Tag Archives: Joe Boyd

Miss America – Mary Margaret O’Hara

Mary Margaret O’Hara’s debut album, Miss America, is a one-off in a literal sense.

Released in 1988 by Virgin, four years after the bulk of the recording had been completed, Miss America remains O’Hara’s only studio album proper. Eleven songs and 44 minutes long, it basically carries the entire O’Hara cult (mythos, even) on its back. Fortunately, it’s strong enough the bear the weight.

O’Hara’s sound remains singular. It doesn’t sound like 1983 or ’84, when it was recorded, or 1988, when it was released, or any time at all, really. She and her band went down avenues that had thitherto been unexplored by any musician, and no one has since followed her down, for all that she’s been cited as an inspiration by musicians including Kristin Hersh, Tanya Donelly, Perfume Genius, Jeff Buckley, Michael Stipe and that despicable bigoted old fool Morrissey.

Circumstances surrounding the making of Miss America remain a little misty. Production is credited to guitarist Michael Brook, but Andy Partridge from XTC is known to have worked on the record briefly. Some versions of the story have him leaving after a day, finding O’Hara too difficult to work with; others have her shit-canning him and engineer John Leckie because Partridge disparaged her band and Leckie was a follower of Rajneesh, of which O’Hara disapproved. Joe Boyd has said that most of the tracks were recorded and co-produced by him at Rockfield Studios in Wales in 1984 (he doesn’t say whether the co-producers were O’Hara, Brook or both).

What we do know for sure is that Virgin didn’t like it, insisting that more songs be written and recorded, and that the record’s release was delayed for years. But while Miss America is undoubtedly unusual, it’s hard to imagine that the finished record was light years away from the demos, or that those demos hadn’t displayed O’Hara’s unorthodox vocals. Why Virgin ever thought that O’Hara had cheated them out of a hit by going all strange on them, God only knows.

Listening to Miss America, it is hard to tear yourself away from the vocal performances that so aggrieved Virgin. Van Morrison is the usually cited point of comparison, and there’s something to that; both singers are interested in getting past literal semantic meaning. Both enjoy playing with the sound of words, altering stress and rhythm, pushing the beat as far as they can until the vocal almost sounds unmoored from the music that surrounds them. Both singers love to play in what would usually be the space between lines.

Unlike the jazzy Morrison, who reportedly sings live as the band plays, O’Hara’s method was to wait until the backing track had been recorded to her satisfaction – and the band’s playing throughout is impressive; superhumanly clean and precise – and then riff on her written melodies and lyrics. No take recreated the previous one. Each song was a process of discovery. On her most febrile performances (Year in Song, say), it’s possible to hear her stumbling on a new idea that she can work with for a few bars (her rasped “I’m not ready to go under”; the metamorphosis of “joy is the aim” to “is the aim, eh, joy?”; “pretty soon too much”). Even compared to Van Morrison at his most free, it’s questing, visionary stuff, utterly removed from the usual work of the popular-music singer.

While her more exploratory performances may be the defining element of her artistry, there are several lovely country-torch songs at the record’s still heart, songs that Patsy Cline or late-’80s kd lang could have recorded: Dear Darling, Keeping You in Mind and You Will Be Loved Again. It’s the play of these songs against the tougher material – My Friends Have, Year in Song and the deathless, wonderful Body’s in Trouble, which I must have listened to 15 times in the couple of days I was writing this – that makes Miss America such a three-dimensional classic, and that explains the ardour of her fans, who may have given up expecting O’Hara to make another record, but probably haven’t quite given up hope.

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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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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)

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

Turnham Green – Colorama

I should acknowledge upfront that I would never have heard this song if it hadn’t been written about by Pete Paphides in the Beside the B-Side blog he and Bob Stanley wrote very sporadically between 2010 and 2012. Possibly it’s not dead and just sleeping. I hope one day it comes back.

Woodwind, percussion, a sitar drone. When it starts, Colorama’s Turnham Green sounds cut from the same cloth as the Portico Quartet’s Life Mask, which I think I’ve written about here before. But the moody, free-time intro is actually an 80-second fake-out. When the song begins, it has two obvious precursors: in mood, it strongly recalls the sun-drenched psychedelia of Donovan in his Sunny Goodge Street phase, a whimsical, light psychedelia with just the merest hint of late-afternoon shadows; while in rhythmic feel (and in its chords too), it’s a dead ringer for Tim Buckley’s Strange Feelin’.

This sort of bucolic English acousticism – and for all that Turnham Green is self-evidently set at the point where inner London starts to bleed into Outer London, it is a bucolic song, and for all that Carwyn Ellis is self-evidently Welsh, it is an English song – was a staple of 1970s progressive/alternative music. EMI’s Harvest Records imprint, home to such artists as Kevin Ayers and Barclay James Harvest, was its ground zero, and Witchseason (Joe Boyd’s management/production stable) an important forerunner. This kind of music is somehow durable. It might disappear for a few years (the coked-up 1990s were an inhospitable decade for it), but it always seems to return, with a faraway look in its eye and a joint in its pocket.

I like the idea that there’s a form of music just floating out there on the breeze, ready to be plucked out of the air by any songwriter who reaches for it. Indeed, Turnham Green is not all that indicative of Colorama’s usual style, which is as likely to feature vintage monophonic synths as jazzy piano and strummed acoustic guitar. Sometimes Ellis’s work recalls the smashed and slightly scary Beach Boys of Smiley Smile. Sometimes Ellis is a Les Cousins troubadour. Sometimes he’s a Super Furry Doppelganger. Turnham Green, such a perfect little moment, sounds as if he just reached out his hand and found it resting there. And if it’s not quite of the same mood and feel as the rest of the band’s debut album (Cookie Zoo), I don’t think it says anything negative about Ellis to say that, at least early in Colorama’s journey, he didn’t quite know what he wanted to be. Stylistic consistency is overrated, anyway: the last refuge of the unimaginative.

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Carwyn Ellis of Colorama, live in 2009

The Poor Boy is Taken Away – Richard & Linda Thompson

Fairport Convention’s history is famously one of constant reorganisation, replacement and redefinition, initially forced on them in the most terrible of circumstances when their first drummer, Martin Lamble, was killed in motorway van crash after a gig. But even in the glow of the success of Liege & Lief, Fairport Convention swiftly reconstituted itself again. Sandy Denny was more interested in furthering her development as a songwriter than interpreting old British ballads, and not without justification since she had written Who Knows Where the Time Goes before even joining Fairport. Meanwhile bassist Ashley Hutchings cared little for anyone’s original material, no matter how good it was; he had taken up more or less permanent residence in Cecil Sharp House, the headquarters of The English Folk Dance and Song Society.

There wouldn’t have been room in any group for two members pulling in such different directions, but inevitably neither of them would stick with the band for very much longer; Hutchings began Steeleye Span as a vehicle for further experiments with the Child ballads, while Denny formed her own band, Fotheringay. Richard Thompson, Fairport’s baby-faced lead-guitar prodigy, did stay, but he would stick it out for only one more record before departing to pursue his own solo career. After just one coolly received album, though, Henry the Human Fly, he began making duo records with his new wife Linda.

Linda Thompson is a wondrous singer who is somewhat overshadowed in the history of Brit-folk by Denny. And Sandy was, in any dispassionate assessment, in a class by herself, with what Clive James characterised as a “lavish delicacy of sound” and a stylistic and emotional versatility that is close to miraculous. But it would be extremely unfair to damn Linda Thompson for not quite living up to that. Few singers in any generation can. What she did share with Denny was versatility, in feeling and in genre: her voice is cosmopolitan in a way that can make the hewn-from-the-soil Norma Waterson and Shirley Collins sound like untutored bumpkins, and earthy enough to make the trilling, precise Jacqui McShee sound prissy and piercing. Steeleye Span’s Maddy Prior has some similar vocal qualities to Thompson, yet was often saddled with a lumpen band and the production talent of Mike Batt (since inflicted on us via Katie Melua), a choice of collaborator that rather suggests a shallow emotional response to music. Neither Thompson would have given the time of day to a hack like Batt.

Richard Thompson may have done more than any other musician to weld British traditional song to electric rock and roll, but his guitar playing is in the final analysis more American than British; three parts Chuck Berry to one part Billy Pigg. Indeed it’s little remarked upon that few British guitarists can interpret country songs as well as Richard Thompson, which he manages to do without sounding callow or pretentious or fake, and frankly without hitting you over the head with the fact that he’s playing country either. On songs like the devastating The Poor Boy is Taken Away, he taps into the emotion of country music without duplicating its standard riffs, licks and clichés. Like his Fairport bandmate Sandy Denny, who cut the definitive version of Silver Threads and Golden Needles with Fotheringay, and like his former wife and musical partner Linda who sings it so beautifully, he’s able to inhabit and interpret American music without burlesquing it.

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