Tag Archives: A Sailor’s Life

Lady Margaret – Trees

The observant will note that we’ve slipped into our annual series of posts on folk-rock. Every autumn, folk gets me. It’s the most autumn-appropriate music I know.

“This station is King’s Cross-St Pancras. Change here for Circle & Hammersmith, Metropolitan, Piccadilly and Victoria lines, and mainline, intercity, suburban and international rail services. This train terminates at High Barnet.”

Aficionados of the London Underground will be able to tell you that the voice of the Northern line – the woman whose voice has been used to create station announcements like the above – is Celia Drummond. Aficonados of British folk-rock, meanwhile, will be able to tell you that the lead singer of Trees, a band that welded post-Grateful Dead psychedelic guitar to post-Fairport Convention electric folk over two albums made in 1970, was Celia Humphris.

Both Celias are the same Celia. Acid-folk singer Celia Humphris of the obviously stoned-out-of-their-minds Trees can be heard giving station announcements all over the country. She also, her online advert says, provides a convincing Marge or Lisa Simpson.

All this was several decades in the future when Trees main man Bias Boshell hit upon an idea. It was a strong one. Fairport Convention’s A Sailor’s Life (from Unhalfbricking, released in 1969) had set a template for how long, strophic folk ballads could be played by rock bands: begin gently, then slowly raise the tension until at some point the thing explodes – this being the moment the drummer stops playing patterns on the tom-toms and gives the snare drum what for instead.

With that formula established, the next step was simply to turn up the volume of the guitars. After all, rock was getting louder by the minute (Led Zeppelin’s first two albums were released in 1969, Black Sabbath’s debut in early 1970), so why not crank the guitars up? Why not use them to dramatise and comment upon the tale being told? Why not let them be as violent as songs being sung?

On Lady Margaret, from The Garden of Jane Delawney, Trees adhered to the Sailor’s Life formula, up to a point. There’s a stoned looseness to the opening few minutes, drummer Unwin Brown seeming a bit unsure whether to take the song in Levon Helm-esque half time or match the busy tempo of the guitars (mixed hard left and right). Celia Humprhis is no Sandy Denny, but she does her job well enough as the calm eye of the gathering storm, her voice cut-glass and her diction precise.

The way Trees approach the song’s heavy section is the chief difference between their style and the Sailor’s Life model.

Even as personnel changed, Fairport in their early years consistently had one of the finest rhythm sections in the land. Rock music is ultimately about drums (which is why Zeppelin rocked harder than Sabbath – sorry, they just did), and Martin Lamble was a very fine drummer indeed, managing a rare combination of power, authority and swing. Fairport in their Unhalfbricking era, before Lamble died in a terrible accident on the M1, are vastly underrated as a rock band. (Go listen to Lamble on A Sailor’s Life and Genesis Hall, then come back here. I’ll wait.)

Unwin Brown doesn’t come to Lady Margaret with the intention of playing two and four hard, throwing in some fills and letting the lead players do their thing, as Lamble does on A Sailor’s Life. Brown’s feel is looser, Moon-like; the cymbals are prominent, the snare is a more quicksilver presence, and Barry Clarke’s thickly distorted guitar gets the spotlight. Listen to A Sailor’s Life when walking, running, driving, or doing anything at all, and your pace will increase. Listen to Trees doing Lady Margaret and you’ll slow down, stop even, and nod your head. It’s head music.

Trees only made the two records, The Garden of Jane Delawney (the title track – written by Bias Boshell – is stunning) and On the Shore (check out Murdoch for a representative track), but became a cool reference point during the mid-noughties among freak-folk acts. Betwen 2008 and 2011, I played guitar in folk-rock band called Carterhaugh that was consciously looking to blend folk song with heavy and psychedelic rock, and we adopted Lady Margaret to that end. It never stopped being fun or challenging; what do you play when a song is seven minutes long with no chord changes, just a droney modal melody? Fortunately I had Trees’ example to follow – step on the wah pedal and wail.

trees

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Genesis Hall – Fairport Convention

Golly, it’s an early masterpiece of British folk-rock…

Early Fairport Convention is so wet you need to towel down after listening to it. It’s so green it gives you verdirgis. Their path to artistic maturity required them to toughen up and stop being so damn callow, which they never did entirely. Only Fairport could have put their excruciating version of Million Dollar Bash on the same LP as Genesis Hall (Richard Thompson), Who Knows Where the Time Goes (Sandy Denny) and their genuinely groundbreaking reading of A Sailor’s Life.

Unhalfbricking is the album in question. 1969. Two Thompson songs, two Denny songs, a trad/arr., and three Dylan songs, with two more emerging as outtakes on a reissue. Flawed as it is by the godawful Dylan covers (and no, I’m not going to give Si Tu Dois Partir a pass either – sorry, Fairport fans. I’m no Dylan diehard but I don’t hear any of the stuff that made Dylan and the Band’s version of these songs great in any of the Fairport versions), Unhalfbricking stands as their finest album of mostly original songs. Still, it seems strange, looking at the start of their careers and knowing the later songwriting accomplishments of Thompson and Denny, that they ever needed to lean so heavily on another writer’s songbook.

But what is great about Unhalfbricking is great indeed. Undeniably great. All-time great. Who Knows Where the Time Goes was voted the best song ever by Radio 2-listening folk fans, and I’m of no mind to disagree. It’s plainly wonderful. A Sailor’s Life is perhaps the most important performance in the whole of British folk-rock, in which, writes Rob Young in Electric Eden, ‘All the elements that we might associate with English electric folk are switched on.’ Fairport would continue to explore this new sound on Liege & Lief, but nothing is ever as exciting the second time around.

But, for listeners, probably the first time they heard Fairport sound genuinely confident and muscular was not on A Sailor’s Life. It was on album opener Genesis Hall, Richard Thompson’s first masterpiece.

Thompson has explained that the song is about a Drury Lane squat and how his policeman father was one of the squad sent in to evict the squatters. Thompson, seeing ‘both sides of the quarrel’ but naturally sympathising with the squatters, and being appalled at the level of violence used by the police, wrote Genesis Hall in response. A taut waltz, played with vigorous force by drummer Martin Lamble, it’s as chill as a November morning; Denny’s performance of Thompson’s passionate, if somewhat dramatic lyric, achieves its force through its icy calmness.

Lamble was in fantastic form all over Unhalfbricking, and if Who Knows Where the Time Goes was his most emotional performance and A Sailor’s Life his most exploratory (it’s a cliché, but his cymbal washes really are incredibly evocative of the ocean spray), Genesis Hall finds him at his most authoritative. His shocking death in a van accident on the M1 after a show in Birmingham denied us the opportunity to hear him on the Liege & Lief material; his death was a musical as well as personal tragedy for the band. His replacement, the inimitable Dave Mattcks, is himself a fabulous drummer, but he sounds to me like a player who tends to sit back and respond to the dynamics of the rest of the band, whereas Lamble tended to lead them. Certainly no one who’s played Genesis Hall as the drummer in Fairport (a roll-call that also includes Gerry Conway, who I’ve raved about before here) have grabbed the song by the scruff of the neck like Lamble, with his triplet tom-rolls and crisp snare flams. Far more than any song they’d recorded up to 1969, Genesis Hall put the rock into folk-rock.

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Fairport convene on the lawn, probably not during autumn

Can I trouble you to listen to my new EP, Last Swallow?