VARIOUS ARTISTS – Dust on the Nettles: A Journey Through the British Underground Folk Scene 1967-72 (Grapefruit/Cherry Red CRSEGBOX030)

Dust on the NettlesIt was a time not only of music’s charting big names but also exploration by the Incredible String Band, Dr. Strangely Strange, developing folk rock (Pentangle; Fairport Convention; Steeleye Span), folk boomers pushing boundaries (Mick Softley; John Renbourn to whom the box is dedicated with Clive Palmer), and also a vibrant scene of counterculture comics, Alice in Wonderland on the Beeb in experimental form, revived novels by Hermann Hesse, Aldous Huxley, Tolkien, Krishna Consciousness, New Age, and Jesus Movements (one of which is here). David Wells’ myth-dispelling notes tells us that acid-folk was applied in the late ’60s, not retrospectively, as a quieter parallel to acid-rock. Martin Carthy called it “pagan” at the time.

Here, from 1967-72, are not only the famous, plus those of cult status, but also the obscure pressed in a few dozen copies to avoid VAT, unreleased demos, rare singles and soundtrack samples (Magnet, aka Hocket or Lodestone, for The Wicker Man; a very early Vashti Bunyan from Swinging London). It is a cornucopia, an extensive botanical garden of species and one-off hybrids, but why the absence of Dr. Strangely Strange, Forest, Third Ear Band, Blondel, Sweeney’s Men, Strawbs, Dulcimer, Dawnwind, ‘Mac’ Macleod…Why ‘British underground’ without leading Irish or Welsh for what was a cosmopolitan scene? Were Pentangle, Steeleye Span and Joan Armatrading ever underground pray tell? The title seems a bit like a punt into the wrong neighbours’ garden, the link to the sub-title eludes me, but such points are as titchy as a gnat’s boil regarding the overall musical delight. Nowadays box-sets are as much due to label ownership as personal taste or accuracy, hence contents as elastic as an elastic band used to be.

Time’s passing highlights other cultural changes. We now reside in an age of euphemism, a short-cut hybrid language where meaning is shared—but not questioned—and accuracy not a primary concern. Musicians don’t co-operate together they collaborate, as if with an enemy, they are “stars”, “icons”, “royalty”, “heroes”…ad nauseum, and called by pet names as if friends (they have bodyguards against you; evidence suggests they can’t be so “great” because unable to write their own autobiographies—didn’t they go to school?). An undressed woman is called “a lady” or “nubile” (which means of marriageable age, from nuptial) does that mean the photographer is automatically a gentleman? People don’t have children anymore they have “kids” (even falsely translated) which are baby goats and in the 19th century meant gloves. Among the media’s awful replication of Pentagonese (a tool of propaganda) people are now “on the ground”—where else? It means, simply, there. A video goes “viral”: a virus is surely more negative than “popular”. A question is, ridiculously, responded to with ‘you know’ or every second word with ‘like’ (which it isn’t). Many of those on Dust… weren’t underground in the understanding of that time. They were simply not widely known, except perhaps locally due to gigs and debuts.

This has further resonance and relevance because a lot of reviewers mock the lyrics of that period, but that’s like blaming the desert for having sand. It was 1967-1972. Words had reason and sincerity more or less, not unquestioning currency. (Just compare the writing then and now for proof; is it why there are no longer any truly great, i.e. time transcending, writers?) Now musicians aren’t surprised they can make an album without meeting anybody else, simply (literally) by sending digital codes, or people paying to see clones (“tributes”): even the idea would have been unthinkable in 1970. It was not just a time of incredible musical innovation in many genres unseen in previous decades but of fellowship. They ‘worked off each other’. Now everybody thinks (?) technology is communication, quantity not quality (e.g. downloads), hence the decay of linguistic meaning. The music, however, still speaks to us today, and hopefully not as mere nostalgia or ‘weirdness’ seen in current terminology but as elements of connected evolution.

Dust On The Nettles’ 34-page booklet is helpfully more ordered than usual, based on each CD’s running order. There is a healthy smattering from one of the first independent labels, Dandelion: Beau, Bridget St. John (both still active), Principal Edwards, Country Son, The Occasional Word (their two albums of humour and music were landmarks and pass the test of time; ‘The Evil Venus Tree’ imbues a nursery lullaby with menace via duelling acoustic guitars and echo voice), and Kevin Coyne (why ‘Sand All Yellow’ again, from their previous great box Love, Poetry And Revolution?). Even Peel’s chum Bolan is here for Tyrannosaurus Rex’s ‘Highways (Misty Mist)’. Oh, and rare singles on Pye, B&C, Pegasus, Trafalgar, the studio famous for the Thunderbirds theme along with unreleased acetates like an early one by ISB.

The first CD launches with The Pentangle’s enduring advice ‘Let No Man Steal Your Thyme’, a merging of the instrument variety of ISB and traditional vocal of Span with Jansch/Renbourn guitars, from their debut Transatlantic LP which only just eluded the Top 20. Appropriately taking the name from an Arthurian legend, their many line-ups formed the bed-strata of great folk-rock ensembles and solo careers. In tune with the time, their singer Jacqui McShee ran a folk club at the Red Lion in Sutton, where the Rolling Stones first met together. From the famous to the legendary are the female-fronted acid-folk bands Spirogyra (from their acoustic debut with Dave Mattacks guesting on drums), Trees (their much covered title-track with harpsichord and double female poetic lyrics), Wight of that isle, and always-uplifting Dando Shaft (a short track from their second album) who don’t deserve to be sent to Coventry from where they formed; they have a very original sound with no fillers. In the same fold now, Oberon, due to their self-released 99-copy album from Radley College’s music room where the masters forgot to lock the percussion cupboard in time here. Also a gem for archivists from the unreleased second album by Paper Bubble, who after their Deram debut backed the kindred-sounding Strawbs in the studio as well as touring together.

Gary Farr sheds his leather, founding The T-Bones that took over a Marquee residency of The Yardbirds, for tweed on a previously unreleased demo of lovely chiming 12-string. His first of three solo albums was backed by Mighty Baby and Blossom Toes, but after a short-lived project with ex-Uriah Heep and failing singles he left the business, like Mick Softley, Marc Brierley and the sitar-musing art student Mark Fry, who returns (again) from his acclaimed album in Italy. The great Clive Palmer ebbs into sugary overdose (‘Stories Of Jesus’), with Tyrannosaurus Rex and the Incredible String Band the lone representatives from 1967. Synanthesia’s sole ’69 LP is featured, sounding from inside a hive or fairy cave, Steve Peregrine Took’s Shagrat in an ultra-rare shelved bit of psych without the electric fuzz (allegedly about a croupier or else the Mandrax drug) while Mary-Ann updates ‘Black Girl’ in 60s style with chirping flute, percussion, and banshee vocal in the misty distance. Comus, the six-piece from Kent, confide that ‘Winter Is A Coloured Bird’ in an eerie example from their pre-LP maxi-single on Dawn Records.

There is no Mr Fox (whose debut was a Melody Maker album of the year) but its Bob & Carole Pegg’s traditional pilgrim-on-the-road-style song of Sydney Carter, who probably contributes hand-clapping here for a cull from their tribute album on Galliard rather than Transatlantic. A beautiful surprise is Chrissie Quayle’s tribute to West Cornwall, on the inaugural album of Sentinel Records—which amazingly has its own fan blog today. (Their use of field recordings includes splashing waves and gulls here, while the label’s later Warm Gold on CD2 pays agricultural homage to North Cornwall with an old ballad ‘Searching For Lambs’.) Chrissie, 17 year-old niece of the actor Anthony, was billed as the, erm, local mermaid by her father, who should have known better but such are the treacherous pools of love. She featured in Clive Palmer’s local The Temple Creatures that alas didn’t record, but also Daylight’s lone RCA LP which achieved radio notice in New Zealand. Their absence here is a pity. Daylight also featured Steve Hayton – guitarist of Daddy Longlegs and harmonica on a Mick Softley B-side – who sadly passed away recently according to their former manager.

The second CD has Steeleye Span from their debut with the fractious Woods on an electric, multi-titled ‘All Things Are Quite Silent’; Joan Armatrading’s sitar-swirling overlooked Cube debut on a track too short for a single, plus unreleased demos by Tyrannosaurus Rex who recorded for the same label (and as usual soon run out of steam here), Fairport Convention, and Incredible String Band’s ‘First Girl I Loved’. The legendary plus obscure all nestle comfortably in the same flower-bed—as one-off recordings often do, in spite of carping reviewers pretending otherwise. Take Gerald Moore’s (‘To Be A) Pilgrim’, as he does from schooldays, later a hardy perennial of pub-rock with G.T.Moore and The Reggae Guitars. Folk-rock that puts you back into those balmy but shadowy far days when whimsical play was de rigueur, even if unreleased at the time.

Slack-stringed bass opens Tony, Caro & John, a trio whose experimental self-financed LP features a vocal uncannily like Mike Heron. Unreleased was Tuesday, here with traditional style lyrics from the west countrymen though they have a collectable single for a very different reason; they later made an album as Casino and the vocalist wrote songs for Cliff Richard. Benjamin Delaney Lion was actually a duo, their Satori (1969) included Donovan and ISB covers (here they cite “be glad for the song has no ending”) pressed in seventy copies by the Brum studio Hollick & Taylor. The five-piece Hunt Lunt & Cunningham’s Pye 7” has a punchy female vocal but no hook. Moonkyte reappear from their rare splendid album on Mother Records and Sunbeam CD, a hypnotic harmonium, sitar and bells dirge that’s a snort in period parlance, more COB than ISB, for whom Peel wrote glowingly on the Bradforders’ sleeve notes but a prophet he wasn’t. A not-their-best from Trader Horne’s (named after Peel’s nanny) eponymous platter on Dawn included ex-Fairport’s Judy Dyble. On the same label was the bucolic Heron, here “in the garden smoking Lebanese beneath the privet hedge” as they did in field (actually two-field) recordings in Berkshire, with bird-song as subtle as the guitar-based harmonies.

The Cambridge duo Melton Constable’s unreleased strum-and-finger-picking with dulcimer describes a local street, while Duncan Browne, with almost flamenco or harp picking and slowed, syllabic lyrics is featured from his Immediate debut LP (five years before his Top 30 hit ‘Journey’). It contained, we’re told, “autumnal vignettes of the grey, closed-on-Wednesday melancholia underpinning suburbia”. Like Kevin Coyne’s ‘Sand All Yellow’ in his own inimitable way. A more traditional cautionary tale, by the moonlit mill, is an unreleased beauty by the Essex quartet Dry Heart, the ballad’s melody just holding back from rock. The Moths with ‘Halfdan’s Daughter’ is a deliciously melodic, rich singing five-piece who recorded at their university and issued only a dozen test pressings. Frozen Tear, who often supported big names in their native west country, issued a local-label 99 copies 7” with Free’s ‘The Hunter’ on the other side of this track that Peel played a couple of times. The echo vocal sounds early 1960s (they did support The Move, The Herd etc) and a bit Forest-like too. Academy Records may be soon releasing an anthology of their career.

More well-known examples on this disc feature Shelagh McDonald, whose private life was as blighted as Sandy Denny’s with whom she is often compared in style too. The title track of her second album merges astrology and astronomy for Stargazer (B&C, 1971) with piano, strings and monastic male choir rejoining the mist at the end. An unissued three-minute demo (February 1969) of Fairport Convention’s ‘Fotheringay’ heralds their turning from West Coast America to nearer home about Mary Queen of Scots, appropriately regarding its title with Sandy Denny’s dulcetry. Another nugget is Parchment, from their rare Light Up The Fire (Pye, 1972), lilting female-sang lyrics of yearning and front-mixed percussion that should be as well-known as the comparable Comus. At least from this track, for in spite of the (subtle) sitar they were a Liverpool-based leading Jesus Movement band, so this is an Easter hymn though one wouldn’t know without being told in the liner notes. It was, allegedly, a minor hit single for the hirsute trio.

The third CD completes the 63-track anthology. Nice piano/acoustic strumming demo by Bill Fay from 1969 with Peter Eden (who produced Donovan’s first session and Mick Softley’s debut in 1965), much-lauded now he doesn’t do much for me. Enduring pleasures include Mick Softley’s swirling ‘Eagle’ from Sunrise with sitar, tablas and unique voice, and Beau’s ‘Silence Returns’ featuring the storming high-point acid guitar from Tractor’s Jim Milne complementing the richness of still-current Trevor Midgley’s 12-string and evocative voice. From the same roster was Country Son’s ‘The Colour Is Blue’, one of the great Dandelion sampler tracks, an earworm of the highest breed (Were their later incarnations as Blue and in Ireland as Foxy ever recorded?); no LP from that duo of Paul Savage and John Hewitt is one of the major regrets about that label. C.O.B’s sitar/guitar classic ‘Music Of The Spheres’, produced by Ralph McTell, vies with Marc Brierley’s debut title track, ‘Welcome To The Citadel’ (CBS, 1969) with subtle horns, both of which stay in the memory long after listening.

Roots are returned to on Anne Briggs’ ‘Standing On The Shore’, a mesmerising Sweeney’s Men song. Important for her close links to Jansch, Renbourn and the fiery Ewan MacColl and wild as Denny, the latter wrote a tribute to her with Fotheringay’s ‘Pond And The Stream’. Like Mick Softley and Kevin Coyne, she didn’t like recording though appeared on an anthology as early as 1963. There was almost a hex regarding CBS singer-songwriters of that time: she, like Softley and Marc Brierley, left the music scene afterwards. Fresh Maggots reappear with dulcimer, bells and strings (absent of the searing fuzz guitar on most of the album) for the flower power ballad of delight ‘Rosemary Hill’. The husband and wife duo Sun Also Rises released one album, which wasn’t helped for being just the second from the small but great Village Thing label although it had a great review in Sounds.

Another group getting YouTube hits is the female harmonies and haunting Marie Celeste, who DIY-released And Then Perhaps in the late spring of ’71 out of Wolverhampton. They also ran their own folk club up the road in Brewood. The female swinger duo Chimera actually did an unreleased album with two members of Pink Floyd and Fleetwood Mac’s later guitarist Bob Weston. Their audition at Apple was liked by two bland-and-smug-is-an-art-form Beatles but blocked by George Harrison. ‘Elegy To A Dead King’, circa 1968, has a very original Chinese-like melody. A B&C picture-sleeve single by Mother Nature (‘Orange Days And Purple Nights’) is the only American-sounding track in the box, as was their follow-up single on Kingdom. Despite being produced by David Hitchcock (Mellow Candle, Fuchsia, Genesis etc) the “blissfully stoned” approach, like the title, was more a paean to what had been by late 1971; according to biteitdeep blog the featured 45 had Radio One airplay by Anne Nightingale and Saville. A compilation of them has recently appeared on Wooden Hill, and earlier under the band name Steepy Rojo.

Most crate-diggers will know Fuchsia, named after Mervyn Peake’s Groan princess, on doomed Pegasus. It has the rather unGormenghast “One day I went to school, the next day I got lost” but then again…A female string ensemble adds a touch of baroque (guitarist Tony Durant apparently reformed the band recently in Australia [he did and they released an album – Editor]). Even more will know Agincourt’s Fly Away, a 13-track self-released two-figure album in 1970, because Record Collector magazine has re-issued it. The dreamy band was a duo with guesting female vocalist and drummer, and one was later with the more proggy Ithaca and the BBC Radiophonic boffins.

Everyone Involved was a collective that printed on the label “Don’t pay for this record, it is free”; the story goes that a member buried a number of them later in the Amazon forest! Either/Or (Arcturus, 1972) presumably nodding to Kierkegaard, shows their campus origins but the pagan witch-wood offering with violin catches attention. One of them was previously in Wild Country, which had two Thunderclap Newman members and a 14-year old vocalist who was later a Miss United Kingdom finalist and cut three Pye singles. Their ‘Silent Village’ here was the inaugural single release by the little-known Trafalgar label two years earlier in London, for a band based in a commune in Liphook Hampshire. A stately, upbeat slice of fey loveliness, a sort of Pentangle spliced with Third Ear Band via Bridget St. John’s lyrics. Tapestry of Delights wrongly titled this band.

Joyful village scenes surface with Music Box’s ‘The Happy King’ (Songs Of Sunshine, Westwood, 1972); could have been a hit perhaps a few years earlier with its powerful vocals and confident, even strident sound. A bit like Dando Shaft, they plied the same Coventry folk circuit. Previously mentioned Wight, who issued a pair of France-only singles as a trio, renamed themselves (as a duo) Shide & Acorn for a 99-issue from the more local Solent label less than a year later: Under The Tree, in an enchanting hand-drawn forest scene cover. There is also a memorable ‘Scarborough Fair’ by Folkal Point, issued on the less than true-to-their-name Midas label in ’72 who should have turned such as this to gold. It blows away the too-polished S&G (lifted from Martin Carthy who taught it to Simon in ’65, resulting in some acrimony), in spite of being by a quartet of teenagers from Bristol. It is a return to the Middle English origins of the ballad, the male-response vocal absent here. Five hundred copies were pressed but fate dealt a blow when half were destroyed in a flood. Their finely-named Cherie Musialik’s spell-binding renditions, along with the band’s guitars ‘n’ banjo, have added to the album’s collectability today.

A clearer example of the box-set’s ethos (like Shagrat) is epitomised by Simon Finn, with ‘Patrice’ from his great-cover Pass The Distance via Mushroom Records. More famous in the field for Magic Carpet, the label (and studio) opposite Camden’s Roundhouse were true counter-culture in squat-like premises above a shop. Some of their releases had to be withdrawn due to disputes over the artwork. The Surrey-born singer, 20 when this LP was released backed by a multi-instrumentalist and percussionist, debuted for a quid at Al Stewart’s Folk at the Marquee residency in 1967. His career has been rejuvenated this century with Current 93, Thurston Moore, and the excellent Copenhagen-based duo of weird and wonderful sound, Blood On A Feather. His second album, Magic Moments, has been released on his own label from Canada where he emigrated to.

For this reviewer the measure of a choice compilation of this genre remains the stunningly beautiful Strange Folk, issued by Albion Records in 2006. But its span was wider in terms of period. No anthems or ego-posing here, no tricks or hype. If you are content that The Byrds didn’t play on ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ or only the singer for Love Affair, most of the Beach Boys not on Pet Sounds, Monkees not on their first albums or the Sweet on their first five hits, then the graft, skill and hopes (and honesty) here just might be a revelation for you.

The big folk names are not the Venus Flytraps of this inspired anthology, nor really the legends good as they are: the bouquet permeates the obscure. No weeds, thorns or nettles here, unless you think of home-brew or natural soup. Everyone, of course, will have their own blooms, and there are some really rare ones here. This is a meadow, round the back of the hill we might have gazed at during different seasons wondering what was on the other side but only now stumbled upon. The view can be sometimes breathtaking, spell-binding too: when not, it is never less than atmospheric. No smoke and mirrors, nourishing as good country fare in this age of false-label contents. You just might be smiling all the way home at the value for money.

Brian R Banks

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