Thirty-some years ago, if you wanted to know what was going on in the British underground, you read two newspapers - the International Times, house organ of the anti-establishment, and the now infamous Oz. Both closed their presses down so long ago that it's not even funny. But in an odd way, not much has changed. Today, if you want to know what's going on in at least one sector of that same British underground, you turn to Ozit, a small North England indie whose own mission, founder Chris Hewitt explained, "is to create a musical counterculture with its roots in the late-60s/early-to-mid-70s hippie morality and to show that rock does not have to be corporate to be successful. And to issue great albums."
To that end, Ozit has unleashed one of the most esoteric, but at the same time cohesive, catalogs around, a collection ranging from such pre-prog darlings as String Driven Thing and Surinder Khabbra, through the punk-and-thereabouts might of Doctors Of Madness and TV Smith's Explorers, and on to such modern-day cults as The David Bacha Band and Big George And The Business. Add to that the space rock from the streets of The Body and spoken word collections from Jim Morrison and The Sex Pistols, and clearly Ozit's greatest strength lies in sheer diversity.
That said, Ozit's best-known association is with Tractor, the English folk-rock veterans whose two albums in the very early 1970s for DJ John Peel's Dandelion label, are among the most highly sought-after of all that short-lived company's releases. Hewitt met the band at only their second-ever live show (promoting their second album!) in 1972. He was social secretary at Rochdale College and completely overwhelmed by the group. He landed them several more gigs at the college and a gig with Mike Heron at the local Champness Hall.
Hewitt would later become Tractor's manager, as well as co-owner of their Dawson Street, Heywood, studio, where Tractor recorded a new single, 1975's "Roll The Dice," for the U.K. label. They broke up shortly after that, but within a year they were back together as one of the stars of the nearby Deeply Vale Free Festival (where they were first introduced to the aforementioned Body). Within a year of that, Tractor were riding high on the British alternative charts and being courted for sundry punk/new wave compilation albums. (As if that wasn't bizarre enough, five years later a reissue of Tractor's second album made the heavy metal chart. Talk about a band of many moods!)
The band continued recording through the late 1970s and early 1980s, and in 1990, Hewitt decided to compile this material together with some new recordings as a companion to another reissue of the Dandelion album (through the German Repertoire label). 'Worst Enemies' appeared on the Sunflower label; it was subsequently reissued on Ozit and did so well so quickly that Hewitt swiftly followed up with 'Before, During And After The Dandelion Years through to Deeply Vale and Beyond', an even further-reaching collection of odds, sods and rarities. It is a sign of the devotion Tractor receive that this album, too, quickly established itself among Ozit's best-selling releases so far.
Another band closely associated with Hewitt and Ozit is String Driven Thing; indeed, it was their 1995 reunion show in Berlin that launched the Ozit catalog in 1996, after Hewitt met with SDT's Chris Adams "through our fateful experiences with German record companies. I put forward the idea that the spate of early-90s re-releases of late-60s and '70s albums on CD deserved a better treatment than the record companies were giving them. On a flight back from Berlin, Chris and I formulated the idea of putting out SDT material properly on CD".
Two studio albums have since appeared on Ozit, a reissue of the band's 1972 sophomore set (with bonus live tracks) and a fully restored version of the classic, 'The Machine That Cried'. Both also fulfill another of Ozit's stated aims - "to kick the major labels up the arse and show them the wealth of new and old material available for release on CD".
A union with Canada's David Bacha Band gifted Ozit with another cult hit when the 'Piece By Piece' album appeared in 1997. Well-known from his stints with Joe Walsh, Jeff Healey, and Bob Seger, Bacha's solo debut was so successful that he was promptly booked for a British tour that resulted in the 'No Sleep After Stonehenge' live album, a blazing slab of hard rock riffery topped off with an astonishing studio version of Genesis' "Lamb Lies Down On Broadway" and other bonus cuts dating back to 1976.
Fellow rockers Big George And The Business share many of The Bacha Band's best loved attributes and, so far, have released three albums through Ozit. But it is with reissued albums by the Doctors Of Madness and TV Smith's Explorers that Ozit has really made its presence felt on the scene at large.
Both the Doctors and Explorers sets have been out of print even in the U.K. since the early 1980s, but they offer fascinating snapshots of life immediately before and immediately after punk. Fronted, respectively, by Richard Strange of Phenomenal Rise fame and TV Smith (ex-Adverts), neither band received the plaudits it deserved during its own lifetime; indeed, The Explorers broke up not long after the release of their first and only album, while the Doctors made it through three albums out of sheer bloody-mindedness.
Today, both are held up as sterling examples of liberated independent thinking just as the Doctors' bass and violin-driven roar was quite unprecedented in 1976, so The Explorers' full frontal bass and synth approach was remarkably far-sighted in the early 1980s (it is no coincidence whatsoever that the same bassist, Colin Stoner, was a member of both groups). The albums' restoration to the shelves, packed with bonus material, has been greeted with almost unmitigated critical glee - a sensation through the early part of 1999, with which Hewitt is growing increasingly familiar.
The Explorers' album and a Sex Pistols spoken-word collection both earned three star reviews in a recent issue of Britain's magazine, while the Doctors, too, landed a great write-up. This year also saw a four-star spread in Uncut magazine for Tractor's 'Deeply Vale and Beyond', and another two in Q (again). As Hewitt points out, "for a small label like us, five major U.K. reviews in two months is amazing in the glossy monthly magazines'.
Ozit's immediate release schedule looks set to continue this shimmering standard. A reissue of Channel Five, 1983's blink-and-you-missed-it solo debut by Explorers' frontman TV Smith, is imminent, while further releases from the String Driven Thing catalog, too, are in the pipeline. Hewitt is also working on what he describes as "some folk-type stuff produced by Martin Hannett when he owned Rabid Records in the 1970s". And just from these promises, it is apparent the company named for two legends of the past remains hell-bent on becoming a legend for the future.
Goldmine #491, May 21, 1999