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Fruupp - If you're not a prog fan, the chances are you won't have heard of this northern Irish band, active between 1971 and 1976. Even if you are, they surely will have passed off many a radar. Only moderately successful even in their own lifetime, they have faded into obscurity now - which is a pity, as they had a brief period of excellence in the early Seventies that could have lead to great things.
Derry man Vince McCusker was a veteran of the Irish pub and ballroom circuit, and the guitarist put together a band in the early Seventies with bassist/flautist Pete Farrelly and drummer Martin Foye. The three were all accomplished multi-instrumentalists, but it was the addition of Stephen Houston, a classical muso who was at the time in that notoriously hard-rocking outfit The Ulster Youth Orchestra that was the key signing. The keyboardist and oboist was an arranger and composer of real class: his contributions would give the band a sophistication and depth of reference that touched the levels of Keith Emerson. For a while, one Miles "Tinhead" McKee was the vocalist: he quit the band, managed a Christian rock band and is now a Christian radio broadcaster based in Las Vegas!
Fruupp's debut gig was in June 1971 at the Ulster Hall in Belfast, supporting the mighty Rory Gallagher. They headed to England a few days later and played their first gig on the mainland: supporting Thin Lizzy at Mr Smith's in Manchester. If you want Irish rock pedigree, you could hardly do better than those two early engagements, huh?
Vince's rationale in leaving Belfast for England was simple: he didn't think prog would play well to Northern Irish crowds. Over the next couple of years, according to band contributor, manager, roadie, friend, archivist, chief cook and bottle washer Paul Charles: "they played anywhere and everywhere they could set up their equipment. I think they did about an average of 230 shows per year, give or take a Red Lion, Leytonstone, or two." They supported acts including Queen, Supertramp, The Electric Light Orchestra, Focus, Hawkwind, Man, Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel, Focus and Genesis.
They got a break when Dawn Records head, Robin Blanchflower heard them and signed them up on the strength of their live act and a demo of 'Decision'. They began recording of their debut album, Future Legends in July 1973, at Escape studios in Kent.
The debut album was largely based on their live act, but shows touches of a band moving from hard rock into more experimental prog. Songs like 'Lord of The Incubus', 'Song For a Thought' and 'Olde Tyme Future' show a classically prog lyrical direction and eclectic mixture of blues, old Irish folk and atmospheric organ. A fine debut, and 'Decision' is a cracking track. This was released in October 1973 and a tour followed.
In the new year, the band were already set to record their follow up. They had a title: Seven Secrets. And they had songs. Unfortunately, only six songs. As Paul Charles says: "The chaps figured the word 'seven' was just that wee bit more mystical than 'six', and they're not wrong are they?"
More sophisticated and sweeping than its predecessor, Seven Secrets features plenty of strings, some sublime keys from Houston and several lovely tracks, especially 'Garden Lady' - check out the guitar work on this; great - and 'Elizabeth', a superb prog vista of sound. The track 'White Eyes' refers to the face on the sleeve: bassist Pete Farrelly did all the band's outstanding cover art.
The stage show around this time started to get more and more baroque and ambitious: fake blood was involved on more than one occasion. The band's audience was growing - playing to thousands rather than hundreds - and their profile was done no harm by a June 1974 drugs bust for a trifling amount of naughties that nevertheless saw the raid make the front page of all the national papers in Ireland!
The same year saw Fruupp release probably their most complete, artistically unified record, the LP Prince Of Heaven's Eyes. This was a suite based around a story by Paul Charles about a sort of leprechaun type geezer, Mud Flanigan, looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Mmm. Look, it was 1974. It begat the single 'Prince Of Darkness' and was a critical and popular hit. Radio Caroline played the album in its entirety every night for a week; they were getting good reviews, bigger sales, bigger gigs and acclaim.
Out of the blue, at a gig at The Greyhound, Croydon Stephen Houston announced that he had found God (the Christian flavour) and was leaving the band. According to Paul Charles:
"Immediately after the Greyhound gig he disappeared into the night and very uncharitably (particularly in view of his newfound faith) took a lot of Fruupp equipment with him. Long story short; Fruupp got their gear back and continued as a 3 piece until replacement John Mason joined them on stage in Huddersfield on 14th March."
The departure totally knocked the stuffing out of the band, and may have cost them a shot at the big-time. Seymour Stein of New York's Sire records was keen on signing the band - throughout his career he has signed Madonna, The Ramones and Talking Heads, so clearly this is a man who knows which side his bagel is cream-cheesed-on - and had arranged to come and see the band in Farnborough on 1st February 1975. Sadly, Houston had left and Stein instead got to see an under-rehearsed and under-impressive three-piece. Nothing ever came of it.
Still, with King Crimson founder Ian McDonald in the producer's chair, a fourth and final LP, Modern Masquerades was made. The record was released in November 1975 but by then, the titled seemed a bit off the mark: punk was happening and there were plenty of much bigger beasts in the prog jungle than Fruupp feeling the pressure. In fact, The 101ers - Joe Strummer's pre-Clash band - supported Fruupp at The Camden Roundhouse in early 1976. The band split midway through in 1976.
There has been talk of a reunion over the last couple of years and, bizarrely enough, a single from the final album, 'Sheba's Song', was sampled by the rap artist Talib Kweli for his song 'Come The New Day' with Nora Jones on vocals. Not sure how a Brooklyn rapper came across Fruupp, but he would have found, like a small but dedicated group of fans, a band with a knack for a lush, classically-literate and musically accomplished brand of prog rock.