Tag Archives: John Renbourn

Bert Jansch

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

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

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

Image result for bert jansch it don't bother me
Bert Jansch, cool

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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)

Medley: The Battle of Aughram/Five In A Line – The John Renbourn Group

John Mayer (the composer, not the skeezy American singer-guitarist) founded Indo-Jazz Fusions in the early 1960s with the aim of blending Indian and Western classical music with jazz improvisation. While there was a significant crossover between Anglo and Indian musical traditions in the 1960s (John Coltrane, who studied with Ravi Shankar; George Harrison, who did likewise and brought the sound Indian music to the Beatles’ vast audience; the Mahavishnu Orchestra, etc.), Mayer’s work was fundamentally different. Born to an Indian mother and Anglo-Indian father, he came at the fusion from an Indian cultural starting point, not a Western one like Coltrane or later Harrison. His thinking was influenced by his studies with Matyas Sether at the Royal Academy in London, who encouraged him to combine the techniques of Indian and Western music in serial composition,

Mayer was a first-rate violinist, and worked to support himself by playing with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (where his parallel career as a composer led to tension with the management), and later the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, where he found a happier home, having been personally asked to join by Thomas Beecham.

He stayed there until 1964, when he was approached by Dennis Preston from EMI. Preston asked him if he had anything that could be used to complete an album he was working on. It needed to be brief, and jazz-based. Mayer, spotting an opportunity, told Preston he had just the thing for him. Preston was excited, and suggested they record it the next day, forcing Mayer to stay up all night to write the piece.

Six months later, Preston contacted Mayer to tell him he’d played the piece to Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, who’d liked what he’d heard and suggested that Mayer write music for a whole album fusing Indian music and jazz. Ertegun’s idea was to combine Mayer’s quintet of Indian musicians with a jazz quintet led by alto saxophonist Joe Harriott. Indo-Jazz Fusions was recorded by this group, known at first as the Joe Harriott and John Mayer Double Quintet, in two days in 1966. The album sold well and the group changed its name to Indo-Jazz Fusions, taking on the name of its now-famous work.

Indo-Jazz Fusions included tabla player Keshav Sathe who, after the death of Harriott and the band’s subsequent demise, went on to play in the 5-piece John Renbourn Group in the late 1970s (which also featured Pentangle singer Jacqui McShee, fiddler Sue Draheim and flautist Tony Roberts). The band’s first record, A Maid in Bedlam, continued the two-decades-old work of with melding Indian and Western musical traditions, this time by combing Sathe’s Indian rhythms with traditional British folk songs. The playing, as you would imagine, is stellar, and Sathe’s tablas work beautifully with Renbourn’s guitar.

Pentangle, with Terry Cox on drums, had been an intensely rhythmic group, but this is something else again; Sathe’s patterns are at once more organised and less free-form than the loose, jazzy ones played by Cox, but also harder to get a handle on, at least to me, with my unschooled Western ears. What first sound like improvised bar-by-bar variations on a theme instead turn out to be long intricate patterns of many different strokes (there are six gharānā, or traditions, of tabla playing, and they all have different strokes that characterise them, at least nine or 10 per school) that play out over four or eight bars, rather than the one or two we’re used to hearing in Western pop drumming. It’s a complex but addictive sound that you can get lost in, and it’s a shame that Renbourn only made two records with Sathe (fortunately, Sathe also popped up on John Martyn’s Inside Out, one of my very favourite albums).

John Renbourn grou

Sathe, Roberts, Draheim, Renbourn, McShee

John Renbourn died on 26 March 2015

Small Hours – John Martyn

If one were going to create a hierarchy of British folk guitar players, Davy Graham would have to be at the top, closely followed by Bert Jansch and Nick Drake, the former bluesy and jagged, the latter jazzy and flowing, both mysterious, elusive, romantic figures.

John Renbourn and Martin Carthy would follow hard on their heels, Renbourn always slightly in Jansch’s shadow because he didn’t write Needle of Death, Carthy always slightly undervalued, having not gained a younger following of rock and indie kids the way Drake and Jansch have.

John Martyn might be considered something else again, a capricious folkie who went to the bad, abandoning his jazzy, freewheeling, alcohol-fuelled collaboration with the peerless double bassist Danny Thompson to make albums with Phil Collins or in the mode of Collins’s ballads, all tinkling electric pianos and fretless bass. Certainly Sweet Little Mystery seems a long way off, and somewhat improbable, as you listen to his earnest take on Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright from debut album London Conversation.

Well, I love Nick Drake and Bert Jansch. Perhaps no other guitarist has had such an influence on the way I play music, write music and think about music as Drake. Jansch blew my mind when I heard Anji for the first time, and blew it again when I saw him play Blackwaterside live at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, seeming determined to reshape the song entirely, or pull it apart in the attempt.

But John Martyn’s musical imagination, his ability to absorb and incorporate influences from outside the traditions he grew up in, his obvious love for all this music, his refusal to let himself get stuck – for all of this, no one beats John Martyn in my book. His musical imagination dwarfed Bert’s, it even dwarfed Nick’s. Would either of them have been able to throw themselves into playing reggae sessions in Jamaica and make themselves useful? Would either of them even have wanted to?

The ultimate testament to Martyn’s protean musical talents is to be found on One World, from 1977, an album produced by Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, recorded by Phill Brown (whose CV is staggering but to pick just a few names: Jimi Hendrix, Rolling Stones, Bob Marley, Pink Floyd, Joni Mitchell, Led Zeppelin, Little Feat, Talk Talk), and featuring Danny Thompson and Dave Pegg on bass, John Stevens and Andy Newmark on drums, Steve Winwood on everything (but most notably on synth), Rico on trombone, and Lord Rockingham himself, Harry Robinson, arranging strings.

(Harry Robinson was behind Hoots Mon. Harry Robinson arranged River Man. Harry Robinson is therefore a very good thing indeed.)

If One World were any ordinary album that started with Dealer and took in Big Muff (a Lee Perry co-write), Couldn’t Love You More and the title track, it’d be an album from which it’s hard to pick a highlight. But One World isn’t an ordinary album. One World finished with Small Hours, and Small Hours can bend time and distort space.

Picture a house almost entirely surrounded by water, a house on the edge of a disused gravel pit which had been flooded to become a lake. This was Chris Blackwell’s house, where One World was recorded. One of Phill Brown’s recording techniques for the album – at Blackwell’s suggestion – involved installing a large PA system outdoors and setting the monitor stacks up on the far side of the stables, pointing out across the lake, then using two microphones on the opposite side of the house, to mike up the outdoor PA sound coming back off the lake, and two more close to the water’s edge, to pick up the water lapping at the shore, as well as the distant, extremely ambient guitar sound coming from the PA.

It was this set-up that captured the otherworldly Small Hours, live vocals and all, early one morning in July 1977. Wave after gentle wave of Martyn’s Echoplex guitar lap at your speakers as a faint rhythm from a drum machine keeps time (turn it up, though, and feel what happens to the bass drum sound), until, three minutes in, Martyn’s tenor-saxophone voice slides in.

In a career filled with highlights (Fine Lines, Solid Air, Don’t Want To Know, Spencer the Rover, Angeline, So Much In Love With You, Head and Heart, so many more), Small Hours might just be his masterpiece. Ornery, aggressive and self-indulgent though he could be, no amount of praise and adulation from his fans and peers will ever be enough to do justice to the man and his extraordinary musical journey.

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John Martyn, 1973ish?

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