Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Secret - THE VIRGIN SLEEP-45 single

Recorded 1967

By 1967, Psychedelia (for want of a better word) was the must-hear sound and the leading record companies in the UK were branching out forming sister labels ready to scoop it all up. With ready cash at hand they began speculating on the premise that anything knocked out in tune with the Zeitgeist may very well sell. Even established acts like The Rolling Stones were following this same commercial instinct by aping the innovative Beatles recordings, so critically lauded that summer. Their far-out pudding "Their Satanic Majesties Request" has it's moments but the whole concept sounds like it was conceived in the boardroom of a Marrakesh enterprise zone. (Mick Jagger would put his time doing Business Studies at the London School of Economics, to good use in the years to come). But there were other more worthy...more blissfully naive attempts that epochal year.

The Stones' label Decca launched Deram with a roster of obscure delights and there were none more obscure or delightful than The Virgin Sleep, a four-piece from the Richmond, Surrey area. They changed their name from the Themselves in around 1966 and we can only speculate as to whether they re-named themselves after the popular excerpt "Le Dernier Sommeil de la Vierge" from Massenet's 1880 oratorio "La Vierge". What we do know is that the band featured 4 musicians with the names of Alan Barnes, Rick Quilty, Keith Purnell and Tony Rees, the latter credited with the songwriting credits on both their singles.

The drone-like "Love / Halliford House" crept out in September 1967 and was promptly forgotten by all and sundry. It's irrelevant to say it's a shame it didn't sell because the record has triumphantly transcended it's humble fate. To connoisseurs of this stuff it's now regarded as a defining artefact of the strange fetish that is UK psychedelia. The A-side was all moody and sitar-buddhist whimsy whilst the flip was all moody and deranged in tone. It was a record company toe in the water and something must has happened because the band got another crack at the whip. This time round they had TV and film arranger Keith Mansfield in tow conducting a small but perfectly formed string orchestra. Someone managed to grab the West Hampstead mellotron and the men in white coats turned a blind eye as the bass sound was cranked up to 11. The end result "Secret" was released in the New Year and it's a little bit special in my opinion.

Keith Mansfield. Hard at it.
Musically it has an infectious, gallumphing-like rhythm, bounding out the speakers like a herd of woodland animals. Big ones. The crunching wall of sound-effect is like something label-mates The Move always seemed to be striving for. It's heavy and jig-like at the same time. But it's also got a bit of that swinging Donovan/John Cameron folk-jazz-style in there too with the bubbling-brook sound of the bass. The descending mellotron line knocks the spots off The Moody Blues use of the instrument and the matter of fact vocals make the bizarre lyrics all the more strange. One wonders if there are any other songs that devote quite as much serious attention to a bunch of gossiping vertebrates?

The "folk" element here has as little to due with pagan olde england as it has to do with ornate William Morris wallpaper on bedroom walls. This is more the glaring Alfred Bestall illustrations for Rupert the Bear which always drew you away from the text or maybe the alternative reality found just past the village hedgerows in TV's Worzel Gummidge. It's the sound made by those malevolent trees that sit unemployed in city parks, isolated from their English countryside brothers. Something quintessentially strange and British. Psychedelic-folk perhaps? No...that is stretching it a bit far. The folk element is something buried deep within the subconscious of this. There's something altogether suburban in this, in fact there always was in even the wildest sounds of British psychedelic-pop. They took drugs in search of Gandalf in America but we always seemed to be happier with a pint of cider and a shimmy down the Conservative Club.

I don't know much about what they did after this apart from guitarist Keith Purnell who went on to contribute to the Walton-on Thames sound, adding fuzz-guitar to future DJ and TV personality Mike (Mic) Read's late 60's recordings. In all likelihood they attached themselves to the next musical wave that might earn them a few bob. Enthusiasts of Glam-pop may well hold the secret in the credits on the back sleeves of their mouldering records.

But this "Secret" is the only one that really matters. Go and let it out!

"The willow tree, by the wishing well 
Saw the fireflies dance, but he won't tell, 
It's a secret he'll keep but he knows very well,  I know

The field mouse runs from his nest by the road
To tell the news to the friendly toad
They think they're the only ones that know, but I know

I know cos I was there, having my tea with a teddy bear
I won't tell I wouldn't dare, cos I promised

Dragonflies tell it to the trees
Butterflies hear it in the breeze
They go tell it to the Queen of the Bees, now she knows

Ask the old wizard or the wise old owl
Or the badger though he's not in the crowd
They don't know anyhow, but I do

I know and so does the swan, he knows what's going on
He won't tell you just as long as I'm here

The blackbirds talking in the trees 
Tell the seagull who flies the seas
The Sparrow Hawk knows but then he sees, everything

Spider spinning his web of silk 
Watching the ducks down by the mill
He'll keep the secret, until he's ready"

1 comment:

  1. Wow... I thought I was the only person who adored this slice of sonic psych!