Sunday, 27 November 2011

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie - JOHN CASSAVETES - Director

Released 1976/1978

Is this really a film that needs pulling out and dusting off? The answer is yes. And always.

Orson in Furs
Let's start in the late 1940's when actor/director Orson Welles was approached to appear in the plodding historical epic "The Black Rose". He agreed to take the part only on the understanding that his character wear an expensive fur-lined coat for all his scenes. With the request granted the finished product was released to fanfares but almost universal indifference. Welles meanwhile had been concurrently working on a critically acclaimed version of "Othello" and on it's release he was clearly seen in the title-role wearing the same coat turned inside out!

It was a small act of opportunism from a star exploiting his power but also a symbolic act of defiance from an artist hell-bent on subverting the system. Welles fought this running battle throughout his career, seducing his backers with grand schemes, then exploiting the investment opportunities by working on multiple projects at the same time. He pursued a twin career as a jobbing actor often appearing in material far below his own exacting and ambitious standards, but justifying it by creating the sort of films he wanted to make. The sort of films he wanted to see. Along the way he would indirectly influence the self-financing pioneers of what would be termed American Independent Cinema; a movement from which John Cassavetes would emerge as a founding father.

John Cassavetes
Cassavetes followed a similar path establishing himself in acting roles on American TV and film whilst simultaneously developing his own experimental features. Like Welles there was a seemingly carefree disregard for quality control with regard to his acting engagements and for every "Rosemary's Baby" there were obscure irrelevancies like the Euro-pudding "If It's Tuesday This Must Be Belgium". The acting was the day job and entirely subservient to the metaphorical and literal "big picture"; the end goal forever in his sights.

I was shocked when somebody said to me recently that they liked the idea of John Cassavetes more than they liked the idea of watching his films. It sent me back to reappraise as many as I could, to see if I really thought the same. I certainly had fond memories of his acting, in particular the TV jazz-pianist detective "Johnny Stacatto" but I hadn't watched his directorial efforts for some time. I ploughed through the lengthy "Faces" checking my watch every half-hour or so and searched long and hard for a sympathetic character to identify with in "Husbands". Individual performances were memorable and the ideas and dialogue striking but the films as a whole, didn't entertain. I was not lost in the play, I sat watching performances, noting technique and innovation. I went back to his debut film "Shadows" but the improvisation was even more stark and though the feel of the New York locations is refreshingly realistic, I ultimately found it a slog. It took me back to grim days studying film critique at the University of London, where you struggled to hear the dialogue in the clips we were shown for the sound of students flicking through their Roland Barthes. Welles at least was always entertaining.

Then I had my first viewing of  the 1971 film "Minnie & Moskowitz", a comedy that I thought was a tragedy until it blissfully ended up an odd-ball romance. Finding my feet I chanced a replay of his harrowing study of mental illness, "A Woman Under the Influence", a tragedy that ends up a tragedy but one that ends in a strangely uplifting way. And through these two films it clicked.

Cassavetes was making nouvelle-vague films before some of the French directors had even picked up a camera, but he'd had to wait until the early 1970's for his style of film-making to come into vogue. The major American companies had begun to popularise this new wave of European influenced character-driven films and it seemed to coincide with efforts by Cassavetes to refine and broaden his appeal. By the time he made "The Killing of Chinese Bookie" in 1976 it seems everything Cassavetes had been working towards finally came together.

The plot uses the "Gangster" genre as a background with Ben Gazeera playing Cosmo Vittelli, a quietly desperate strip club-owner in hock to the Mob. But while the narrative is driven by an obligation he has to his paymasters, the message of the film lovingly plays out the obligation he is driven to fulfill to the people that orbit his club. The below trailer tries to say something else but ultimately conveys the same thing:



What this clip doesn't reveal is that there are two quite different versions of this film. Dismayed by the audience reaction to the original 135 minute version, Cassavetes re-cut the film in 1978, sharpening the plot devices at the expense of the indulgent but entirely worthwhile character development. But there isn't a great deal of plot and there is a great deal of character so the cut version works very well as a synthesised version of his original vision. Whole scenes are deleted and some of the longer scenes tightened with the naturalistic soundtrack enlivened by music. He would go on to cite that the original long version was hastily edited and therefore inferior but I'm not sure I buy this. The common consensus is that there isn't a definitive version as the two films give a different focus and so work as completely different entities. My advice would be to watch the shorter version first. Then when you've had time to take it all in go back and watch the long version and revel in the subtleties of the grotesques he examines in microscopic detail. There is much to enjoy.

If you have not encountered him before then this film is worth watching alone for your introduction to the work of Timothy Carey. He plays the leering, check-shirted terror and loose cannon of the Santa Monica hood. In a scene that runs "The Sopranos" close in terms of misplaced finesse, he forks spinach into his sweating face, bedecked in over-size napkin and white magicians gloves. A method actor with a tendency to swallow up his every scene, he advises Cosmo of the getaway car they have selected and staring into the abyss delivers his line with an almost insane intensity and portent:

"It's automatich-ch-ch.....runs on wires...so don't stall it...there's no key!"

Timothy Carey (middle)
Carey made his mark with memorable parts in Kubrick's "The Killing" and "Paths of Glory" and followed Cassavetes down the path of film-making with the bizarre "The World's Greatest Sinner" in 1962. Carey even appeared on The Beatles "Sgt Pepper" sleeve, though his cut-out was ultimately obscured by George Harrison's head in the final cover shot. He made his debut performance for Cassavetes with a small psychotic cameo in "Minnie & Moskowitz", playing opposite Seymour Cassel. In "Bookie", Cassel plays the genial gangster who first entwines Cosmo with the mob. His unassuming nature and the bureaucratic method by which his Firm processes the $23,000 debt, makes his performance all the more creepy. The proformas and xeroxes of organised crime acting as just another branch of the faceless administration trying to castrate Cosmo's personal freedom.

Seymour Cassel
Despite the heat, Cosmo keeps returning to his club "The Crazy Horse West" where he choreographs the appalling routines of his buxom "De-Lovlies", proudly taking credit for their every misstep. Centre stage is the master of ceremonies Mr Sophistication, a garishly made-up, self-styled "cult" with a fetish for singing tunelessly into the spot lights. The immovable Cosmo, portrayed by Ben Gazeera in probably his finest role, sits through it all with the intensity of a man watching high-art, while the camera runs endlessly, giving us the full excruciating horror of the Club's tour-de-force "Paris" routine.
Meade Roberts is Mr Sophistication

Deliberating over an artistic dispute back-stage, Cosmo rallies the troops one more time reminding them what they've got. They know what they do and the audience loves them for it. He tells them to enjoy life because they've realised their ultimate ambition. The ultimate ambition "to be comfortable". And with the vultures circling over head Cosmo knows, even if they don't, that these are the greatest years of their lives. That they deliver crud simply doesn't come into it.

It's a deep message.

I leave the last words to Mr Sophistication:

Thursday, 17 November 2011

I Never Dreamed/A Road to Nowhere - CAROLE KING / GERRY GOFFIN

The Cookies - I Never Dreamed - Recorded 1964
Carole King - A Road to Nowhere - Recorded 1966

As The Drifters hit version of  "Up on the Roof" serenaded love-crossed teenagers across America, it's composer Carole King was preparing to give birth to her second child. It was 1963 and she was 21 years old.

In addition to music, King (real name Stein) had bonded with husband and song-writing partner Gerry Goffin through the shared experience of childhoods spent with dysfunctional New York families. For her it was twice divorced parents in backwater Brooklyn; for him a largely absent and philandering father in Queens. Driven by a precocious talent, a strong work ethic and a large dose of marital insecurity, King launched the pair into a devastating partnership in the highly competitive hit-factory at Broadway's Brill Building. Harnessed by demanding label boss Don Kirshner, the young songwriters drew melodramatic inspiration from the recent but increasingly long gone days of their carefree youth.

Don Kirshner, Carole King and Gerry Goffin
Carole hammered out piano riffs to Gerry's lyrics, which after scrutiny by Kirshner were then placed with an assembly line of talent. "Some Kind of Wonderful" - The Drifters, "Crying in The Rain" - The Everly Brothers, "One Fine Day" - The Chiffons and "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" - The Shirelles. Era defining records and crucially best selling hits.

But right about here things began to change.

Carole demoed the songs and on occasion was allowed a single release under her own name, but under Gerry's insistence, 1963's "It Might as Well Rain Until September" was earmarked as her last. Carole bounced back investing her creativity in the perfect girl group The Cookies and their recording of "Chains" would reward the songwriting duo with even wider exposure when The Beatles covered the song on their first LP. The black girl sound was a winning formula and an enthusiastic Gerry would take to the road with The Cookies, leaving Carole at home with the two kids. By early 1964 it was apparent that Cookies vocalist Earl-Jean McCrea was pregnant but incredibly the professional life of Goffin & King did not obviously turn upside down when it was revealed that Gerry was the father! Life went on in a way that can only be explained by the context of the times they were living in. A Goffin & King title recorded by The Crystals in this period gives as good an indication of the state of socio-sexual relations as much as anything and "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)" would sound as provocative as its title. The show went on. An absent Carole even allowed Gerry to work with Russ Titelman on The Cookies next single that same year. The achingly beautiful "I Never Dreamed" captured exactly where Gerry's thoughts were, drawing from him a deeply personal lyric that placed the song a few notches above the many sound-a-like classics of the period:



"He tells me I'm pretty... and then I feel pretty"

And on it went. Carole's sang-froid, would eventually see her writing a song specifically for a solo Earl-Jean, with "I'm Into Something Good" as prescient a title as the song which had prematurely ended Carole's stab at a solo career the previous year.

By 1965 the couple had soldiered on with a move out of town to a leafy part of New Jersey. Recorded by The Monkees two years later, the satirical "Pleasant Valley Sunday" was written in honour of their new suburban surroundings and would capture the pretence of the life lived for the neighbours. It was a scenario all too true and a situation exacerbated when one of those neighbours became Earl-Jean; Gerry financing the nearby house for his second family from the couple's song-writing royalties.

Carole King - solo 
And the music was changing too. The popularity of the Motown soul factory was threatening the Brill Building dominance and the growing influence of Dylan and The Beatles would inspire the pair to gamble on a label of their own. Optimistically called Tomorrow Records, the aspirations  to broaden horizons were lofty but they would only result in drug experimentation for a mentally frail Gerry and a fling for Carole with a musician from a protege beat group.

This personal deterioration is captured in "A Road To Nowhere", a 1966 recording on the increasingly ironic-sounding imprint. A doom filled, cymbal crashing drone of a song, it sounds like a telepathic message to the music being made across the Hudson by the newly formed Velvet Underground. Both "All Tomorrow's Parties" and "Venus in Furs" have much in common with this soulful scream from the heart, with Carole's multi-tracked vocals soaring in the abyss. The song is credited to Goffin/King but to consider this as a true collaboration would surely be stretching the endurance of their relationship to exotic lengths. The lyrics are closer to a session with the psycho-analyst than anything else and they would re-ignite Carole's determination to strike out alone.


A Road to Nowhere - 1966

Carole soon broke free, separating from Gerry and heading for a new life in Los Angeles. From this she fell into the hands of Lou Adler and her re-invention as a Laurel Canyon troubadour. Gerry too found himself in LA and attempts were made for professional reconciliation, resulting in songs written to provide income for their children. It was short-lived and when "Tapestry" appeared with words and music by Carole, the relationship was finally dissolved. Gerry would move back East to battle with his own demons.

The years covered by this period of transition 1965-68 would result in a cache of superb Goffin/King collaborations as recorded by other artists. That such a body of work could be written under such duress highlights the discipline installed by the Brill Building regime and makes the powerful connection that entwined this song-writing team together all the more remarkable. A quick scan through these song titles captures a poignant story unfolding.

Oh No Not My Baby - Manfred Mann/Dusty Springfield
Stage Door - Tony Jackson/Peter James
Some of Your Lovin'-The Honeybees/Dusty Springfield
Honey & Wine - The Hollies
Yes I Will - The Hollies/The Monkees
Take a Giant Step - The Rising Sons/The Monkees
Just Once in My Life - The Righteous Brothers
Wasn't It You - The Action/Peggy Lipton
Goin' Back - Dusty Springfield/The Byrds/Goldie & the Gingerbreads
So Much Love - Ben E King/Blood Sweat & Tears
I Need You - Chuck Jackson/The Walker Brothers
Don't Forget About Me - Barbara Lewis/Dusty Springfield
Is This What I Get For Loving You - PP Arnold/Marianne Faithfull
Don't Bring Me Down - The Animals
I Can't Make It Alone - PJ Proby/Dusty Springfield
Yours Until Tomorrow - Dee Dee Warwick
I Happen To Love You - The Myddle Class/The Electric Prunes
The Snow Queen - Roger Nicholls & A Small Circle of Friends
Wasn't Born To Follow - The Byrds/Dusty Springfield
(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman - Aretha Franklin
You're Just What I was Looking For - The Everly Brothers/Status Quo
So Goes Love - The Turtles
Pleasant Valley Sunday - The Monkees
Porpoise Song - The Monkees
No Easy Way Down - The American Breed/Dusty Springfield
The Right to Cry - Erma Franklin
Who Needs It - Peggy Lipton

Thursday, 10 November 2011

MIKE WESTBROOK - The Emancipator of British Jazz

This is a piece about British jazz. It's about it's rise between two falls and it's about a composer responsible, as one musicologist put it, "for the emancipation of British jazz from American slavery"

MIKE WESTBROOK CIRCA 1971
In the mid 1960's the jazz movement was struggling for survival in the UK. London club owner Ronnie Scott was providing work for long-suffering British musicians backing the visiting US stars, but the arrangement was proving less than harmonious for their egos. With audiences dwindling, musicians were facing the prospect of a steady job outside music or chancing their hands in the burgeoning R&B movement.

Into this depressed atmosphere a new generation of musicians suddenly emerged, including a handful of innovative composers determined to present their work through larger ensembles. They included Michael Gibbs, Graham Collier, Neil Ardley and a pianist from somewhere between High Wycombe and Devon, Mike Westbrook.

CELEBRATION 1967 & RELEASE 1968
Brought up by a Duke Ellington obsessed father, Westbrook would synthesise the music of Gerry Mulligan, John Coltrane and Charles Mingus, to create an orchestra with a sound and vision very much it's own. Signed to the progressive arm of Decca Records, Westbrook's first release on Deram was the aptly named "Celebration", a record that leaps out with a controlled confidence and verve quite incongruous to it's fledgling status. At times the band plays in a quasi-R&B style as on the swinging and joyous "A Greeting", whilst elsewhere Westbrook strikes his piano in homage to the "Mingus Plays Piano" LP, with abstract dashes along the keyboard sending cues to his assembled charges.

The Mingus influence is strong. A fellow Ellington devotee, Mingus shook new life into the music with passages of anarchic yet arranged collective improvisation, and it would give Westbrook a template to build upon for his subsequent albums. On this and the following year's "Release" saxophonists Mike Osborne and John Surman would signal their emergence with assertive soloing adding the colossal influence of Coltrane to the centre of the mix. Both would soon emerge as heavyweight players under their own steam. On this LP Westbrook revealed his idiosyncratic style, creating side-long suites which interspersed Ellington pastiches and cover tunes, alongside tuneful originals that verged towards pop music. Indeed "A Life of It's Own/Can't Get It Out of My Mind" was even promoted as single, presumably in the hope for radio play. But despite individual moments of brilliance (including the aforementioned 45), "Release" sounds like a diversion from the real creative energies which were being dedicated to that year's commission for the Camden Arts Festival.

MARCHING SONG 1 1969
The anti-war themed "Marching Song" was put down on tape by an expanded ensemble of 26 in 1969 and marked Westbrook's first extended masterpiece. It was released as two separate albums, running over 2 hours in length. A rich, intense recording, it brims with ideas and superb playing which rewards the listener with repeated plays.

MARCHING SONG 2 1969
The concept opens with soldiers caught up in an insanely euphoric march before cheering crowds, then shifts to the desolated landscape of the battlefield. A long piano solo denotes the restlessness and ennuie of the pre-battle period followed by the chaotic theme of the title track. The original side 3 of the package plays like a concept in itself, suggesting the continued frustration of non-action with "Transition", "Home", "Rosie", "Prelude" and the track "Tension" sounding like something from Miles Davis' "ESP" period. A mood of reflection is suddenly broken with the cataclysmic screams of a saxophone announcing the inevitable "Conflict". The music is both stunningly beautiful and disconcerting, but the temptation to overfill the piece with discordant free jazz is resisted and the moments of spontaneous disharmony are used to fit appropriate moments in the narrative. The band is augmented by John Warren, Alan Skidmore, Kenny Wheeler and John Marshall, then working on sessions with Jack Bruce.

LOVE SONGS 1970
Westbrook followed the album with another diversion, cutting the understated "Love Songs" in the Spring of 1970. It was a beautifully relaxed break from the increasingly intense sound of the big band and is a good starting point for anyone in search of an introduction to his music. The recordings were built around Westbrook's rolling piano, strummed guitar of Chris Spedding and decidedly funky bass and drum rhythms, making it the band's most pop-sounding record to date. The album also featured a prominent new member in Norma Winstone, a singer who would contribute to most of the significant British jazz records produced in this period. She sings three poetic songs but also contributes wordless vocals, sounding at times like an additional wind instrument.

The music is close to soul-jazz as in the tuneful "Love Song #2" and it's close cousin, the infectious "Original Peter" (re-recorded for a single) sampled here:


The band now included George Khan a musician with a stronger rock/pop sensibility and the Deram LP's were produced by Peter Eden, an important catalyst for introducing pop to jazz and vice versa. (members of Westbrook's band would contribute to pop-hymn writer Bill Fay's 1970 Deram LP, produced by Eden). The cross-over in musical genres was however done more out of necessity than anything else and with the artists largely semi-professional, many were happy to pick up any available work. It was a period of greater respectability for jazz but it was still very much a secondary musical genre. "Love Songs" for example had been recorded at the independent Tangerine Studios on the Kingsland Road in East London which despite boasting an 8-track facility also had a bingo hall next door and recordings there were prone to a certain amount of sound leakage. Club dates were undertaken in a circuit of public houses dotted around the country, but mainly in London and the culture was still dictated by the rough and tumble of the saloon bar. In reality the larger the band, the more incoherent a piece could conceivably start, with band members returning from the bar glass in hand.

TYGER 1971 & LIVE 1972
Jazz was fighting for it's place in the culture and despite his growing status Westbrook would find himself promoting his music through increasingly diverse mediums. In 1971 his band provided the background music to Adrian Mitchell's National Theatre adaptation of William Blake poems (sung by a cast including Norman Beaton, Peter Duncan and a very groovy Maureen Lipman). The band also gigged with a multi-media company known as the Welfare State Travelling Circus, featuring acrobats and fire-eaters. At the City of London Festival in July 1972, a spectacular performance of "The Apocalyptic High Diver And The Pit of Molten Fire" culminated in one performer making a leap from the Tower of London battlements into the moat! It was a direction Westbrook would further develop into the early 1970's with his experimental jazz-rock outfit, Solid Gold Cadillac.

However Westbrook was primarily a composer and all other projects were merely works in progress towards his large scale compositions. In late 1968-1969 the big-band, with the assistance of an Arts Council bursary developed the follow-up to "Marching Song". Presented by the London Jazz Centre Society, the new work titled "Metropolis" received it's première at the Mermaid Theatre in the City of London. The performance was put on tape in the summer of 1971 and appeared on RCA Records new progressine imprint Neon, appearing alongside other low-selling jazz albums by Brotherhood of Breath and Keith Tippett's monstrous Centipede project. Featuring a 23 piece ensemble the album would be Westbrook's most ambitious and rewarding achievement to date. It would also reflect a greater degree of professionalism with Westbrook now released from his job as art teacher. This time around the core of the band were augmented by Henry Lowther, Malcolm Griffiths, Ray Warleigh, John Taylor, Gary Boyle and Harry Beckett; a veritable who's who of British jazz heavyweights. Of the album's nine movements three featured rock drumming and each side on the individual album concluded with elegiac trumpet solos by Lowther and Beckett respectively.

The album gently erupts with the sound of a city of horn instruments individually waking and shaking themselves out of slumber. Before long the city bursts into life with streets throbbing to funky electric bass and drums. Norma Winstone reappears as part of a lengthy collective improvisation that develops from a tentative and abstract opening towards a stunning melodic crescendo. Elsewhere Kenny Wheeler plays trumpet in a "Bitches Brew" style, whilst Westbrook himself features on a brief piano solo. Ex-Soft Machine guitarist Gary Boyle locks the LP into a jazz-rock groove with the massed horns of the dawn chorus, squawking their way towards the metaphorical day's end. John Marshall and Alan Jackson providing the heavy, driving rhythm in the drums. The track re-imagined as "Pleasure City", would feature in the Sold Gold Cadillac repertoire the following year, with the rock credentials emphasised by the band slipping into the "Satisfaction" riff.

                                                               METROPOLIS 1971
This period reached it's conclusion with another mighty big band composition, Citadel/Room 315 commissioned by Swedish radio in 1974. It would re-unite Westbrook with West Country saxophonist John Surman and return to the structured approach of  "Celebration" but with every piece written out in advance. Gone was the ragged collective improvisation of the previous years with players feeding off each others energy and spontaneity. In its place was an immaculately performed multi-layered composition which took British jazz to even higher levels. The album version featured ex-Blossom Toes guitarist Brian Godding on guitar, whilst Alan Jackson once again gave the LP an undercurrent of jazz-rock drumming. Co-producer John Surman dominates the LP's highlights including the complex "View From a Drawbridge" and the concluding "Outgoing Song", whilst Henry Lowther again excells on the nearly 12 minute "Pastorale" . Westbrook is pictured on the sleeve gazing out of rehearsal room 315 at Leeds Polytechnic seemingly in search of his next move. This would include an offshoot Brass Band and even greater theatrical collaboration with wife Kate Westbrook culminating in another huge work, 1979's "Cortege".
CITADEL/ROOM 315 1975

But the music industry's mainstream flirtation with jazz was over for good and the players retreated to the cellars of pubs and more receptive audiences on the Continent. The record labels passed over even the most established names and the Colliers, Ardleys, Gibbs and Westbrooks would find their music focussed towards a hardcore following with recordings increasingly distributed through small circulation labels. For many of them it was a return to the road and to the endless gigging that had set them on the path back in the early 60's. For many others it was a new life in the Post Office and Civil Service.

I leave you with the appropriately mournful conclusion to1971's "Metropolis" played by the late great Harry Beckett. It evokes the big city closing down, the last trains pulling away and the sound of a generation of superb musicians temporarily falling down between the cracks..


Friday, 4 November 2011

The Ballad of Tam Lin - RODDY McDOWALL - Director

Released 1970


The traditional ballad "Tam Lin", enjoyed a voguish revival in Britain in the late 1960's. It featured in the repertoire of three highly influential folk artists and inspired an imaginative but largely forgotten film. 

"The Ballad of Tam Lin", American-style.
It was a time when a renewed interest in folk music and pagan belief was percolating back through the left-leaning underground. Increasingly politicised listeners were looking to reconnect to an ancient authority more authentic than that proscribed by their elected reps (sound familiar?). The Christ-like Che shared bedroom wall space with proto-anarchist William Blake, whilst an outbreak of eastern spirituality offered glimpses of a surrogate utopia, long lost in ancient Albion. Popular novels sensationalised the Occult, whilst the myths of King Arthur coincided with the cult of Tolkein, with his talking trees, malevolent Trolls, Elfin Kings and all. It was a fantasy-parable but one conceived in a childhood idyll menaced by the very real perils of encroaching industrialisation and the horror of war.

The evolving cross-fertilisation of folk music across the Atlantic in the 1960's popularised this backwards quest for authenticity and meaning. Appalachian murder ballads, sea-shanties and work songs sung by the likes of MacColl, Seeger and the Clancy Brothers stirred the polemic-energy of the visionary Bob Dylan. His anthems were morphed into pop music by The Beatles and The Byrds, the latter band in particular acting as midwive to a generation of experimental West Coast musicians. Folk music was now anything from country and roots, through all shades of Americana and the blues.

1969 Island LP
It was against this backdrop that a group from London called The Fairport Convention, would record a string of increasingly impressive albums, peaking in 1969 with "Liege & Lief". This hybrid music was deeply influenced by the evolving sounds from America but with Sandy Denny's assertive and tradition-toned vocals it was a sound firmly rooted in the British folk-song firmament. That something so modern sounding could compliment something so old, served as the benchmark for what was to come and to this day it stands as the defining manifesto for the whole British folk-rock movement. The interpretation of the Scottish ballad "Tam Lin" sounds like a microcosm of the entire work, melding the anachronistic imagery to Richard Thompson's West Coast-style guitar breaks; a sound that manages to be both biting and languorous at the same time.


The ancient lyric of this ballad, adapted by Robert Burns in the 18th century, conveys a morality tale concerning the consequences of maidens cavorting with rakish men. A universal message found in folk tales throughout the world and one retold since time began. Our fascination for this version is wrapped up in it's telling and the strongly symbolic setting. Janet's virgin encounters Tam (or Tom) in a forest glade. Finding herself impregnated, Tam reveals himself as a mortal man imprisoned by the Faerie Queen. In order to free him she is instructed to pull him from his horse when the faerie court ride by. Their love is proved true as they withstand the shape-shifting torment that the enraged Queen curses Tam with.

"...run to the white steed and pull the rider down"
It's a story steeped in the Celtic night of Samain, or our adopted Halloween or All Saints Day (Day of the Dead). The night when bonfires are lit to renew life in the pre-winter earth, when all natural law is suspended and ghosts and demons are abroad. The faerie myths in the Scottish borderlands likened Elves to humans in their physical size, but gave them a compulsion to steal new born children and men. Their unassuming wisp-like nature hiding an ulterior hell-bent motive to strengthen their stock through interbreeding!  

Not long after Fairport's version was released, the traditional singer Anne Briggs recorded an unaccompanied variant of the song called "Young Tambling". A singer much admired by Sandy Denny, her compelling and austere recording draws the listener closer to the meaning of the ballad, making the girl's predicament all the more dramatic. Janet becomes Margaret, her seduction by Tambling is made explicit and she returns to the woods to find herbs to effect an abortion. It is only here that she is convinced to save Tambling and their child. It's a reminder of the subtleties and nuances of a story passed down through generations. A tale in many different forms, chopped and changed to give new emphasis and relevance to different audiences at different times.

Roddy McDowall on location.
At the same time the Pentangle, second-only to Fairport Convention in the folk-rock hierarchy, were tackling another variation of the song. Their version with additional orchestration by Stanley Myers was commissioned for a cinematic curio released in British cinemas in December 1970. The film "The Ballad of Tam-Lin" or "The Devil's Widow" maintained the premise of the fable but updated it to the present day. The Pentangle sang the tune at appropriate intervals in a narrative which subtly shifted the focus towards a decadent Faerie Queen portrayed by an ageing Ava Gardner. It would be the only film directed by American actor Roddy McDowall, made in between his appearances in the Planet of the Apes films. That he didn't make another film is a great pity as it's directed with an understated style, reminiscent of those unique films that only foreign directors seem to capture.

Ian McShane soon for the dead wood
Gardner, resplendent in spider-like eye make-up, revels in the role of Queen Bitch. Self-exiled from her court of beautiful young things, her lover Tom, played by Ian McShane, elopes with Vicar's daughter Stephanie Beacham. This propels the Queen into an existential malaise which sets in motion the eerie end-game. Using the malevolent mood of a drunken party-prank gone wrong, the film speeds towards a conclusion which toys with horror-film conventions. In this interpretation a caravan by the Forth Bridge, a fleet of sports cars and a deadly dose of hallucinogenics feature as iconic plot devices. Richard Wattis is a memorably creepy supporting Queen as the waspish Secretary Elroy whilst a sympathetic Cyril Cusack plays Janet's pastor-father. The other cast members including Joanna Lumley, Madeleine Smith and Jenny Hanley, all presumably biding their time between the next Hammer costume change, play the mindless hangers-on, circling in the Queen's orbit.

"...an angry Queen was she."
The film works and each member of the cast plays their role to perfection. McShane and Beacham transcend the legacy of their later TV roles and convincingly portray the innocence at the heart of the story. The washed-out 1960's are evoked by the flight from London and the end of the party literally leaves the guests in complete disarray.

The film was a forerunner to some contemporaneous Scottish pagan horrors. "Nothing But the Night" in 1973 suffered from convuluted plotting and an OTT performance from Diana Dors. However that film's star and producer Christopher Lee would make a triumphant return that year with the magnificent "The Wicker Man", a celluloid equivalent of "Liege & Lief" in terms of  influence and legacy.

McDowall returned to The Planet of The Apes but he also returned to this film collaborating with Martin Scorcese no less, on a 1998 restoration project. Unfortunately that version is proving as elusive to find as any other commercial version. However the film is available if you look hard enough and it really is worth the search.

Here's Tam's seduction of Janet.