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Principle Edwards Magic Theatre - The Works 1969-1971 album review

John Peel’s favourite hippie multimedia big band’s total output

Principal Edwards Magic Theatre could only have happened in heady 1967, when it didn’t seem too extraordinary that a large gaggle of Exeter University students hatching a theatrical music and dance spectacle could find themselves supporting Fairport Convention and Free at their first gig and become championed by John Peel. MCing at gigs he helped secure, then signing the 17-piece troupe to his new Dandelion label in early 1969, Peel released beguiling age gap ditty Ballad (Of The Big Girl Now And A Mere Boy) as a first single, followed by Soundtrack.

Thankfully the album justified some of Peel’s hype. Heard for the first time 48 years later, it’s remarkable how its potent ever-changing kaleidoscope of subtly sexual female vocals, psychedelic guitar thrills, dramatic set pieces and folky chorales have stood the test of time and the band now sound wise beyond their years. The best of its six lengthy tracks are the tumultuously prog-presaging Sacrifice and epic Pinky: A Mystery Cycle, sounding darker and more mysterious than at that time when bands could find their feet in public.

Once on the rock treadmill, PEMT relocated to a farmhouse in Kettering and enticed Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason to produce 1971’s proggier The Asmoto Running Show. Displaying a tighter band and focus, it lacked the debut’s druggy ethereality and sexual awakenings but did include the society-lambasting The Kettering Song. Financial pressures effectively led to PEMT splitting shortly afterwards (returning as the more streamlined Principal Edwards in 1974).

Esoteric do an excellent job presenting both albums and single along with bonus disc of live-recorded songs that would have formed a third album, demos and Peel sessions that poignantly retain his introductions, such as dedicating Pinky to his mum. All told, an engaging, if occasionally twee, slice of English whimsy and post-psych self-discovery that, at this time of summer of love nostalgia, stands as one of the era’s more intriguing, even fearless, indulgences. Obviously, Peel devotees will salivate too.