Don’t Give Up The Day Job

Writers as rock stars

Even by the mid 70’s the star maker machinery behind the popular song was still in its infancy. The rock writer had traditionally either been a slick Tin Pan Alley product churning out press releases for the teen idols of the day or they had effectively been an extension from the days of jazz (and classical) where every bass solo was treated with chin stroking introspection.

By the early 70’s the lunatics were taking over the asylum. There were still plenty of writers very happy to eulogise over a Rick Wakeman solo, elevating rock to the level of ‘proper’ music’ but the new breed were influenced by the likes of Lester Bangs for whom the lifestyle and cultural aspects were every bit a important as the actual music itself.

There was always the general wisdom, mainly among musicians, that all writers were just failed musicians. This was despite the fact that by the mid 70’s Even by the mid 70’s the star maker machinery behind the popular song was still in its infancy. The rock writer had traditionally either been a slick Tin Pan Alley product churning out press releases for the teen idols of the day or they had effectively been an extension from the days of jazz (and classical) where every bass solo was treated with chin stroking introspection.

By the early 70’s the lunatics were taking over the asylum. There were still plenty of writers very happy to eulogise over a Rick Wakeman solo, elevating rock to the level of ‘proper’ music’ but the new breed were influenced by the likes of Lester Bangs for whom the lifestyle and cultural aspects were every bit a important as the actual music itself.

There was always the general wisdom, mainly among musicians, that all writers were just failed musicians. This was despite the fact that by the mid 70’s writers had a potentially huge audience. The big three in Britain, Sounds, Melody Maker and New Musical Express were phenomenally influential, bear in mind that this was a time when it was quite difficult to actually hear a lot of the music being made, a weekly music paper was a lot better investment than buying an LP without actually hearing it.

And so writing was actually a pretty good gig, you invariably operated from the epicentre of culture ( London), you got to go to the great gigs (free) hear great music (free) and go to all the best parties (free) and if you wished, every night you could sleep in your own bed.

Despite this, some writers increasing did want to be rockstars.

My first example doesn’t really count, Mick Farren was an undefinable force of nature, mixing politics, music, writing and general social agitation. His band The Social Deviants operated on a kind of sub Hawkwind/Pink Fairies mode although  probably their role model was the American band The Fugs. The Social Deviants were sort of good/ terrible/ unintentionally hilarious. ‘Grab the tit of the girl next to you’ he extorts on a YouTube live clip. That’s not free love Mick that’s sexual assault. Farren had, by the arrival of punk, settled into a job at the NME having realised this was a better option than playing to a bunch of Hells Angels. He couldn’t resist the roar of the crowd though and  recorded a solo album Vampires Stole My Lunch Money.

With the advent of punk it seemed that everyone was getting involved so why not a rock writer ? They should at least be able to come up with a decent set of lyrics if nothing else.

Strangely enough NME writer Charles Shaar Murray decided to resurrect pub rock, he probably didn’t mean to, Murray was a blues aficionado throughout his tenure with the paper, his heart was in the right place. In 1978 his band Blast Furnace and the Heatwaves released  a four track EP. I fell for  this inspired by Murray’s assertion that he was mixing punk and blus. Unfortunately that resulted in pub rock. The record was produced by two of his mates from The Count Bishops and as a result it sounded pretty much like that band. On the stand out track ‘Cant Stop the Boy’ the backing vocals were courtesy of two other mates namely Bob Geldof and Phil Lynott. CSTB is basically Murray showing off about  what a wilful character he is although ‘hanging around with the Boomtown Rats’ line doesn’t do a lot for his credibility 40 years on. I actually bought this record, the second side was pressed so for off centre it made me feel quite queasy to actually listen to it but I’ve still got a soft spot for nervous white boy R&B.

Scoring higher on the punkometer was Chris Needs. Needs had run the Mott the Hoople fan club as a teenager and had made friends with fellow fan and future Clash Guitarist Mick Jones. Like last week’s artist Jon Ottway, Needs was based in Aylesbury and had begun writing for Zig Zag magazine. Zig Zag was originally a hippie rag. It was possible to get it occasionally in Norwich and it was a  combination of exotic, free thinking and good(ish) writing. Punk wrong footed it of course and it had to switch from writing about Richard Thompson and Mike Nesmith to the Slits and the Adverts in the space of about 6 months. Needs was instrumental in this revision and was soon to become the editor. Not content with this he decided to form a band The Vice Creems with a bunch of Aylesbury mates. The Vice Creems were quite good third division punk which, of course, meant they never got played on the radio. Needs created a flicker of interest in his music when his band abandoned him leaving him with a studio booked with old mate Jones as producer. Jones called up a few favours and soon the new Vice Creems consisted of Jones on guitar, Topper Headon from the Clash on drums and Tony James from Generation X on bass. To be fair though it all had a limited shelf life and Needs moved to New York to enjoy a drug habit for a few years. It’s  OK, he kicked heroin and is now a well respected DJ so it all ended well.

Giovando Dadamo was also a writer for Zig Zag and also for Sounds as was the bass player in his band The Snivelling Shits. With good connections the band managed to get their record ‘Terminal Stupid’ listed as single of the week in the NME. These things mattered in 1977. The trouble was it didnt matter 6 months later. Dadamo found out what all sensible people discover that being in a band is great fun for 6 months especially when your first single is flavour of the week. The Shits soon ground to a halt.

Last, and best, NME writer Nick Kent was continually dabbling in music, this is the man who claims to have tutored Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols remember? Unfortunately he had turning into  public enemy no 1 as far as the London punk scene was concerned, no one was waiting for a Nick Kent single apart from to spit on it. He was also hampered by multiple drug habits so only tended to be motivated to make music when his methadone script was stable. During one such period he produced a single as The Subterraneans. ‘My Flamingo’ allegedly about his relationship with Chrissie Hynde is a lovely guitar based song which pre dated the likes of Lloyd Cole and even REM. And Kent had the last laugh, recorded in the face of adversity, is probably the best song ever recorded by a journalist.

Unless you count Chrissie Hynde herself of course.

That’s another story

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It was 40 years ago today….John Otway

Coming from a small city city myself I’m always drawn to bands and artists who appear, as if by magic, from somewhere that a bit different and remote. A sense of physical remoteness often lends a certain individuality to their music that’s sometimes lacking in those bands that spring from the big cities. Growing up in a small town means there’s not much to copy and this was very much the case in the days before YouTube. I always hoped that Norwich could have produced something of note, I suspect that if had had ever achieved this it would have been something a bit quirky.

Mark E Smith was an individual of course but although I kind of admired him, he didn’t really speak to me, he was from the North. But, show me an individual from somewhere that’s leafy and has a bit of history and I’m going to be interested.

I’ve never been to Aylesbury but I’ve always thought it must be quite nice, it has given it’s name to a breed of ducks and it is located in Buckinghamshire which has got to be a bit posh. The only band of any note with anything to do with the town are Marillion. I can relate to that, Norwich was full of people like Marillion and it show a certain resolve to form a prog rock band at the end of the 70’s which seemed to be the last thing that anyone wanted.

The other musical export from Buckinghamshire’s county town was John Otway. Otway had been around for about 5 years, starting off in slightly eccentric country rock and had become progressively eccentric and extrovert. He had teamed up with another of the town’s musicians Wild Willy Barrett (Roger to his mum). Barrett was a bit older, one of those guys who can play just about anything, offer to repair your banjo and then sell you a bit of hash. He looked like a hippie but there seemed to be little that was idealist about him, he tagged onto Otway, providing some much needed musical input but preferred to stay well away from the crazyness. On stage he looked like a man doing his job but not particularly enjoying it.

In comparison Otway had no filter, what you saw was what you got. In many respects he was the British Jonathan Richman. Otway wrote simple songs but had a unique world-view, he also wanted to entertain.

To a certain extent his career was build around one song ‘ Really Free’ was Otway’s ‘Roadrunner’, we had never heard anything quite like this before, it was funny without really being obvious (mind you, I rather enjoyed Joe Dolce’s ‘Shutupa Your Face’ a few years later). Otway and Barrett’s first album was produced by Pete Townsend and he did a pretty good job of it. Polydor, a record company mentally unbalanced  by the shock waves of punk decided that Otway was going to be the next big thing and offered him a ridiculous sum of money to record five albums for them.

By this point the duo had made their greatest contribution to music, namely an appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test. Here they are introduced by Bob Harris with one of the best live television performances ever !

By this point Otway had huge appeal, he clearly was not a punk but he appealed to the rest of us who weren’t punks either but had kind of got fed up with Jazz Rock.

And so when it was announced in early 1978 that Otway would be commencing a tour which would include the University of East Anglia there was no doubt that myself and my new friends from college would be going. None of us were punks, I suspect we took our flares and greatcoats and sat cross legged while we watched the great man do his work.

To my shame I cant remember a huge amount about the gig. By this time Barrett and Otway had split I think, hence his forthcoming record entitled ‘All Balls and no Willy’. With almost unlimited record company money, he had a full band of hired hands and put on a pretty slick show. The thing that struck me most was he played an electric guitar with a rear fitting that slotted onto an robust looking belt. This meant Otway could not only remove his instrument instantly but he could also perform gymnastics such as somersaults while playing. What a great idea I thought why does no one else do that, 40 years later the idea still hasn’t caught on.

Polydor never really recouped their money as Otway failed to follow up with any hits. Yet again though this is another example of the power of punk. Otway suddenly had a following. After slogging away since 1972 he had to wait until the audience was ready, post Pistols we were all a bit more liberal minded about what actually constituted a musical performance. Although the hits had gone Otway maintained a core following. Through New Romantic, House and Techno, Ottway continued to perform. There were enough people in on the joke to indulge him in the odd publicity stunt and eventually after a concerted effort he got his 50th birthday wish another ‘hit’ when ‘Bunsen’ Burner’ reached number 6 in the charts. There’s been a book and a film and although he’s now eligible for his pension Otway keeps his brand going, he recently played a room above my local, it’s not the University of East Anglia but I am reliably informed he pack the place.

And he still hasn’t fully exploited the Otway guitar belt!

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Mark E Smith;Spector vs Rector vs Reaper

When Mark E Smith died at the age of 60 my first thought was to marvel that he had lived that long.

Smith died on 24th Jan, my father in law Ralph passed away 24 hours later, it all felt rather personal.

Smith entered my life first, about 40 years ago to be more precise. I’m sure that the Fall will be categorised as a punk band by much of the media but theirs is a perfect example of the influence of punk. The Fall’s only real alliance with punk was the disregard for the niceties of music. Smith operated a slash and burn approach to his work, he laid down a track an moved on, so if the drums sounded like tin cans or the guitar was out of tune so be it, there was no turning back.

Late to the party, only releasing their first album in 1979, the original Fall looked like a mismatch bunch of deranged ex hippies. Half the band had long hair and nearly all of them were prone to wearing jumpers (its cold up North).

And so began the most original idiosyncratic and bloody minded band of all time.

Smith would be an outsider whatever path he had chosen. A complex individual cursed with a fierce intelligence as well as Captain Beefheart he was influenced by literature notably horror fiction but also an interest in the occult, the young Smith used to finance the band by doing Tarot readings in the early days.

But as far as Britain was concerned Smith was a Northerner and in a world dominated by London media that made him very different indeed. His lifelong muse was Prestwich Manchester. Smith saw little value in travel for travel’s sake. He was deeply suspicious of the workings of the music industry and his distrust and disgust was apparent in his lyrics.

coronation street

As far as the rest of us living south of the Severn/Trent line Manchester meant just one thing. ‘Coronation Street ‘ was the first, the best and the most enduring British soap, my parents and their families were addicted viewers, like finding out about Australia by watching ‘Neighbours’ this was a flawed approach to geography but The Street was gritty, the North was gritty and the Fall were gritty. In Coronation Street everybody smoked, everybody drank (in the Rover’s Return), a further thing I realised in later life is that when Manchester men get older they tend to resemble Bill Tarmey much loved barman at the Rover’s Return.

bill tarmey

mark smith 2

Manchester in the 70’s probably had more in common with Victorian Manchester as the modern city. Despite being such a individual city musically Manchester had never really happened, it’s main contribution to the 60’s being The Hollies and Freddie and the dreamers. All this was about to change big time paving the way for the horror Oasis in 20 years time (a band that had more in common with Freddie and the Dreamers than The Fall).

When the Fall set out there was no gig circuit to support them, hence they played the sort of places touring bands usually avoided, notably the working class social club scene. These experiences were captured on the Totale’s Turns LP ‘the difference between you and us is we have brains’ declares Smith at the start of one of the songs. It’s the British version of the Stooges Metallic KO.

For me though, the Fall is a band of the eighties, its easy to remember that blighted decade as one continuous multicolour yuppie party but there was a darker side and The Fall were a major part of that. For most of this time Steve Hanley was the bass player and Craig Scanlon the guitarist. The Fall were everywhere during this period, they were John Peel’s favourite band which counted for a lot in 1983. Virtually everyone I knew said they liked the band, it was a bit like with Captain Beefheart if you like they you liked them and if you didnt it was unhip to admit it. A lot of that was to do with Smith, you could say he couldn’t sing or he ended every line with ‘ah’ or his lyrics were unintelligible or the band was a bit out of tune but that was saying snow is white, the band were exactly what they intended to be.

Smith’s attitudes to musicians are well documented, pretty much a non musician himself he had to rely on others but they were a necessary evil and no more. The original Fall was actually a proper band, setting a blueprint for future bands by incorporating (keyboard player Una Baines) one of Smith’s girlfriends. Over time replacements became increasingly replaceable, it was like being in a troupe under James Brown or Fela Kuti whatever you played you were only one gig away from a sacking.’Stop showing off and get it together’ Smith yells at his band on ‘No Xmas for John Quays’ off Totales Turns. The band are quite clearly not showing off but in Smith’s world all musicians are secretly planning a concept album. His assertion that ‘if its me and yer granny on bongos its the Fall’ was pretty much true. Weirdly most of his ex colleagues a pretty sanguine about their time in the band in a ‘thanks for the opportunity’ sort of way.

Some of this is due to the way that he ran his bands. Smith was a grafter, managing to put out a record a year for most of his career, it was his band, he took responsibility for the creative side and had little sympathy for those who simply had to turn up and play a couple of chords. Smith’s vision would never be diluted by the bass player trying to get a song on the album.

Round about the time of ‘Perverted by Language’ I lost interest a bit. With his glamorous American band mate girlfriend Brix the music seemed to be getting ready for the 90’s. My mate Neil recently recently published his own playlist on Spotify, being 10 years younger Neil’s list concentrated on a more recent time of better production values, Smith even ‘sings’ on a couple of tracks, for a casual listener like me it was every bit as good as the ‘old’ Fall but I missed it at the time.

After years of listening I still haven’t got much of a clue as to what Smith is on about in his lyrics but that is not really the point, as far as I am concerned there’s enough to fire the imagination in the song titles alone ,New Face in Hell’, ‘The Man Whose Head Expanded’,’Kicker Conspiracy’ ‘Spector vs Rector’, Prole Art Threat’. These are lines that have seared themselves into my imagination I cant catch a train from King’s Cross without reflecting on the lyrics to ‘Leave the Capitol’ (‘exit this Roman shell’)

Unfortunately along with the values of no bullshit and hard work Smith had more destructive values, he had smoked heavily all his life because that’s what northern people do apparently. On his death he had lung damage. His main illicit drug of choice had been amphetamines, not surprising when you regard his prodigious output. It was the alcohol that was the real killer though. Smith liked to spend his time in pubs smoking (until the ban) and drinking. He probably had a problem with alcohol since the early 80’s. The old adage ‘the man takes a drink then the drink takes the man’ was to prove sadly true, recent clips show him drinking in a pub slurring his words and struggling with his recollections. There was also the case that most of his strident views had probably been formed by the time he was 18, he had become one of those old men out of time who are only half a paragraph away from saying something that sounds a bit racist. Performances continued as normal thanks to some enthusiastic young musicians (including girlfriend on keyboards) he had recruited. He tended to wander about fiddling with controls on amps (probably the ultimate insult to any self respecting guitarist). When he appeared at Glastonbury with what appeared to be a large urine stain down his trousers things had just got a bit too real.

Like most individualists you had to take Smith on his own terms, he said what he believed and and you either accepted that or not. People like that attract their fair share of sycophants because they are strong personality’s. Reading his biography us was stuck by his similarity to John Lydon (and curiously Ginger Baker), Smith was a lot funnier though.

Maybe it’s the nature of my Facebook feed but most of his obituaries are from 40-50 year old male intellectuals, despite such a long and active career the mainstream media seemed a lot more interested in the death of the singer from the Cranberries , I haven’t heard a mention of Smith on anything more mainstream than 6Music. I get the impression that when Paul Weller or one of the Gallagher brothers pass on there will be an awful lot of old men crying into their beer. For better or worse people really loved that music, its the sort of music that people sing at Karaoke or play at their weddings.

Like Sun Ra or Can or Beefheart, Smiths music will be admired rather than loved, at least for as long as John Peel is dead. The Fall is still music for what we used to call ‘heads’ in the 70’s the sort of people who take delight in music that is ‘challenging’.

I suspect that Smith himself would not have given a shit about his legacy. These days that’s the most refreshing thing of all. Smith would never revisit a classic line up or tour a classic album like so many of his peers have been tempted to do, there would be no 40th anniversary tours or re- imaginings of Hex Induction Hour with strings.

Remember him this way

Lets just hope there will never be a Fall tribute band

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The Bunch Rock On

One of my favourite podcasts is produced by ex-magazine The Word. Every so often ex members of the team gather to publicly shift through rants theories and conspiracies as well as interviewing people who are genuinely interesting.

One of the theories the team has come up with is one that musicians can only really love the music of their childhood. The general idea being that not only is this a formative time in our development but it’s also a period when the budding musician is innocent of all the factors that are part and parcel of their further career. The simple fact is that as soon as anyone starts making music in any focussed way all other music becomes competition, it is there to be dissected, derided or feared because all new music becomes a threat. That’s not always such a terrible thing, Brian Wilson, for example, was spurred on to create something better than the Beatles. The fact remains though that he probably never loved the Beatles in the same way he loved the Four Freshmen.

And so it was in the 70’s after a period of immense creativity, productivity and innovation that artists would look back to the music of their youth for comfort when things got tough and stressful. Bear in mind that in the early 70’s this music was only around 15 years old, Elvis was still alive, Chuck Berry was still something of a God to any aspiring guitarist, on a chronological level this was not old music but things had moved at such a pace in the 60’s that rock and roll had been left behind. David Bowie, one of the younger faces on the scene was to release Pin Ups, his own reworking of the Beat Boom, John Lennon, just that little bit older was going to record his own Rock and Roll album harking back to a few years earlier.

First on the scene in the nostalgia stakes was a group called The Bunch.

The Bunch was the fairly uninspired brainchild of Trevor Lucas one time bass player in psychedelic multicultural rockers the  eclection prior to that an Antipodean singer songwriter and more recently guitarist singer of Fotheringay and, significantly, partner of Sandy Denny. Opinions are divided about Lucas, he was either a fairly talentless performer who attached himself to real talent to further his career or he was a genuine guy who put up with Denny for as long as he could before saving himself and their daughter from the impending trainwreck. Whatever the case he was well liked and good at all the smoozing boozing and bullshitting that becomes a part of a musician’s life.Apparently Lucas and Denny used to hold monopoly parties so you can see why they were so well liked.

Lucas had managed to convene a bunch (Ha !) of associates who seemed similarly between jobs in the winter of 71-72. Richard Thompson had left Fairport Convention but had yet to record his first solo album Henry the Human Fly. Holed up in the Manor studio complex over the darkest days of winter he was able to further his acquaintance with singer Linda Peters who had been brought along by her new best friend Sandy Denny. Also present were recently unemployed members of Fotheringay, drummer Gerry Conway and bass player Pat Donaldson . Most of the piano was courtesy of Ian Whiteman previously with top British Psychedelic combo Mighty Baby. Fairport drummer Dave Mattacks also presumably had no commitments over the new year as he was present on about half the tracks. Last but not least was a horn section ‘The Dundee Horns’ who provided a punch to even the most pedestrian tracks.

There used to be a recurring sketch on the British comedy series The Fast Show in which a spoof advert stated something along the lines of ‘if you like peas and you like cheese you’ll love our cheesy peas’. Well I liked Fairport and I liked rock and roll so in theory I should love The Bunch.

I had to purchase the record on spec, there was no way I could hear it played on the radio, it was released in 1972 and by the time I started buying records it was ancient history. At the time it sounded a bit disappointing, it was the cheesypeas effect. Early rock and roll has a charm related to the sound of it’s time, re recording it seldom made it sound better, not that that stopped anyone trying through out the 70’s.

Listening some 46 years later it’s not a bad record, Richard Thompson’s renditions of ‘Crazy Arms’ and ‘Jambalaya’ rock big time thanks to Conway’s drumming. Having said that there is a dip in quality when Lucas sings and Mattacks takes over on drums such as on ‘Dont be Cruel’

Sandy Denny, as might be anticipated provides some highlights notably on the poignant closer ‘learning the game’ and sharing the vocals with Peters on ‘When will I be Loved’. But my absolute favourites are Thompson singing ‘My Girl the Month of May’ a song I’ve never heard anywhere else before or since. The other highlight is Ashley Hutchings covering ‘Nadine’. Hutchings isn’t anywhere else on the record so presumably just popped in for the afternoon. At this point he was deep into his rediscovery of English Music but chooses to cover Berry’s song in an enthusiastic half spoken American accent, bizarre but engaging.

It’s hard to imagine the influence of American rock and roll on this generation of musicians. For a lot of the 70’s it seemed we were always looking over our shoulders. We don’t live like that now, a contemporary band would be unlikely to record an album of britpop or shoegazing classics from 20 years ago we have learned to repackage rather than recreate our past.

And so the Bunch dissembled. Richard Thompson would soon marry Linda Peters, Denny and Lucas would join Fairport Convention, Conway would be the drummer for Cat Stevens and the horn section would head north, possibly to Dundee and become part of the Average White band

Oh, and the Word podcast is available through the Apple app and I Tunes,do give it a listen.

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Matty Groves

A holiday, a holiday
And the first one of the year
Lord Donald’s wife came into the church
The gospel for to hear

And when the meeting it was done
She cast her eyes about
And there she saw little Matty Groves
Walking in the crowd

“Come home with me, little Matty Groves
Come home with me tonight
Come home with me, little Matty Groves
And sleep with me ’til light”

“Oh, I can’t come home, I won’t come home
And sleep with you tonight
By the rings on your fingers I can tell
You are Lord Donald’s wife”

“What if I am Lord Donald’s wife?
Lord Donald’s not at home
He is out in the far cornfields
Bringing the yearlings home”

And a servant who was standing by
And hearing what was said
He swore Lord Donald he would know
Before the sun would set

And in his hurry to carry the news
He bent his breast and ran
And when he came to the broad millstream
He took off his shoes and swam

Little Matty Groves, he lay down
And took a little sleep
When he awoke, Lord Donald
Was standing at his feet

Saying”how do you like my feather bed
And how do you like my sheets?
How do you like my lady
Who lies in your arms asleep?”

“Oh, well I like your feather bed
And well I like your sheets
But better I like your lady gay
Who lies in my arms asleep”

“Well, get up, get up,” Lord Donald cried
“Get up as quick as you can
It’ll never be said in fair England
I slew a naked man”

“Oh, I can’t get up, I won’t get up
I can’t get up for my life
For you have two long beaten swords
And I not a pocket knife”

“Well it’s true I have two beaten swords
And they cost me deep in the purse
But you will have the better of them
And I will have the worse

And you will strike the very first blow
And strike it like a man
I will strike the very next blow
And I’ll kill you if I can”

So Matty struck the very first blow
And he hurt Lord Donald sore
Lord Donald struck the very next blow
And Matty struck no more

And then Lord Donald he took his wife
And he sat her on his knee
Saying “Who do you like the best of us
Matty Groves or me?”

And then up spoke his own dear wife
Never heard to speak so free
“I’d rather a kiss from dead Matty’s lips
Than you or your finery”.

Lord Donald he jumped up
And loudly he did bawl
He struck his wife right through the heart
And pinned her against the wall

A grave, a grave,” Lord Donald cried
“To put these lovers in
But bury my lady at the top
For she was of noble kin”

Fairport Convention’s Leige and Leif was released towards the end of 1969. The band played a showcase concert with a nervous Nick Drake and a pissed (probably) John Martyn as support.

And that was it… Bass player and founder Ashley Hutchings left shortly afterwards, traumatised by the accident that had killed his band mate Martin Lamble. Hutchings was to form Steeleye Span before leaving again. Next to go was Sandy Denny who being a song writer was slightly worried about her bandmates enthusiasm for re working the same traditional songs she thought she had left behind in the folk clubs before joining Britain’s answer to Jefferson Airplane.

It was a few years before I caught up, I had only just turned 12 after all but about 4 years later I asked my mum for Leige and Leif as a Christmas present. I do wonder just where she had to go to get a copy in Norwich but sure enough mum came up with the goods and the record was delivered for me on Christmas day. ‘It’s a bit folky’ said my mum dubiously after I had played the record on the family record player.

And folky it was although it’s often forgotten there was still quite a lot of original input in terms of writing and arranging from the band members.Its easy to think that the world had turned on it’s axis but this was the end of the 60’s and fans and critics were sometimes luke warm about hearing traditional songs from the darlings of the UFO and Middle Earth clubs, it was as if Hendrix had recorded an album of jug band songs.

At the heart of the record, for me at least, is ‘Matty Groves’. It’s an old song probably dating from borders of England and Scotland in the C17th. There are loads of variations cropping up as far as the Appalachians, more frequently as ‘Little Musgrave’.

And at the heart of the song is everything you need to know about the class system in Britain. A world where its reasonable to the aristocracy to kill the proles, and indeed their own wives as long as a certain etiquette is followed.

The song starts with religion amd is followed immediately by lust. Lust win over little Matty Groves’ fear and he follows Lord Darnell’s wife home ( the above lyrics mention Lord Donald, I thought that was the name until recently but listening carefully I now beg to differ) . There’s the role of the servant who decides to grass up Matty Groves even though it involves a long long run and a swim across the freezing stream. In some versions of the song Lord Darnell threatens to hang the page if his information is false but to reward him handsomely if it is true.

And when Lord Darnell finds Matty Groves in bed with his wife he orders him to dress, it’s bad form to slay a naked man, when Groves refuses, presuming, not unreasonably the the Lord will be quite happy to run him though when he’s got his trousers on the Lord sportingly offers him the best of his swords to duel with. It’s probably only going to go one way, Lord Darnell is undoubtedly bigger, stronger and better fed, sure enough Matty Groves is killed.

The sting in the tail is that his wife tells him she prefers Matty Groves to the Lord and his finery. She is killed for this of course but it’s a nice last gasp of defiance. Finally, of course, appearances are everything and although the lovers will be buried in a single grave Lord Darnell’s wife will be buried at the top ‘for she was of noble kin’.

Fairport manage to imbue the song with a certain drama, Dave Swarbick and Richard Thompson in particular embellish the tune with a certain modal drama and at the end there’s a rifftastic wig out which almost makes you forget the original song such is the intensity of the playing.

In 1974 it was the music I loved but over the years the words wave resonated more and more.

I recently read a book written by two poachers. In the 70’s and 80’s poaching was a genuine profession, there was plenty of wildlife and it was very dark in the countryside at night. The two men in question usually poached the land of the local Lord. It was war out there in the countryside in the dark, the Lord would employ gamekeepers who would dispense their own justice to trespassers, the local police deferred to the Lord, the dice was loaded but the poachers delighted in their sport.

That was in the 70’s, now the land is built over and the countryside is inhabited by commuters, wildlife is sparse and the development of computer technology means it’s a lot harder to get by on wits and country knowledge when the Police have thermal imaging.

That was only 40 years ago, the countryside of my childhood was nearer to Matty Groves than is it to now but the real authority has since moved behind closed doors and computer firewalls. And the Lord Darnell’s and Donalds of this world still have the power as long as they are not seen to ‘slew a naked man’.

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Finding Fairport

Fairport Convention, the celebrated British folk rock group are due to play a venue near me very soon. I had considered going but when I discovered tickets are something along the lines of £25 I soon declined. I still cant get to grips with paying more than £1.99 to see a band, it’s ridiculous I know, especially in these days when legacy bands are basically topping up their pensions for a time when they simply can’t tread the boards anymore.

There is also the fact that I am a typical Fairport fan, grey hair, beard, pretty old. The concert would be full of people just like me and that’s a depressing thought. It didn’t have to be like this, I never set out to look like an aging folkie. It hit hard the other day when I found a picture of me on Facebook, taking part in a session. There I was with a bunch of old folkies sat in the back as usual clasping a melodeon. In fact it was only the latter detail that made me realise that this was not me at all but just another identikit folk musician in another town with another instrument.

The terrible irony is that I loved Fairport Convention, I still do but only up to the point that they switch their allegiances fully to folk rock. They made that commitment 47 years ago but my love of Fairport dates from the first four years of their existence.

The band were formed around the Muswell Hill area of North London by bassist Ashley Hutchings and guitarist Simon Nichol. They soon recruited 17 year old wiz kid guitarist Richard Thompson followed by drummer Martin Lamble and singer Judy Dyble. Personally I thought Dyble was great but the band soon felt the need to augment the line up further with a male singer Ian (iain) Mathews who unlike the rest was a professional singer from the North(well Scunthorpe)

The band were as hip as fuck, they played all the cool places in the summer of love and jammed with Hendrix. They were an ambitious and intelligent bunch of people who could be relied upon to seek out some hip Americans to copy, notably Joni Mitchell and Dylan. Already Richard Thompson was finding ways of playing the electric guitar in ways that avoided being a substandard copy of Buddy Guy.

The first Fairport album was a lost delight from the West Coast, there are shades of County Joe and the Fish and Jefferson Airplane but for me it’s actually better than those groups. Already Thompson was writing if not singing and the psychedelic ‘Lobster’ is one of his weirder songs. Dyble and Mathews voices mesh in a San Francisco way. If I had I time machine I would be programming it to the UFO club in 1967 when Fairport Convention were on.

Not long afterwards Dyble was out of the band taking her autoharp with her (actually according to some of the rare photographs Simon Nichol inherited it ) Apparently she had a tendency to sing sharp and was rather shy for a lead singer. Dyble was replaced by Sandy Denny, already a minor figure on the singer songwriter scene and for people of my generation one of the best singers ever. There followed two of the very best albums of all time, ‘What we did on out Holidays’ and ‘Unhalfbricking’. The former featured a photo of a blackboard that the band had written on prior to a gig. That says it all about the band for be that instead of snorting cocaine out of groupie‘s navels they were drawing an enormous cartoon depicting the band onstage. The album also marked the beginning of the first significant Richard Thompson songs (meet on the ledge) and a tentative verson of a traditional folk song ‘Nottm Town’ from whence Dylan had nicked the melody for ‘Masters of War’.

Unhalfbricking went one further featuring a Denny song that has slowly become a classic ‘who knows where the time goes’, one of those rare songs that says so much more than the actual lyrics and is a testament to the sensitivity of the playing of the whole band. Also present, and most significant in retrospect was the traditional ‘A Sailor’s Life’ where the band, now augmented by fiddler Dave Swarbrick embarked on a psychedelic exploration that now had its roots in England rather than The American West Coast.

Unhalfbricking also features, in retrospect the saddest album sleeve ever. The lives of the young people enjoying a summer’s afternoon on the lawn of Sandy Denny’s parents was about to be torn apart.

Travelling back from a late night gig the band’s van left the road. It;s probable that their roadie Harvey (prophetically portrayed in convict outfit on ‘what we did in our holidays’) had fallen asleep at the wheel. The van somersaulted dispensing passengers and gear over the British countryside. Sandy Denny had chosen to travel with her new boyfriend Trevor Lucas and Ian Mathews had left the group around ‘Unhalfbricking’. The rest of the band were still onboard though and sustained injuries rated between minor (Nichol) and significant (Hutchings). Worst of all two of them were dead, drummer Martin Lamble and passenger Jeannie Franklyn, at the time Thompson’s girfriend.

On any level this was a traumatic incident for any group of young people but Fairport had been the golden children of the London underground, their charmed lives were changed forever.

Healing physically if not psychologically the band reconvened at farley chamberlayne in Hampshire and photos taken at the time show they were still prone to a romp on the lawn. Dave Mattacks had joined as drummer and Dave Swarbrick was now a permanent member. Hutchings had been completely enthralled by Denny’s rendition of traditional British songs and was becoming obsessed with the idea of the band becoming a folk rock unit except folk rock was not even a thing yet.

The result of their labours was ‘Liege and Leif’, a thick dark slab of a record which has grown in status with each passing year. Some of the band thought this was an experiment, Denny for one didn’t want to go back to performing the same songs she had practically grown up with while Hutchings was at the other end of the spectrum desiring to dedicate his life to playing in tents at folk festivals. As a result of this tension both of them left the band. Hutchings was replaced by Dave Pegg, a mate of Swarbrick’s and a veteran of the surprisingly fertile Birmingham scene. It kind of marked a change from inspired amateur dabbling to professional presentation and, for me at least, the band became less interesting. As the band set the folk rock template I bailed out, I only own the first four record and only the first three survived the transition to CD..

Amazingly, in 1969 the band released these three classic records, what sort of work rate is that? They survived the departure of one of their singers and the death of their drummer. Creatively the band was on fire, it was as if music was pouring out of them. And then after that incandescent period two of the band quite almost as soon as they had released one of the most important records of all time. And the other amazing fact is that the middle of all this creativity no one got round to filming it, there are not videos of Denny with the band ( until she rejoined a few years later)

As the 70’s progressed the band became increasingly a vehicle for Swarbrick who was a fine fiddler but couldn’t sustain interest with his singing. Thompson left and eventually so did founder member Nichol. Sandy Denny ( and Trevor Lucas) joined for a while and by the mid 70’s Swarbrick was leading a motley crew of disparate musicians who were high on talent and low on purpose, in fact they were being referred to as Fairport Confusion by the press who never knew just who might turn up to a gig.

And round 1978 I finally got to see Fairport Convention.

Simon Nichol had rejoined as had Dave Pegg. Dave Mattacks was now doing very well as a session musician but Bruce Rowlands had replaced him. It was an evening of knockabout fun. Swarbrick must have managed to smoke a whole packet of fags onstage, at least one of them was wearing dungarees and I swear they sang a song about dogs arseholes! It wasn’t high art but I considered my £1.99 had been well spent.

The band split up soon afterwards but started to reform sporadically in the 80’s notably for their own Cropardy festivals which are now an annual highlight for the sort of people who look like me.

Now in their 70’s the band are probably as good now as any time in the last 30 years, its almost as if they’ve stopped trying to be good and have settled to be OK and very OK they are.

Not worth £25 though!

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1978

And lo.. a new year was born and we called it 1978.

The year started promisingly with me loosing my job. It appeared that my employers had overestimated the public’s desire for paper based goods. Business had not been good and I had been decidedly underemployed in my warehouse duties. This being the 70’s I was paid off a couple of weeks pay in lieu of notice, no one had thought of zero hours contracts yet. I spent the rest of the winter and all of the spring as a gentleman of leisure. I would rise late and would walk round Norwich or sometimes go to the college that my girlfriend attended. I found it was pretty easy to pass myself off as a student and could spend hours in the library reading whatever I fancied. This would inevitably be followed by a trip to the pub or the student snack bar. It sounds dull but I was very happy with endless time and little pressure.

Things were changing out in the real world however, in many respects this was the end of the 70’s. In the words of Writer Nick Kent the spivs had trounced the fops and were in turn about to be ousted by the yuppies. Punk had given the old guard a good kicking but it was all superficial, strip away the attitude and punk didn’t have a great deal going for it as a long term movement.

Although I had gone to a grammar school I cant remember anything being particularly aspirational in my schooling. The good teachers tried to be interesting and even the bad teachers tried to keep discipline but I cant remember any ‘reach for the stars’ hyperbole. Most of my contemporaries would go on to get a job, marry someone local and continue to have Sunday dinner with their mums. There was relatively little pressure to get on the property ladder, or get an en-suite bathroom or travel the world. It sounds dull but the flip side of that is we didn’t start self harming or develop anorexia or take Prosac because we didn’t get A* in all our exams.

Up to now our musical heroes had been fairly useless individuals who had lucked out in the world of the popular song, its pretty hard to imagine Ozzy Osbourne or even Iggy Pop having a career plan. Just about all the original punks got by with a small amount of talent, a dollop of charisma and a hefty dose of luck no one expected it to last.

It didn’t last of course, not initially at least. The Sex Pistols were falling apart on their American Tour, organised in a traditionally stupidly/ brilliantly manner by manager Malcolm Mclaren. The band were touring the least punk friendly states with a bassist who couldn’t play and was strung out on heroin. It wasn’t going to end well and it didn’t. The Dammed were getting sick of each other, drummer Rat Scabies was going to leave and the rest of the band had started to realise that making music was harder than it looked. Buzzcocks had had lost singer Howard Devoto and were now a different band to the one that started the Manchester punk scene. By the end of the year there was only the Clash left.

Musically things would just keep on getting better, the new bands had energy and tunes, this was partly because quite a lot of the musicians had been around for a while and could play properly but now music was to become more calculated. Record companies now realised there was money to be made from this new wave thingy and serious money was beginning to appear.

The first time I noticed the change was when bands started wearing red trousers. It was almost as if technicolour had arrived in a musical form. Skinny ties, skinny trousers,sneakers (we would have called them plimsolls) all in bright blues and reds and yellows. Music was becoming aspirational.

squeeze

blondie

And, as if by design we were about to elect a conservative government different to all that had gone before and before we knew it it would be the 80’s and we would know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

,

But before the fall there was some great pop music, Squeeze, XTC, the Rezillos, Elvis Costello, Blondie, Talking Heads, the Jam and a whole lot more would make some of the best singles ever.

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