Tag Archives: Fairport Convention

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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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.

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Fotheringay – Fairport Convention

For Fairport Convention, convincing Sandy Denny to join the band was akin to a decent mid-table football team somehow landing the most prolific goalscorer in the league. Fairport’s self-titled first album, on which vocals were handled by Iain Matthews and Judy Dyble, is so wet it beggars belief. The players, particularly Richard Thompson, show flashes of their later brilliance, but it was a record made of undistinguished original material and white-bread covers, sung by two of the folk revivals less impressive vocal talents

In a field not short of remarkable singers, Denny remains the unchallengeable queen of English folk rock. That’s how good she was. And it was all there – the singing and the songwriting – in Fotheringay, the first song on Fairport’s second album, What We Did on Our Holidays. Hearing it must have stunned those who’d suffered through If (Stomp) or their reading of Jack o’ Diamonds on Fairport Convention.

The song – a meditation on the final hours of Mary, Queen of Scots, imprisoned in Fotheringay Castle in Northamptonshire and awaiting her execution – is lavishly beautiful and melancholy, with a gorgeous, unwinding melody. The chord sequence is rather more grandly Baroque in places than is strictly period correct, but, accompanied as it is by wordless backing vocals from the band, it has a mournful dignity that feels entirely appropriate to the song’s lyric.

Clive James – Australian critic, poet, broadcaster, lyricist, all-round renaissance man – had some insightful things to say about Denny’s lyric writing in a 1974 article for Let it Rock:

Somebody who can sing so beautifully has little need to be adventurous in her writing as well. It is wise, then, to be grateful for the adventurousness she did show in her early songs. […] On What We Did On Our Holidays, her song “Fotheringay” gave concrete evidence of the potential for innovation in the mind behind the voice:

The evening hour is fading
Within the dwindling sun
And in a lonely moment
Those embers will be gone
And the last
Of all the young birds flown.

Words like “dwindling” and “moment” are partly chosen for the way their grouped consonants resist her tendency to flow unimpeded from vowel to vowel — her temptation to sing English the way Joan Sutherland sings Italian. At this stage Denny is still intent on keeping some Germanic roughage in the text, thereby providing her melodic sweetness with something to bite against.

Equally interesting is her ability to use a literary tense — “And the last/Of all the young birds flown” — without slipping into archaism. This is modern grammar and syntax: complex, but contemporary.

And he was less impressed with her later work. On her first solo album, he says:

…the linguistic mannerisms are out of control. “The wine, it was drunk/The ship, it was sunk,” she sings in “Late November”, and in (guess what) “The Sea Captain” we hear her declare: “From the shore I did fly/… the wind, it did gently blow/For the night, it was calm” etc. After a few tracks of such relentless syntactical fidgets, the listener’s patience, it is exhausted.

I share James’s lack of patience with pseudo-archaism. It’s lazy writing, and Fotheringay is the very opposite of lazy. It’s exemplary – a startling piece of writing with a vocal performance full of wisdom, empathy and compassion. It is a little strange listening to Denny’s early masterpieces – Fotheringay, Who Knows Where the Time Goes, Autopsy – and knowing she never quite hit those heights again, but the thing is that she hit them in the first place. Countless writers who you’d have to, in a clear-headed unsentimental judgement, call greater or more significant artists than Denny never wrote individual songs as stunning as Fotheringay. That’s why she’s still rightly revered by fans of British folk music.

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Sandy Denny, Tele in hand, ready to rock

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.

Woodstock – Matthews Southern Comfort

This week we’re talking about a song written in New York City by a Canadian, about an event that took place in upstate New York that she didn’t attend, recorded in California, then covered by a man from England and turned into British folk rock’s biggest hit single and (I think) only UK number one single.

The song is Woodstock, as recorded by Matthews Southern Comfort.

Iain Matthews was Fairport Convention’s male lead singer during the band’s early years, alongside Judy Dyble and (later) Sandy Denny. He left during 1969 as the band readied the material that would be on Liege & Lief, a record that is for most the band’s finest achievement and for which Matthews’s essentially pop-schooled voice was replaced by Richard Thompson’s rougher, more folk-influenced delivery. By Matthews’s account, the prime movers behind his ousting were Joe Boyd and Ashley Hutchings.

Possibly to make amends for sacking him, most of Fairport appear on Matthews’s first record with his new band, Matthews Southern Comfort (called Matthews’ Southern Comfort – the record has an apostrophe; the band, at this stage, didn’t). The line-up, in fact, was stellar, including Thompson, Simon Nicol and Ashley Hutchings from Fairport, Gerry Conway (Fotheringay, later Fairport), Dolly Collins (sister of Shirley), Gordon Huntley (steel-playing session man) and Roger Coulam (of Blue Mink) on piano.

Woodstock, the song, has been interpreted a bunch of different ways. Joni Mitchell’s original is spare and thoughtful, just her on electric piano. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, who unlike Joni and Matthews were actually at Woodstock, turned in a bombastic performance, in which the implicit dread of the lyric (but what if we can’t get back to the garden?) is entirely absent. Of Déjà Vu‘s many missteps and miscalculations, Stephen Stills’s misreading of Woodstock (caused, it seems, by an inability to discern subtext) was the most glaring.

Matthews found a middle ground between CSNY’s and Mitchell’s two approaches. His slightly tremulous delivery acknowledges that a return to the garden may just be a dream, but the beautiful harmony singing always seems to suggest that the hope is still there. Rooted by its steady-bottomed rhythm section but carried upward by those gorgeous harmonies and Gordon Huntley’s pedal steel, Matthews Southern Comfort’s Woodstock seems to me to be the best possible recording of the song, a classic of countrified British folk-rock.

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Matthews Southern Comfort (Iain Matthews at left)

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)

Silver Threads & Golden Needles – Fotheringay

It’s autumn. Time to talk about folk-rock. Here’s a sort-of repost from a couple of years ago to get us underway

After she joined up with the thitherto rather wet Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny helped perfect a sound that blended traditional English and Scottish folk song, contemporary electric instrumentation and self-composed songs, an achievement that did for British music something similar to what The Band did for North American music. But as the other members of Fairport, and particularly bassist Ashley Hutchings, became more interested in updating the English folk canon, Denny grew more excited by the artistic self-expression afforded by honing her craft as singer-songwriter. She and Fairport parted ways. Hutchings would soon leave, too, to found Steeleye Span. He’d later move on again, to form the Albion Band with the folkiest of English folk singers, Shirley Collins.

Joe Boyd, Fairport’s producer, wanted Denny to put out a solo record and perform, front and centre, under her own name. But she was in a relationship with an Australian guitarist and singer called Trevor Lucas and wanted to cast him as her bandleader and creative foil in a democratic group, despite the vast artistic gulf between them. The resulting group was Fotheringay. The rest of the band, including the magnificent American country guitarist Jerry Donahue, was stellar, but as a result of Denny’s patronage of Trevor Lucas, the band spent half of its time backing a singer and songwriter of no more than average ability, the likes of whom you could find any night of the week in a provincial folk club. That this was a waste of their time and talents is revealed whenever Denny steps back up to the microphone. When she gave them something to work with, they could be jaw-dropping.

Fotheringay made one album before Denny did what Boyd had wanted to her all along and went properly solo. Partly this was a response to group tensions, partly due to Joe Boyd leaving England to take a job with Warner Brothers, but during the abandoned sessions for the group’s second album they cut Silver Threads & Golden Needles, an old country-music warhorse that just about every major female singer has recorded, and several of the male singers, too. While most have taken it in 4/4 at the vigorous tempo of Wanda Jackson’s version, Fotheringay slowed it down, put it in waltz time and emphasised the song’s loneliness and dignified vulnerability.

If you were to call Sandy Denny the finest interpreter of British folk song who ever lived, I’d not argue. With this track, she stakes her claim as one of the finest interpreters of song full stop. She gives a completely authentic country performance without ever softening her southern English accent – Patsy Cline would have understood and recognised the emotions Denny expresses here.

NYC-born Jerry Donahue, meanwhile, comes at this country-folk blend from the other direction. Most of what you hear in Donahue’s playing is country-music derived, and his extraordinary string-bending technique (Danny Gatton called him “the string-bending king of the planet”) allows him to imitate steel guitar phrases very closely, but also in his style is some of that modal, folky weirdness that characterises Richard Thompson’s playing. Donahue is, then, a seamless blend of US and UK, which was what made him so perfect for Fotheringay.

His string-bending is rarely better showcased than on Silver Threads: it’s so human-sounding, plaintive little cries that come from a wound deep within the song. I don’t know whether he recorded those particular solos during the song’s original 1970 session, or more recently, when he produced and oversaw a completed album’s worth of stuff recording for that second album (2, which came out in 2008). If they were his original solos, they were amazingly mature and empathetic for a young man. Even if they were later additions, they are still about as lyrical as guitar playing can be.

The track’s unsung hero is drummer Gerry Conway, formerly a member of Cat Stevens’s band (and later to join Fairport). Conway’s placement of the snare on the last beat of the bar rather than the fourth (he occasionally slips and plays a conventional 6/8 backbeat, hitting the snare on the four) is an inventive, masterly piece of timekeeping. He’s in similarly great form on Denny’s Late November, which ended up on her first solo record The North Star Grassman and the Ravens.

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Fotheringay l-r Jerry Donahue, Gerry Conway, Trevor Lucas, Sandy Denny, Pat Donaldson