The band Quatermass was formed in London, England in 1969. You never heard of them? No surprise, as they were not around for very long. But for a few years, they mixed progressive rock and psychedelia with the traditional brand of hard rock that rose to popularity in the early 70s.
The band consisted of John Gustafson (bass/vocals – primarily known for his tenure in Roxy Music and Ian Gillan Band), Pete Robinson (keyboards/piano – later known for working with Phil Collins, Mike Rutherford, Bryan Ferry and Eric Clapton), and Mick Underwood (drums). Underwood started out playing in The Outlaws with guitar player Ritchie Blackmore (later Deep Purple), moved on to Episode Six containing Ian Gillan and Roger Glover (both later Deep Purple), and later foolishly turned down an early offer from manager Peter Grant to join “a new band based around Jimmy Page from the New Yardbirds” (as we know, that job eventually went to John Bonham). At least he’s always been busy working, and is probably mostly known for playing on Ian Gillan‘s string of best solo albums between 1979-83.
As you’ll note from this overview, one interesting aspect of this band was their decision to not have a guitar player in their line-up. This certainly gave them a unique sound. It no doubt hurt them, though, as the late 60s/early 70s was the start of the era of the guitar hero.
They released their self titled album in 1970.
Apart from a few singles with non-album tracks, that album was their entire recorded work. At least until a follow-up (Quatermass II) appeared out of the blue in 1997. Note that this follow-up is heavily disputed and usually not regarded as a full-fledged Quatermass album, with drummer Underwood being the only member from the early days and – the shock! the horror! – with a guitar player added to the line-up!
The 1970 album has recently been reissued on CD in a great digipack with bonus tracks, which also includes a DVD with documentary material and video clips.
The band never ‘made it’, and struggled to get attention. Competition was certainly stiff, as their album was released at a time when several legendary bands launched classic albums. Perhaps the Quatermass album wasn’t equipped to compete with the Deep Purples, Led Zeppelins and Black Sabbaths of the world. Their mix of keyboards/bass-based progressive psychedelia was certainly at odds with what was going on at the time, and they never had a bona fida rock star frontman/personality on the same level that other bands had. As a result, the band never became more than a footnote in rock history, and they were only active between 1969-71. But the one album released by the classic line-up has long been an underground favourite amongst fans of music from this period.
Their most known song is without question Black Sheep of the Family – thanks to Ritchie Blackmore! The song was actually the catalyst for Blackmore leaving Deep Purple in 1974. Blackmore had become such a big fan of the song that he insisted Deep Purple should record it. When the rest of the band declined, he borrowed musicians from the band Elf (including an as of yet unknown Ronnie James Dio on vocals) to form a solo project to record it as a single. As we now know, this went so well that it grew into a new band called Rainbow, and the rest is history. The song can be found on their debut album Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow from 1975.
Quatermass’ original version of Black Sheep of the Family:
While this is a great version of the song, I must confess I think Rainbow’s cover is the best one:
Other Quatermass tunes worth a listen includes Make Up Your Mind, which is melodic and catchy enough that (at least in my mind) it could have been a minor hit for them. Except… it is over eight minutes long!
One Blind Mice is a single-only track, which you can see at least partially performed in this rare live clip:
I leave you with Up On the Ground, which shows that Quatermass managed to whirl up a mighty rock groove when they wanted to – even without the aid of a guitar:
The Quatermass album will likely never become the centerpiece of your record collection, but if you’re a fan of rock music from the formative late 60s/early 70s, it may be an interesting and worthwhile addition.