Sunday, 23 August 2020

ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN - Ocean Rain LP

 (MS)

The singer’s claim of this being the best album ever and one made in 1984 no less, has had the curtains twitching in the BETWEEN THE CRACKS camper van. We’ve gone mobile journeying into the forbidden zone to the crossroads of time where the music of the 80’s actually began. Like stalkers from a Tarkovsky film we’ve tramped through derelict FACtories, ankle deep in oil skimmed pools, argued amongst ourselves and ended up with a few uncomfortable truths.


I admit I am out of my depth with all this. I was unprepared for the journey. The sweet strings of the perfect pop song “Silver” seduced me bringing back memories of “Top of The Pops” on TV and my intense teen-age years. But on each listen I keep getting stuck on that string hook and wondering where it comes from? My revivalist instincts bother me that it was lifted from something I should know and I keep wanting to say David Angel’s strings on Love’s “Forever Changes” but I don’t think it was. It’ll hit me much later on and I’ll quietly go in and amend this post …under the nose of Tamantha. But never the less it is a perfect pop single and a perfect album opener. But it may be made even better by the dirge like second song “Nocturnal Me” coming next. It sounds a bit like Julian Cope and Marc Almond's Scott Walker obesession  but I like the sequencing contrast from one to the other and the long orchestrated coda and the singer’s tendency to suddenly lurch his vocal forward like David Bowie or Jim Morrison did.

In fact the band later covered songs by the Doors with that band’s keyboardist actually joining them at one point. But I musn’t keep referencing all that is good about this album back to the 1960’s must I? But…the Byrdsy-guitar sound by the Byrdsy-looking guitarist Will Sergeant is pure Byrds. On reflection The Byrds were probably the most significant influence on a whole generation of mid-80’s bands all the way into the next recession. Jangly jangly guitars, ponchos and tortuously blown-dry, bowl hair cuts. For mine I wore a very tight fitting woolly hat for about an hour every morning to flatten down the curls which probably made me look like a hip version of Benny from “Crossroads”. 

But this side of the album takes a downturn after this track. The last three songs are an unpalatable mix of generic jangle pop ("Crystal Days") and a couple of abstract abominations that seem to ape the robotic sound of New Order with some  grandiose mumblings a la Nick Cave. The last track “Thorn of Crowns” is a particular shocker. It even ends falsely, so just when you think you’re through it, it comes back again to haunt you. It always seems to me that the real problem of this period is that the poorer the material the more sensitive I am to the metallic drum sound. It (and I) went this way about 1983 when something happened with the studio technology or rather the access to enhanced (worse) studio technology. I don’t know what…my mind was elsewhere really. I was busy lurking round the dustbins round the back of the school yard desperately hustling warped Small Faces records to the D-stream remedials who’d washed-up there in the break-time between their extra R.E. lessons. As the bell sounded I watched them zig-zag back to Mr Andrews portacabin, whilst Mr Aytack whipped their arses with low twangs from the double braces of his garga
ntuan trousers.

Anyway the second side plays out very well after that. The sequencing is good and again I fondly remember the two melodic singles from those TOTP days. The previous year's "The Cutter" with it's faux Bollywood strings intro alerted me to Echo being a great singles band and they shone when they pushed for hits. Towards the end of "Ocean Rain" it gets moodier and stringier  but it wraps things up to a very satisfying end. “My Kingdom” is a rousing peak and the album ends with a song that though it seems to think its better than it is, is nevertheless a very effective closer with it’s salty seaside portent. You can’t go wrong ending an album with ramblings and rumblings about the sea. It’s poetic meat and two veg.

So an album I tackled with some reservations and one much more enjoyable than I imagined it would be. Along the way there were some hairy moments, but it’s left me with tunes to whistle and that’s not a bad thing for an ‘owd bugger like me and it’s also quite nice because most of the stuff I heard in the mid-80s’was really quite irritating and I’m pleased that my contemporaries were at least having some fun. 

(CG)

I remember once accidentally seeing Echo and the Bunny Men on Top of the Pops, the UK television programme that highlighted the upper echelons of the then single chart that made or broke new bands. The programme was a mish mash of predominantly kitsch popular tunes with the occasional golden nugget of a serious musician such as Hendrix’s Hey Joe or Prince’s Purple Rain. In the main it was programmed to appeal to a surburban audience of eleven to sixteen year olds along with the occasional tune that had been promoted in the specialist clubs where DJs had a profound grasp of music and its histories. If one was lucky it was a soul or jazz funk classic that had irresistibly stormed the clubs and spread beyond to the discos and wider single buying publics. Its move up the singles charts allowed such records to force their way onto Top of the Pops. However Top of the Pops was also shamelessly manipulated by the record promoters so that endless novelty acts gained a ridiculous exposure that massively boosted their sales (and therefore was played in the less discerning clubs and discos where everyone was too drunk to care about what they were listening to). One also has to note that the music was mimed and some musicians purposely did not imitate playing their tune with sometimes hilarious results. The only reason for watching the programme was when a serious musician or band featured and highlighted the utter inanity of the rest of the programme - including bizarre sequences of dancers moving totally out of sync with whichever tune was being played and DJ’s whose enthusiastic prattle was clearly directed at the lowest common denominator of inanity. At its best watching this programme was a profoundly surreal experience.


Back to Echo and the Bunny Men. I have to confess I did not understand their music at the time and still don’t. Clearly on Ocean Rain the producer and the orchestrator have played a key role in the making of its sound(s). Moreover it is clear that their musical direction is directed at making a commercial success that could feature on Top of Pops and sell to the widest range of publics. To that end their tunes seem to select signature clich├ęs of successful pop records including some of the devices of the novelty records to create a mish mash of effects without musical purpose. To my ears they are unlistenable.

(JS)

There’s an anecdote that prevails around bus-stops in the North West of England that observes that when the bus finally does turn up it will be joined by two empty companions. So it was at the end of the seventies/early eighties post-punk Northern musical resurgence. Three bands spawned at roughly the same time and then spun in different directions. Glasgow offered the art school Bohemia of Simple Minds, Dublin launched the scrappy U2 and Liverpool offered the bewildering Echo and The Bunnymen.  The Bunnymen’s initial sound was introspective jangle pre-shoe gaze. Songs of willful obscurity celebrating the banal and mundane as moments of intense introspection, their first two albums ploughed a furrow as idiosyncratic as the gulf between Liverpool and the Wirral. None of the key players McCulloch, De Freitas, Sergeant or Pattinson ruined their brains with the experience of higher education, instead they opted for a musical apprenticeship at Eric’s music club which was in a basement on Matthew Street opposite the more famous Cavern. Here the band mixed with future members of It’s immaterial, Wah, Shack, The Christians, Julian Cope, the Teardrop Explodes, Elvis Costello, Buzzcocks, Joy Division, Ramones, Sex Pistols, Banshees, The Slits, Talking Heads, Stranglers, Ultravox, XTC and OMD. Their first album ‘Crocodiles’ won critical acclaim, their follow-up ‘Porcupine” earned them some commercial impact. Their third album began experimenting with the raw Bunnymen sound to expand the formula with string arrangements. After an extensive tour of obscure venues - the Hebrides, Iceland, Buxton (ED. Not the Iceland in Buxton) the band launched Ocean Rain. It was a record that retained the fierce introspection of lyric with brighter melodies and lusher arrangements. The album sold well and the band disintegrated citing that they couldn’t do any better. Obviously they tried to another seven times, but nothing quite ever recaptured the sad magic of Ocean Rain which is in a nutshell a collection of songs which celebrate a simple life in Liverpool. McCulloch is quoted about his work ethic in releasing Ocean Rain in 2008. He said “It wasn’t to do with conquering the world; it was to do with those lads, like me and Ian Curtis, who liked the Silver Surfer and Bowie. It’s the greatest album ever made” The music is simple to play, but almost impossible to copy, because of the subtlety of McCulloch’s vocal stylings. Sarges might be playing an E, G, F but he’s playing it in a tuning you don’t recognise all over the fretboard.

 

Silver 

 

The sky is blue

My hands untied

A world that's true

Through our clean eyes

Just look at you

With burning lips

You're living proof

At my fingertips

 

Great guitar hook on verse and chorus, driving drum and bass, lush arrangements and McCulloch racing along trying to keep up with lyrics that could be pushed into a romantic interpretation by a jaded Cure or Joy Division fan.

 

Noctural Me

 

Oh take me internally

Forever yours

Nocturnal me

Take me internally

Forever yours

Nocturnal me

 

A brooder much more reminiscent of the band’s early pre-poppy material, which eludes to a love hurts like drugs. Its distinctive and enlivened to sub operatic by the arrangements. Not all songs need to be happy but this is particularly dour.

 

Crystal days

 

Where are you

In shadows only I can see

Looking for hope

And you hope it's me

Tattered and torn and born to be

Building a world where we can

Purify our misfit ways

And magnify our crystal days

 

The jingle jangle of broken love in Liverpool where the rain tastes bitter. The baseline holds this one together, and the guitar is the cement.

 

The Yo-Yo Man

 

Collecting the bones of my friend tonight

Sowing the seeds in a fruitless land

You know when prayers all hit the ground

There is no higher hand

 

Another gloomster with a lovely middle 8, saved by the extra band arrangements. Dramatic but an unlikely choice to be whistled on your way to work, even if you work in Toxteth.

 

Thorn of Crowns

 

Wait for me on the blue horizon

Blue horizon for everyone

Wait for me on a new horizon

New horizons for everyone

 

A vocal tribute to the Doors. Again reminiscent of the bands earlier work, but with a little more shouting. I saw this live in Reykjavik in an early form and I can say McCulloch toned down his wig-out scat to the betterment of the song.

 

The Killing Moon

 

Under Blue moon I saw you

So soon you'll take me

Up in your arms, too late to beg you

Or cancel it though I know it must be

The killing time

Unwillingly mine

 

An unambiguously creepy song of great atmosphere that is the band’s zeitgeist moment. Great structure, shape, development, restraint and poise. Any band would have killed to have this song. The Bunnymen almost didn’t include it, because it didn’t have the ocean theme. Pattinson recalls: “Me and Will had been in Russia for a holiday, and there was this band playing balalaikas in a hotel foyer, real cheesy cabaret. But it was so fantastic and we just started messing about and the next thing is we’ve got a chorus for “The Killing Moon”. It was just brilliant”

 

Seven Seas

 

Stab a sorry heart

With your favourite finger

Paint the whole world blue

And stop your tears from stinging

Hear the cavemen singing

Good news they're bringing

 

A cheerful song about moving on. Greatly lifted by the orchestrations, and the bells…

 

My Kingdom

 

I chop and I change and the mystery thickens

There's blood on my hands and you want me to listen

To brawn and to brain when the truth's in the middle

Born of the grain like all good riddles

 

B-b-burn the skin off and climb the roof top

Thy will be done

B-b-bite the nose off and make it the most of

Your king- kingdom kingdom kingdom

 

Sounds like its going to be a gloomy one but instead the jangle ascends upwards to be probably the best song on the album, all the elements in zen like balance

 

Ocean Rain

 

All at sea again

And now my hurricanes have brought down this ocean rain

To bathe me again

My ship's a sail

Can you hear its tender frame

Screaming from beneath the waves

Screaming from beneath the waves

 

The big ballad, gentle start to full orchestra, a lovely crescendo arrangement.

 

 

Angels and devils* (ED. This wasn’t on my version of the album?)

 

So, so happy

When happiness spells miser

And mister me hoping to be

Where ugliness meets beauty

Hope if you'll see

The demon in you

The angel in me

The jesus in you

The devil in me

 

MOR stomper for the American market that escaped them until Donnie Darko revived them.

 

Overall, it is not the best album ever made, but it’s a very good one, and when listened to in its proper context a special place is reserved for this record in my top 50. I think what I love about it is its undeniable simplicity, disguising a lush complexity. Its ambiguous lyrics well sung, and even though Ian Broudie’s production added a necessary lightness to the mixture (for sales) the efforts don’t sound misplaced and the band rise to the occasion. Whilst Simple Minds grew to dominate national stadium venues and U2 went on to fill global stadia, the Bunny men blew their assets chasing Ray Manzarek for their next album which didn’t perform as well. Their intense parochialism is what kept them honest but not global. Patterson illustrates this with his descriptions of the Paris phase of the recording of Ocean Rain.

 

“We were pissed every night and working in a studio with two guys who hardly spoke any English and we produced it ourselves. It only took three weeks and it was amazing, but for all that, Mac couldn’t sing on it. He was either too washed out from partying or just couldn’t get it together, so we ended up recording all his vocals in Kirby. That was typical, and I don’t think it would have worked otherwise”

 

(PS)

I have a strange relationship with the 80s. On the one hand, most of my bequiffed, stonewashed teens were spent in it; but when I then heard music from the two previous decades, I soon buried myself in the second-hand racks, rather than the new releases. 

Echo & the Bunnymen largely passed me by, save one single Bring on the Dancing Horses, released a year or two after Ocean Rain - and I think that's still their best song. There are a few decent ones on this LP (two of the singles, Seven Seas and The Killing Moon for example), but the rest - pretty much all of side one, in fact - seem too much like filler to me. The strings give warmth and depth to the sound when they're there, but when they're not McCulloch's voice seems too prominent in the mix, and I don't think it's strong enough to pull that off convincingly. 


I suspect this was a hugely inspirational album for some - The Mission, to my ears, spring to mind - but it’s not my cup of tea. 


Sunday, 16 August 2020

TIM HARDIN - If I Knew


I carry all ...all I need in a basket, of needless sorrow...sorrrow.

Become heavy from a-waiting on, what seems always to come on...come on tomorrow. 

The first version sounds like no more than a sketch. A tune worked on during those first album sessions in 1964 to serve whatever fragments of lyric he had to hand. It's arrangement, sentiment and place probably taken by "Part of the Wind" on the final LP. Tentative first steps ...baby steps ...away from the cocky Afro-American blues he'd been previously pushing... towards the skeletal, fragile two-minute requiems that would forever define his sound. He'd probably just met her. He came to steal her money take her rings and run, she gave him a reason to believe but from the very off he was agonising how he could hang on to his dream. 

Has what i've been waiting on become further away.... 

Or almost gone ....out of reach for me.

A simple reverb strum on a guitar with clickety-clack hi-hat for rhythm, a little too fast, the imagery at odds with an end of session feel. A red balloon ready to be popped in the studio rest-room. A song discarded like the needles and foil; the habit either picked up as an early opioid cure for physical pain or a souvenir from a tour of Vietnam. It was hard to tell with Tim Hardin mythology. But it fuelled a continental criss-crossing existence on the same circuit as Dylan, Neil, Van Ronk, Rush, Ochs et al, A coffee house fantasy lived through Leadbelly, Guthrie and the delta blues. Hardin's path seemed particularly unsettled. Unstructured. Oregon, New York, Boston, Los Angeles...Vietnam? In LA the songs changed after he met the TV actress and model destined to occupy the most profound moments of his brief 39 years. Now the blues really began.

Has the distance left to go become further away ... far too much for me to know. 

A sea with no beach for me

In 1968, two LP's under his belt, with Susan and child in tow ("I haven't any time for children although I've got a lot"), a live recording captured the tension of a typical Hardin gig. The hesitant at times soulful delivery of the song now slowed down to a rambling semi-jam fiercely held together by jazz sideman used to facilitating his "head arrangements '. It was ragged.Was it just the song or was it him? In the summer at the Albert Hall he'd fall into a stupor on stage suggesting everything suffered on a bad night. Doubled in length the song now evoked the lost at sea metaphor, drifting into the abyss but delivered as though his muse were dragging him to the depths. It was left off the live LP as released at the time, creeping out 40 years later in the post-modern afterglow of his still-born rediscovery. 

If i'm on an ocean without an edge of sand....

Is there any reason in trying.

A record company move to Columbia upped the stakes, but attempts to capture him in the studio was proving difficult. A studio version for an abandoned LP kept the length but sweetened the sound, with bubbling bass, chiming guitars and up tempo drumming. The song now a Marie Celeste captained by LA executives in search of a cross-over folk-pop hit for the Canyon. Eventually the studio moved into his home, the engineers and producers on call to capture him when the mood infrequently took him. It's bizarre title "Suite for Susan Moore and Damion, We are One, One, All in One" and portrait sleeve photos suggest Columbia bankrolled the wedding and reception too. 

If you'd give me a thankful sight of land... your arms...

I believe ...I believe i could hold back my crying,

It would have been a poignant last sweet moment if it wasn't so chaotic. Musically it WAS the relationship, the muse had gone, the family was broken, sales were poor and there was pressure for another album to deliver. What happened in the decade after is text book tragic. Re-location to London to access NHS support for his habit, alienation of the media, badly received recordings, psychological problems, physical deterioration, social withdrawal... O.D in a Los Angeles appartment block on the last day of 1980.

If you'd give me a thankful sight of land...

I believe I could hold back my crying...my crying

If I knew

But on that final Columbia LP he nailed it. The jazz musicians were still hanging on...waiting for the moment of inspiration.The budget now provided sympathetic though certainly overdubbed strings. The music was finally perfect for the lyrics. And time had passed long enough to make the lyrics transcend the junkie woe is me schtick. In 1970 with his family life in tatters, his addictions profound and his career in freefall the time had come...It's a bit like the end of a Fellini film.


Saturday, 8 August 2020

FAIRPORT CONVENTION - Liege & Lief LP

 

(CG)

The fourth album Liege and Leaf by Fairport Convention in 1969 featuring Sandy Denny is perhaps the most successful of the fusions of rock music and British folk traditions. It directly transposed songs from an English folk tradition to a rock idiom to immediate acclaim. However in some ways its successful fusion perhaps highlighted some of the major difficulties of this British genre which made this a singular or one off phenomenon within rock music.

British folk music often invoked notions of middle class “Englishness” often based on the academic propensities of folk musicologists seeking to historicise its traditions while linking it to a selective range of historical cultural texts that had recorded its oral forms. In contrast contemporary Irish, and to a lesser extent Scottish, folk music were rooted in the politics of inequalities and marginalisation that gave it an immediacy that evoked contemporary experience whether the shipyards of Glasgow or the troubles of Northern Ireland. There were more radical traditions of music fostered by the unions and working mens’ halls in England that championed the experience of working people but their voices were muted or marginalised in the mass consumption of folk music as it developed as an industry in the 1950s. This was compounded by the ways in folk traditions were policed such that, for example, Bob Dylan’s move from acoustic to electric met with fierce opposition from the Newport festival fans in 1965. In England in 1966 there was a similar defining of musical boundaries at the Manchester Free trade Hall where Dylan was famously reviled as “Judas” by a disgruntled British folk music fan. 

Seminal to the development of rock music was the utilisation of the flexible 12 bar idiom derived from African American blues music, in its rural and urban forms, mediated by the forms of rock and roll of Little Richard and Chuck Berry that challenging the racialised distribution of music in the USA. Inspired by Dylan’s shift to rock and the impetus he contributed drawn from other musical genres such as the Oklahoma derived narratives of Woodie Guthrie that challenged establishment hierarchies, British musicians looked to their own folk traditions as a resource in the development of British rock. However many of these rock musicians shaped by their middle class nostalgia of a lost rural Britain rather than the impact of a hundred years of industrialisation were constricted by the fashioning of musical tropes of an archaic England that sat uneasily with the rebellion and the progressiveness of the nascent rock genre at that historical moment. It often resulted in a fey or arch idiom with antiquated musical forms that did not fit with the 12 bar blues structure, although these works were consumed by some middle class audiences.

And yet…… Fairport Convention took this route consulting with the archives of the British Folk Society by Regents Park but also harrowed by a car crash that killed their drummer and a girlfriend. The shared trauma lends an emotional edge of loss and poignancy that re-invigorated the lyrics while the musical transpositions simplified and ruthlessly struck out the musical archaisms to offer an emotional clarity that cut to the core. 

(PS)

Do I get to bang on about how amazing 1969 was again? Well if I must… Not content with releasing one great album that year, Fairport released three. THREE! 

What We Did on Our Holidays, the wonderful Unhalfbricking and the cornerstone of British folk rock that is Liege and Lief.  

 

Replacing original vocalist Judy Dyble, Sandy Denny gave Fairport power, a clear direction and a sense of identity that was previously lacking. With a stronger voice than Judy’s, she allowed the group to have a louder, rockier sound – and thus British Folk Rock was properly born.  

 

What We Did on Our Holidays still had the tinges of the West Coast sound played through an English filter… then The Band’s seminal Music from Big Pink was released and made Fairport reassess their American leanings, as they couldn't compete with that – they had to redefine themselves and record music that was truer to their roots. Country fan Ian Matthews left to form Matthews Southern Comfort and fiddle virtuoso Dave Swarbrick took more centre stage, particularly in the traditional A Sailor’s Tale on Unhalfbricking; the twin-pronged fiddle/guitar attack of Swarb and Richard Thomson had been forged. 

 

After the tragic loss of drummer Martin Lamble in the M1 crash in May 69, the survivors collectively mourned their losses and found that they needed the band as something to cling to, a way to deal with the situation. So they ‘got it together in the country’ (Hampshire, actually) and the result was the game-changing Liege and Lief, their first album totally dedicated to British folk songs. None of your cable-sweatered, finger-in-the-ear, beardy hey nonnying here though… this is the perfect mix of rock and folk music, with beautifully searing, clear-as-a-bell vocals from Denny and lovely interplay from Swarb and Thompson.

 

The LP’s opener Come All Ye sets the electrified folk stage perfectly, like a call to a sumptuous feast; but Reynardine is arguably the standout track here, as hauntingly beautiful as the previous LP’s Who Knows Where the Time Goes. Stunning. The traditional Matty Groves starts out like a fairly standard folk number, until the mad proggish noodling comes in and it’s an absolute blast after that. Farewell, Farewell closes the side in more reflective mood with Thompson lyrics to a traditional melody.

 

The Deserter starts side 2 as a genteel waltz until the protagonist’s court martial briefly makes it a more regimented 3/4; then the Swarb tour de force that is Medley storms in, drinks all your grog and breaks up the furniture in the melee; Tam Lin has a nicely irregular 3, 3, 4, 3 time with Denny’s vocals flowing gracefully over the top; Crazy Man Michael is an original composition, but could easily be another traditional arrangement. 

The whole experience of the LP feels like an old painting in a modern frame. Inside the gatefold sleeve are pictures of long-lost folk figures such as Pace-Eggers, Morris Dancers and notable folk music historian Cecil Sharp, among others; clearly the message here is that your heritage should be remembered, even if you embrace that of others. 

 

Ashley Hutchings and Denny left soon after the album’s release (to form Steeleye Span and Fotheringay respectively) and Fairport never truly regained the magic they managed to capture; Full House from 1970 has its moments, but its predecessor is where it’s really at. Oft-copied, never equalled, Liege and Lief is majestic. And quintessentially British. 


 (JS)

This is an album of tensions, both positive and negative.On one hand the band present novelty in the form of amplified electronic music in a popular American rock style, on the other the album celebrates an interpretation of English traditional folk music, that in a sense has informed elements of the American tradition. The musicians also present a tension between individual musical virtuosity and the discipline of de-individualising their personal musical contributions to meld into the gestalt, fit for the purpose of being a commercial rock band. The third observable tension is the tension between embracing the popular as championed by the commercial charts, with the music the band enjoyed playing/ listening to. Liege and lief is often hailed as the definitive performance of the band in studio, but in reality it was a moment of individuals, suspending their individual creative egos momentarily to work together to produce a moment of beauty before rushing away from each other to try something else with lesser effect. In genre terms it is often described as the definitive English folk rock album, and can be identified to have spawned hundreds of imitators, even though there were many treading this ploughline before them and many, many after them. Whilst guest vocalist Sandy Denny gets much of the credit for the traditional folk dimension, she was supported by Hutching's academic research in Cecil Sharp House on one hand, and the raw folk that courses through the veins of Dave Swarbrick’s fiddle playing. Supported by Mattacks, Thompson and Nicol, it was an impossible alchemy not to transmute base metal into gold. The album made money but not enough to bind the band into a second album. As the band fragmented its members formed Fotheringay, The Albion band, and Steeleye Span, who continued to plough the same furrow, if in a diminished form.

 

Come all ye - A fantastic opening track, a loose rolling ramble into the possibilities of the new ensemble, the discipline to play a coherent song is barely held together, Thompson’s Nicol’s and Swabricks musical individualism is highly detectable, whilst Mattacks and Hutchings hold it all together. The overall sound as it is though is of the male musicians standing around Denny in the centre, queen of all she surveys, the lyric whilst simple, is well within her range which allows firm command. Original composition

 

Reynardine- A loose and rather over-ornamented version of the traditional Renardyne, this is an example of where the individual musicians should have been kept in check, its starts at 11 and climbs to thirteen in regards to wild improvisations, and it could do with a bit more pace in my opinion. Denny’s vocal here has become the standard interpretation, but the song would work better at say Matty groves pace, except in that it precedes Matty groves on the album. Personally it feels a tad indulgent, overly slowed down to make way for the stomper that follows. Denny voice is a bit too thin in timbre to carry this off.

 

Matty Groves- A traditional border ballad, which Denny’s vocal commands well, the band is disciplined here but the material demands a full eight minutes to spit it out. The tune is not good enough for eight minute, and the lyrical content illustrates that it is not a feminist dance classic in a traditional or a novel sense. Denny’s vocal works better here but Swarbrick is buried too deep in the mix until released by Thompson’.s mid song wig out.

Farewell, Farewell- A disciplined Thompson song, with a good focussed Denny vocal

 

The Deserter- A traditional song , which binds the band together into the classic folk band they are, Thompson, Nicols and Swarbrick in their proper place . Denny is just about perfect in this one, rising from an interesting vocalist to being an essential one.

 

"Medley"I. "The Lark in the Morning”, II. "Rakish Paddy”, III. "Foxhunter's Jig”, IV. "Toss the Feathers" -Swarbrick’s price for band membership, a proper folkie stomp that can be repeated and elongated to any length by musicians of this calibre, it's just a shame that Swarbrick is buried a bit deep in the mix.

 

Tam Linn- Another example of the traditional and rock elements bound together in perfect harmony by Denny whose vocal style works better in the staccato than in the legato style she adopted for Reynardine.  It goes on a bit and could accommodate a bit more pace towards the end. Swarbrick is subdued in the mix, and  an alternate mix could make the song much wilder and fairy like. 

 

Crazy Man Michael Orignal composition, great Denny vocal, the bands individual virtuosity is here contained and great song, despite the occasional olde English inflection. 

        This was one of my favourite albums. I even saw a later incarnation of the band at both             Cropedy and Shrewsbury. It hasn’t aged as well as I remember it. Come all ye remains             my favourite track, simply for being the track where they didn’t know where they were             going, but it didn’t really matter because they were all so good. As their individual later             histories read this was a dramatic failure of management to let these musicians not work         with each other again. Forcing them to work through the death of their bandmates and             not catch them when the results were fumbled by the marketing team. They were great           but what a band they should have been.

 

(MS)


    Think about stories with reason and rhyme
    Circling through your brain
    And think about people in their season and time
    Returning again and again” (Nick Drake)

 

“Liege and Lief” is not an obscure album. In fact it may be considered the “Citizen Kane” of UK folk-rock recordings; the shining pinnacle, the benchmark for all other entries to be compared against. Curiously this in itself has made it and the band that recorded it slip into the realms of the neglected and unheard.

 

Perhaps it’s a little bit too revered to be listened to? Easy prey for Norma Waterstone’s fiddle playing daughter to once remark that there was more to the UK folk movement than “Liege & Lief”. To be fair there is more, or at least there was back then when the movement consisted of a broad coalition of emerging and overlapping styles. This album and those of the other heavyweight act Pentangle, influenced a multitude of folk-rock bands. Special mention should be made of The Trees two brilliant LP’s, the first few by Steeleye Span, Forest, Fresh Maggots and the one-off Fairport offshoot Fotheringay. But there were copious singer songwriters too, covering similar territory like John Martyn, Steve Ashley, Roy Harper, Mick Softley, Nick Drake, Al Stewart and Bridget St John. Traditionalists, Martin Carthy, The Waterstons, Anne Briggs, Shirley Collins upped their sound to a lesser or greater extent to meet the changes. Then there was the hippy end of the spectrum with the (Scottish) Incredible String Band, (Irish) Dr Strangely Strange and the poppier cross-over musings of Donovan. And of course a number of the rock bands such as Family, Jethro Tull, Traffic and Led Zepellin were also playing songs within the genre.(Sandy Denny of Fairport guests on Led Zep IV) And…there’s Comus, Dando Shaft, Heron, Mellow Candle and great stand-out songs…Shelagh McDonald’s “Dowie Den of Yarrow”, Keith Christmas’ “Forest and The Shore” and future West End chanteuse Julie Covington’s “My Silks and Fine Array” etc, etc…the list is long.

 

But the fact is the folk-rock movement never really advanced beyond this album. There were many attempts to follow the template but very few single albums so perfectly captured such an evocative and cohesive sense of mood over a 40 minute sitting. So many things coalesce around it, around the people who created it and around the time it was made.

 

The opening song “Come All Ye” with its fiddles and drums is like the triumphal march of Heralds leading an army into battle. It’s the Fairport’s “Sgt Pepper”, introducing the listener to an experience aiming “To rouse the spirit of the earth and move the rolling sky”. It’s the song to kick-off any compilation of folk music from this period. The rock element is most evident when the LP reaches Appalachian tune “Shady Grove” appended to a 17C murder ballad, re-titled “Matty Groves”. Halfway through it transforms into an instrumental jam showcase for the locked groove of fiddler Dave Swarbrick and guitarist Richard Thompson; the latter taking his improvisations into Jerry Garcia/ Jorma Kaukonen territory. In fact the riff of this tune brings to mind a touch of Jefferson Airplane’s chorus to the contemporaneous “’Volunteers”. (The summit of Thompson’s guitar ramblings would be his spell-binding “Sloth” on Fairport’s next LP)


This was the fourth release by The Fairport Convention and the culmination of an ever progressing sequence of recordings. They’d formed in a house called “Fairport” at the opposite end of the same Fortis Green Road in Muswell Hill to that of The Kinks. By 1968 the latter were creating their own somewhat more proletarian take on pastoral idyll’s with their “Village Green” album. (The pub that overlooks the still-standing house with its “Fairport” sign, has recently been renamed “The Village Green”). Fairport’s early goodtime jug-band songs and covers of contemporary Americana was a tad too respectful but once Sandy Denny joined, the band found a vocalist who was more than a match for their maturing musicianship. And they started to write quality originals. The anthemic “Meet on the Ledge”, the sweet sitar-tinged “Book Song”, brooding “Genesis Hall” and the wonderfully ominous “Autopsy”. Denny also brought a soon to be folk standard in “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” as well as broadening the palate with an encouragement to bandmates to explore traditional arrangements like “She Moved Through the Fair” and the sea-shanty psych-out of “A Sailor’s Life”.

 

On an earlier LP the magical madrigal-like “Fotheringay” always brings me back to those shivery Saturday mornings on the sofa watching those short histories about castles with jarring zoom lenses to the battlements, swelling war noises and soothing Patrick Allen-types recounting the fate of doomed kings and queens. My face pressed against the cool window panes, eyes staring out into damp northern mornings, torrential afternoons and whole weekends lost to heavy moor-mist. From the back room drifted the Clancy Brothers and Tom Paxton and on TV Toni Arthur was always chirping away with a song about a bloody frog. There was a lot of folk in the background in the early 1970’s. I would have first picked up “Liege & Lief” the only way you could back then via trips to the library on Saturday mornings, finger-tips nicked by the too tightly packed plastic sleeves in the cramped record dept. Like rose thorns hiding their sharp secret, we bled to discover unheard Beatles songs left off the bodged tape recordings fed to us by our busy father. When I finally heard the full ”White Album” it was like gaining access to a secret room in my bedroom that had always been there but one that had been hidden from me. A childhood measured in TDK C90’s.


But the firm connection to listening to folk-music for pleasure only truly emerged from my subconscious during my cathartic mid-teens. One late-night I caught a TV viewing of “The Wicker Man” introduced by a sinister looking carnival barker frothing at the mouth about the secrets he was about to unfold upon us. When the song “Corn Rigs” played over the opening credits of that old horror film it seemed to suddenly awaken all sorts of ancient thoughts lying dormant in me. Pagan horror then connected back to that musty old volume of British Folk Mythology in the glass book cabinet in the front room that I’d spend years idly poring over. I reflected on the spectacular mountains and pine forests I’d seen on those dark Scottish summers spent holidaying with the family. I even discovered that Toni Arthur had been on the fringe of the occult herself, recording a 1971 album called “Hearken to the Witches Rune”. 


 


“Liege & Lief’s” second song “Reynadine” take us deep into those sinister woods with the unsettling electric violin of Swarbrick taking us off the mossy path straight into horror. Adapted from an ancient morality tale the story shape shifted itself at the turn of the 20th Century to tell the tale of a maiden’s seduction by a werefox. Swarbrick gives a similarly creepy performance on the Martin Carthy version of the song recorded the previous year (“Prince Heathen” LP). On the inside of the gatefold sleeve there were photos of olden ceremonies or were they in fact drawings…or were they doctored photos? It was hard to make out. And I studied that back sleeve and long considered the significance of the curious wooden head and the final line from “Tam Lin”

 

       "Oh, had I known, Tam Lin,"she said, 
"what this night I did  see
       I'd have looked him in the eyes 
and turned him to a tree"

 

“Tam Lin” is an elephantine epic that twists and turns it’s dark fairytale text between passages of West-coast influenced guitar rock jamming. It’s a very dramatic reading and one given space to unravel its mysterious story. See more of this on my post below which considers Ian McShane’s unlikely contribution to folk horror http://frombetweenthecracks.blogspot.com/2011/11/film-ballad-of-tam-lin-director-roddy.html


But the purple and cream cover of this 1969 classic shows a group compartmentalised in neat boxes, a symbolic message that their togetherness as a band was all but over. In the spring of that year a car crash had killed both the drummer and the girlfriend of Richard Thompson leaving the rest of the band deeply traumatized. Thompson’s two songs that close each side are inspired by those events one about her and one seemingly about himself. They were barely out of their teens when all this happened. The heartbreaking “Farewell Farewell” acts as a sweet counterpoint to the closing sinister neo-folk of “Crazy Man Michael” with its disconcerting - and seemingly unresolved - dying fiddle fade. It reminds me of the way Van Morrison abruptly ended his own folk-cycle “Astral Weeks”. (this LP incidentally being something of a unique mix of soul and jazz within Celtic and American folk traditions)

 

After this the band splintered with Sandy Denny going on to record a clutch of epics such as “Banks of the Nile”, “Next Time Around” and the quite spectacular multi-tracked “Quiet Joys of Brotherhood” (a version of this Richard Farina song had been attempted by Fairport for the “Liege and Lief” sessions and was probably only rejected as it shares the same eerie ambiance as “Reynardine”). Not many years later Sandy Denny fell down-stairs and died. She now shares a Putney graveyard with Howard Carter, Jakob Epstein and Kerensky, a couple of miles away from the house of her parents, immortalised on the “Unhalfbricking” sleeve. Her brief career is largely unknown even to this day.

 

Like traditional arrangements, mis-transcribed, re-interpreted and then forgotten so we cultural historians wander over these overgrown paths again and again. We pore over meaning from brief magical moments of music capturing the thoughts of men and women before they’d even reached the age of 30. Music captured in old brick studios long lost to developers’ profits. ”Liege & Lief” was recorded off the Kings Road in a very different Chelsea to the one we find today. If you keep walking down Old Church Street you’ll find the former site of Sound Techniques set back from the road in an old 19C dairy. This was the creative hub of Joe Boyd’s Witchseason productions, most of the acts I’ve mentioned recorded their work here using the same pool of musicians. But like the old stories say, be careful not to stray too far from the path. When you get to the Thames your way may well be blocked by the private security guards protecting Michael Caine’s view of Battersea.  

 

Farewell, farewell to you who would hear
You lonely travelers all”