Colin Harper, author of several books on music history, released his first national-level album in March 2016, Sunset Cavaliers – a homage to the musicians and musical eras chronicled in his books. A ‘treasure seeker’ as a music archaeologist, if Harper has a ‘buried treasure’ of his own prior to Sunset Cavaliers it is Titanium Flag – originally a vinyl-length instrumental album, inspired by the history of Arctic exploration, recorded in 2010 and limited to 100 copies. An icy sound-world of guitar, violin, clarinet, flugelhorn, piano and drums, with forays into chamber music, progressive rock and ambient, it defies easy labelling but fires the imagination. It was dedicated to one of Harper’s inspirations, Dutch guitarist/lutenist Jan Akkerman (ex-Focus).
At the very moment of pondering, at his home in Belfast, a remastered edition of Titanium Flag in the wake of Sunset Cavaliers’ warm reviews and airplay, Harper received an invitation, in Dutch, to join someone’s professional network on LinkedIn: Jan Akkerman.
Harper: ‘Suitably inspired – by the karma, not the invitation to join LinkedIn – I emailed Jan with an idea and ‘Greenland: East To West’, inspired by 19th Century Norwegian adventurer Fridtjof Nansen, is the result. Jan’s epic solo is the imagined sound of a man raging against the howling snowstorms of the pre-Victorian Arctic, single-handedly creating the ‘heroic age’ of exploration. It transpires that Jan is still the master of improvisational and inspirational guitar. But I have no intention of joining LinkedIn.’
Harper reassembled the original ‘Titanium Flag orchestra’ – jazz broadcaster/bandleader Linley Hamilton (flugelhorn, trumpet), orchestral musicians Alan McClure (violin) and Rachelle Stewart (clarinet), and céilí band drummer/closet rocker Jim Cuthbertson (drums) –and added Irish jazz pianist/bandleader Scott Flanigan and local bass maestro Ali MacKenzie along with Jan in Volendam and flautist Premik Russell Tubbs (ex-Mahavishnu Orchestra) in New York. Further cyber collaboration, between Belfast and Australia, was going on with producer/recording artist Martin Tinson and guitar legend Martin Cilia. The result is three new pieces of music, added to the start of the album.
Four vocal tracks, recorded during the original Titanium Flag sessions in 2010, are added at the end. Other guests on the album include Phil ‘Shiva’ Jones (ex-Quintessence) and Andy Roberts (ex-Liverpool Scene, Plainsong). The audio was remastered by Denis Blackham and the package comes with a detailed 12-page booklet and a fold-out pair of vintage maps of the Arctic regions. I believe that Titanium Flag is the best thing, musically, I’ve done, and I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to make it widely available. But I’m also hoping I don’t have any more musical inspiration for a while!’
Often described as obscure yet she worked with John Martyn, Mike Oldfield, Kevin Ayers, and Mike Chapman, championed by John Peel (as the leading female singer-songwriter) and even Terry Wogan, during four well-received albums. And that was just in the 1970s. It’s interesting—and crucial regarding career—that Bridget St John was Dandelion Records first-ever signing and release, when folk’s second wave was rolling via Island in England and (Dandelion’s distributor) Elektra in USA. If Dandelion evolved around their first signing, hindsight and eclecticism suggest differently. The DJ said that “the main reason why we started the label was nobody else was going to record her stuff” – not Elektra, Island, or even the fledgling Apple?
Dandelion was a co-operative where artists had creative control, but when it folded in 1973 (“like a family break-up” St John recalled) the ethos was rare and tastes mutating. There was no Plan B. After John Peel’s death this has been accentuated by the sale of their publishing to a conglomerate, against Dandelion’s principles and a nightmare for those of its roster still active. (It would be even worse if Cherry Red Records didn’t exist.) These origins have put a particular spin on their careers, perhaps contributing to major labels’ lack of keenness and thus the obscurity tag.
Her first demo was made at Al Stewart’s home, thanks to her guitar mentor John Martyn. A boyfriend gave it to Peel at a gig, and within three weeks debuted on Night Ride in August ’68. That distant session is on this box-set at an almost-equally amazing budget price. The three LPs are on replica-label discs, plus singles, Montreux 1972, and a CD of (mostly wiped) BBC sessions 1968-1972. The latter was on a double some years ago, as was Montreux (on Thank You For…also from Cherry Red), but are here in context. It was this radio material, based on solid albums and gigging—like the Dandelion Euro tour sponsored by Polydor with Medicine Head, Beau and Kevin Coyne—that attracted a loyal following.
In a cover reminiscent of legendary folk labels—minimalist but evocative with her picture when a baby – Ask Me No Questions (1969) was produced by Peel in one ten-hour session at CBS Studios with Simon Stable on bongos, John Martyn and Richard Sanders on guitars. The seven-minute title track in doubled vocals of “Ask me no questions, tells me no lies”, with Peel ransacking the library for bird song and bells, is pure Dandelion and ’69. Still played live connecting her to the Dandelion people she says, it was one of the first tunings learned from Martyn. It opens with her recent debut single, the bass-string driven ‘To B Without A Hitch’ about France while enjoying “buttercup sandwiches”. ‘Autumn Lullaby’ lilts through childhood memories of Richmond Park, ‘Curl Your Toes’ tells a by-the-fireside tale, ‘Barefoot And Hot Pavements’ about city wandering, and among the twin guitars one of her most beautiful songs, ‘Hello Again (Of Course)’. There’s even psych without the electricity, a plucking delight (‘The Curious Crystals Of Unusual Purity’). Appended from 45s are Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’ and ‘The Road Was Lonely’, a hypnotic ballad with rare backing harmony.
Peel called her voice and songs “full of woods and hedgerows, startled deer and hedgehogs”, and the rustic imagery and free-wheeling acoustic dexterity is a timeless debut. Songs For The Gentle Man (1971) came from November-December sessions costing £2,000 at Sound Techniques, also used by Fairport Convention and Drake. Produced by Ron Geesin, fresh from Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother, he contributed organ (for Martyn’s ‘Back To Stay’), Sanders returning on guitar, with a chamber ensemble including brass giving a lusher effect. Looking more like an Edwardian muse than a hippy in Kensington Gardens with the photographer’s hound on the gatefold, scenes are woven tapestry-like from another mansion room: ‘A Day A Way’ with jangly guitar/flute/oboe about a seaside day trip, subtle echo-reverb (‘Early Morning Song’), while Donovan’s ‘The Pebble And The Man’ sounds like her own. Absences of people and places, time shared or alone, but it’s not melancholy (the closer’s 40 seconds is about growing into the loved person). Politics are outside her remit but it’s her most confessional LP. Some were ready for her debut as they’re on her January 1969 radio session.
The third disc mirrors Cherry Red’s 2005 release of Thank You For… (July 1972) with a full April ’72 Swiss concert. Here reprised is the MCA 1973 A-side ‘Passing Thru’ (from Leonard Cohen’s own cover on his first live LP), produced by Mike Chapman but uncredited when he rescued its shambolic session. (She guests on his Deal Gone Down the next year.) The Beeb played it a couple of times then decided it was too depressing! With Jerry Boys for co-production, the folk-rock sports the impressive cast of Tim Renwick and Quiver, Andy Roberts (Liverpool Scene, Plainsong, uncredited Beatles sessions), Gordon Huntley (Matthews Southern Comfort), Pip Pyle, Dave Mattacks, Rick Kemp, Sanders, and Martyn. Hand-picked for each song, a spontaneous spark with very few overdubs shines through. ‘Nice’ was on Polydor b/w ‘Goodbaby Goodbye’ about a break-up “at the end of time”; ‘Every Day’ is Buddy Holly with a missing chord! The anti-lynching ‘Lazarus’ (still played with added guitar-thumping) is from early influence Buffy St. Marie’s Many A Mile, and a dreamier version of Dylan’s ‘Love Minus Zero/No Limit’. ‘Fly High’ should’ve charted with its big production, ironically about the music biz (“So please remember all you have and not what you might lose, it isn’t always easy but is better when you do”).
The Montreux concert with Sanders features live premieres of the album, introduced in fluent French, including a hypnotic ‘Fly High’, and a faster ‘Ask Me No Questions’. A visual example is on YouTube from French TV in May 1970. The 19-track BBC disc has an amusing/awful interview with Peel, covers of Martyn, sitar-style guitar Donovan, Joni Mitchell, unreleased songs, and a 1971 In Concert duet with the late Kevin Ayers from their unfinished children’s songs. Her 1970 B-side of his ‘Yep’ is oddly omitted. She contributed to his Shooting At The Moon (1970) with Mike Oldfield (she’s on his Ommadawn and Amarok), and The Unfairground (2007).
After Chrysalis stymied Jumble Queen 1974 (reissued by Beat Goes On), when a ‘Melody Maker’ poll that year rated her fifth best female singer (Maggie Bell was number 1, Shirley Bassey number 9), she emigrated to Greenwich Village where she lives today. From buttercup sandwiches to fast food, it seems a little ironical as she never saw herself in England’s folk scene. A rare recent glimpse is an interview/performance on the excellent TV station of Cherry Red who also released a 19-track sampler (2010, CDMRED440).
“I’m not a narrative songwriter, I don’t sit down to write stories, I just write feelings out,” getting “high off people, ideas and things”. Voice, instrument and lyric allow a place and air for later listening. It doesn’t date, a beguiling delivery of observation and experience tinged with her favourite autumn and nostalgia-driven Englishness swirls like labelmate Beau with a pinch of John Martyn and dash of Donovan. Narrowly missing fame, this is supplanted by cult status more suiting her low profile. This box-set brings dispatches from a more innocent age, when communication meant exactly that and not technology, a time not just to listen but hear. Once heard, never forgotten.
From Richard Thompson, Pink Floyd and The Shadows comes a trio, all featured in Guitar Player’s ‘1,000 Great Guitarists’ with each contributing their unique ‘box’ (ie guitar) styles and a result that is much more than the sum of its parts.
3 Boxes sides are CLIVE GREGSON, MARK GRIFFITHS and ANDY ROBERTS, while the 4th side is legendary producer JOHN WOOD (John Martyn, Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, etc.), with whom they have just completed their debut album. Entitled Strings Attached, itcontains 12 instrumentals, penned individually by Gregson, Griffiths or Roberts and played by all three, live in the studio. The album was recorded in Eastbourne, England and mixed by John Wood in his Analogue Studio in Northern Scotland.
3 Boxes defy any attempt to put them in one, since their self-penned music encompasses a vast range of musicality – from swing, folk and blues to ballads and beyond. Their dexterity and interplay creates a raft of rhythm and melody on which they sail far beyond any perceived barriers. Producer John Wood has captured the dynamics of their live studio performances and added a magical extra dimension of resonance and clarity.
The band travelled to Southern California to shoot their first video. Directed by award winning film-maker Nigel Dick, ‘Wranglin’’ features the trio deep in the Mojave desert, accompanied by their muse the Spirit Of The Desert, as they perform the lively track.
The trio will be promoting Strings Attached, released on April 21st, with a UK tour.
The men behind the three boxes are former members of Plainsong: Andy Roberts, Clive Gregson and Mark Griffiths. All are experienced composers, players and singers which is why this album is rather puzzling. You see, Strings Attached is a set of guitar instrumentals written by the players and produced by the legendary John Wood. Not that there is anything wrong with that, except that I suspect that the majority of their audience would give their eye teeth for an album of songs from this trio.
The set opens with Roberts’ ‘Wranglin’’, typical of his penchant for country-rock guitar picking.and a good way to kick off. It’s followed by Griffiths’ ‘The Last Goodbye’ and like the later ‘The Car & The Great Salt Lake’ it has the expansive quality of a piece of film music. Gregson’s pieces tend to the quirky, at least as far titles go: ‘No Parrots In Tescos’, for example, although ‘Horny Pipey’ is what it says it is. Roberts is on particularly good form. ‘All The Pretty Little Horses’ and ‘I Have Lately Learned To Swim’ are both delightfully languid pieces and ‘Tick Tock’ harks back to the seventies. Tell me it was written for Nina And The Dream Tree and I’d believe you.
The cover pictures, taken from the ‘Wranglin’’ video, reminded me of The Blues Brothers – without the sharp suits, of course, and I suppose 3 Boxes embrace that spirit of doing your own thing. Strings Attached is an enjoyable album even if it isn’t the one we might expect or wish for.