Tag Archives: Joe Boyd

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.

https://www.npr.org/2019/05/11/722198385/before-and-after-listening-to-michael-jackson-and-accusers?t=1613551586694

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.

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.

Miss-America

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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No Hendrix, no Clapton, no Vai – five personal favourite guitar solos, part 3

I’ve talked about this song before in more general terms, but this time let’s just focus on the guitar

3) Silver Threads & Golden Needles – Fotheringay (solo by Jerry Donahue)
I first became aware of Jerry Donahue as one of the Hellecasters, whom I just knew as three older guys pulling cheesy poses in a guitar-magazine advert for some cable they were endorsing. It would never have occurred to me as a sixteen-year-old that any of these old geezers could have made music worth listening to, let alone that the more studious-looking one with the beard and the glasses would end up being one of my very favourite guitarists, the player of one of my favourite guitar solos.

Most of what you hear in Donahue’s guitar playing is country music, 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.

Silver Threads and Golden Needles is an old country-music warhorse that just about every major female singer has recorded, and several of the male singers too. Yet all have taken it in 4/4 at the vigorous tempo of Wanda Jackson’s version. Sandy Denny, when looking to record it with Fotheringay, slowed it down, put it in waltz time, and emphasised the song’s loneliness and dignified vulnerability.

These are the qualities to which Donahue’s two solos respond. His string-bending is rarely better showcased: 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 the ‘finished’ version of Fotheringay’s second album that 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. If there were a syllabus for lead instrumentalists, to show them how to respond to the music they’e playing and avoid clichés, this should be on it.

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Jerry Donahue (left, with Telecaster) with Fairport Convention in 1974

River Man – Nick Drake

The rain is bouncing off the flat roof outside my window as I write this. Yep, it’s definitely autumn now. Let’s get into what may be the finest – and most autumnal – song of the British folk-rock revival

When I was sixteen or seventeen and began hearing about Nick Drake and reading about him in music magazines (younger readers note: this was in the late 1990s, and at that point – in the UK at least – the majority of homes didn’t yet have an internet connection so hearing new music was not as simple as it is now, and frequently involved parting with hard currency), the consensus seemed to be that the album to begin with was Bryter Layter. It’s indisputably a fine record, and my life would be much the poorer for not having heard Hazey Jane II, At the Chime of a City Clock and Northern Sky, yet once I was familiar with all three of his completed albums, I connected most deeply with Pink Moon (in its entirety – it’s a short album, with nothing that you could excise without harming the whole) and a few tracks of his debut, Five Leaves Left (Three Hours, Cello Song, Saturday Sun and of course River Man).

If pushed, I’d have to judge FFL the weakest of Drake’s albums. There are tracks that are precious or bombastic (Way to Blue, Fruit Tree) in a way that he grew out of, and one that breaks the twee-o-meter (Man in a Shed). Yet when Drake gets it right on his debut, he produces the music that is somehow most characteristic of himself, that seems to come from deepest within him; if someone were to ask me to play them one song that epitomised the sound and mood of Nick Drake’s music, it might well be Cello Song.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that while Bryter Layter may have become the canonical favourite of those who like their Nick Drake cosmopolitan and baroque, and Pink Moon is the pick of those who like their Drake uncanny and skeletal, nothing in his slim but important body of work can match River Man.

This does seem to be becoming the prevailing critical consensus. In his 1999 Mojo piece on Drake, the late Ian MacDonald devoted more time to River Man (‘one of the sky-high classics of post-war popular music’) than any other song, and in Electric Eden, Wire editor Rob Young, like MacDonald (to whom he may be indebted) spends time unpacking the song’s metaphysics, declaring ‘There’s nothing on Five Leaves Left to match River Man, which finds Drake at his most transcendent.’ Of Drake’s oeuvre, only Bryter Layter’s Northern Sky gets anything like the time and analysis that Young dedicates to River Man (merely an observation, not a complaint – the task Young set himself with Electric Eden was huge, and to have discussed every notable song in depth would have resulted in a book several thousand pages long, rather than 500). The point is that the two most noteworthy critics who have in recent years turned their gaze on British folk music and its 1960s revival lighted upon River Man as the supreme example of Nick Drake’s genius. It may not be entirely characteristic of Drake (principally because its magisterial string arrangement is by Harry ‘Lord Rockingham’ Robinson, not by Robert Kirby, Drake’s usual collaborator), but if there’s one Nick Drake song I’d like readers to go and seek out if they’ve never heard it before, River Man is it.

Harry Robinson’s work may be most familiar to readers from the many Hammer films he scored, and the music is frequently the best thing about those movies. But curiously, unlike Drake himself, Robinson had known chart success: as Lord Rockingham, in 1958 (with the deathless number-one single Hoots Mon), and had been a fixture of the British pop scene for years before ever working with an Island Records folkie (as well as Drake, Robinson worked with Sandy Denny and John Martyn). Like all good pros, then, he was adept at tailoring his gifts to the situation while producing fully evolved, emotionally engaging (and engaged) music rather than mere hackwork. The difference, to be blunt, between someone like Jim Keltner on the one hand, and Anton Fig or Kenny Aronoff on the other.

Any songwriter would feel blessed to have an arranger such as Harry Robinson on their team, and I wish Drake had used him more. As it is, we have River Man, and its spine-tingling second-verse string part. Drake used Robinson after Kirby tried and failed to write anything satisfactory, defeated by the circularity of the chord progression and the five/four time signature. Kirby’s analysis of Robinson’s work is acute:

I could not for the life of me work out how to write a piece of music that didn’t stagger along like a spider missing a leg, how you crossed over and missed the bar lines. But Harry’s string arrangement is scarcely in 5/4 – it goes along like a limpid river all the way, moving regularly and crossing over all the beats and the 5/4 with it.

So a technical and formal triumph, but an emotional one too. Robinson got the song, got the metaphor. His music alternates between static block chords in the ‘Gonna see the River Man’ sections, and the drama of the second verse and coda, where the strings surge and draw back, hold heavy-vibrato chords and clash rhythmically with themselves: this is the song’s moment of crisis, when Betty, the song’s subject, reported on by Drake’s narrator, gets a glimpse of the world beyond the river and, overwhelmed by it, rejects it, returning to the world of mundane sense experience:

Betty said she prayed today
For the sky to blow away
Or maybe stay
She wasn’t sure

For when she thought of summer rain
Calling for her mind again
She lost the pain
And stayed for more.

The coda of River Man, where Drake repeats the line ‘Oh, how they come and go’ (as MacDonald points out, recalling McCartney’s ‘Ah, look at all the lonely people’ from Eleanor Rigby) and the strings once again rise and fall and hold tremulous chords, is the deepest and most moving passage of any of Drake’s songs. It’s a masterpiece that drew next-level contributions from everyone who worked on it. If you don’t already know it, go listen now.

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Nick Drake, 1971 (Keith Morris)

For anyone who’s interested in hearing some contemporary acoustic folk rock with double bass, here’s a link to a recent song of mine: