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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BRIDGET ST JOHN – DANDELION ALBUMS AND BBC COLLECTION (CHERRY RED RECORDS CRCDMBOX 17)

BStJOften 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.

Brian R Banks

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‘Nice’ – The Old Grey Whistle Test.

VARIOUS ARTISTS – The Eve Folk Recordings (RPM/Cherry Red Records, Retro D957)

EveFolkIt’s not often that a double CD, rather than box-set, provides insight into a crucial historical moment. Thanks to Cherry Red’s broad field-lens, the diverse RPM Records (est.1991) release The Eve Folk Recordings from the boom year of 1965 when the EP format, often split-sided like jazz issues, was being elbowed out by LPs. Transatlantic issued early Renbourn and Jansch, but it was three sex education platters and imported Russian classical music that financed diversity. Artists then were mostly bohemians anyway, often running clubs while earning a crust from gigs rather than poky studios distributing through the backdoor.

It was a living tradition rather than revival, and more home-spun than contemporary R&B. The scene resulted in a few careers (it’s hard to believe Ralph McTell’s ‘Streets Of London’ hit number 2…in 1974, first on his 1965 LP) as well as spin-off folk-rock, psych-folk, even Baroque Renaissance. Quirky one-hit wonders too, ship-jumping into “light entertainment”, and mainstream covers (who’d imagine the million-sellers by Presley and Roberta Flack of ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ was by the anti-Capitalist Ewan MacColl). This double CD features one poised for international fame, one (also) hailed as the English Dylan for three CBS LPs but became a cult recluse, one renowned for traditional fare, and a sole album called “the most obscure album ever made” (Mojo Collection 2007). Welcome to the world of Eve Productions, formed by writer-producers Peter Eden and Geoff Stephens in sunny Southend, where they first saw Donovan supporting Cops and Robbers in ’64 and signed him up.

When EMI/Columbia wanted four albums, Eve initially chose Donovan but the future all-too-quickly slammed the door. Three consecutive appearances on Ready Steady Go hailed him as Britain’s Dylan: an LP and singles on Pye, with Eve involved, soon came out (‘Catch The Wind’ and ‘Colours’ open here) then he changed management. They needed a fourth album: Eric Clapton was interested but then thought his new employer John Mayall wouldn’t approve. So, three albums here and the A-sides, plus two LP tracks Donovan covered without permission from his older guitar tutor Mick Softley: ‘The War Drags On’, the first British anti-Vietnam song, and ‘Goldwatch Blues’, prophetically about work exploitation with startling lyrics going for the jugular more than Dylan dared.

Mick Softley had a reputation on the circuit and through his Spinning Wheel club (home of later TV. series Pie In The Sky), famously raucous into the early hours. Maddy Prior still recalls “that holy terror Mick” cajoling her onto the barrel-raised stage for ‘The Good Ship Venus’: “I was so embarrassed while trying to look cool—oh goodness it was awful!” The bohemian Softley didn’t even write his songs down, but that changed for the hirsute 24 year-old’s debut done in a single session (like all their recordings), the producers picking out what they liked. Songs For Swinging Survivors is now rare, only once on CD by Hux (2003) without bonuses, and here completes RPM’s first CD.

There are fine covers of ‘Strange Fruit’, a Civil Rights Movement staple, Guthrie’s ‘The Plains Of The Buffalo’ (long in Softley’s repertoire), and Pete Seeger’s ‘Bells of Rhymney’ based on a Welsh school-teacher’s poem, featured on The Byrds’ debut just weeks before this autumn recording. Intricate instrumentals (‘Blues For Cupid Green’; ‘I’ve Got A Deal You Can’t Turn Down’) between bold, rich-toned advice to a drug addict ex-lover, a warning about nuclear war, love songs of different tempo, and travel tales capturing the rolling sound. His own ‘The War Drags On’–haunting vocals over percussive guitar—is more moving than the better-known version. A welcome addition to this stirring set is the Immediate 45 ‘I’m So Confused’ / ‘She’s My Girl’ produced by Eden/Stephens a few weeks later.

The second CD is a different take on the multi-form known as folk. Bob Davenport championed the living tradition like the old bluesmen then. He’d done EPs but this was his first album with the Rakes providing fiddle, piano, melodeon, tin whistle and spoons for one evening session, with regulars from Islington’s The Fox providing chorus. Fiddle-accompanied ‘William Brown’ is boisterous like ‘The Soldier And His True Love’ with its double-entendres. ‘The Foggy Dew’ sounds startlingly like a younger Harry Cox, the Norfolk fisherman who put it in the canon. ‘Reel’ and ‘Jig’ are stirring whistle and bell-like spoons performances, strong as any electrified folk-rockers. ‘My Bonnie Land’ haunts as a solo lament, which Davenport recorded four times. Rambling Jack Elliot arrangements resurface for ‘Rap Her To Bank’, a Birtley miner’s song, and ‘Old Johnny Booker’ (changed to bugger for this knees-up). Davenport returns to his roots (‘The Hexamshire Lass’; ‘Gateshead Town’), climaxing with the band’s full-on ‘Down The Glen’. With a strong whiff of Watney’s Pale Ale, the stories come thick ‘n’ fast through the mist. Pristine live 1965 bonuses are non-Eve: ‘The White Cockade’ and Northumbrian ‘The Shepherd’s Life’.

Time-travelling continues with Vernon Haddock’s Jubilee Lovelies, a name a little less odd when the contents heard. It was actually David Elvin’s band (vocals, guitar, banjo, kazoo) but Vernon Haddock (mandolin, jug, swanee whistle) had the name going for him (they thought), with David Vaughn, Sid ‘Piles’ Lockhart, and Alans Woodward and Sutton providing guitars, harmonica, washboard and percussion. The energetic fun-timers mix Music Hall, American 20s and hillbilly, said to be much funnier live than Monty Python (many were, e.g. Dandelion’s Mike Hart and Occasional Word). Recorded in one night – with irregular mike placement – this sole LP sees them astride a steam engine under the Union Jack and Southern Cross.

‘Mandy Make Up Your Mind’ has some nice instrument echo sounding like a gramophone. The jug and harmonica ‘Viola Lee Blues’ could be Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee on a good day, Lockhart’s ‘Vickyandal’ is allegedly about Queen Victoria though escapes me. ‘Little White Washed Chimney’ recalls the Incredible String Band’s log cabins. They stroll off into the sunset to ‘I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate’, and the afore- mentioned fate of the obscurest album ever. They did record later for Decca/ Immediate, but unreleased when Lovelies remained semi-pro; David Elvin worked on the Yellow Submarine film. Shifting 400 copies, probably mostly in their local, Leigh’s Smack Inn, it’s a rare recording of English jug-washboard music, more earthy than Mungo Jerry, McGuiness Flint and Panama Limited Jugband. As if scrumpy-fuelled rather than anything whiter, it’s wondrous the hoedown didn’t need new fangled electricity.

This time-capsule, with only Mick Softley on CD before, catches the first recording phase on a crest before falling under other waves. Colin Harper’s authoritative essay features Davenport and the producers; Eden’s limited vinyl anthology (1999) had Clive Palmer’s ‘Stories Of Jesus’ and a later unreleased Jubilee Lovelies track. Boom or an overheard network of secret societies spread by coded messages, this important release of three rare albums with their origins provide a vivid snapshot of the diversity and potential possibilities for years afterwards.

Brian R Banks

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JOHN MARTYN – Remembering John Martyn (Secret SECDDO54)

RememberingJohnMartynIn spite of the title suggesting a tribute by admiring friends, this is a worthy addition to the ever-growing archive releases complementing near two dozen albums solo, with his wife, and famous guests. Usually associated with Island Records, where he was the first white solo artist signed in ’67, he also featured on WEA (for surprisingly his first Top 30 listing), independents for further exploration (even trip-hop textures), and limited editions as one of the first DIYers: Live At Leeds and Philentropy (1983) were sold from his home. With a swathe of BBC releases (several songs were used for their films resulting in a Lifetime Achievement Award), an Island four-CD live/ studio selection in 2008, and even an 18 CD box last year, there are few musical legacies so well served.

Secret Records have added Remembering John Martyn (1948-2009) to their impressive wide catalogue. Two non-chronological CDs from the career-fulcrum Live At Leeds in 1975 to 1993 feature Danny Thompson or full-band alongside Paul Kossoff, Dave Gilmour, Gerry Conway and Phil Collins complementing his raw or plaintive voice, percussive finger-plucking counterpoised by echo drift that transports to a misty isle. Outspoken, uncompromising, unpredictable (mid-career he busked—by choice—in Moscow near Kilmarnock), the troubadour who lived music on a daily basis tells his life across the decades.

Misperceived as Scottish with an accent hard as a Glaswegian rivet, Iain McGeachy was in fact from New Malden, a now rather bleak London suburb split by a fly-over near Hampton Court, just a couple of miles down the road from where Sandy Denny and Mumford were born. After his opera-singer parents split-up he listened to his mother’s Debussy, jazz, and Scottish folk records in Kingston during school holidays from Glasgow, then joined the long line of musicians graduating from art college. Taking up the guitar mid-teens, he was mentored by the protest folk singer Hamish Imlach then influenced by Davey Graham’s east-meets-west style and Clive Palmer of the Incredible String Band who lived nearby in their Scottish retreat (Martyn fondly recalled sharing a shed in Cumbria with Palmer).

Moving south he signed to Island for the mono London Conversations (1967) but soon surprised with the jazz-inflected, Al Stewart-produced The Tumbler (1968), the result of a single afternoon session at 200 quid. By 1970 his acoustic was rigged up to a fuzz-box, phase shifter and echoplex, premiered on Stormbringer! (with The Band’s Levon Helm and Mundi from The Mothers of Invention, written during downtime at Woodstock) and over -produced The Road To Ruin with his then wife Beverley, met when he did a session with the singer. The new sound (“I wanted to imitate Pharoah Sanders’ records”) placed the pioneer in a wider sphere though he retained fondness for traditional folk clubs. A zenith saw 1973’s Solid Air—its title track written for his friend, label-mate and equally haunted Nick Drake who died a year later—recorded with Fairport Convention. In 1999, Q magazine voted it one of the best-ever relaxation (“chill-out”) albums. Martyn’s vocals became an equally distinctive instrument, as electrifying as his wired-up guitar, for folk, blues, jazz, reggae, funk and rock in a unique style.

Hunched as if seeking to defy gravity, the intensity recalls Kevin Coyne, early Medicine Head or even Spacemen Three as well as bluesmen’s tales of woe and fleeting joy. Talk of national treasures, legends and stars is simply lazy misuse of language; reputation and longevity consists of quality writing allied to original delivery, and this one-man band of emotion fits well in that class. His lyrics flow between the sensual and satiric (‘Glorious Fool’ mocked Reagan; ‘John Wayne’ was a dig at an ex-manager) as fluently as from love and joy to pain. An intoxicating transmission of personal demons (drink, drugs, gambling, marital break-up) led to Island blocking Grace And Danger but he won them over because “It’s what I’m about: direct communication of emotion”. Likening his songs to diaries, it was cathartic though whether therapeutic one can only hope.

Disc one kicks off with a jazzy full-band and Gilmour for ‘Big Muff’, ‘Lookin’ On’ (highlighting his vocal range) and ‘Couldn’t Love You More’. An atmospheric ‘Fine Lines’ lilts into a 12-piece band’s ‘Head And Heart’ which would be Cohen if the latter had the range. The classic ‘Johnny Too Bad’ stomps, an echoplex-driven live band version (1986) of the cover he made his own. Soul-drenched ‘The Moment’ is one of two live in his adopted Glasgow, the title-track ‘Bless The Weather’ metaphors hard times reworked with keys in ’93. Live tracks from that decade feature the sole co-write with Pentangle’s Danny Thompson (‘Mad Dog Days’) and the moving ‘Ways To Cry’ during a period revisiting a rich catalogue. What the band format may lose in power compared to the solo trance wig-outs, it adds a varied atmospheric space for vocal and guitar nuance.

Disc two’s dozen are mostly with his brother-like Danny Thompson or as a trio with percussion (and more foot-tap for us) apart from ‘My Baby Girl’, from the Live At Leeds bonus issue featuring Free’s Paul Kossoff, ill-fated to die the next year. A fine cross-section from Kendal’s Brewery Arts Centre via Leeds to Germany: ‘One Day Without You’ and astonishing 18-minute ‘Outside In’ is Martyn at his spaciest, smokiest best. Neat taping spins into Skip James’ ‘I’d Rather Be The Devil’; few could stretch this variant to the Solid Air bonus so hypnotically to eight minutes. Absence of solo work is made up for by this storming threesome. Solid Air is revisited (‘Over The Hill’; the jelly-rolling ‘Easy Blues’) while the closing popular traditionals ‘Spencer The Rover’ and ‘Black Man At Your Shoulder’ are a haunting return to his origins. No ‘May You Never’ or appropriately-titled ‘Glistening Glyndebourne’, but they’re often compiled anyway. With detailed track info and timings, this 135 minute visit to the rare and once-lost of one Beth Orton calls the Guv’nor is a must-have for fans as well as an excellent intro for the curious.

Brian R Banks

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John Martyn with Dave Gilmour – ‘One World’: