Ask your parents, your teachers, or anyone who isn’t a total cynic about how to achieve success and they’ll tell you what you need is talent, skill, and determination; if you try hard enough, you will eventually make it—but anyone who’s ever said that has, like most, never heard of Mike Patto. Patto sang as well as Lou Reed and wrote thought-provoking music incorporating a mix of genres, but he never reached that success that we all believe is reserved for those who deserve it. Instead, Patto died of cancer at the age of 37 without as much as a whimper uttered about him. Patto never changed the world like The Beatles, and he certainly did not sell out any stadiums. However, what he and his eponymous band Patto did do was create several masterful albums that somehow got lost in the musical rat-race.
Mike Patto performed in many bands on his long road to nowhere, but his greatest efforts were with the bands Timebox and Patto, which fall on surprisingly different ends of the music spectrum. With Timebox, Mike Patto produced the type of traditional 1950s pop that you’d expect to hear Frank Sinatra singing on the radio. However, with his second band, Patto and his band-mates Peter Halsall on guitar, Clive Griffiths playing bass, as well as John Halsey beating away on the drums came the type of subversive, hemp-fueled, anti-establishment hippie sounds that can only be found in the music of the early 70s.
If there is one Patto song that must be heard above all others, it is “The Man,” from the self-titled first album “Patto.” In its three distinct movements, the song tells the story of the band’s singer meeting the proverbial “man who keeps the people down,” while running from the system and going insane in the process. Starting off slow and then relaxing with a jazzy drum line set behind Mike Patto’s fragmented, poetic verses, the song carries a deep, post-modern philosophical tone: “You see I’m real/You see…come feel/Got every little thing that I want now/Got every little thing, it’s all gone now/It’s all gone now.” The song then shifts into a two-minute lyric-less jazz section, featuring a vibraphone solo by Halsall. Now the titular “man” has finally arrived, accompanied by the slow return of the vocals with a repetition of the phrase, “I saw the man.” Calm and composed at first, Mike Patto’s voice quickly crescendos in volume, intensity, and disorder as he repeats the phrase, until eventually the song erupts into complete madness.
As only the first track on the album “Patto,” “The Man” is just a taste of a laid-back progressive rock album that has a lot to say, and is fine with letting the music speak to the songs’ meanings as much as the lyrics. “Government Man,” a low-key number about the futility of fighting the government, makes good use of another of Halsall’s vibraphone solos to close off the track and contrast the energetic, guitar-backed sounds of resistance with the calm controlled nature of the government. In “Hold Me Back,” the heavy guitar riff and driving drum beat will have you singing along—that is, until the oddly pedophilic lyrical content dawns on you.
Despite being absolutely prog-rock at its core, Patto took some funkier left turns later in its short career, with mostly favorable results. “Sausages,” a piece from their fourth album “Monkey’s Bum,” is frenetic with its upbeat guitar line and heavy existential lyrics. Patto describes his experiences going on tour with lyrics like, “I think I’ll set fire to my hotel bedroom/Just to prove that I can set fire to my hotel bedroom,” conveying the slap-happy craziness of being cramped in a tour bus for days on end.
Patto is as under-appreciated and hipster as it gets: its lyrics are not on Google and its most viewed song has 35,000 views on YouTube, but that is too little reason to forgo listening to them. Making use of trippy progressive rock arrangements, combined with 70s era countercultural motifs, Patto’s deft craft serves testament to the multitudes of musical gems once released and largely overlooked by history.