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If ever Budgie had an album that should have garnered them worldwide acclaim, it was this one. Never Turn Your Back on a Friend, the third and last album to feature the band’s original lineup, was (and remains) a class act from beginning to end. Beneath the mythical, radiant Roger Dean cover work were molten heavy metal treasures, a few nice ballads, and even a cover tune (something the band would never try again, I believe), and yet somehow things failed to pan out for them. If I had to guess, I’d say people thought they were just too weird a group, and in the 70’s of all places, with their odd song-titles and unusual arrangements. Time has shown that those people were almost right…everything but the “too” part. This album was just perfectly strange enough to remain in one’s memory eternally, though even today, it remains unknown by many.
If the average Joe Metalhead has the faintest idea about Budgie, it’s because of “Breadfan,” or rather, because “Breadfan” was performed by a certain famous heavy metal band…I dunno, Metalli-something. (Ca? Huh? Ca! Ah.) I imagine only a handful of these folks have bothered to check out the original, and what a shame, what a shame; the original’s a killer. NWOBHM before the ‘old wave’ had begun to crest, it’s energetic, anti-consumerist attack demands attention and a swift vertical motion of the neck. And let’s not forget the bridge, a Budgie trademark, where the band suddenly, inexplicably shift into mellow, melodic mode for a spell; this is your intermission… the riffage will thunder in again momentarily. Funny, ol’ Metalli-something would use this exact same trick in a number of their key songs, most obviously “Master of Puppets” and “Phantom Lord.” Is “Breadfan” strangely composed, or merely too strange for its own decade? You decide.
Speaking of mellow departures, two is still the magic number of ballads for this lineup, and the number of ballads shall be two. Both “Riding my Nightmare” and “You Know I’ll Always Love You” could be considered the most thoughtful and promising acoustic numbers the band had written to this point. But they’re a bit too plain and sweet for my tastes, I like Budgie’s acoustic bits as contrasts, not as showpieces. The dramatic finale “Parents” is what I’m after, the spiritual successor to past works “The Author” and “Young is the World,” but coupled with the emotional finesse of King Crimson’s unforgettable “Epitaph.” Ray Phillips’ drumming is featured prominently here and the track is neither soft nor sugary. It’s very jammy in the middle, like the overstuffed jelly doughnut I’ve been trying not to compare it too, but Tony Bourge’s soloing here is among his best recorded performances. A somber masterpiece overall, it’s one of this lineup’s triumphs.
Still, neither “Parents” nor “Breadfan” are the song of the album, despite their quality. That honor must be reserved for “In the Grip of a Tyrefitter’s Hand,” arguably Budgie’s ultimate track, and easily one of the best metal songs of the decade. That main riff is just so bafflingly attractive. Bluesy and mystical, sort of a West meets far East with groovy back rhythm. Abstract political sentiment tethered with riffs of pure concrete: all tremble in fear in the grip of the chords that follow the verses. After this one, most previous Budgie tracks dissolve from memory, an impressive feat considering the innate quality of these. We haven’t yet mentioned “You’re the Biggest Thing Since Powdered Milk,” but we shouldn’t hesitate, because it’s another example of the boundary-pushing blues-metal Burke Shelley and friends were channeling with ease. Note the nearly two minute phased-out drum fill that starts the song, Shelley’s odd cadence grappling with odder lyrics, and especially the deft bass-led bit that starts at around 5:25: Steve Harris would implement an identical technique in the bridge of a certain composition of his, “Phantom of the Opera.” You may have heard of it. The fact that it is easier to name bands that Budgie has inspired than bands that inspired Budgie themselves should be telling.
Honestly, the only time I wasn’t enjoying this record when the band weren’t being themselves: there’s a jammed out version of “Baby Please Don’t Go,” an old blues standard performed by absolutely everybody, that, while competent, lacks the character of the band’s original tunes, not to mention gets blown out of the water next to AC/DC’s version off next year’s ’74 Jailbreak. Still, the record’s solid qualities far outweigh this little dash of hindsight, and shouldn’t dissuade anyone interested from giving this album a chance. It’s a classic in its own manner: an accessible first taste for anybody craving some new 70’s weirdness and an indispensable companion for those who already know it well.
Another high-class album from Budgie, this one is a marked improvement from Squawk and opens with the classic 'Breadfan', which not only influenced Metallica but sounds an awful lot like early Rush - partly due to the power trio instrumentation, partly because singer Burke Shelley's singing voice had at this point developed a falsetto highly reminiscent of Geddy Lee's. Or maybe, since this came out before Rush's debut, it would be more appropriate to say Geddy Lee's falsetto sounds like Burke Shelley's?
Another touchpoint to early Rush is the Led Zeppelin love - see the cover of blues standard 'Baby Please Don't Go' - but Budgie also show the influence of the other giant of early 1970s proto-metal, Black Sabbath, with the doomy 'In the Grip of a Tyrefitter's Hand'. The album isn't quite perfect - in particular, the slow dirge 'Parents' is about two to three times longer than it really needs to be, with its whining vocals and its laid-back, uninspiring classic rock musical backing. Still, on the whole the album is a more than creditable slice of proto-metal with a good claim, considering 'Breadfan''s insane pace, to be a foundational document of speed metal.
What lunacy! This is an absolute classic!
Ok, in basic, when one views the surface of this excellent little relic, this is a hard rock album. But, given the time period aswell as the sound of some of the riffs, this could also be seen as an early metal album (the band had not really become the fully-fledged NWOBHM band they were with 'Power Supply' and such). See for instance the first track, Breadfan (yes, the song Metallica covered) and listen to that main riff. If that isn't metal I don't know what is.
All the songs here are classics. The previously mentioned Breadfan has a powerful main riff, very catchy vocals over the top ("Breadfan open up your mind open up your purse open up your bones never ever gonna looooose it!"), before going into an inspired little melodic part in the middle (which Metallica omitted from their version in favour of an instrumental section), and then returns to the mighty opening riff! Hell yeah, this song rocks, and this whole album is worth buying for that song alone.
The next track is much more rock and roll, with much more groove and an almost funk-like vibe. Not as good as the opener, but a cool, fun little song which then leads into THE BEST BALLAD IN THE WORLD! I shit you not! This is the most emotional, almost depressive song I have ever heard, and has been so for a number of years. It's just over two minutes long, meaning there's no long, boring symphonic intro or pointless meandering slow solo to try to up the emotional factor, it's just one voice and one guitar. Excellent, it needs to be heard.
The rest of the material falls somewhere in between the first and second tracks - catchy, fun hard rock with occasional metalish riffs (okay, not as much as Breadfan, but this album really should be seen as an influence on metal). Other highlights would include the strangely titled 'You're the Biggest Thing Since Powdered Milk' (with a very catchy main line) and the epic 'Parents', but really, the whole thing is best listened to fully, this is a superb hard rock album and it's a shame that it doesn't get recognised as so.