Originally Published: 07 January 2015 – Classic Rock Radio (UK)
Uncle G’s FUN Music Reviews
Spotlight: Peter Banks Empire – The Mars Tapes (2014)
By: Gary “Uncle G” Brown
Imagine my panic when, on the day I set aside to write about Peter Banks Empire – The Mars Tapes, that it’s revealed that the second disc of the two-disc set is…MISSING! Lucky for me, I knew where it was. In an automobile that I rented and gave back to its rightful owner the day before. Listened to both discs driving up and back to San Antonio during the recently passed Christmas holidays. When returning the vehicle I made double sure to look and make sure I didn’t forget anything, neglecting to check the fancy CD player we used the entire four hundred mile round trip. Would have sucked if the CD was lost/thrown away.
A couple days after returning the vehicle, a happy ending took place as I was reunited with the disc at the Enterprise Car Rental place in Katy, Texas. Nice people over there. In the meantime, while missing the second disc, I played the first disc a few more times. Worked out fine, really. Oh, wait…I caught a nasty ass cold, and after that had three back teeth removed in my lower jaw (receiving stitches in my mouth). The pain once the novocaine wore off…Holy Shit! I promise myself that I’d NEVER do that EVER again. It hurt so much. The first few days after was pretty unbearable 24/7. Then every day after that, a tad less painful than the day before. In total, about five or six weeks of agony! And all through this, I’m playing mostly this new Empire / Peter Banks archival two CD project. Now having survived, I can say it helped me through by rearranging my focus. Shifted my attention onto something else. Along with some hot tea and honey, Peter Banks Empire – The Mars Tapes became a cool distraction from everything I was physically having to deal with. Onward through the fog.
I would be remiss if I neglected to mention that I once worked with Peter Banks, trying to help him promote an autobiography, he penned with the help of William (Billy and not William regarding the authorship recognition first name) James; titled ‘Beyond And Before…The Formative Years of Yes.’ This is back at the turn of the century. Sometime after publication, I lost touch. Enjoyed the contact I had with Peter. With him in the United Kingdom and myself in the United States, the phone and fax machine was our main source of communication. Peter was always nice to me, at least until one of my good friends royally screwed up involving getting his wife (after Sidonie) and himself free admittance into an Alice Cooper show, and then hanging out after the show together. The whole thing planned ahead of time. Very professional actually. Never happened. My friend got so involved with what he was doing that he totally forgot about Peter and his wife, leaving them hanging at the door. My part was being a go-between, and setting everything up. I drew up an itinerary, that my musician friend, totally ignored, being caught up in all the excitement. Wasn’t on purpose at all. Was seriously disappointed with the outcome. Again, nothing I directly did. Frankly, I’d be super pissed as well with the traveling that was required, and be it all for nothing. So there went my contact with Peter. Still, I remained a loyal listener. Up to the end, he stayed active, and his playing was still top-notch. Broke my heart hearing the news of Peter’s passing (2013).
Think how shocked I was when towards the end of 2014, here comes along some unreleased Empire music. Of course, I’m interested. Could my review be biased? A distinct possibility, so much so that I’d say YES myself. Be it as it may, I decided the BEST thing to do would be if I went down another path. Therefore, instead of a straightforward review, the following are my impressions, listening to what I believe is one of the best archival projects to come down the pike in a while. From a band led by a man labeled the architect of Progressive Rock. Empire’s music encompassed many styles even containing a hint of what was popular on the charts via record company/companies request. Remember disco? A tune called ‘Dancing Man’ comes to mind that Empire did. Rehearsed to play live as well, as a part of a Empire medley. Included in The Mars Tapes (disc one) for your listening pleasure.
Imagine if you will, a professional, established progressive rock musician trying to jump-start a band to his liking, when music not of his kind, is ruling the airwaves. The promotional norm at the time by newer and younger rockers was to simply talk shit about established bands. One example was labeling the chart toppers “Dinosaurs”. This said with intent to kill interest in them, while at the same time boosting their own popularity. The musical tide was surely changing, and unfortunately, just never in the direction Peter or Empire needed it to go.
Fact is Peter Banks Empire was a band that had three major attempts at becoming a commercial musical act, and failed at doing so, ALL three times. In their defense, years after the band broke up and went their separate ways, the music they created did see the light of day. Three CD’s labeled Empire…featuring Peter Banks, Mark I, Mark II, and Mark III. One Way Records in the 1990’s put these out. Yours truly being the BIG Peter Banks fan, of course purchased all three at the time of their release. Out of print and collector’s items nowadays. Note, knowing I would write something about the newest P.B’s Empire release (The Mars Tapes), I re-acquainted myself with these recordings recently. The third CD of demos/studio recordings, Mark III, compliments this recent release very well. Same musician roster. Here’s the band practicing what would have been a pretty cool setlist if they even got a chance to perform anywhere in front of a paid crowd. And they would have had that, had Mark I have been released properly, and money spent promoting the song, ‘Out Of Our Hands’ been made a single. Could have been a hit, or at least got respected airplay. Its success would have launched the band towards popularity, and that is what makes money and keeps things afloat. As humans mature, sometime during the process most of us learn, and it’s usually always the hard way, that hopes and dreams cost money. Adds up quickly. As does time in a professional recording studio.
Empire had a six-year history with major occurrences happening between projects. This was Peter’s group. He devoted his all to this. The time frame was 1974 to 1980. When the financially, bad times hit, he slept on people’s couches while playing salesman, trying to get the band it’s BIG break. From his own personal accounts, Peter’s attitude came off as ‘all or nothing’. Unlike other rock bands he participated in like Yes or Flash, Empire as a whole had no one to answer to but Peter. With authority came responsibility. At times the money was there, and at others, it wasn’t. Unfortunately, in the business world in which music, like it or not, is a BIG player, deals fall through. Peter’s actions dictated the man certainly tried, doing all he could to make Empire not only the band he wanted, but a success as well. A hard working / well rehearsed musical group that made chart topping albums, and went out on tour. A band that actually played live gigs in front of paying crowds. None of that ever happened to Empire. I conclude what a major shame that was, because the material when presented in the right environment was there. I base this on the three (Mark I, II, and III) now Out of Print (OOP) Empire factory pressed from the now-defunct One Way Records CDs that I have. All these years later since their release is further testimony to a conclusion, with the double CD; Peter Banks Empire – The Mars Tapes.
Let’s talk content. The two CD’s that make up Peter Banks Empire – The Mars Tapes amount to around ninety minutes of unreleased music from what would be the third major, and I guess final line-up of the group. Rehearsal tapes recorded at Mars Studios in Los Angeles, California. Music that represents not only the three past failed studio recordings, but Peter as its star as well. He was the music guy, and his once wife and Empire’s lead singer, Sydney Foxx (nowadays Sidonie Jordan) had the task of doing lyrics. Having been in all three incarnations of Empire, it was her band as well as it was Banks. The truth was it was her lyrics and singing that provided the cohesiveness the band needed. Since her Empire days, Sidonie has seen a variety of success, as did the bands’ drummer, Mark Murdock. He’s currently rocking Tokyo, Japan, with a group called Machine Messiah in which material like that found on this CD, could be heard/seen in concert. Mark also is very involved with a very cool progressive/jazz-rock band called, Cymbalic Encounters. Their sophomore studio release will be out here shortly. Includes Percy Jones and John Goodsall from a band Phil Collins was in at one time called; Brand X. As for the others involved with Empire, we are after all talking a few decades ago; R.I.P.
Did I just speak his name? One of the best drummers in prog-rock history, Mr. Phil Collins is included in Empire’s history, being a session man in the band’s beginning days. Friends of Peter’s, it was another band he was in called Genesis that kept him from perhaps being Empire’s full-time drummer. As an admitted fan of Empire, be it whatever line-up, featuring Peter Banks, I just think it’s so cool he contributes. Makes for an excellent footnote. A man behind the drum kit that I would have loved to have at least once witnessed in person, seeing him play live. With everything else I witnessed over the decades, it’s hard to believe I missed something like that. A lifelong friend with Empire’s final drummer, Mark Murdock also. Phil rocks! Good singer/showman also. Oh…on The Mars Tapes, Mr. Collins appears on disc two. On a song called ‘Sky At Night’. A beautifully layered prog-rock song if there ever was one. Sydney / Sidonie’s vocals shine here, and I dig the tabla playing (by Sam Gobal). Another one with hit potential, and I bet would have been cool to see them do in concert. Give the prog rock band Renaissance a run for their money.
“Uncle G” Rating: Using the one to five-star rating system with one star pretty much meaning, “pass”, to five stars meaning it’s cool to spend your hard earned cash on, I rate Peter Banks Empire – The Mars Tapes – 5 Stars! From the concept, which would include an awesome representation via the artwork that accompanies this release, by Paul at Studio 3 (as listed in the CD’s credits). Makes for slick looking promo ads as well. A GREAT idea using an obvious Sci-Fi twist based on the name of the studio. Nice work! Progressive rock and Outer Space do go together nicely.
Speaking of Mars, a couple instrumentals found on the second disc of The Mars Tapes by Peter Banks Empire, captures the spirit of the project. The first being a tune called ‘Ascending To The Planet Mars’. Songwriting credits go to Peter and the whole band. And also containing the same spirit is a song called ‘The Fall Of The Empire’, which gets my attention every time played. Always trying to be honest, I LIKE the second disc of Peter Banks Empire – The Mars Tapes more than the first. Different listeners, different reactions. Remember, I’m more into the actual music itself. It’s Peter’s guitar playing that holds my focus. All other players were outstanding, and having to be so to keep up with Peter in the first place.
Note: Please understand what an archival project is before paying all that money for postage. You know, should one be buying the physical CD itself. Available for official download also. The recordings themselves reflect recording devices and techniques reflective of the time the music was recorded. Just pointing out the obvious. Saying that, sounds very well being blasted out of a powerful home stereo system. Comparable or better to that of the One Way Record releases. On the negative side, a couple songs could have had better endings, and not sound so like they abruptly stop. Maybe could have faded out sooner? Maybe due to glitches in the source tapes themselves? A wild guess really. I once was involved with a Billion Dollar Babies three-disc CD archival project called, Complete Battle Axe (2002). Learned many valuable lessons, helping Michael Bruce with that one. Another story for another day. Back to the way a couple songs ended, it’s really the only bad thing I got to say about the whole project. Having worked on an archival project before, was taking an above novice educated guess as to why.
Before this turns into a two-parter, I sign out forever a fan of Peter Banks music. His sound will outlive us all. The possibility of a human being on the planet Mars listening to music Peter was involved with, or better yet, this very recording, will increase as time goes by. In the vast far reaches of outer space…may the vibes proceed the jive. Isn’t that Seventies sounding?