First, some bullet points – Rhino Handmade’s latest offering, Box of Fudge, a four CD overview of the influential ’60s group Vanilla Fudge, will not change or advance their position in rock and roll history. Because the band is very much of their time, brand new listeners are likely to come away from the package with “I guess you had to be there” bemusement. Furthermore, in today’s remix culture, there isn’t a lot that is mind-blowing about the band’s niche – recasting pop songs of the day into psychedelic blues-rock framework.
But to make the case for Box of Fudge, especially to the prog-rock crowd, I’ll go out on a limb to say that if Sgt. Pepper brought the pop to prog, Vanilla Fudge certainly helped bring the heaviness. Exhibit “A” in the argument is that the band Yes modeled themselves initially after The Fudge, evidenced in the first couple of albums featuring songs by Richie Havens and Paul Simon. I have to believe that had Vanilla Fudge also steered away from the covers and concentrated more on their original songs, of which there were quite a few, they too would have secured a different place in the annals. All of this gets covered in the fascinating set, complete with a shiny, trippy digibook package and an informative essay within.
I found the parallels between Vanilla Fudge and other prog bands originating in the late ’60s hard to avoid, and the set covers everything from their initial success with the revamp of The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” to an attempt at a hard rock revival in 1984 which, to be blunt, doesn’t work at all. In the middle you find stabs at very big ideas, some faring better than others. The tracks “Sketch” and “The Beat Goes On” come from their album titled after Sonny Bono’s big hit, and they use that song as a conceptual anchor – the goal, to create a musical unified theory from the earliest of classical examples to “The Beat Goes On.” As the curators, Vanilla Fudge also wedge themselves into a kind of pantheon of importance, which was a huge mistake. The crux of their popularity came from how they tore down, then built back up, music of the zeitgeist. This degree of cohabitation was incompatible with what they started their fanbase on. The striking thing about the set is that the low points get coverage as well as the high points, an all-inclusive approach not often found in retrospectives, the unwritten rule of most being, “make us look as good as possible.” That “Sketch” is actually a nice piece of music owes a lot to this context versus the one it was initially couched in.
Another issue with the band is that, at times, it seemed they just weren’t thinking. Turning The Impressions’ “People Get Ready” into something of a Latin Mass hymnal alludes to the spiritual content of Curtis Mayfield’s lyrics but completely disregards the original intent, being a civil rights reassurance. The train that’s coming, the one that you “thank the Lord” for, is not so much a passage to heaven as it is to the promised land of equality. The Vanilla Fudge take is interesting, and certainly a creative leap, but it doesn’t have the confidence of matching the song to it’s emotion (something “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” did remarkably well.)
With all that set aside, is Box Of Fudge something for you? If you’re already a fan of the band, or of latter period psyche-rock like Iron Butterfly, the answer is absolutely. You’re not going to find a more complete or more respectful overview for this band, period. Two discs provide retrospective and two offer live tracks and in-studio jams, the package is glitzy, and as most Rhino Handmade items are, it’s a limited edition so when they’re gone, they’re likely gone for good. If you’ve been thinking of investigating this period and style, or if you’re into prog-rock and are up for looking into the genre’s genealogy, this package might also suit you well. If, on the other hand, you’re casually looking into the band you’re probably in for a reverse culture shock. Talent and ambition aside, Vanilla Fudge are thoroughly a product of their time.
Regardless, it needs to be mentioned that late last year the Internet was ablaze with news of Rhino Records’ demise. We here at Popdose were already offering our eulogies for the dear departed. Eight or so months later, the label has become the prime example of a company doing right by their back catalog. The fans are going to flip for Vanilla Fudge’s Box Of Fudge, but anyone interested in physical-format music has to give it up for the company that produced it and their stunning phoenix-like resurrection.