Ah, 1971, a time when rock music was rapidly evolving and youth culture as a whole was still suffering from the hangover caused by the end of the hippy dream. The giants of the new decade had begun to emerge in the late 60s, with The Beatles split having handily cleared the decks for a fresh wave of world-dominating acts. Across the rock and roll spectrum, Pink Floyd were having to think on their feet following Syd Barrett’s meltdown, there were a multitude of singer songwriters of both genders, The Rolling Stones continued to roll and Bob Dylan was merrily contradicting every cliché about him.
The big name though was Led Zeppelin, a hairy hard rocking quartet that pretty much re-wrote the rule book on everything the public expected from a rock band. Starting as amplified blues rockers, in a little under two years Zeppelin had already mastered dynamic hard rock, started assimilating folk influences into their sound and had ruthlessly conquered America. Inevitably there was a rush of bands chancing their arm by adopting the Led Zeppelin style, to varying levels of success, among them Leaf Hound, a hairy rock quintet that was very much a product of the era. Fronted by Peter French and his full-throated wail of a vocal, with Mick Hall providing the type of riffs that could double as a building material, Leaf Hound had recorded their debut in 1970 and split shortly after Growers of Mushroom was released in 1971, leaving the album to languish in relative obscurity for years until it was discovered by a generation of stoner rockers who fell for its distorted riffs and deep hard rock grooves.
Listening to Growers of Mushroom 45 years after its release, while Leaf Hound’s sound is certainly derivative of Led Zeppelin, it is at least delivered with an unmistakable sense of enthusiasm. Opening track, “Freelance Fiend”, with Hall’s jagged riff and Keith George Young’s enthusiastic percussion is an open-shirted, sweaty rocker on which you can practically hear the texture of the cheese cloth. Yes, it’s of its time, but it’s a wonderfully free spirited statement of intent and would have been the band’s signature number had history had been a little more generous to them. If you’re already aware of Leaf Hound, then the chances are that it’s the song that you most readily associate them with, as it has a certain rough and ready audio quality all of its very own.
While “Freelance Fiend” is notable for its under-produced sound, the rest of the album really isn’t any more polished, in fact, I would not be entirely surprised if it hadn’t been mastered properly before its release in a desperate attempt to increase profit margins. This lack of sonic polish gives Growers of Mushroom a wild and untamed sound that would doubtless prove elusive if you tried to engineer it. It’s also probably the reason that the stoner rockers loved it so much, as the seeming lack of care about how it sounds gives it a unique rough-hewn organic quality.
Taken as a whole, Growers of Mushroom is a curious period piece, and while it sounds very much of its time, it is at least unfamiliar enough to demand further investigation by those with a love heavy psychedelia and hard rock. French’s classic rock yelp isn’t unique, but is delivered with no little style (he’d shortly go on to perform with Atomic Rooster and a number of other heavy-prog bands), and there’s a distinct, if a little heavy handed, psychedelic feel to proceedings, something which is not so much hinted at on the album artwork and by the band’s name, but heavily implied. A highlight of the album is its title track, where Leaf Hound adopts a softer sound to great effect and Hall’s guitar channels a different energy. Also of note is “Work My Body”, the band’s attempt at an elongated ‘statement’ piece which doesn’t quite work. Then again, some of the biggest names in early 70s rock floundered with their attempts at ‘epic’ tracks, so in trying to emulate these bigger names, it is fitting the Leaf Hound would also struggle.
While Growers of Mushroom is very much a product of its time, it also has a certain charm to it in its occasionally clumsy, but never less than enthusiastic musical approach. This is the sound of five unheralded foot soldiers of the music scene making their way through the occasionally boggy landscape of early 70s rock and making the most of the opportunities given to them. While Leaf Hound may never be discussed in the same reverential tones as some of their contemporaries, they really don’t deserve to be forgotten either.