strong desire, an urge, to categorize things, to put them in boxes. In the sense of Automatic Man fitting into a pre-conceived sub-genre of progressive rock, then no, they are not a prog band. But they are much, much more than any label given them could describe. This San Francisco band had strong elements of spacey synthesizer driven progressive. Definitely. They could just as well be described as a hard rocking funk band as well. Both are true. Neither is accurate. No group I can think of so defies categorization as does Automatic Man."

I’ll stick with Cosmic Funk Prog.

The track 'Geni-Geni' from the album Automatic Man, 1976