Gravy Train

Gravy Train was an English rock band that released the 1970–71 albums Gravy Train and (A Ballad of) A Peaceful Man on the Vertigo “swirl” label. With an altered lineup, they released the 1973–74 albums Second Birth and Staircase to the Day on Pye-subsidiary Dawn. Their music ranged from blues-based jam rock to rustic, folksy art rock.

Members: Barry Davenport (drums), Lester Williams (bass, vocals), (guitar), Norman Barratt (guitar, vocals), J.D. Hughes (keyboards, vocals, winds), Mary Zinovieff (synthesizer, violin), Pete Solley (synthesizer), George Lynon (guitar), Russell Cordwell (drums), Jim Frank (drums)


Gravy Train had its roots in Spaghetti House, a soul covers band from St. Helens, Lancashire, that gigged on the Merseyside during the mid-1960s. The band included bassist Lester Williams, drummer Barry Davenport, and keyboardist John Hughes, a classically trained pianist who also played woodwinds. He’d been a member of numerous beat groups and Williams hailed from The Incas. Davenport came from the post-bop John Rotheram Trio.

In 1969, they met guitarist/singer Norman Barratt, then touring with psychsters Newton’s Theory. He’d earlier played in beatsters The Hunters (not the instrumental group). Barratt, Hughes, Williams, and Davenport decided to form a new band based on original material with lengthy jams and odd meters. Each members had similar penchants for blues rock (Cream, Jethro Tull, Jimi Hendrix), jazz (John Coltrane, Roland Kirk, Art Blakey), and The Beatles. They named their band Gravy Train, a slang term for a secondary source of income that requires little effort.

1970: Gravy Train

Gravy Train signed to Vertigo and released their self-titled debut album in 1970. Side One features four medium-length songs, including “Dedication to Sid” and “Enterprise.” Side Two consists of “Think of Life” and the sixteen-minute “Earl of Pocket Nook.” All tracks are group-credited.

They recorded Gravy Train at London’s Olympic Sound Studios with producer Jonathan Peel (not to be confused with BBC Radio 1 DJ John “Peel” Ravenscroft), who also produced albums that year by Panama Limited, Orange Bicycle, Toe Fat, and The Greatest Show On Earth (The Going’s Easy, Horizons).

Gravy Train sports cover art by the design firm Hipgnosis. The gatefold depicts an apparent Depression-era scenario where a short man, clad in ’30s attire, reads a newspaper while waiting for a train by an old, dilapidated shack. The band’s name is displayed in bronze bubble letters next to the Vertigo swirl logo. The inner-spread shows a b&w portrait of the band in front of a poster-clad building facade. In the US, the album was issued on Polydor in a single sleeve with the nameplate in a blue, slanted font.

A 7″ of “The New One” (b/w “Think of Life”) ‎was issued in France as part of Philip’s Série Parade Couleurs series. The a-side also appears on the 1971 multi-artist sampler The Vertigo Trip, released in Australia with tracks by labelmates Beggars Opera, Black Sabbath, Catapilla, Clear Blue Sky, Gentle Giant, Magna Carta, May Blitz, Nirvana, Nucleus, Patto, and Warhorse. The track “Enterprise” appears on the similar Do It Rock On Vertigo, released in Japan with many of the same artists, plus cuts by Affinity, Assagai, and Rod Stewart.

1971: (A Ballad of) A Peaceful Man

Gravy Train’s second album, (A Ballad of) A Peaceful Man, appeared in 1971 on Vertigo. It features eight group-written songs: three medium-length numbers (“Messenger,” “Jules Delight,” the title-track) and five shorter pieces, including “Home Again,” “Old Tin Box,” “Won’t Talk About It,” and “Can Anybody Hear Me.”

They recorded Peaceful Man at Olympic Sound with Peel and engineer Keith Harwood (Family, Fuzzy Duck, Tranquility, Glencoe, Humble Pie, Stories). Orchestral credits go to arranger Nick Harrison (Joe Cocker, Third World War, Tír na nÓg, Claire Hamill).

“Alone In Georgia” and “Can Anybody Hear Me” appeared on a Vertigo 7″. The sleeve depicts a red-sprayed, low-relief wall carving of a choo choo train, topped with a blue goo replica of the band’s nameplate.

1973: Second Birth

Gravy Train moved to Dawn, the underground subsidiary of Pye Records, and released their third album, Second Birth, in 1973. It features eight group-composed numbers, including “Morning Coming,” “Motorway,” “Fields and Factories,” and “Second Birth.” Despite efforts to self-produce the album, they called in Peel for a third time. “Strength of a Dream” and “Tolpuddle Episode” were lifted for a 7″ (no picture sleeve).

The simple Second Birth cover art, which displays the band name in a thick, red, sans serif font — intended to resemble a train, complete with smoke blowing from the i — was designed by Paul Chave, also responsible for visuals on Titus Groan and the egg-plate cover of Nice ‘N’ Greasy by Atomic Rooster. Chave’s presentation of the name as “Gravytrain” caused some catalogers to think the band had become mononymic.

Original copies of Second Birth are housed in a gatefold sleeve with a five-man photo on the inner-fold, but no band credits. Davenport, who left midway through the sessions, drums on only three tracks: “Morning Coming,” “Fields and Factories,” and “Tolpuddle Episode.” His replacement, drummer Russell Cordwell, played on the remaining five tracks, plus “Goodtime Girl,” a Barratt-written extra later added to CD versions of the album. Their fifth new member was guitarist George Lynon.

1974: Staircase to the Day

The lineup of Barratt, Hughes, Williams, Cordwell, and Lynon released one album, Staircase to the Day, on Dawn in 1974. It features eight songs, including six Barratt originals: “Starbrite Starlight,” “Never Wanted You,” “Bring My Life on Back to Me,” “Busted in Schenectady,” “The Last Day,” and the title-track.

Staircase also features one Barratt–Hughes co-write (“Evening of My Life”) and a track co-credited to producer Vic Coppersmith-Heaven (“Going for a Quick One”) and one Candy Carr. The cover depicts a winged monster above an otherworldly seascape illustrated by Roger Dean in a style reminiscent of his famous ’70s album art (Yes, Uriah Heep, Greenslade, Osibisa).

They lifted “Starbrite Starlight” as a single, backed with Barratt’s non-album “Good Time Thing.”

After the 1975 departure of Hughes, Gravy Train released one final Dawn single, “Climb Aboard the Gravy Train (And Get on to a Good Thing)” (b/w “Sanctuary”), then called it a day.

Post-Gravy Train

Barratt joined Christian rockers The Mighty Flyers for their 1975–76 albums Under New Management and What Kind of King, released on Trust Records. He then played on the 1977/78 albums The Prize by the Alwyn Wall Band and Begin Again by Nutshell, both released on Xtian label Myrrh. In 1978, he played voice box guitar on two tracks (“Almar’s Tower” and “Elsethea”) on the concept album The Eye of Wendor: Prophecies by Mandalaband.

In 1979, Barratt played on the Grapevine release Broken Chains by Malcolm Wild. He then backed a series of artists on the Xtian labels Kingsway Music (Steve Flashman, Steve Goddard, John Pantry) and Chapel Lane (Alwyn Wall, Sheila Walsh). On Chapel, he fronted Barratt Band for two albums: Playing In the City (1981) and Voice (1983). He died in 2011 from complications after a surgery.



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