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Bert Jansch

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

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

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

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Bert Jansch, cool

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Holiday harmonies, part 1: Silent Night – Modern Folk Quartet

Hi there. Merry Christmas. I hope you’re having a great festive period. I’m going to look at some harmony groups over the next week or so, starting today with something appopriate to the season.

Buffalo Springfield. The Byrds. New Edition. Modern Folk Quartet. Bands that are just perhaps more famous for giving a start to the people that passed through them on their way to bigger things than they are for their own accomplishments.

The first three you probably know about, as those groups were all successful in their own right.* Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Richie Furay (later of Poco) and Jim Messina were all members of the Buffalo Springfield. David Crosby, Gene Clark, Gram Parsons were Byrds veterans. Bobby Brown, Johnny Gill, Bell Biv Devoe and Ralph Tresvant between them comprise around 50% of the noteworthy new jack swing artists.

The Modern Folk Quartet, though, were not hugely successful in the US or Britain, though they retained a big following in Japan. Its members, though, are all noteworthy for their accomplishments away from the band. Cyrus Faryar went on to make solo records and played on Fred Neil’s magisterial Fred Neil and Sessions albums. Jerry Yester worked as a producer with the Association, the Turtles, Tim Buckley and Tom Waits, also moonlighting as a member of the Lovin’ Spoonful after Zal Yanovsky left. Chip Douglas joined the Turtles on bass, and produced hits for the Monkees, including Pleasant Valley Sunday and Daydream Believer. Henry Diltz became one of the finest photographers in all of rock ‘n’ roll.

The members’ individual achievements, then, are hugely impressive, so much so that they overshadow those of their band. But the Modern Folk Quartet (who became the Modern Folk Quintet when drummer Ediie Hoh joined) deserve to be remembered as one of the great harmony groups.

They sung complex, jazzy four-part, and they have what so few harmony groups can honestly claim: a really excellent voice on the bottom. Cyrus Faryar, whom I’ve written about on this blog before (at a time when I wasn’t familiar with the MFQ), had a gorgeous baritone, deep, rich and agile. He was a lead singer in his own right. They all were.

Singing together, they blended the earnest folk harmonising of the Brothers Four (same instrumental line-up of acoustic guitars, double bass and 5-string banjo, too) with a jazzy sensibility seemingly learned from the Four Freshman, the same vocal group that had a profound influence on the young Brian Wilson.

The Modern Folk Quartet made two albums in its initial early-1960s run, the first slightly heavier on trad. arr., the second leaning more towards contemporary writers including John Stewart, Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan. They remained very popular in Japan, though, and reformed several times to tour and release records over there. In 1990 they cut an album of Christmas carols, MFQ Christmas. Their vocal arrangements are imaginative and beautifully performed. My favourite is the brief reading of Silent Night that closes the record. The magic happens at the bottom (unmistakably Faryar)  and on the top (Diltz, I think). It’s just gorgeous.

MFQThe Modern Folk Quartet: l-r Jerry Yester, Henry Diltz, Cyrus Faryar, Chip Douglas

*Very successful really, but when was the last time you heard anyone talking about “Neil Young from Buffalo Springfield”?

Give some to the bass player, part 1 – California Dreamin’ by the Mamas & the Papas

For years I disdained straight eights with a convert’s zeal.

I started playing bass at around 14 when it became clear that my high school friends did not want another guitar player in their band but needed someone to play bass. If I wanted to be in a band, and I did, bass it would be.

We played Nirvana covers and our own songs in that style, so the bass lines were very often nothing but straight eights, just the roots. A one-string version of the guitar part, an octave down – the simplest way to play bass. It worked for Krist Novoselic, it worked for Kim Deal. I was familiar with a few bass players who did more (people such as Colin Greenwood, Mike Mills, Leslie Langstone), but it was never really necessary for me to learn how to play like that.

Locking in to the kick and playing with fingers was something I learned later (when I played in a country/folk band called Great Days of Sail with my friend Yo Zushi) and to this day, even though I know I keep better time playing eights with a pick, I always approach a new song without a pick, and start by locking in with the kick and seeing how that sounds.

It’s needless purism. Plenty of truly great bass players have been primarily (or even exclusively) pick players: Carol Kaye, Paul McCartney, Rick Danko and Joe Osborn to name just a very few. Joe Osborn is a studio bassist, one of the so-called Wrecking Crew who played sessions in LA and New York for Phil Spector and artists like the Beach Boys, the Mamas & the Papas, the Carpenters, the Monkees and Simon & Garfunkel. These folks – a loose network rather than a tight and consistent unit – were some of the best in the business: drummers including Earl Palmer, Hal Blaine and Jim Gordon; bassists like Osborn, Carole Kaye and Jimmy Bond; guitarists Glen Campbell, James Burton and Barney Kessel; the list goes on. Heavy-duty players.

What’s great about Osborn’s bass line is the way he swaps between locking with the kick in the verses and a more propulsive straight-eights part in the chorus and under the flute solo. It’s perfectly judged, musically astute and surprisingly tough-sounding. However pretty the melody and vocal harmonies are, California Dreamin’ is a song with iron in its heart, and Joe Osborn knew it.

Joe-Osborn-studio

Mamas

top: Joe Osborn, 1967; bottom: the Mamas & the Papas