All in the Family

50 years on, Music In a Doll’s House still bodes well for English eccentricity

British bands of late ‘60s vintage often tended to be more inventive than their American counterparts, and in that regard, decidedly more eccentric as well. Sadly, many of them were also confined to obscurity, especially on this side of the Atlantic where airplay — then as now — tended to dictate what got attention from the general populace.

Family was generally considered an oddity of sorts, mostly due the billygoat-like warble of singer Roger Chapman, a fully frenetic frontman whose vocals defined the band and found listeners divided between love and hate. Nevertheless, the songs were riveting in their own regard, and given their varied array of instrumentation, often incorporating vibes, sax, French horn and violin, they showed true melodic prowess.

Family could also claim at least a couple of minor claims to fame. Bassist Ric Grech went on to rhythm duties as part of the super group Blind Faith (naturally overshadowed by Messrs Winwood, Clapton and Baker), and he later served as support for Gram Parsons’ initial solo outings. Notably too, Family’s first album, Music in a Doll’s House, released inJuly 1968, found Dave Mason taking the producer’s chair and even contributing the song “Never Like This,” a real rarity as far as his future catalog is concerned.

“I was asked if I would do it by John Gilbert, their manager,” Mason himself told me in an interview earlier this year. “I had never done any production before.”

Given that fact, it must have been an auspicious introduction to the task of overseeing an entire album. Jimmy Miller, who Mason had known through his work with Traffic, co-produced two of the tracks, but outside obligations found him turning the remainder of the task over to Mason. The results were quite complex for a band making its debut — psychedelia, strings and chamber pop all found their way into the mix, and the quaintness and curiosity of “Mellowing Grey,” “Never Like This,” “See Through Windows,” Peace of Mind” and the various instrumental interludes made this a distinctly English-sounding album in every regard.

Nevertheless, an initial effort was made to crack the American market. Family became the first British band signed to Frank Sinatra’s Records Reprise label, giving them a certain distinction all their own. It also took a title — Music in a Doll’s House — that the Beatles originally intended to use for their upcoming double album, later known simply as “The White Album.” Its cover art was intriguing as well, showing each member of the band posing in a different room of the doll house itself.

Sadly though, while it remains a landmark album in the overall trajectory of British late ‘60s rock, it was mostly confined to obscurity, the first step forward for a group that would later attain a more measurable amount of fame with such albums as Family Entertainment, Anyway, Bandstand and It’s Only a Movie. The track “My Friend the Sun” would go on to become a staple of sorts, but it was only after Chapman and guitarist Charlie Whitney morphed into Streetwalkers, Family’s designated successor, that Family got any fuller measure of devotion, even in retrospect.

While much of the album sounds slightly stilted and dated today, it’s still an intriguing curio and one that brings back fond memories of day-glo, paisleys and the precious pop brewed from excess and experimentation. After all, great music, no matter how dated, ought to have no expiration date whatsoever.

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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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