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Reign Ghost

Reign Ghost - Reign Ghost

Reign Ghost
Allied - 1969

Michael Panontin
Bob Bryden was just twelve years old when his family shifted down the old Highway 7 from white-collar Ottawa to the gritty factory town of Oshawa, just outside Toronto. But after a brief spell of culture shock, he dove headfirst into that city's burgeoning rock and roll scene, first as a drummer and then of course as the uber-noodling guitarist he became famous for. In fact, by the time he was sixteen, the precocious lad had already played in half a dozen bands with names like the Outcasts, Us Boys, the Things, the Bluez Proclamation, the Christopher Columbus Discovery of New Lands Band and the Cigarette After.

"The music scene in Oshawa was the same as anywhere else in the sixties, lots of kids trying to emulate their musical heroes," he would tell the on-line mag It's Psychedelic Baby, "lots of us doing British Invasion stuff and American psychedelic and all the cross-breeding that eventually went on."

In 1968, he and high school chum Lynda Squires would join Reign Ghost and "make our influence felt", taking the group from a covers-only outfit to one that played its own songs, the majority of which flowed from Bryden's prolific pen. But Bryden had his eyes on a much bigger prize. "I remember being in the Disc Shop at the Ottawa Shopping Centre and thinking," as he flipped through the latest batch of rock albums, "I would love to make one of those. Just one."

But the band's fortuity didn't end there. In that same unlikely record shop - remember, this was literally miles away from any sort of hip epicentre - Bryden happened upon a salesman for Jack Boswell's tiny Allied label. ("He heard I was in a band, and we were practically signed on the spot.") Allied had achieved moderate success issuing British and U.S. hits in the Canadian market, but had precious little experience actually recording anyone, let alone a group of freaky kids channelling the energies folk and acid rock.

"This was going to be a homemade, studio-basement record long before there was the word 'indie'," Bryden explained. "Our engineer was a local television country disc jockey named Cousin Bill Bessey. We couldn't believe it because everybody in Canada used to make fun of the crazy dude who played country records on television on Saturday afternoons while he showed pictures of barns and cows and fields - and here we were recording in his basement. It was hilarious."

The eponymously titled Reign Ghost arrived in the shops in April of 1969. Boswell and Bessey handled the production, with Bryden scribing the bulk of the songs. Though the disc itself is a hot item in collectors' circles these days, with original pressings fetching upwards of $900, the music can feel somewhat underwhelming. Like its sibling, The Plastic Cloud (another Allied release from the area that regularly fetches four-figure sums), Reign Ghost is a curious mix of freewheeling psychedelia and the dated trappings of early-sixties folk.

Strange bedfellows to be sure, and perhaps never more so than on the record's best track, the epic - and weirdly ungrammatical - 'Eyes Knows, So Does Ears and Carolina'. An example of what Bryden has called 'non-linear writing' ("You could just start writing and let the song go wherever it wanted."), 'Eyes Knows...' takes on many guises throughout its nine-plus minutes, wending its way through innocuous folk, laconic jazz-rock and finally full-on acid freakout. Everyone seems to benefit from those freer reins. By song's end, for instance, Squires has tossed off her Baez-like warble in favour of something much more potent, while the talented Bryden gets to showcase some of the fine guitar work he would become known for in later incarnations as Christmas and Spirit of Christmas.

Alas, as a unit Reign Ghost was highly combustible and within a few months had already self-detonated. Bryden and Squires reformed the band with new members for a follow-up LP, Reign Ghost with Lynda Squires, but by the time of its release the following year, the group had broken up once more.

(A note to collectors: Bryden recently purchased the rights to both Reign Ghost records and has lovingly remastered and repressed both LPs on vinyl with fold-out inserts and additional liner notes.)

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