Album review: Refugee - Refugee (1974)
Sometime in late 1973 a small Xeroxed poster appeared in Kelly’s record store in Barrow-in-Furness advertising an upcoming gig at Lancaster University. This was for Refugee, featuring the former rhythm section of The Nice, Lee Jackson on bass and Brian Davison on drums, with the then unknown keyboard player Patrick Moraz. I was only 14 and didn’t manage to go but my older brother went with a couple of his school friends and came home with a tale of an amazing concert (and of missing the last train home and wandering around Lancaster looking for somewhere to spend the night.) It was fairly obvious that the band would attract Nice comparisons (I believe this was part of the wording in the advert for the concert) but even if Nice connections were used to lure potential fans, the old material aired at the gig (Diamond Hard Blue Apples of the Moon, She Belongs to Me and Rondo) was supplementary to the new Refugee compositions.
The one and only Refugee studio album was released by Charisma on April 19th 1974 and this was acquired for £2 from a short-lived record store in Barrow indoor market that fronted onto Duke Street. I bought a second-hand copy to fill an important gap in my record collection when I moved to London the late 70s, but the inner sleeve on my LP was missing the lyrics and other pertinent information present on my brother’s original. It’s incredible to think that it took until 2006 before it was committed to CD (Voiceprint IDVP002CD), carefully remastered by Moraz and his former band mate from Mainhorse, Jean Ristori, which is why I’d class Refugee as a forgotten classic.
At the time of its release, Refugee gained some highly positive critical attention. The keyboard-led trio formula may have been borrowed from The Nice but the music, almost exclusively written by Moraz, was a very different prospect. This was much more symphonic in style and scale and on the two long-form compositions on the album the structure and instrumentation was far more in keeping with the style that would become synonymous with The Enid. Patrick Moraz’s earlier song writing, highlighted on the Mainhorse album from 1971 (re-released in 2006 on CD by Voiceprint IDVP001CD) is much more proto-progressive, more blues-based with a narrower sonic palette. Though Moraz had worked with Jackson in the post-Nice, pre-Refugee Jackson Heights, it may have been the chemistry between the members of the new band that allowed Moraz to express himself in this symphonic prog style, where the music was quite unlike either The Nice or Mainhorse. Despite the large number of keyboard tracks on Refugee the sound, even on the original vinyl release with potential compression problems from sides of 26 minutes and 24 minutes long, was clear and well balanced. Lee Jackson’s vocals were also much improved since his Nice days. Patrick Moraz simply transposed keys to fit with Jackson’s vocal range, with astonishing results. From the deeply personal Someday and sections of Credo to the more straightforward narrative of Grand Canyon Suite (which appears on the vinyl version as Canyon Suite), the vocal delivery is laden with a befitting emotion that is always well-controlled and in-tune. The production brings out the bass much more than on Nice albums and Brian Davison’s drumming seems better suited to the Refugee compositions. In The Nice, Jackson and Davison were always in the background, simply providing a driving rhythm for Emerson to solo over; in Refugee, despite Moraz playing the lead, the band seems more egalitarian, with a shared input and output.
There were some sonic innovations, too. Moraz erected a set of slinkies (the coiled spring child’s toy) on a metal clothes frame with a set of contact mics which he played with a feather duster; he also used an Alpine horn (being from Switzerland) on Grand Canyon Suite.
The suit that Jackson is wearing on the cover photo of the album was also his choice of outfit for the Lancaster gig, and there is YouTube live footage of Jackson in this suit. Apparently, Jackson pranced around stage with a butterfly net during Papillon. After their demise, there were rumours of unreleased material and in due course, when Martyn Hanson was researching his book Hang on to a Dream - The Story of The Nice, he asked Brian Davison if he had any Nice bootlegs. The answer was no, but he did have a mixing desk recording of Refugee from Newcastle City Hall, prior to the release of the studio album. This was eventually released on CD by Voiceprint in 2007 (VP421CD) and does indeed contain some previously unrecorded material, destined for a never-to-appear second studio album, entitled One Left Handed Peter Pan. Musically, this is more in the vein of existing Refugee material (and a vehicle for a Brian Davison drum solo) but lyrically it is reminiscent of Jackson’s Nice days, relating a tale of Jackson’s experience in the music industry.
I was reluctantly drawn into easy audio portability and bought myself a Sony Walkman mp3 player, but I found the files ripped from my 2006 Refugee CD rather annoying because the two multi-part suites appear as separate tracks on the CD, producing intrusive pauses when played back on my Walkman. As a solution for when I’m physically separated from my vinyl, I’ve pasted the subsections together using NCH WavePad software and removed the gaps to recreate the original album experience.
The short-lived nature of the band (their first gig being in December 1973 and their last in August 1974) meant that though they had released a mature prog album that has to be regarded as one of the genre’s best, they were destined to be forgotten. Moraz went on to further success with Yes and the Moody Blues but Jackson gave up a front-line musician’s life for some considerable time afterwards and Davison, after a short spell in Gong, did likewise.
A forgotten masterpiece and one of my top five albums of all time.