Tag Archives: Bert Jansch

Thoughts on John and Beverley Martyn

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve read Small Hours: The Long Night of John Martyn by Graeme Thompson and Beverley Martyn’s Sweet Honesty: The Beverley Martyn Story. Here are some thoughts. I’m not really going into the music in depth here. I’ve written about John Martyn elsewhere on this blog several times if you’re looking for that. I’ve not gone into specifics about John Martyn’s abuse of Beverley; nonetheless, CW.

In 2001, thanks to James McKean playing me Fine Lines in the house we shared in Lewisham, I became a John Martyn fan, and picked up his entire seventies discography over the next two or three years.

It wasn’t until I saw Johnny Too Bad on BBC4 in around 2004 that I realised Martyn was not a nice guy, that his mellow-old-soak routine could turn on a dime into hostility and physical aggression. You could still see it and sense it, but his edge had by then been blunted by his health conditions; during the course of the documentary, he has his leg amputated, and over the next few years, largely wheelchair bound, he would grow hugely overweight and progressively more frail. At that point, he was mainly a danger to himself.

In the 1970s and 1980s, though, he was a danger to anyone who looked at him in a way he didn’t like, including, more than anyone, his first wife, Beverley.

The two had met in the late 1960s, when they were both up-and-coming singer-songwriters in the London folk scene. At the time, Beverley Kutner was the bigger name of the two. She had been in a fairly successful jug band called the Levee Breakers, released some singles on Deram Records (also home at the time to the still-obscure David Bowie), been offered a contract by EMI, which her boyfriend Bert Jansch advised her to turn down out (she believes out of professional jealousy), and been in a relationship with a visiting Paul Simon, which is how she ended up performing at Monterey Pop as the guest of Simon and Garfunkel and travelling all over the States, making contacts and meeting the great and the good.

John Martyn had not been at Monterey, he had not been out with famous folk stars, whether homegrown or international, nor had he hung out with Peter Fonda and David Crosby in LA. Mentored by Scottish singer-songwriter Hamish Imlach, a Rabelasian figure whom Martyn would increasingly resemble physically as he aged, Martyn moved to London in his late teens, scoring a deal with Island. Despite label boss Chris Blackwell’s belief in Martyn and his music, his first two albums were not successful, and didn’t really deserve to be. Martyn, unlike Jansch (a rival with whom Martyn more than once came to blows) or Nick Drake (a friend who seemed to bring out Martyn’s gentler, best side), did not arrive fully formed.

But for all her early successes, neither did Kutner. When she and Martyn pitched up in Woodstock, NY, to record what would become Stormbringer! in 1969, both were – being generous – improving singer-songwriters. Originally slated by Joe Boyd, her mentor, as a Beverley Martyn (the couple were newlyweds) solo album, it became instead a duo record, with John writing six of the album’s ten songs, and his fingerprints more evident on the finished product than hers.

Boyd didn’t like John Martyn all that much, as a man or a writer. There was no outright hostility between them at this point, but their relationship was edgy. Boyd came round to Stormbringer! during the course of production, and ended up thinking it was a decent album despite John’s involvement, but he’s expressed regret many times at how Beverley’s career became intertwined with John’s, to its detriment.

Released in February 1970, Stormbringer! is a record that’s promising and intermittently great rather than consistently accomplished. The band that Paul Harris (pianist and musical director for the sessions) assembled was superb, with Harvey Brooks on bass and top-tier drumming talent in the shape of the Mothers’ Billy Mundi, The Band’s Levon Helm and session great Herbie Lovell. But only a few of the songs are worthy of the stellar backing they received.

One of them, the title track, is magisterial – John Martyn’s greatest early song, with beautifully empathetic support from Harris’s piano and Lovell’s drums. Rollicking opener Go Out and Get It works well, as does John the Baptist. Both songs suggest a pretty heavy influence from The Band. But Traffic Light Lady and Woodstock are twee and forgettable, and Would You Believe Me fails to nail the heavy, spooky mood it shoots for. Kutner’s songs are, on the whole, less successful still, with static melodies and blue notes that don’t quite work. Sweet Honesty, arranged (presumably by Martyn and Harris) in a similar style to John the Baptist and Go Out and Get It, works best by placing more emphasis on groove, reducing the importance of lyric and tune. But at eight minutes, it overstays its welcome.

Stormbringer! is, then, almost certainly a better record as John and Beverley Martyn album than it would have been as a Beverley solo release. But knowing that Martyn elbowed his way into the picture then took over his wife’s artistic project is always there in the background, making listening to the record uncomfortable, as it appears this was an early manisfestation of the controlling and abusive behaviour he would exhibit for the rest of their marriage. Indeed, Beverley Martyn writes that it was during their time in Woodstock that Martyn was first violent towards her, after a party at which they met Bob Dylan.

The Road to Ruin was recorded and released in 1970, marking a busy 12 months for the Martyns. This time, they recorded at home base for many of the artists signed to Island and/or Joe Boyd’s Witchseason production company, Sound Techniques in Chelsea, with a band once again led by Harris and featuring Fairport’s Dave Pegg, Mike Kowalski, Alan Spenner and saxophonists Ray Warleigh and Dudu Pukwana.

It’s decidedly less of a rock album than Stormbringer! The drums are mixed lower, and the vibe generally – enhanced by the presence of saxophonists on the songs – is more jazzy, but Auntie Aviator at least (co-credited to John and Beverley, but claimed by Beverley as mainly her work) recreates the Stormbringer! template of pensive piano, woodily downtuned acoustic guitar and rock rhythm section.

In the end, the album’s most crucial tracks in John Martyn’s career were the acoustic Parcels (in which he sang low in his range, with a backing of his guitar, Harris’s piano and congas) and New Day, which features on double bass Danny Thompson, who would go on to be Martyn’s great musical partner throughout the seventies. Beverley, meanwhile, contributed her finest original song – Primrose Hill, a lovely evocation of early-seventies bohemian north London, which has been sampled by Norman Cook for North West Three, a track from 2004 Fatboy Slim album Palookaville. (Auntie Aviator, meanwhile, has been sampled by Bristolian hip-hop group Aspects.)

After The Road to Ruin, the Martyns largely stopped recording and gigging together, not that they’d ever done a lot of that. A full-band launch gig for Stormbringer! with Nick Drake in support at the Queen Elizabeth Hall had gone so badly, in John’s view at least, that he called it the most humiliating moment of his career, and blamed it on the lack of interplay between himself and other musicians.

The inescapable conclusion is that he was never much interested in being in a duo with his wife as any kind of permanent arrangement. Perhaps he muscled in simply not wanting to be overshadowed by Beverley or miss out on any opportunities Joe Boyd offered her. Once it became clear that it wasn’t going to give him what he wanted, he moved on. Coincidentally or not, it was then that he found the relationship with Danny Thompson and the improvisatory style melding jazz, folk and rock that would power his albums from Bless the Weather through to Live at Leeds, after which he would record One World and largely leave folk guitar picking behind*.

As ever with John Martyn, we have to somehow reconcile the often extraordinary music he made with his terrible personal behaviour. Reading Beverley Martyn’s book, or even Graeme Thompson’s Small Hours, is often harrowing. Martyn’s physical abuse of Beverley steadily escalated until she left him in 1979. Even after that, the abuse continued in the form of bare-legal-minimum maintenance payments that left her and their children broke in a dilapidated house in Heathfield, sometimes depending on charity from friends, including a visiting Art Garfunkel. Perhaps related to her treatment by John, Beverley Martyn has been through periods where she’s struggled with her mental health.

Some will, no doubt, use that as a means to dismiss her testimony regarding Martyn’s abuses. For me, the central charges all stick – Graeme Thompson includes them in his book without questioning their veracity, with more than enough corroborating witnesses who saw their relationship at close hand.

Which brings us circling back round again to this question that keeps coming up these days – what to do, as a longtime fan of Martyn’s work, about the fact that he behaved in ways that were both criminal and appalling?

Artistic legacies are not value neutral. Who gets remembered, whose work is preserved and made available for future generations, is not merely about whose work is the best, or the most morally pure, even. It is mediated by commerce: does it make financial sense to continue to preserve this digital archive?

Clearly, it will continue to be profitable to preserve John Martyn’s music. The fact that his songs have been covered by other, bigger-name, artists (most notably, Clapton’s version of May You Never) means that there will always be a stream of people coming to Martyn’s music through that connection. Others will hear of him having first become fans of Nick Drake, or perhaps Fairport Convention.

Martyn’s music will live on. He will not, no matter what some of his more neanderthal fans say, be cancelled by woke warriors and SJWs. They – we, if you want to hang those labels on me – don’t have that power. Never have, never will.

One could, in the truest sense of the word, cancel him (that is, one could choose to exclude his work from one’s personal canon, not listen to it, and endeavour not to give him brain space either – to live as though he never existed), but his work will be preserved by the industry for others to listen to. And others will, and they will be influenced by and copy what they hear; his Solid Air-era acoustic guitar style, that percussive slap on the strings, is already part of guitarist’s lexicon, as it’s such a useful halfway house between picking and strumming.

For me, my reaction to Martyn and his music is in a state of flux. I find myself thinking again and again of the wise conclusion from Ann Powers’s essay, What it’s Like Listening to Michael Jackson Now, written shortly after Leaving Neverland aired:

As I write now, my critic’s impulse to draw neat conclusions nearly overcomes me: I want to provide closure for you, the reader, and maybe even more so for myself. But if I’m going to genuinely represent what it’s like to listen to Michael Jackson after Leaving Neverland, I have to ask you to stay with me in an uncomfortable place. In some way, this is what criticism, what engaging with culture as a thinking person, always strives to do. Yet it’s so easy to stop short. To revel in the boldly stated conclusion. To indulge in the flush of strong positive feelings. To rest in the perceived authority of the self-appointed jurist and turn away from the role that a deeper engagement with culture, in all its imperfections and even moral shortcomings, can offer: the chance to be a trustworthy witness. If culture builds itself through revelations, explorations, secrets and lies, any response that doesn’t claim the contradictions gets it wrong.

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As Powers says elsewhere in her essay, the challenge is to stay present while listening, if listening is what we choose to do. And, as I argued a couple of weeks ago in re Phil Spector, not to delude yourself into thinking that the art absolves the artist in any way. It can’t and it doesn’t. We must hold on to the fact that the artist’s art and his crimes are both irreduceable, ineradicable. They don’t separate neatly, and they are equal facets of the person. You can play death-of-the-author mind tricks with yourself if you want, but the simple fact is that John Martyn’s career depended on his wife’s support and domestic labour. His art – itself often domestic in scale and subject – resists any attempt to prise it free of the circumstances of its making. Listening to it is uncomfortable, even – perhaps especially – when it’s the art that he and Beverley created together.

*Interestingly, Beverley claims she wrote the hook of one of his greatest songs, Don’t Wanna Know from Solid Air, for which she never recieved credit or royalties. My tendency when reading her book is always to trust her testimony, but I struggle with this one a little, because in both tune and sentiment it seems so typical of John’s style. But if true, it was disgraceful behaviour by him.

2016 Clip Show Post

New Year’s Eve again? They come round quickly, don’t they?

This year I’ve not been able to devote as much time to the blog as I would have liked, which I’m looking forward to remedying in 2017. Thank you for hanging in there with me this year. I really appreciate that people spend their time reading my incoherent ramblings.

I’d like to leave 2016 behind, if I may, by pointing some of my newer readers back at some of the pieces I enjoyed writing this year.

I’ll be back on Monday. Have a great weekend, whatever you have planned.

Bert Jansch

Farewell to the Glad

The Dolphins – Fred Neil

The musical multiverse – alternate versions, demos, outtakes, mixes

Joni Mitchell from Blue to The Hissing of Summer Lawns

She’s Gone – Hall & Oates

Their Back Pages

 

Stormbringer – John & Beverley Martin

A repost of a piece I wrote three years ago, about a record I think is very special indeed. I listened to it today on my way home from work with my hood pulled up and the rain beating down on me, and it really did take me somewhere else.

In July 1969, John Martyn was a folkie who’d put out two records on Island – London Conversations and The Tumbler – neither of which were anything remarkable in an era where Fairport Convention and Bert Jansch had already done much of their best work, redefining the forms that British folk music was capable of taking in the process (some of The Tumbler is actively embarrassing compared to, say, Fairport’s Genesis Hall).

Beverley Martyn (nee Kutner), meanwhile, had fronted a jug band called the Levee Breakers, and put out a single written by Randy Newman (and featuring John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page, Nicky Hopkins and Andy White), with a Cat Stevens B-side. She’d played at Monterey Pop and been invited to the Bookends sessions by Paul Simon, where she contributed the immortal (spoken) words “Good morning, Mr Leitch, have you had a busy day?” to Fakin’ It. She was, in short, more of a “name” than her new husband and probably expected no more than yeoman musical support from John when they began work on what would become Stormbringer! in Woodstock in the summer of 1969 with engineer John Wood, drummers Levon Helm, Herbie Lovelle and Billy Mundi, bass player Harvey Brooks and pianist Paul Harris.

Somehow or other – and opinions and recollections vary – the project morphed into a duo record, with John’s songs as well as Beverley’s being recorded. In no time, by sheer force of personality and pushiness, John’s voice became the dominant one; he wrote and sang six of the album’s ten tracks, and the album, when it came out, was credited to John and Beverley Martyn.

It’s hard not to feel sympathy with Beverley for having been elbowed aside by her husband in this way, and the record’s producer, Joe Boyd, probably viewed the path that the record took with some regret, too; he seems not massively enamoured with John Martyn as a person, and not terribly impressed with him as a musician – “When John started living with Beverley Kutner, I was stuck with him”, he recalled in his 2006 memoir, White Bicycles. But by any reasonable assessment, John was much the greater talent (at least at that time – we can’t know what Beverley might have been capable of later in her career had she continued with it into the seventies), and Stormbringer! is a far greater record than a Beverley Martyn solo album with a bit of John’s guitar would have been.

When I first heard this album, I was hugely excited to hear the coming-together of two of my very favourite players: Levon Helm, drummer/singer with the Band, and John Martyn himself, whose guitar playing I can honestly call life-changing. Yet Levon, magisterial as he is on John the Baptist, does not play on the album’s most indelible track, on which John’s guitar takes a backseat to the piano of Paul Harris, the sessions’ musical director.

Stormbringer, the title track, features New York jazz player Herbie Lovelle on drums (who also played on another favourite of mine: Dylan’s version of Corrina Corrina from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan), and Lovelle could easily double for Helm here: same swinging semi-quaver bass drum, same easy but authoritative tom fills, same woody depth of sound.

But Harris’s piano owns the song. His 16-bar solo, sounding like a more pastoral Richard Wright, may be the most beautiful passage on any John Martyn record; playing this graceful and empathetic is rare in any form of music. John Martyn would build a remarkable understanding with double bassist Danny Thompson over the course of half a dozen albums and many live gigs – and anyone who’s heard Fine Lines or Head and Heart knows what Thompson and Martyn could do together – but listening to Stormbringer, you can’t help but think wistfully of what Martyn and Harris might have done in a longer partnership, with perhaps Brooks and Lovelle as their permanent rhythm section. Any songwriter would kill to have a musician with them who so understands their songs that they can play with that kind of empathy.

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Bert Jansch

In Nottamun Town – and on the road to it – nothing makes literal sense. Grey mares have grey manes and tails but green stripes down the back and are somehow entirely black; you have to stifle the dust even as it rains all day; you sit on hot cold frozen stones.

Nottamun Town is a confounding song to a modern listener, used to songs that tell linear stories or that are composed of generalities that hint at meaning but never insist on being read in any one way. When I first heard Bert Jansch’s reading of Nottamun Town at the age of 19 – my friend James gave me Jansch’s Jack Orion as a 19th birthday present – it seemed strange and forbidding. Like most of Jack Orion, it had a desperate, even apocalyptic, edge to it. Jansch strains to hit the notes from the first stanza. He doesn’t pick his guitar strings; he claws at them, wrestles with them.

Bert Jansch was, as I suspect he was for many, my gateway to the world of traditional British song. Not Jansch alone, but Jansch first. Compared to his peers in the world of British folk, Jansch was cool: a guitar virtuoso with an image closer to that of a rock star than even the most boho of his folk contemporaries. For anyone who grew up as an fan of rock music, Jansch was an understandable figure, akin to Dylan, to Neil Young, Hendrix, Cobain even, and provided an easy path in for a kid like me who’d grown up on pop and rock, and knew nothing about folk.

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Bert Jansch, cool

I bought his first two albums on one CD from the vast HMV on Oxford Street and lapped them up, especially his debut, Bert Jansch, which contained two of his best-loved songs, Strollin’ Down the Highway and Needle of Death, and the immortal fingerpicking odyssey Angie – Jansch’s take on Davey Graham’s Anji. For these three tracks alone, Bert Jansch is a classic, but there’s more to the album than just its showstoppers: the gorgeous, Mingus-inspired Alice’s Wonderland; the courtly Dreams of Love; Do You Hear Me Now?, the anti-war protest song turned into a hit single by Donovan; short guitar instrumentals like the hopping-and-skipping Finches and the pensive, mysterious Veronica.

Bert Jansch was recorded by Bill Leader in a flat above a Denmark Street shop on a reel-to-reel recorder, with Jansch singing and playing live. His breathing is audible on the instrumentals and his mistakes (such as they were – Jansch operated on a level most of us can’t dream of) were left in, as were the cracks in his voice on I Have No Time, Needle of Death and Do You Hear Me Now. Possibly this was why Jansch seemed a little embarrased by all the attention his debut continued to receive decades after he recorded it. The guitar playing was OK, he said, but the voice sounded like that of a little boy.

Artists aren’t always the best judges of their own work – Jansch’s early vocal performances were the the most pleasing he would ever record. By the time of It Don’t Bother Me, he was singing more forcefully, but without quite the same gently conspiratorial intimacy. There was an audience listening now, and his vocals sounded as if he was conscious of it. There was a weirdly plummy quality on his delivery of, say, My Lover, like he was taking pains to enunciate correctly. He doesn’t sound quite himself, even as his playing (in tandem with a guesting John Renbourn) is riveting. It Don’t Bother Me is a fine album, but it’s a step down from predecessor Bert Jansch and follow-up Jack Orion.

Jack Orion remains a singular album in British folk: inventive, uncompromising, tightly compressed. Just eight songs long, it contains worlds within it. Blackwater Side remains, justly, its most famous moment, to which the only possible response, particular for guitarists, is awe.* At once violent and intricate, Jansch’s guitar playing on Blackwater Side is the high point of the whole folk-baroque style; his vocal is likewise tender and angry, as he reproaches his lover (“the Irish lad” – Jansch was brave enough not to switch the narrator’s sex) for using and deserting him. Nottamun Town, as we touched upon earlier, is a confounding piece of folk surrealism, and Jansch portrays the narrator’s panicky confusion masterfully. The 10-minute title track (an adaptation by Bert Lloyd of Glasgerion) is a vehicle for some of Jansch’s and Renbourn’s finest playing, and returned a song to prominence that had fallen out of general repertoire**. Jack Orion is a heavy listen, mesmeric in its starkness.

If you like Jansch with a lighter touch, the debut and LA Turnaround are probably the records for you. The latter was cut after the Pentangle disbanded and marries Jansch’s usual bluesy folk picking to gentle country rock; it was produced by Monkees vet Mike Nesmith and had great LA-based players like Byron Berline, Red Rhodes, Jesse Ed Davis and Klaus Voorman sitting in; One for Jo might just be the prettiest thing the man ever did.

Bert Jansch died five years ago today, on 5 October 2011. God rest him.

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*Jimmy Page’s was an improper response: he stole Jansch’s guitar arrangement and presented it whole, scarcely changed at all, as Black Mountain Side on Led Zeppelin’s first record. Jansch couldn’t afford the legal representation he’d have needed to get fair recompense. Zeppelin had a habit of passing others’ work as their own, but Black Mountain Side is particularly egregious because of how little they added to the source material, not something you could always accuse them of

**Within a few years, Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick, Jansch and Renbourn’s Pentangle and Trees had all cut versions of Glasgerion or the Lloyd adaptation.

Monty Got a Raw Deal – R.E.M.

I was listening to Natalie Merchant’s River earlier, a song that is still absolutely killing me whenever I hear it, when I started thinking about R.E.M.’s Monty Got a Raw Deal, from Automatic for the People – another song lamenting the fall of a Hollywood icon, albeit one that’s more of a meditation than a heartbroken outburst of personal grief like River.

Automatic is of course a death-obsessed record, so much so that many critics, hearing the songs and noting Michael Stipe’s gaunt appearance, assumed he was ill or dying. For whatever reason, Stipe was in a somber mood in 1992 and his lyrics were less playful than they’d been on any previous record, with only The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite sounding like the work of a man who’d written Stand, Shiny Happy People and It’s the End of the World as We Know It.

But while Automatic is Stipe mainly in a monochrome mode, he is on superb lyrical form throughout, and Monty Got a Raw Deal, a tribute of sorts to Montgomery Clift, 25 years dead by the time Stipe wrote about him, is, in its cryptic way, Stipe at his best: humane, empathetic, poetic and provocative.

The music, too, has always hit me hard. As a neophyte guitarist, I collected songbooks for the albums I knew best, and Monty Got a Raw Deal was as a result the first song I ever learned that required me to substantially retune my guitar.Now, my acoustic guitar has almost never been up at concert pitch in the last 15 years, so to say that learning how to play this song was a big deal for me would be the understatement indeed. It was a gateway into an entirely different way of thinking about the instrument. Peter Buck is a guitarist I grew out of fairly early – once I’d been playing a couple of years, I’d learned pretty much all I could from him – but you have to give the credit where it’s due, and I learned about alternate tunings from Buck, not Nick Drake, Bert Jansch or John Martyn.

Since Buck’s riff is intricate, Bill Berry and Mike Mills make the smart decision to go the other way: Berry plays big smacking quarters on his hat and two and four on kick and snare, with big tom build-ups going back into each verse. Mills plays quarters too, a little stepwise line that keeps the track, dominated by Buck’s almost mandolin-sounding guitar part*, firmly anchored. The whole thing has a loose, spontaneous feel and provides an important contrasting flavour in an otherwise very controlled, carefully thought-out album. As such Monty Got a Raw Deal – not a famous song, not particularly a fan favourite, not a track that was frequently played live by the band – has always felt like a key track on Automatic for the People to me.

Automatic

*The guitar is capoed at the third fret so the track sounds a minor third higher, in G minor.

 

Saturday Sun – Nick Drake

Nick Drake is at this point the most famous, the most listened-to, the most influential and the most widely beloved of all the British folk-rock acts of the 1960s and 1970s.

Why Drake? Why not Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny, Martin Carthy, John Martyn or Bert Jansch? All were (or are) talented, versatile and charismatic performers and writers, all with a wider and more varied body of work than Drake.

It would be crass and reductive to say, “Because Drake was good looking and died young, and didn’t get old, fat, bald, irrelevant or conservative.” This is undoubtedly part of his appeal, as it is of Hendrix’s, Cobain’s, Joplin’s or Morrison’s (OK, so he got fat, but he didn’t get old or bald). The doomed-romantic-hero thing is always powerful and attractive, and it can apply equally to musicians, athletes, actors, writers, political revolutionaries, tyrants, criminals, anyone – we can all think of someone whose glittering legacy is at least partly dependent on their early death.

But it’s very far from the whole story.

In the last twenty years, since the cult of Nick Drake really took off*, the hundreds of thousands of people who have become Nick Drake fans have done so because of the man’s idiosyncratic, beguiling music.

There’s the guitar playing for one thing. Even within an era blessed with an extraordinary crop of guitarists – Martyn, Jansch, Renbourn, Carthy and Graham – Drake stands out. Drake’s technique I won’t go into in great detail here (it’s all available out there if you want it – tunings, picking patterns, chord shapes and so on), except to note his powerful right-hand thumb (listen to Pink Moon‘s Road to hear him play a crisply articulated syncopated melody with his thumb against a repeated pattern played with his fingers), and his tunings, which he used to create hugely expansive chords.**

And then there are the songs. River Man, Saturday Sun, Three Hours, Cello Song, Hazey Janes I and II, At the Chime of a City Clock, Northern Sky, Pink Moon, Place to Be, Things Behind the Sun, From the Morning. All these from just three albums.

Brit-folk songwriters of that era were notable for their willingness to explore other music, to collaborate with musicians from outside their own fields and create new blends, whether those outside influences came from the classical world, rock or jazz, India or North Africa. Drake was no different, though he’s not often spoken of in precisely those terms. I guess if I had to summarise Drake’s albums for a newcomer to his music, I’d say that his debut, Five Leaves Left, is the one most coloured by jazz (with Danny Thompson, Tristan Fry and Rocky Dzidzornu all contributing) and Bryter Layter is the one most touched by Fairport-style folk rock (Richard Thompson, plus Pegg and Mattacks), while Pink Moon is the outlier, the skeletal one, just Drake alone with his guitar.***

Pink Moon, for many reasons (some of them personal and sentimental), remains my favourite, and I understand why many feel Bryter Layter is the most rounded and satisfying. My relationship with FLL is more complicate – while its best songs are all classics, there are also some very twee moments, and Robert Kirby’s string arrangements (on Way to Blue and Fruit Tree) sound pretty callow next to the magisterial work of Harry Robinson on River Man.

Nevertheless, when playing individual Nick Drake songs for the uninitiated, it’s often best to turn to Five Leaves Left for a song or two. Saturday Sun is a great choice precisely because it doesn’t feature Drake’s guitar playing – you can hear it and divorce the quality of the song from the quality of the guitar playing (difficult with some of Drake’s other work), gaining the clearest insight into exactly how good a writer he was. That said, along with its exquisite late-summer-turns-to-autumn melancholy, it does feature Danny Thompson on double bass and Tristan Fry on drums and vibes, so there’s plenty of chops on display if chops are your thing.

Drake

*Launched by the use of Pink Moon in a Volkswagen ad of all things.

**He’d do things such as tune his guitar CGCGCE, for example, play D, A and D on the bottom three strings and that voicing, with a 7th and a 9th in it, would be his standard D minor voicing. It’s that sort of harmonic ambiguity that attracts guitarists to alternate tunings, and Drake, for many, is the gateway drug.

***It has been said by some that the outside musicians were producer Joe Boyd’s idea, and that if Drake had been listened to by Boyd his records would have been much sparer. Quite how this accords with Drake’s willing collaboration with John Cale on Northern Sky, and his use of his friend Robert Kirby’s string arrangements all over Five Leaves Left, I’m not entirely sure.

Blackwater Side – Bert Jansch

The British folk scene of the1960s flowered at the same time as British rock ‘n’ roll was going through its own period of accelerated artistic growth. Revolver by The Beatles and Jack Orion by Bert Jansch were released a month apart, and sessions for the latter were almost certainly happening at the same time as the slightly more protracted sessions for the former.

While both albums shared a focus on the past – musical and social – The Beatles’ optimistic updating of Edwardian and Victorian music hall and fairground music (a trope that they had perhaps picked up from The Kinks and which they did more than even that band to amplify within popular culture generally) was wildly at odds with the mood of Jansch’s music: bleak, apocalyptic, almost otherworldly. The Beatles were beginning the process of reconciling the old with the new, which they would perfect on Sergeant Pepper (Revolver is, I think, ultimately the better album, but it’s a collection of great songs, rather than a great collection of songs). Jansch, in contrast, burrowed deep into these strange and ancient songs, inhabiting them completely. Only the harshly bowed strings of Eleanor Rigby seems to come from the same world as Jansch’s Jack Orion work.

Jansch’s first two albums (Bert Jansch and It Don’t Bother Me) were largely made up of self-composed originals – among which were two signature tunes, Strollin’ Down the Highway and the immortal Needle of Death – and had established him as a virtuoso guitarist and substantial songwriter. Jack Orion saw him going somewhere else: into the past, into the previous centuries’ folk ballads. Even in 1966, he played Nottamun Town, Jack Orion and Blackwater Side with an extraordinary combination of power and precision. By the time I saw him play Blackwater Side at the Southbank in 2006, his playing of it could be extraordinarily violent, his fingers hacking at the strings as he turned the song inside out, abstracted it and pulled it into strange new shapes.

The seeds of all this later exploratory work are within his 1966 recording of the track, and it thrives on the tension Jansch creates by his seeming impatience, but it benefits equally from the tenderness that was sometimes absent from his later readings. These could seem either dutiful (better play that song all the Zeppelin fans came to hear!), or provacatory (you want Blackwater Side? Here it is, hope you can recognise it!).

The Jack Orion recording of it was perfect: full of anger, desire, fear and regret. Possibly it’s the highest point (also the deepest and darkest point) to which anyone took the folk baroque form of guitar playing. Fifty years old next year, this recording of a song conceivably hundreds of years older, is still a mighty and intimidating presence in our musical history.

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Bert Jansch: kind to dogs, hard on guitar strings

Streets of London – Ralph McTell

I was going to write a piece about a different song that came out of the British folk rock scene of the late sixties and early seventies, but in a digressive introduction, I found myself writing and thinking about Ralph McTell instead. So later for the original piece, I’m afraid.

Streets of London is such a fixture in British culture that we don’t notice it, may go years without thinking about it. I remember a teacher playing it to us one morning at assembly when I was primary school in the 1980s, twenty years after McTell had written the song and 15 years after it had been a hit. We were too young, too sheltered (most of us), to have encountered too much wretchedness first-hand. What I took from the song was its pretty tune and its bottomless melancholy.

Now, as an adult, I find that, away from the experience of listening to the song, I don’t actually agree with its sentiments all that much. It’s not of much help to most people struggling with depression, loneliness or isolation to simply remind them that others have it worse. There’s always someone who has it worse, but in the moment that doesn’t lessen real grief, real sorrow or real hurt. Emotions are impervious to appeals to reason.

Yet, I love Streets of London. More than just a pretty tune, some deft picking and a deathless chord sequence taken from Pachelbel’s Canon in D, it is full of compassion, empathy and wisdom. For its four-minute duration, McTell’s reminder that we should reserve our deepest sympathy for someone other than ourselves feels authoritative and common-sensical, even if most of the time I don’t feel it’s practical, or even possible.

Streets of London exists in its most perfect form wherever McTell happens to be playing it. It’s a song that doesn’t have a wholly satisfactory studio recording. Its original recording is found on his second album, released in 1969 and produced by Gus Dudgeon. It’s a spare reading of the song, recorded in one take, guitar and vocal alike. It’s an effective and affecting take, but when you listen to the 1974 re-recording that became a hit, it’s undeniable that his voice had become deeper and richer in a very pleasing way in the time between. But the 1974 arrangement is over-egged: the guitar is doubled (tightly but unnecessarily), a high and lonesome harmonica is present to no real effect, and the backing vocals that enter in the second verse, intended no doubt to evoke a folk club, sound cheesily showbiz.

The perfect version would be a simple live recording of the song sung by McTell alone, without the audience aping the 1974 version by joining in the choruses. I hope to hear one.

McTell has gotten something of a raw deal in music history as it is written down. A modest man, he lives in the shadow of his peers: the spell-weaving guitar players Bert Jansch and Davy Graham; the questing, visionary John Martyn, John Renbourn and Richard Thompson; the yeoman Martin Carthy; Nick Drake and Sandy Denny, with their romantic early deaths. Having a huge worldwide hit made him somehow other to them. He was left out of Rob Young’s Electric Eden, which deals comprehensively with the British folk revival of the 1960s and ’70s, yet he was indubitably there – busking in Paris, playing at Les Cousins, releasing records on Transatlantic – following the same paths as his more storied contemporaries and he wrote the songs to prove it. Streets of London is merely the most famous one.

by Brian Shuel, modern bromide print from an original negative, 1968
Ralph McTell, 1968 – the year he wrote Streets of London (Brian Shuel)

Give some to the bass player, part 7 – Promised Land by Bert Jansch/Outside In (live at Leeds) by John Martyn

One of the chief pleasures of Bert Jansch’s Birthday Blues is hearing musicians whose work you’ve loved in other contexts playing together in a combination you’ve not heard before. On his 1969 album, Jansch teamed up with his Pentangle rhythm section – drummer Terry Cox and the genius double bassist Danny Thompson – and added saxophonist Ray Warleigh and Duffy Power (a 1950s rocker from the Larry Parnes stable), on harmonica, to the team. Warleigh’s alto sax had haunted the street corners of Nick Drake’s At the Chime of a City Clock from Bryter Layter and it’s a treat to hear him and Jansch react to each other’s playing on the bluesy Promised Land (not the Chuck Berry song).

The busy playing of Warleigh, Jansch and Cox, as well as the brutally simple two-chord structure, necessarily casts Thompson in something of a supporting rule. While not familiar with all of the records Thompson played on as a for-hire session man, I’ve heard a fair bit of his work, and it’s a bit of a novelty to hear one of the most dazzlingly inventive musicians relegated to the sidelines of anything, although it speaks well of his judgement that he stays out of the way of Warleigh and Jansch and lets them have at it, simply holding down the riff and occasionally adding small variations.

To get a sense of what Thompson capable of, there’s only one place to go: his work with John Martyn. Thompson played with Martyn through most of the 1970s and the pair developed a sensational musical chemistry (although the tales of their boisterous on-the-road behaviour has overshadowed that somewhat). Their partnership is best illustrated on Martyn’s two finest albums (Solid Air and Inside Out) and the jaw-dropping Live at Leeds, recorded in 1975 with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble’s John Stevens behind the kit.

The 19-minute version of Outside In that opens the concert makes the album cut sound like a mere rehearsal demo (albeit one that features absolutely thunderous drumming from Remi Kabaka, outdoing Stevens for ecstatic release if not subtlety). While Martyn’s Echoplex guitar work is at its most fevered and exploratory, it’s always Thompson that my ear keeps getting drawn to. The speed and imagination with which Thompson reacts to every nuance of Martyn’s and Stevens’s playing is dazzling. In contrast to Jansch’s Promised Land, where Thompson played a supporting role, on Outside In from Live at Leeds its Stevens who steps aside and lets the two guys who’d played with each other night after night and developed a sort of telepathy venture into the songs darkest corners. As with everything else they did, they go fearlessly.

Thompson is a mighty presence in British music where folk and jazz meet. There’s no one else like him.

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Danny Thompson and Victoria, his 1865 bass

The 12 Bar Club on Denmark Street to close in January 2015

When I first started playing solo acoustic gigs as an 18-year-old, one of my ambitions was to play at the 12 Bar Club.

The 12 Bar is a small (150 capacity) but rambling live music venue at the far end of Denmark Street, close to what I’ve come to think of as Google Plaza but which is, I guess, still properly St Giles Circus. It consists of four rooms, in an L shape, with the tiny live room at the back. If you were starting a music venue from scratch, you wouldn’t plan anything like the 12 Bar. The site of an old forge, it has a tiny stage (made smaller by the remnants of the furnace), a small area for punters standing (or sometimes sitting) in front of the stage, an overhanging balcony that came up level almost with the front of the stage but only sat about 15 people, and no sound insulation from the bar, which despite being in a different room is only about eight feet from the stage. Yet despite all these seeming limitations, I love it.

If you want to know how important a venue the 12 Bar is, think on this: in its 25-year history, veterans like Bert Jansch, the Albion Band, Gordon Giltrap and Peter Rowan played it. Roddy Frame, Boo Hewerdine and Robyn Hitchcock played it. Martha Wainwright, Joanna Newsom, KT Tunstall, Damien Rice, Regina Spektor, the Libertines, Keane, Jamie T, even Jeff Buckley played there. Whether I or you or anyone else likes those artists is not relevant in this case. What is relevant is that for a couple of generations of musicians, the 12 Bar Club has been an important rung on the ladder, one which you could play knowing whose footsteps you were walking in, and as a result its warmly regarded by practically everyone who’s ever played there, folkie, anti-folkies, punk rockers and roots songwriters alike.

I’ve played it more times than I have any other venue: a bunch of solo gigs (six or seven probably – conceivably more), a few with Yo Zushi, one memorable show with Great Days of Sail (the band I was in with Yo 10 years ago), an early gig with my old band the Fourth Wall, the last-ever Fourth Wall-related show.

So I have a lot of happy memories of that place. The show where I supported Berlin-based American songwriter David Judson Clemons, which I think was the first time I played solo there. The aforementioned GDoS gig, which we packed out, the one and only time I’ve been been part of a spontaenous, unplanned encore: James McKean joined us to sing You Ain’t Going Nowhere and the on-stage crowededness crossed the line from “impractical” to “farcical”. The time when I looked up during my set and realised that TV newsreader Martyn Lewis was watching me (his daughter Sylvie was top of the bill that night), looking very serious and newsreaderly. That time when a group of very dressed-up soul music fans who’d come to watch an after-show set by Roachford caught the back end of a Yo Zushi Band set (a particularly ill-prepared one at that) and looked rather flummoxed by what they saw.

In 33 days it will be closed, a casualty of the Crossrail development. The large Enterprise rehearsal complex, across the alleyway (Denmark Place) behind the club, will close also. I don’t know whether the buildings will be demolished. The 12 Bar is part of a terrace, so if it is to be knocked down, I assume that Hank’s guitar shop next door would have to go, too. Enterprise could be knocked down without it affecting the fabric of the buildings that face on to Denmark Street though. Conceivably the property developers (Consolidated) just want a nice shiny retail outlet there and would rather the place wasn’t filled with scruffy rock’n’rollers. We’ll have to see. I’m not optimistic about the future of Denmark Street though. I suspect that rents will continue to rise and the instrument shops will bow to the inevitable. With no form of rent control in place, central London real estate is too expensive for independent retailers, even niche ones like instrument shops. Unless Denmark Street is made a conservation area like Hatton Garden (and Consolidated are obviously not keen on this), an era looks to be ending.

Andy Lowe did a heroic job programming the live music there. In the course of more than a dozen gigs I played there, the bills were always high quality and thoughtfully put together. I was never on the bill with an inappropriate act, I never saw anyone on there who wasn’t up to the job. I could say that about no other venue. He did all this while being tremendously likeable and friendly, and without wanting to take up too much of his time, I stopped for a chat with him whenever I could.

There have been rumours about this for a long while, and the 12 Bar Club’s owner, Carlo Mattiucci, has obviously been prepared and look set to move the club to a new venue. But still, this is a terrible shame for London’s music-playing community. With Enterprise, the 12 Bar (and across the street the Alleycat) and the retailers, Denmark Street has been a real community, where musicians played, rehearsed, bought gear and hung out. That will end now. Nothing they could put in its place there will ever replace that.

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On stage at the 12 Bar Club, c. 2004-5

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On stage at the 12 Bar Club, c. 2014