Perhaps it is because I have just had my first visit to the dentist in over two years, but I have found myself earwormed by Spike Milligan’s darkly silly song, “English Teeth” – “three cheers for the green, brown and black” – in the version recorded by, of all people, Cleo Laine. Now I don’t pretend to understand how the mind (or my mind, at least) works, because I never saw the incomparable Cleo in concert, but this earworm made me start thinking about the various concerts I’ve seen over the years.
The first concert I can recall was Al Stewart, during my first year, indeed probably my first term, at university. That would have been the autumn of 1971. I feel sure I must have seen some live music before then but if so I have no memory of it at all. At the time the New University of Ulster, as it then was, was pretty much a building site, so the concert took place in our one and only lecture theatre. Afterwards I remember walking back to my digs along the seafront at Portstewart belting out “it got to feel less like fucking, and more like making love” at the top of my voice. Since then I’ve seen Al Stewart way more than anyone else. One memorable concert was at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester when I was invited back to the dressing room in the interval. Well, to be fair, the whole audience was invited back, but only a dozen or so of us actually went.
The loudest concert? No contest, it was Horslips in a ridiculously small room above a pub in Portrush. I was deaf for three days afterwards.
Best concert? Barbara Thompson’s Paraphernalia, in a chi-chi little lounge in a hotel here in Folkestone, with the audience ensconced in well-upholstered chairs. The band was electrifying from the first note.
Biggest concert? That would be a toss-up between Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at Wembley, or, a little later, the Human Rights Now concert at Wembley with Springsteen, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman, and Youssou N’Dour.
Oddest concert? I remember a concert by Renaissance where the venue decided that because they were a “rock” band the audience would want to dance, to they took out all the seats. And there was the time I saw Ralph McTell supported by Bert Jansch during which Jansch couldn’t seem to get off the stage quick enough after his set. Turned out there was a big football match on that night, and periodically during McTell’s set Jansch would turn up in the wings to announce the latest score. But really the oddest was at the Dominion in London. The first half was a wonderful punkish set featuring Terry and Gerry, The Men They Couldn’t Hang, and The Pogues. Then, during the interval, the audience seemed to change completely, and for the second half we had Fairport Convention.
Highest concert? Sitting up in the gods at the Royal Albert Hall to see Jackson Browne, which did my fear of heights no good at all. Thank heavens I wasn’t high in any other sense.
Best surprise? I had long given up any hope of seeing Pete Atkin; he had effectively given up music to become a BBC producer. But when he retired, he started performing again and we saw him, and Clive James, together in Canterbury. A glorious evening.
I am as unsure about the last concert I saw as I am about the first, but I’m pretty sure it was the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, and if I get another chance I’ll be there to see them again.
There was a television drama series, back in the late-1960s, called Take Three Girls. Remember it? No, I don’t, not much (it was apparently the BBC’s first drama series in colour, though I doubt we actually had a colour TV by then, and anyway I suspect that what I do remember I’m getting confused with the slightly later series, Rock Follies, which starred the wonderful Julie Covington who had, incidentally, produced some pretty good covers of early Pete Atkin/Clive James songs, but that’s taking me down a rabbit hole I don’t want to explore right now …)
Where was I? Oh yes, Take Three Girls. There is one thing I remember about the series to this day: the theme music. It mesmerised me. I found out, after a while, that the song was called “Light Flight” –
Let’s get away you say find a better place Miles and miles away from the city’s race
– (quoted from memory probably ten years after I last heard the song) and the song was performed by a group called Pentangle. I went out and bought their most recent album, Basket of Light, which also happened to include “Light Flight”. That album became easily the most played record in my collection for the next 20 years or more.
It would be wrong to say that Pentangle was my introduction to folk rock because a) the term hadn’t been invented yet, and b) Pentangle was really more a sort of folk jazz. The rhythm section, Danny Thompson on double bass and Terry Cox on drums, were both jazz musicians who had played together with the great Alexis Korner. Up front were the guitarists and flat mates, John Renbourn who was into folk played with a baroque style, and Bert Jansch who was, right up to his death in 2011, one of the greatest and most influential of all blues and folk guitarists. To complement Jansch’s rather growly vocals, they brought in Jacqui McShee, who ran her own folk club and who had a hypnotically clear voice but who was so nervous of performing that she had to sit down for all their appearances.
For just five years following their formation in 1967, Pentangle did extraordinary things with traditional songs, adding complex guitar parts up front and varied rhythmic patterns behind. What Danny Thompson does with the double bass on their own composition, “Train Song”, is more like free jazz than anything traditional. And the interplay of Jansch’s and McShee’s voices made every song sound mysterious, sexy and enchanting. Folk music became something entirely other than the finger-in-the-ear, droning voices, and grudgingly-accepted acoustic guitar of most folk music to that point.
In his wonderful memoir, Beeswing, Richard Thompson says he was “fairly unenthused” by Pentangle. But for me they were the gateway drug, the necessary ear training so that I was ready for what came next. And what came next was Fairport Convention.
Oddly, Pentangle and Fairport were in lockstep in those early years. They both formed in 1967, and both released their classic albums, Basket of Light and Liege and Lief in 1969. But in my memory, Pentangle always came first, probably because I knew Pentangle before I heard of Fairport, and knew Basket of Light before I heard of Liege and Lief. In a way, I bought Liege and Lief because of Basket of Light, because Pentangle had shown me how inventive and exciting folk music could be so I was ready to try this other highly praised reinvention of folk.
Liege and Lief was nothing short of a revelation, a pounding, thrilling piece of rock music. A few years later, when I was at university, I got into one of those long, rambling, late night conversations at a party at a house way out in the middle of nowhere outside Portstewart. It started out being about Jacques Brel, whose work I loved when covered by other artists (I’m thinking particularly of Scott Walker) but whose own performances I barely knew. But it meandered on from there as such conversations have a habit of doing, and at some point came around to the inevitable question: “So, what sort of music do you like?” To which I answered that I was mostly into folk. Except I’m not sure that was true. I bought Transatlantic samplers, so I was familiar with the work of people like Mr Fox, and I had a few Steeleye Span albums, though other than Below the Salt I got tired of them very quickly. But I really didn’t have that much in the way of folk music. But I liked the people who had emerged from folk music, the singer-songwriters like Al Stewart, Sandy Denny, and, of course, Joni Mitchell; and I liked the groups who had made something fresh out of folk music, by which I mean (because there weren’t really that many others) Pentangle and Fairport.
Pentangle, of course, only lasted a few years, and I got every album they released though I never saw them live (when they were reincarnated with different personnel some years later I had no interest in them at all). Fairport I followed for a few years. I got the two albums that preceded Liege and Lief, What We Did on Our Holidays which is okay and Unhalfbricking which is excellent, and at one point I even had a copy of their first LP with Judy Dyble on vocals, but she never worked for me as a singer. After Liege and Lief I kept up with them for a while through their innumerable personnel changes. Though I didn’t see them live at this time, it was their live albums that were generally most interesting, including the original vinyl version of Live at the LA Troubadour which includes a version of “Matty Groves”, with Simon Nicol on vocals, in which he changes the line:
Lord Arnold struck the very next blow And Matty struck no more
to the rather more effective:
Lord Arnold struck the very next blow And Matty struck the floor
accompanied, if I remember rightly, by a thump on the drum from Dave Mattocks. Alas, when a retitled version of that album was reissued on CD they switched to another version of “Matty Groves” with the conventional lyrics.
But the departure of Sandy Denny was something that, so far as I was concerned, they never really recovered from, though the departure of Ashley Hutchings at the same time was no great loss because the addition of Dave Pegg on bass more than made up for it. But when Richard Thompson left as well … I think it was “Babbacombe” Lee when I realised I didn’t like the album anywhere near as much as I felt I should. After that, I bought Rising for the Moon because it was Denny’s temporary return, but otherwise I bought no more Fairport.
Years later, through Maureen Speller, I reconnected with Fairport, and we saw a later iteration of the group live a couple of times, and they were every bit as thrilling as you’d hope they would be. And I reacquired on CD several of their albums, but it is still the Denny/Thompson era that works best for me.
Post-Fairport I followed Sandy Denny through Fotheringay and her solo work (The North Star Ravens and the Grassman remains for me an absolute classic, though there are songs on each of her other three albums that I keep returning to). With Richard Thompson, for some reason, it was more hit and miss. I skipped Henry the Human Fly until quite a few years later, but I did get the albums he made with Linda Thompson, of which the first, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, and the last, Shoot Out the Lights, (an interesting circularity of titles there, given the rise and collapse of their relationship) are clearly the best. And I followed him intermittently into his solo work (the early compilation, (guitar, vocal) is essential), but I missed out on more albums than I ever bought. Even so, I continue to rate Thompson as one of the great guitar geniuses of our age, and a songwriter of rare power. (Have I seen him live? That’s the strange thing. I have a feeling I must have done, but I just couldn’t say for certain. I know I have seen his son, Teddy Thompson, in concert, but was he accompanying his father? Must have been, but the picture in my mind is blurred and fuzzy.)
All of which reminiscence is prompted by the fact that I have just read Richard Thompson’s Beeswing, his memoir covering the years from the formation of Fairport Convention to the break-up of his marriage to Linda Thompson. Beeswing, which is as elegantly and engagingly written as one might expect of Thompson, is subtitled “Fairport, Folk Rock and Finding My Voice”, as if the voice (by which he means his guitar playing rather than his singing) was in place by the time he went solo. What follows, a career that has so far lasted another 40-odd years, might generate the usual showbusiness anecdotes, but the story itself was essentially over. And he is right in that: the story lies in how he got going rather than in what he did when he got there.
It is the relatively narrow focus – a period of less than ten years taken from a career of over 50 years, and a life of over 70 years – that makes this book work. It’s like Dylan’s Chronicles in that respect. And those ten years contain all the dynamics, the interplay, the discovery, that we want to read about. Some of the stories are fairly well known, of course: how they were auditioning for a new singer and Sandy Denny ended up auditioning them; how she sang “A Sailor’s Life” in the dressing room before a gig in Southampton and they impulsively decided to include it in the set that night only for it to go down so well, both with the band and the audience, for them to invite Joe Boyd down to hear them play it again the next night, and how he then called on his mate Dave Swarbrick to play on the recording, thus essentially inventing folk rock. There’s a detail I didn’t know: I know that a guitar is tuned in fourths but I hadn’t realised that a violin is tuned in fifths, so it is physically impossible for a guitarist to match many of the chords that a violin plays, and vice versa, so the interplay between Swarb and Thompson on “A Sailor’s Life” and many other tracks involved them both developing new ways of playing their instruments. There are other well-known incidents that acquire a little more detail in the telling here. We learn that he barely knew the groupie Jeannie Franklyn when she attached herself to him, and after a couple of weeks together he seems to have been on the point of splitting with her when she accompanied them to a gig in Birmingham. That’s when the van crashed on the way home afterwards, and Jeannie along with drummer Martin Lamble were killed. The death of Lamble had a far greater effect on Thompson and the rest of the group. And then there’s stuff that is new, at least to me. I now know, for instance, why the magnificent “Sloth” is called that. Thompson and Swarb were making their first attempt to write songs together. They had two pieces of music they were working on, one was fast paced and one was slow paced. For convenience they called the fast tune “Fasth” (it would become “Walk Awhile”), and the slow tune “Slowth”. Only they never got around to deciding on a proper title for the slow tune, and “Slowth” mutated into “Sloth”.
And writing all that makes me want to just go away and listen again to “Sloth”, or “Meet on the Ledge”, or “Calvary Cross”, or any of a dozen other songs that are seared into my memory.
I grew up with folk-rock, that curious hybrid which took (so-called) traditional tunes and added rock instrumentation. For a decade or more throughout the 1970s, the most-played record I owned was Basket of Light by Pentangle, one of the first folk-rock outfits (though I’ve never been convinced that the term rightly applies to them, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Jacqui McShee certainly came from the folk tradition, but what Danny Thompson and Terry Cox brought to the mix was more a jazz infusion than a rock sound). And then there was Leige and Lief by Fairport Convention, which certainly was folk rock, and Below the Salt by Steeleye Span, which always sounded to me like an outfit that wasn’t really convinced by what they were doing and thought the rock stuff was a little infra dig. Anyway, by the time they got to All Around My Hat and the abysmal Rocket Cottage, they had pretty much given up on being anything but a pop group.
There were others, of course. One of the things that first drew Maureen and I together was that I was the only other person she’d met who knew who Mr Fox were. But those three, Pentangle and Fairport in their pomp, with a little bit of Steeleye on the side, were the great triumvirate of folk rock. There were a couple of live albums by Fairport, Live at the LA Troubadour and Full House, that you don’t seem to get any more. There’s a version of Full House that has been released, but it’s not quite the same as the original; Simon Nicol’s version of “Matty Groves” is different, and the original was superior (in the original, Nicols sang: “Lord Arnold struck the very next blow, and Matty struck the floor”; the other version, more familiar but less dramatic, goes “Lord Arnold struck the very next blow, and Matty struck no more”). But those albums were ones I always listened to with amazement, even though it would be many years before I ever saw a Fairport line-up on stage.
I had grown up on the Beatles, (I was 11 when I watched their first ever appearance on British television), and my musical taste continued to be informed by what were then known as beat groups. So I never had any particular interest in or liking for the old finger-in-the-ear traditional singer, but when the folk song and the rock music merged, suddenly my ears pricked up. For a while my record collection held some real oddities (anyone remember Magna Carta, Fairfield Parlour, Amazing Blondel? No, me neither, not any longer.) but as the folk-rock wave of the 70s began to recede, my tastes began to shift back to the rockier side of things. Though with some variations: the astonishing and idiosyncratic songs on Sandy Denny’s The North Star Grassman and the Ravens and Sandy, certainly had a folk heritage, but they were hardly what I’d call folk songs, and the new direction they were opening up was one I was very interested in pursuing.
All of which is a long-winded way of getting around to talking about Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music by Rob Young. I was drawn to the book because it is largely a history of British folk rock, and in so far as that is what the book is, it’s a good book. Unfortunately, Young tries to cast his net wider than that, and that bit is problematic.
He starts with a chapter about Vashti Bunyan, which is a mark against him right from the beginning. Really! Surely, she had the most anaemic singing voice ever recorded, and her album, Just Another Diamond Day, justifiably sold about 20 copies. But in the decades since then, she has somehow been transformed into an iconic figure in the history of British folk music. I don’t understand this, but Young is far from the only person to put her up on that pillar. This chapter does tell us some things about Young’s book. In the first place, when it comes to actually writing about music, Young is crap. But then, there are very few people who are able to write well about music, though not many of them reach for the sort of extravagant and laboured metaphors that Young employs. In the second place, Young is largely uncritical: if the song or album or group can be squeezed into his history, then it is by default good. Okay, as the book goes on there are a couple of albums which he doesn’t greet with unalloyed praise (Rocket Cottage, of course, being one), but this is not exactly a work of criticism. Thirdly, the book is only accidentally about folk music; the clue is in the sub-title, “Visionary Music”, though he never actually explains what visionary music is, and for much of the book he blurs the boundaries so that folk rock is inevitably equated with visionary music. So Vashti, setting off in her gypsy caravan for Donovan’s Scottish island, which he has already left, is of interest because she is visionary rather than because she is a folk singer.
Now it is when we come to that term, “folk singer”, that things become interesting. Leaving Vashti to wander off stage, never to return, Young now goes back in time to the early collectors, Cecil Sharp, the Child Ballads, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and so on. This is where the book becomes interesting, because you start to realize how problematic the whole thing is. The whole collecting thing was tied up with a strand of late-19th century nationalism that echoed similar movements in Europe, and therefore inevitably has a rather dubious right-wing vibe. It was also rather indiscriminate, the collectors picked up on anything that grizzled country folk liked to sing, whether traditional ballads or music hall songs or something they had extemporized themselves, but because of where they came from they were all deemed authentic. “Authentic” became a nonce-word that plagued folk music for decades after, everything was geared to digging back to find the most ancient and therefore most authentic version of every song. The truth is that there is nothing authentic about folk music: tunes are remembered and forgotten, lyrics get changed constantly, lines are misremembered and new lines are cobbled together, and one set of words could be put to a different tune then the words would be changed to fit the tune. But for the panjandrums of Cecil Sharp House, the songs were set in stone, their authenticity an earnest of their importance. By the 1950s, Ewan McColl (or Jimmy Miller from Salford, as he was originally) was so insistent on authenticity that singers at his folk club had to employ the accent of whichever region the song had been collected from. Folk music was associated with various popular, left-wing causes, the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass in the 1930s, the Aldermaston Marches in the 1960s, and yet the traditionalists were extraordinarily authoritarian.
The guitar, for example, was not an authentic instrument, and so it didn’t start to creep into the folk music scene until the late-50s and 60s. But the young masters of the guitar who came on the scene around this time, Renbourn and Jansch, Davy Graham, and so forth, began to change the scene. They brought a more fluid, fluent style to the traditional songs they played; they began writing their own pieces in the style of their vamped-up traditional songs; and they were listening to other popular music around at the time. After all, if guitars aren’t common in your chosen area of music, who do you listen to for techniques and ideas? The folk guitarists who came on the scene in the early-60s brought influences from jazz, from classical music, and from rock ‘n’ roll; and in time they brought in electric guitars.
One of the things that comes across in the longest and best part of the book is how eclectic folk music became between the mid-60s and the mid-70s. Failing rock groups reinvented themselves as folk groups; most of the drummers who played in folk groups had originally started in rock bands. The folk musicians were listening to jazz and classical and rock; rock musicians were listening to folk; and from all of this new hybrids emerged. And thus were born Fairport and Pentangle and their ilk.
So far, so good. This is, of course, a partial account of British folk music during the period. There is no mention, for instance, of groups like The Spinners, The Dubliners or Planxty, though they were all very successful (The Spinners never seemed to be off British television screens throughout the 60s). No mention, either, of other performers who arose on the folk scene, like Al Stewart or Ralph McTell, even though these would go on to have very successful careers in ways that played very adroitly with the borders between folk and rock. And though there are nods to Bob Dylan and Paul Simon and Jackson C. Frank, the ways that the British folk scene interwove with the American folk revival of the 50s and 60s isn’t really developed. Nor, given the whole issue of authenticity that plagued folk music, is there any real discussion of whether folk musicians who wrote their own songs (which is the case with practically all of the performers I’ve mentioned so far, including the austere Ewan McColl) could be said to be part of the folk tradition. Can things like “Pentangling” by Pentangle or “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” by Sandy Denny really be considered folk songs? And if so, what is it that makes them folk?
But we come back, yet again, to that subtitle: “Visionary Music”. It is undefined; sometimes it means a songwriter who read William Blake, sometimes a song that refers to the landscape, sometimes a piece that pays homage to Aleister Crowley, sometimes it seems to be just a band that Rob Young happens to like. And over the course of the book, it transmutes into something called “acid folk” (don’t ask, I’ve no idea), or psychedelic folk (ditto); and by the end of the book he’s talking about obscure experimental musicians whose work, so far as I can see, bears no relationship to folk in any way. Which is another problem with the book, it is unfocussed, the subject drifts. It may be that those who like Ghost Box will find the final chapters of the book enthralling, but for me they have moved away from the area I was particularly interested in. Which to my mind makes the book over-long (660-odd pages) and rather bitty.
But the bits that I was interested in are very good indeed.