Thursday, February 26, 2009

Pentangle



GREAT groups don’t just happen. They are a product of their times. Guitarists Bert Jansch and John Renbourn and vocalist Jacqui McShee were the names I associated with Pentangle, although it was, as its name suggests, a five-person outfit, which also included Danny Thompson on double bass and Terry Cox on drums.
McShee had a voice of sublime beauty. Indeed, on the song Cruel Sister, off an album by the same title, which for some time was either in our collection or borrowed from elsewhere on a regular basis, she sings a capella, her powerful voice able to execute the numerous verses of this traditional English folk song with ease. And it was sexy. Not in the kitsch modern way of using seductive lyrics or making suggestive sounds. No, on this and several other similar songs, McShee’s voice seemed to resonate with something deep inside my teenage, testosterone-charged physiognomy. Indeed, it has the same effect today, nearly 40 years later.
The other side to the group which set them apart from their contemporaries was the brilliance of Jansch and Renbourn. We also got to know Jansch’s work as a solo musician, his unique style of acoustic guitar finger-picking and voice steeped in the old English folk tradition setting him apart. While Renbourn albums also floated around at the time, I only really got into his music from around 1990, after picking up a tape in London.
But how did Pentangle fit into the architecture of the folk-rock scene as it evolved in the late 1960s? Because, while I was lucky to have been introduced to their music at such a young age – just into my teens – it is only now that I am, for the first time, really trying to find out the story behind the music.
Ah, immediately Wikipedia hits the right note. They describe them as “a British folk-rock (or folk-jazz) band”. And that is an important distinction, because Pentangle were always that much more progressive than the other folk-rock outfits. In particular, they seemed to rely on an acoustic bass on most of their early albums. Indeed, thinking about it, they also seemed to eschew electric instruments as well, placing them in the jazz realm simply by virtue of their going beyond commercial folk-rock parameters. Indeed, several songs have a distinct jazz feeling, despite the underlying songs still being English folk music.
Wikipedia tells us the name, Pentangle, was chosen to represent the five band members, but the pentagram symbol obviously had a number of mystical associations. One cited is that it was the “device on Sir Gawain’s shield in the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight which held a fascination for Renbourn”.
Bert Jansch and John Renbourn



Renbourn and Jansch, says Wikipedia, were already popular musicians on the British folk-scene when the group was formed in 1967. They had done several solo albums each, and a duet LP, Bert And John. The names come back to me. Jack Orion was the name of a Jansch album I heard in my teens, and it is cited for a duet between the two guitarists which features their “folk baroque” use of “complex, inter-dependent guitar parts”.
They evidently shared a house in St John’s Wood, the London borough Jagger and Richards immortalised in Mother’s Little Helper.
Jacqui McShee

And the girl with a golden voice? Jacqui McShee, it emerges, began her career as an unpaid “floor singer” in several London folk clubs. By 1965 she ran such a club at a pub, the Red Lion, in Sutton, Surrey – which, bizarrely, is somewhere I visited briefly to visit my brother-in-law in the 1990s, though not the pub, which I did not know about. She befriended Jansch and Renbourn when they performed there. Wikipedia says she sang on Renbourn’s Another Monday album, and later performed live with him at a club in 1966. Ah, and it emerges that Thompson and Cox were already prominent jazz musicians at this stage, having played together in a couple of bands, including one which also boasted the great John McLaughlin on electric guitar. (Now there is a name to conjure with. I had totally forgotten him, even though I went through a brief McLaughlin Stage. I had not intended including him in this project, but clearly I shall have to attempt to do so…)
Thompson had worked with Renbourn, so the union was a natural progression. In 1967, it emerges, Jansch and Renbourn were set up at a nightclub in the Horseshoe Hotel in Tottenham Court Road. They were joined by McShee and later by Thompson and Cox. The eclectic range of influences shaped their distinctive sound, ranging from jazz, to McShee’s love of traditional music, to Renbourn’s “early music” interest and Jansch’s blues interests.
The time was clearly ripe for them, since their first public concert as Pentangle was a sell-out at the Royal Festival Hall in May, 1967. Thereafter followed short tours of Denmark and UK, before they acquired a new manager, Jo Lustig.
The Pentangle

Their self-titled first LP, for Transatlantic Records, was released in May, 1968. It was an all-acoustic affair. While I have probably not heard this album in toto, it is interesting to note Richie Unterberger’s comments about it on Wikipedia. He said it was “more a folk-jazz-blues stew that it was folk-rock”. He said its “daring, irreverent spirit” had “immediately connected with rock-oriented listeners”. It was a commercial success too, stopping just short of the UK Top 20. The first track, Let No Man Steal Your Thyme, I have certainly heard before, but possibly not by Pentangle. And the song Pentangling rings a bell. I must have heard the compilation album by the same name from 1973.
Sweet Child

In June, 1968, their performance at the Royal Albert Hall was recorded and formed part of their second album, Sweet Child, released in November, 1968. This double album included both live and studio tracks, many of them written by Jansch. Wikipedia says it is “generally regarded as their creative high point”. Having read the Wikipedia notes on the album, I can confidently say I never heard Sweet Child – and more’s the pity. By all accounts it is a classic which includes jazz, blues, folk and a whole lot in between among its more than two dozen tracks.
Basket of Light

But I certainly heard Basket of Light, from mid-1969, which Wikipedia says was their greatest commercial success, with Light Flight becoming a surprise hit single, after it was used as theme music for a TV drama series, Take Three Girls, the first BBC drama broadcast in colour. An all acoustic album, Basket of Light reached No 5 in the UK, with the single Light Flight making it to No 43. The circular central label on the album was fairly unique in that on one side, Side One, it had the colourful Transatlantic label, and on the other all the details of the songs from both sides.
Here it emerges that Light Flight was written by the band. Wikipedia says it is “a complex song based on jazz rhythms somewhat reminiscent of Dave Brubeck’s work”. I gave this album a fresh listen, quietly on my old Sony record player, and was suddenly hit by what a different sound it was, even when compared to Steeleye Span and Fairport Convetion. This was one highly skilled band with innate good taste. I was remiss earlier in undervaluing the jazz-inspired rhythm section. But it is clear that Thompson and Cox play as important a role as do Jansch and Renbourn, while McShee’s contribution is, as they say in Afrikaans, vanselfsprekend – it speaks, or sings, for itself. “Let’s get away, you say, find a better place, / Miles and miles away from the city’s race,” is how she starts Light Flight, while Thomopson’s bass buzzes along beautifully. Between verses, the acoustic guitars of Jansch and Renbourn fill in the spaces with intricate lead breaks. During the slow section, McShee also overdubs her voice at a different pitch, just to make it even more hauntingly beautiful. “Look around the someone lying in the sunshine / Marking time, hear the sighs, close your eyes …” Then that catching “Ba – da – pa do dad a – ba – pa do da da …” Having heard this song numerous times, it is so great to finally have the lyrics, and to discover how good they are. “Stepping from cloud to cloud passing years of light / Visit the frosty stars in the backward flight / Star becomes a vision, never mind the meaning, / Hidden there, moving fast, it won’t last …” This is a poem for the space age; for a time when scientists were unraveling the mysteries of time and space. “Time passes all too soon, how it rushes by, / Now a thousand moons are about to die / No time to reflect on what the time was spent on / Nothing left, far away, dreamers fade”. Then comes that slow, dreamy section: “Strange visions pass me by, winging sweetly close inside / O’ver the wa-ter, ah …” The last verse: “Swirling, the water rise up above my head. / Gone are the curling mists how they all have fled. / Look, the door is open, step into the space / Provided there.” As with Cream, it was essential for progressive groups playing excellent music to also use great lyrics, like these. Traditional folk songs were another wonderful source.
On Once I Had A Sweetheart, in which McShee’s vocals are at their crystalline clearest. Renbourn’s sitar-work, alongside Cox’s prominent glockenspiel – such a hallmark of this album – are prominent on a song described on the album sleeve as a “well-known American variant of the English traditional song, A Maid Sat A-Weeping…” “Once I had a sweetheart and now I have none (repeated) / He’s gone and left me, he’s gone and left me / Gone and left me in sorrow to mourn.” I love the repetition of simple, poignant lines. “Last night in sweet slumber I dreamed I did see / Last night in sweet slumber I dreamed I did see / My own darling jewel sat smiling by me / My own darling jewel sat smiling by me”. The disappointment is magnified through repetition: “But when I awakened I found it not so (repeated) / My eyes like some fountain with tears overflowed / Eyes like some fountain with tears overflowed.” So he finds solace by running away, saying he’ll “venture through England, through France and through Spain”, and that “my life I’ll venture on watery main”. He’ll “set sail of silver and steer toward the sun”, adding that “my false love will weep for me after I’m gone / After I’m gone, After I’m gone, After I’m gone”. This sense of resignation is expertly interpreted by the band, who manage to weave its mood right into every note and nuance.
Jansch’s vocals are to the fore on Springtime Promises, which Wikipedia says is a Cox composition, though the album credits all but Cox … The sleeve says it was written after a bus ride on an early spring day, and the song certainly is evocative of the advent of spring. “Summertime is with us once again / Flowers blooming everywhere again / And the cold days of winter are behind us now / And the springtime promises all come true”.
Only in the UK, surely, could a whole song about the seasons be written with such feeling. Again, the acoustic lead guitar throughout is superb as each verse traverses the seasons: “The cold days of winter took the sun away / But the springtime promises all came true”.
Lyke Wake Dirge is one of the songs on the album I thought I couldn’t relate to, until I gave it a fresh listen. It is, says the album cover, “an early English poem concerning the progress of the soul in after-life”, with imagery that “predates Christianity by many thousand years”. It says the idea is preserved in children’s games like Hopscotch and London Bridge Is Falling Down. Seemingly incongruous, the song is indeed a showcase of the vocal prowess of the band, as all join to sing its ancient lyrics, to wonderfully understated acoustic accompaniment. Ever wondered what they were actually singing? All I could make out clearly was the line, And Christ receive thy soul. Well the opening chorus actually reads: “This ae nighte, this ae nighte, / Every nighte and alle, / Fire and fleet and candle-lighte, / And Christe receive thy saule.” You can almost feel yourself being transported back in time … Then the verse: “When thou from hence away art past / Every nighte and alle, / To Whinny-muir thou com’st at last; / And Christe receive thy saule.” And so it continues in a language all the more beautiful for the obscurity of the language – though, while its imagery may predate Christ, it is clearly a Christian dirge.
A three-part vocal arrangement, the final track on Side 1 is indeed on track. Train Song is where the album gets its title from. The lines, after a roller-coaster ride, read: “Love is a basket of light: grasp it so tight.” The album cover says it is “a lament for the passing of the steam train”. Again this bluesy song features Jansch on vocals with McShee doing a sort of chant as it explores the percussive sounds of a steam locomotive, before slowing to what Wikipedia calls “a more dream-like middle section with McShee’s ‘instrumental vocalisation’ soaring above the band”. It then gathers speed for a finale featuring Danny Thompson’s bowed bass. Listening to this afresh, it is a remarkable sound, evoking the sliding of steel wheels on steel rails as the brakes are applied and both the train and the song come to a halt.
Side 2 starts with Hunting Song, another McShee tour de force: “As I did travel all on a journey / Over the wayside and under a dark moon / Hanging above a mountain.” Doesn’t that set the scene superbly? The album cover says the song is based on the story of “a magic drinking horn sent by Morgana to the court of King Arthur”. Notable again is Cox’s use of the glockenspiel and the intricate guitar and bass work. McShee continues: “I spied a young man riding a fine horse / Chasing a white hart and all through the woodland / There go the hunting and cries”. She journeys on till she notices a knight pursued by a lady, who asks him to deliver a magic horn which holds a substance that can determine true love. Jansch sings in response to the female protagonist. “The gift that you bear for your brother the king / I gladly would carry to the banquet this even’ / What fair sport this would be for the maidens at court”. And so continues a delightful medieval tale of a man who goes off to war and returns to find his wife has been unfaithful. Which is often the gist of most of these ancient songs, proving that lust and jealousy have been a part of mankind’s make-up since time immemorial?
While Wikipedia credits Phil Spector with composing Sally Go Round The Roses, the album cites Sanders/Stevens as the originators. When I thought about the song, I considered it a weak point on the album, but had to revise my opinion upon listening to it again. With bass and acoustic guitar clipping along, this Jaynettes song just gets better and better.
John Renbourn is credited on the album with arranging the traditional song, The Cuckoo, although the sleeve notes say it is “a folk song from Somerset which Jansch learnt from his neighbour’s children in Sussex”. Again, McShee is seductively superb: “Oh the cuckoo she’s a pretty bird she sings as she flies / She bringeth good tidings she telleth no lies …” With Cox again on glockenspiel and a guitar playing the melody, this is another classic which gives full reign to McShee’s magnificent talents.
The album closes with House Carpenter, an American Southern ballad based on an English folk song The Daemon Lover (in which the lover is the Devil personified). Again, like several others, it features Jansch on banjo and Renbourn on sitar. It is this sort of combination which sets the album apart. Jansch and McShee share the vocals, which I battled to hear when I gave it a recent listen, as Jansch does tend to muffle at times. But the internet has cleared things up: “Well I once could have married the king’s third son / And a fine young man was he / But now I’m married to a house carpenter / And a noisy old man is he.” The Jansch character responds: “(but) Will you forsake your house carpenter / And a go along with a me / I will take you to where the grass grows green / On the bank of the river deep”. She left her two babes and left, dressed in her finery. “She shivered and she shimmered and she proudly stepped …” Soon she missed her children. But it was too late. The ship sinks “far away from the shore” and, as she battles to stay afloat, she is racked with guilt. “Well I wish I was back to my house carpenter / I’m sure he would treat me well / But here I am in the raging sea / And my soul is bound for hell”. When McShee sings that last line it has the force, and timbre, of Joan Baez at her best, showing how versatile McShee was as a vocalist.
While this is a studio album, it’s cover for some reason features photographs of the band’s 1968 concert at the Royal Albert Hall. And they do reveal the sort of band it was. When I first saw them on YouTube, I was struck by the dynamic performance of stand-up double bass player Thompson, while Renbourn and Jansch were equally impressive on guitars. McShee wasn’t quite the English rose I had expected, but nevertheless had a fine-featured, patrician look, and on the cover of this album is shown seated, with a miniskirt so short it seems almost unbelievable that testosterone-charged youths were able to control their urges in those days.
Wikipedia observes that the cover states that all instruments on the album “are accoustic [sic]”. However, on my copy, from 1971, the word is spelt correctly, with one ‘c’.
So, by 1970, after the success of this album – which is by no means “commercial” in the derogatory sense – the band was enjoying some well-deserved popularity. They did a soundtrack for the film, Tam Lin, made a dozen television appearances, and toured the UK, including the Isle of Wight Festival, and the US, including a gig at Carnegie Hall.
Cruel Sister

But, says Wikipedia, their fourth album, Cruel Sister, released in October 1970, was a commercial disaster. For us, however, it was a gem. Packed with traditional songs, it included a 20-minute version of Jack Orion, which Jansch and Renbourn had recorded earlier as a duo. I think this album, which had a yellow backing to an orange and white Albrecht Durer engraving (a picture on the back, The Sea Monster, dates from 1498), floated around among a group of us, swopped and taped and generally loved. About 20 years later I picked up a compilation album, a tape called A Maid That’s Deep in Love, which features all the songs off the album apart from Jack Orion itself.
Before delving into these songs, let’s see what Wikipedia says about the album. Recorded in 1970, I agree with the view that under producer Bill Leader a more uncluttered folk sound was achieved. Also notable, having listened to those tracks, is the introduction of electric guitars, albeit very subtly.
A Maid That’s Deep In Love opens the album. However, what I took for a banjo is in fact an Appalachian dulcimer, played by Jansch. The story is about a young woman who follows her lover, a sea captain, by disguising herself as a man. “I am a maid that’s deep in love / But yes I can complain / I have in this world but one true love / And Jimmy is his name”. She vows to follow him “thro’ the lands of liberty”. How? By dressing like a male sailor in the best Shakespearian tradition. “Then ‘ll cut off my yellow hair / Men’s clothing I’ll wear on”. So she signs on “to a bold sea captain”. “One night upon the raging sea / As we were going to bed / The captain cried ‘Farewell my boy, / I wish you were a maid / Your rosy cheeks, your ruby lips / They are enticing me / And I wish dear God with all my heart / A maid you were to me”. Of course “he” rebuffs the captain saying “such talk is all in vain / And if the sailors find it out / They’ll laugh and make much game”. She/he adds that “when we reach Columbia shore / Some prettier girls you’ll find” and he’d court them “for courting you are inclined”. When they reach shore, she bids him adieu and confesses that “For once I was a sailor on sea / but now I am a maid on shore”. He’s smitten: “Come back, come back, my own pretty maid / Come back and marry me”, adding for good measure that “I have ten thousands pounds in gold / And that I’ll give to thee …” Imagine, at the height of the rock/hippie era, here we were listening raptly to traditional folk songs like this – and in my case couldn’t get enough of them. So catholic was our taste in music at the time. But of course old English folk songs played a key role in the oeuvre of so many English and even US groups that it isn’t surprising. Even the great Bob Dylan owes much to those ancient roots.
But if Jacqui McShee was impressive on that song, she was doubly so on the next, When I Was In My Prime, in which she sings all six verses unaccompanied. And with so much musical talent at her disposal it was a bold step not to harness their skills on this track. “When I was in my prime I flourished like a vine / There came along a false young man / Come stole the heart of mine / Come stole the heart of mine”. She then tells of the nearby gardener’s three offers – a pink, a violet and a red rose, and she refuses all three, saying “The pink’s no flower at all, for it fades away too soon / The violet is too pale a hue, I think I’ll wait till June …” But when in June the red rose blooms, she says it too is “not the flower for me”. Instead she’ll plant a willow tree. “And the willow tree shall weep, and the willow tree shall whine / I wish I was in the young man’s arms that won the heart of mine / that won the heart of mine”. Then she adds, poignantly: “If I’m spared for one year more, and god should grant me grace / I’ll weep a bowl of crystal tears to wash his deceitful face / To wash his deceitful face.” Poetic, beautiful lines sung in a crystal-clear voice which makes the tale all the more seductive.
My wife Robyn and I were in Waterford in Ireland in the summer of 1990 when we stopped into a pub, where a “session” was advertised for that evening. This is an informal gathering of traditional musicians playing the likes of guitars, fiddles and accordions. Also, some of those drinking at the pub and listening would join in by playing “the spoons”, a pair of spoons clacking together like castanets. One of the more memorable songs played that night was an unaccompanied rendering of Lord Franklin, which is the next track on Cruel Sister. It was incredible. I had by then forgotten that I first heard it done by Pentangle. Wikipedia tells us this traditional ballad, also known as Lady Franklin’s Lament, describes Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated expedition to discover the Northwest Passage. It is John Renbourn who both sings the lead vocals and plays the acoustic guitar. And I agree with their description of his use of a “heavily overdriven, sustaining electric guitar … used as a melodic instrument, almost violin-like in its sound”. That is precisely what I thought as I listened to it. Bert Jansch plays concertina on the song, while another feature is Jacqui McShee’s high harmonies. Some of the greatest folk songs, be they English, Irish, Scottish, Canadian or American, are about dramas at sea. This is no exception. “It was homeward bound one night on the deep / Swinging in my hammock I fell asleep / I dreamed a dream and I thought it true / Concerning Franklin and his gallant crew.” As a landlubber from sunny South Africa, it is impossible to imagine what life was like for the crew of vulnerable sailing ships. “With one hundred seamen he sailed away / to the frozen ocean in the month of May / To seek a passage around the pole / Where we poor seamen do sometimes go”. In beautifully poetic lines, the song records how “their ship on mountains of ice was drove”, while “the Eskimo with his skin canoe / Was the only one that ever came through”. And so it is that “in Baffin’s Bay where the whale fish blow”, Lord Franklin along with his sailors “do dwell”. Bob Dylan’s Dream surely owes much to the last two lines: “Ten thousand pounds I would freely give / To say on earth that my Franklin do live”.
Then comes the title track, Cruel Sister, another McShee miracle, in which she holds the notes at the end of each verse tantalisingly, savouring the words. Another traditional ballad, it is also evidently known as The Twa Sisters, and tells of rivalry between two sisters for the love of a knight. Accompanied by acoustic guitar, the song contains words I am about to discover, in particular that bit in parentheses after each line. “There lived a lady by the North Sea shore / (Lay the bent to the bonnie broom) / Two daughters were the babes she bore / (Fa la la la la la la la la la)”. That’s how one website has it, but I wonder what it means. Anyway, in a story which in this country might elicit cries of racism, we discover that “as one grew bright as in the sun, / So coal black grew the elder one”. In the manner of such songs, a knight courts one (with gloves and rings), “But he loved the other above all things”. So the one sister invites her sibling to walk along the shore, where “the dark girl threw her sister o’er”, and then refuses to help her, even when she cries: “Oh Sister, Sister, let me live, / And all that’s mine I’ll surely give”. The dark sister replies: “It’s your own true love that I’ll have and more, / But thou shalt never come ashore”. Later, two minstrels find her body on the shore, and make a harp of her breast bone “whose sound would melt a heart of stone”. They used three locks of her yellow hair to string the harp, then took it to the sisters’ father’s hall. The harp began to play alone, with the first string singing that “the bride” – this must have been at the wedding - “her younger sister drowned”. As the other strings play, so the bride “in terror sits”, before her tears start to flow. It is a wonderful tale of supernatural justice.
I hope by reading the lyrics to jog my memory about Jack Orion, which at nearly 19 minutes takes up the whole of Side Two of the album. The first verse goes: “Jack Orion was as good a fiddler / As ever fiddled on a string / And he could make young women mad / With the tune his fiddle would sing”. While it rings no bells, I am sure I’m detecting that old English device, the double entendre. “He could fiddle the fish out of salt water / Or water from a marble stone / Or milk from out of a maiden’s breast / Though baby she’d got none.” Still no bells, yet I MUST have heard it. Wikipedia says the arrangement “develops through several sections with different rhythms and instrumentation: acoustic guitars, recorders, glockenspiel and electric guitar, together with some dramatic double bass playing by Danny Thompson”. Sounds like a Pentangle classic to me. And, after a few dozen verses, it transpires, three characters lie slain as love ends in tragedy.
Reflection

Probably because of Cruel Sister’s limited commercial success, on their next album, Reflection, from March 1971, they returned to a combination of traditional and original material. It evidently was greeted positively by the media, but, “without much enthusiasm”, says Wikipedia. I don’t recall this album, which had a blue border around multiple photographs on the cover. Happily, that compilation tape I found includes some of the key songs off the album, and most were indeed familiar. Wikipedia says the folk numbers on the album are “more Appalachian than British – in both the selection of songs and the arrangements, with notable use of banjos”. This is clear on the opening track, Wedding Dress, a traditional song which features both banjo and Thompson’s amazing bass played with a bow, not to mention those acoustic guitars. “Hey, my little lonely girl, don’t you guess / Better be making your wedding dress …”
Who on earth would know what Omie Wise was? I had no idea till I found the lyrics. Omie seems to be a girl’s name in what is another traditional song featuring some complex guitar playing and Jansch on lead vocals. It is vintage Jansch, that voice ideally suited to this sort of ballad: “Oh, listen to my story, I’ll tell you no lies, / How John Lewis did murder poor little Omie Wise. / He told her to meet him at Adams’s Springs / He promised her money and other fine things.” It is a bizarre tail of cold-blooded murder, as Omie “jumps up behind him” (onto his horse) and they head off. When she asks if intends to marry her, he replies: “Little Omie, little Omie, I’ll tell to you my mind. / My mind is to drown you and leave you behind.” After she pleads for her life, he hugs and kisses her – “Then pushed her in deep waters where he knew that she would drown.” Clearly, swimming was not a common skill in those days. Two little boys find her body, and Lewis is called to identify her. He is arrested. “He made no confession but they carried him to jail / No friends or relations would go on his bail.” Again, an ancient tale brought alive by modern musicians fascinated by their heritage.
The classic, Will The Circle Be Unbroken?, I remember more, probably, from the seminal bluegrass-based album of the same name by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, but this version is also superb, with a strong bluesy feeling occasioned by some excellent harmonica. It starts with drums and guitars: “Will the circle be unbroken / By and by, oh Lord, by and by / There’s a better home awaiting / In the sky, Lord, in the sky.” Wikipedia informs us that a wah-wah pedal is employed on the electric guitar on this track, which again is used incredibly sparingly, again sounding more like a violin than a guitar. The next track, When I Get Home, was written by Jansch and is one of the finest on the album. Renbourn’s electric guitar gives it a wonderful jazz feeling, alongside some excellent Thompson bass and strummed acoustic guitar. The song is about a man getting drunk at a party, while his wife waits at home. In the next song, the shoe is on the other foot. Another traditional song, Rain And Snow showcases that interesting combination of banjo and sitar, alongside more superb bass, with McShee again providing the finest of vocals: “Well I married me a wife / She gave me trouble all my life / She ran me out in the cold rain and snow.” It’s a sad tale about husband-bashing. “I see yo sitting in the shade counting every dime I’ve made / I’m so broke and I’m hungry too / I’m so broke and I’m hungry too”. The next song, So Clear, I have not heard. It is described by Wikipedia as a “rare John Renbourn composition for the band”. Neither have I heard the title song, Reflection, described as “an atmospheric piece, beginning with triple-tracked bowed and plucked double bass and ending with an improvisational jazzy section”. At over 11 minutes, it sounds most interesting. While the album was being recorded, Wikipedia says the sessions were often affected by Jansch and Renbourn’s “state of sobriety”. But the album ended up of high quality, the only one by the band to make full use of a 16-track studio.
Solomon’s Seal

The cracks that started to appear with Reflection grew. After a row with Transatlantic that is of interest to very few, Pentangle formed their own music publishing company, Swiggeroux Music, in 1971. Their final album, Solomon’s Seal, was released by Warner Brothers/Reprise, in 1972. It apparently received critical acclaim, despite showing signs of the band’s weariness. I have not heard it, but it too must surely be of the highest quality. Sadly, on January 1, 1973, Jansch led the departure as the band split after six creative, if turbulent, years.
Of course, as with all the other great groups from the late 1960s, life had to go on after the bubble burst. Jansch and Renbourn pursued solo careers, McShee had a young family, Thompson did session work and Cox ran a restaurant in Minorca. They reunited in the early 1980s for a tour of Europe, starting at the Cambridge Folk Festival in 1982. And then came the inevitable split, again, as Renbourn left to study classical music. New blood brought a series of three new albums in the 1980s and tours right through till 1995. In 2007, I read, The Time Has Come 1987-1973 was issued, a 4-CD set comprising rarities, out-takes and live performances. Also, in 2007, the five original members were reunited for a Lifetime Achievement award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, and to record a short concert that was broadcast on BBC radio.
McShee also ventured off on her own in the 1990s, her band eventually being called Jacqui McShee’s Pentangle. Her albums, which include guest stars like Ralph McTell and John Martyn, must surely also be well worth a listen. So too must the various compilation albums released from 1972 till 20001, one of which I picked up on that tape in London around 1990. Another gem must be the 1968-1972 Lost Broadcasts album, released in 2004, taken from numerous radio broadcasts the band did.
It is interesting to note that while Danny Thompson called their sound “folk-jazz”, Wikipedia quotes Renbourn as despising the “folk-rock” concept, saying: “one of the worst things you can do to a folk song is inflict a rock beat on it … Most of the old songs that I have heard have their own internal rhythm.” He said Terry Cox’s percussion patterns matched this rhythm exactly. “In that respect he was the opposite of a folk-rock drummer.” Ironically, it seems that by Cruel Sister, in 1970, the band had moved away from its unique synthesis of different elements, such as folk, jazz, blues and early music, and, by including electric instruments on traditional songs, had – Renbourn’s protestations notwithstanding – ended up closer to Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span’s folk-rock sound than they probably would have liked.
Their sound was clearly going to be overtaken by time and other musical developments, but for me it represents yet another of the great high points in the evolution of modern music. At the time of their receiving their Lifetime Achievement award in January, 2007, BBC Radio 2 producer John Leonard called the band “one of the most influential groups of the late 20th century”.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Fairport Convention



IT may be my English and Scottish roots, but there is a strain of music based on old English and Celtic folk songs which seemed to strike a chord the moment I heard it.

And Fairport Convention were among the most pleasing exponents of this brand of music, presenting as they did an interesting and altogether original alternative to the sort of music which had swept all before it in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I don’t know if they were the first to use the electric violin as an integral part of their sound, but they must have been right up there.

Full House, for me, will always be the archetypal Fairport album. Not only did it have a clever cover design, with the faces of the musicians comprising the band at the time worked into playing card images, but the album featured some of their most memorable songs, and marked a real high point in the development of this genre of music.

Sandy Denny

Vocalist Sandy Denny and fiddler Dave Swarbrick are, for me, also synonymous with the band. Denny brings her inimitable, sensual approach to traditional English ballads on several songs on the epochal Liege & Lief album. No lover of early Fairport will be unaware of songs like Matty Groves and Crazy Man Michael.

Of course Fairport were in excellent company, with the likes of The Incredible String Band, Pentangle and, somewhat more commercially, Steeleye Span, also exploring the possibilities that traditional Anglo-Celtic music offered to modern rock bands.

But who were Fairport, and how did they arrive at that sound when they did? Wikipedia says they are often credited with being the first English folk-rock band, following their formation in April, 1967, with Simon Nicol, Richard Thompson (both of whom backed Ian Matthews on his seminal solo albums), Ashley Hutchings and Shaun Frater. Fortunately, I note, they “rapidly developed from playing cover versions of American ‘west coast’ style music to an individual style which melded rock music with traditional English tunes and songs”. I also know they underwent numerous personnel changes over the years, because I was lucky to catch them at a London theatre (whose name escapes me) while working in that city in 1990 and 1991. And of course the man I really most wanted to hear, Dave Schwarbik, was no longer part of the band. The performance was, however, still great, although as happens in such live shows, they did tend to drag out songs to well over 10 minutes of over-heavy music. I longed for the acoustic sounds which made Full House such a little gem.

I see from Wikipedia that their continuing success is due to the annual Cropredy Festival the group has organised near the village of Cropredy outside Banbury, Oxfordshire, which often attracts 20 000 fans. Renamed Fairport’s Cropredy Convention, it is evidently one of the key events in the UK folk festival calendar – though I should imagine the average age of the folkies attending it is getting well into the 50s.

This may be jumping the gun, but I see that in 2002 the band received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, with Liege & Lief, another favourite, voted the most influential folk album of all time in a public ballot in 2006 conducted by the BBC. How did they achieve such success?

The first band leader was bass guitar player Ashley “Tyger” Hutchings. Based in north London, his band played its first concert in a church hall in Golders Green in May, 1967. The four young men, Hutchings, rhythm guitarist Nicol, lead guitarist Thompson and drummer Frater met for rehearsals at Nicols’s family home in Muswell Hill, North London. The house was called Fairport. Where the idea for the word Convention arrived is not explained, but at least we now know why Fairport has become an iconic word in the history of modern music. After that first church gig, one of those in the audience, Martin Lamble, persuaded the leadership he could do better than Frater, and so the band got a new drummer. Then they got a female singer – but it wasn’t Sandy Denny.

Judy Dyble was born in 1949 in Wood Green, North London, and her joining the band gave it an edge which saw it working hard at various gigs, including “underground” acts such as The Electric Garden, Middle Earth and UFO, according to Wikipedia. Impressed was Joe Boyd, who persuaded Island Records to sign them on. And guess who Boyd also persuaded them to take on as a member of the band – Iain Matthews MacDonald, who had dropped his surname and would later have a long and, in the early parts, illustrious solo career.

Fairport Convention

Their first album, simply titled Fairport Convention, was released in June 1968, and I have not heard it. Early on, says Wikipedia, they turned to US stars like Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan for inspiration. Their apparent Americanness led to them being seen as a British version of Jefferson Airplane.

What We Did On Our Holidays

And then came Sandy Denny. She replaced Dyble as the female vocalist on their second album, What We Did On Our Holidays, having previously recorded as a soloist and with The Strawbs (an album I have heard and am not overly impressed with).

Unhalfbricking

And then came folk fiddle player Dave Swarbrick, who made a guest appearance on their third album, Unhalfbricking, which I have also not heard. It evidently, says Wikipedia, “mixed strong original material with contemporary songs by artists like Mitchell and Dylan”. In the Wikipedia discography section, this album is credited with being “an important milestone in their history”, as it “marked the moment they discovered the folk rock style for which they are best known”. This after an American psychelic rock phase influenced by the likes of Jefferson Airplane. With Sandy Denny now in the band, I suppose it is not surprising it took off, especially since the golden voice of Ian Matthews was also gone, which gave Denny more freedom to influence matters.

Interestingly, producer Joe Boyd offered the band rare Bob Dylan outtakes for use on the album, like Percy’s Song, an outtake from The Times They Are A-Changin’. These were held at the offices of Dylan’s British publishers, Feldman’s. They also tested Dear Landlord from John Wesley Harding, though it did not make the final cut. Then there was that French version of If You Gotta Go, Go Now, which did well as a single in the UK.

Denny’s influence was felt in her “most famous song”, Who Knows Where The Time Goes, while she also proposed the band perform the traditional song, A Sailor’s Life, which ended up as an 11-minute classic and, notably, for the first time featured the fiddle of guest artist Dave Swarbrick. Wikipedia says this song “would be the album’s stand-out song and provide a template for British folk rock”. Love to hear it.

As to the album title, it is apparently a “meaningless invention by one of the band members”. And the old couple in the park on the cover are Denny’s Parents, Neil and Edna, outside their home in Wimbledon, south London, with the band barely visible in the distance.

While the band were in shock after the tragic loss of Lamble and Thompson’s girlfriend in a car crash, the album’s release was well received by the public. And it was accepted that this was the way to proceed. With Swarbrick signed on full time, the stage was set for Liege & Lief. Indicative of how good Unhalfbricking was, in 2000, Q magazine placed it at No 79 in its list of the 100 Greatest British Albums Ever.

John Peel

And then came John Peel. The radio DJ was a staunch fan of their music and played their albums on his influential BBC shows, says Wikipedia. He also recorded several BBC sessions, which were later released as Heyday.

This was a time when folk-rock was just emerging. Wikipedia explains how Dylan initiated it at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, when he started using electric instruments, culminating in his album, Bringing It All Back Home. The Beatles started infusing acoustic guitars increasingly into their songs, with John Lennon’s lyrics, in particular, becoming more meaningful and more personal. In the US, The Byrds turned Dylan’s Mr Tambourine Man into a folk-rock song, which I well recall hearing in the later 1960s, as do I recall their folk-rock version of Pete Seeger’s Turn, Turn, Turn. Interestingly, I see Wikipedia says they incorporated “Beatles-sounding jangling 12-string electric guitars”.

It is fitting that Wikipedia should dwell on this issue. It quotes rock journalist Ritchie Unterberger as writing in Eight Miles High that “prior to 1968 … there was not a single British rock group that played electric folk-rock consistently and well. It is thus not too surprising that the band to become roundly acclaimed as the best British folk-rock group, Fairport Convention, took its initial inspiration from American folk-rock, particularly the guitar-oriented California sort”.

This was one mean turn-up for the books, surely. While you had all these magnificent exponents of traditional English folk in the UK, no-one had yet taken the big step to embark on the folk-rock path, bringing rock instruments alongside folk instruments, and reworking often traditional folk songs in a rock way. Initially, says Wikipedia, the press, and Fairport, called it “electric folk”, but it soon became folk-rock. Wikipedia says while The Strawbs and Pentangle were also experimenting with the genre, Faiport are “widely credited with ‘inventing’ British folk-rock”. As Richard Thompson’s guitar flair improved and the band started writing their own numbers, they had a minor hit on the singles charts with a French version of Dylan’s If You Gotta Go, which included one John Peel on triangle. It nearly made the UK Top 20 and featured on Top Of The Pops, the popular BBC television pop music programme.

Then tragedy struck, with Fairport’s van crashing after a Birmingham gig. Martin Lamble, just 19, and Jeannie Franklyn, Thompson’s girlfriend, were killed, with the others suffering injuries of varying severity. They almost packed it in, but once recovered went back into the studio. Ian Matthews had left, and Dave Mattacks took over as drummer. Then, as Wikipedia notes, “the resulting LP, Liege & Lief, was a classic. This was arguably Fairport Convention’s finest album and it established British folk-rock as a distinct and influential genre”. The album was launched with a sell-out concert at London’s Royal Festival hall in late 1969, with Swarbrick, who played extensively on the album, having joined the band. I had not realized, but Wikipedia says there is conjecture that Swarbrick, with his strong traditional music influence, moved the band away from their original route, especially after Thompson left after the recording of Full House. Yet this is surely being churlish, because for me Swarbrick’s electric fiddle is like Frodo’s famous sword, Sting, in The Lord of the Rings. It infuses a bit of magic into so many songs that it is impossible to consider the band without its distinctive influence.

Thus far my superficial knowledge of the band has proved fairly accurate. And I see I was spot-on, too, in citing Steeleye Span as being part of this same wave. Because, I learn that after Liege & Lief, founding member Ashley Hutchings quit to form … Steeleye Span. And Sandy Denny also left. Dave Pegg took over the bass guitar – and at the time of writing was still there, three and half decades later. The band, however, decided to continue without a female singer. With the band now ensconced in The Angel, a former Hertfordshire pup, a near tragedy nearly ended it all, when a lorry crashed into the building, covering the sleeping Swarbrick with rubble, but leaving him otherwise unscathed. That pub must have been a pretty full house, with many big and often bruised egos, so it is not surprising that after the seminal Full House was recorded, Thompson left, which meant Simon Nicol was the only remaining original member.

Dave Swarbrick

Full House, as I have said, was for me the finest Fairport album – at least of those I have heard.

But as far as concept albums go, I have to say Babbacombe Lee, a folk-rock opera developed by Swarbrick, is another gem. Life in that pub also, it emerges, inspired the album, Angel Delight, marking the first time that two Fairport albums were recorded consecutively with the same line-up. It is good to see that Babbacombe Lee “was a success, and received good air play in the US.” I picked up a copy of the album at a second hand shop a decade and a half after it was released.

So guess who leaves Fairport next? Yes, the only original Fairporter, Simon Nicol, who quit early in 1972. And he was followed by Dave Mattacks, though they would both rejoin later. Dave Pegg and Swarbrick were left to hold the fort, as “Fairport Confusion” underwent further personnel changes. By this stage we pretty well lost track of the band, but it is interesting to note that by 1973, Mattacks had returned along with two former members of Sandy Denny’s Fotheringay. The next two studio albums were Rosie from 1973 and Fairport Nine (1974). Since Dave Swarbrick plays on these I assume they too are well worth a listen.

But wait, Sandy Denny wanted back in. She rejoined Fairport in 1974, featured on the album Rising For The Moon, and left again in 1976, along with her ex-Fotheringay bandmates.

The whole thing gradually unwound, and culminated in Nicol, Swarbrick, Pegg and Bruce Rowland signing as Fairport with Vertigo, making two of four contracted albums, and in the end being paid not to make the remaining albums. Meanwhile, in 1978, Sandy Denny died tragically at the age of just 31, of a cerebral haemmorrhage after falling down a flight of stairs. And then by 1979, I discover, Swarbrick’s hearing was “deteriorating rapidly”. The band decided to do a farewell concert, which included a final outdoor gig at Cropredy, Dave and Christine Pegg’s home village. The Peggs created Woodworm Records and released a live album of the tour – after the record companies turned them down. And so began the series of annual reunion concerts, with “official bootlegs” of the Cropredy concerts being made by the Peggs. Pegg, meanwhile, had joined another folk-rock sensation, Jethro Tull. Nicol and Swarbrick continued as an acoustic duo. But Fairport, sans Swarbrick, was reformed in 1985 to record a new album in the Peggs’ studio. Instead, violinist Ric Sanders joined in, along with multi-instrumentalist Martin Allcock. Expletive Delighted was the result. The line-up lasted 11 years – and must have been the one I saw in 1990 or ’91. Sadly, I did not hear the four-piece acoustic line-up which emerged in the early ’90s, parallel to the other version. And so, with further line-up changes, the band continued into the 2000s. And I’m pretty sure that those who now comprise the band – which, remember, rarely kept the same lineup for long - are still making memorable music. Wikipedia, naturally, has a breakdown of their latest releases.

Liege & Lief

But when we’re talking Fairport, our minds have to return to those early, seminal albums, like Liege & Lief, which I grew up with. Giving it a listen now, old and a bit scratched, it is nice to know that so much of this work, so many absolute gems, have been re-released on CD, giving them, and I’m sure their creators and music companies, a financial fillip.

The album starts with Come All Ye Roving Minstrels, in which, naturally, Swarbrick’s fiddle is prominent. I recently managed to watch a bit of early Fairport on YouTube, and was struck by just how dynamic having a fiddler in a rock band can be. There is something awe-inspiring about seeing a real expert tuck that small instrument under his chin, bring the bow to its strings, and then unleash notes at a pace that musicians playing guitars can only dream of achieving. And of course the instrument is incredibly versatile, enabling the performer to achieve a wide range of moods, as Swarbrick does on this album.

But what of Sandy Denny? I saw a brief clip of her too, and gained a fresh insight into just how much effort she put into achieving the sounds she did. It is not so much the range of her vocals as the underlying power which gives these songs their richness. And don’t forget the excellent guitar work by Nicol and Thompson, or Hutchings and Mattacks’ creative rhythm section. As one who grew up listening, often not fully, it must be confessed, to these songs, I also took delight in reading the lyrics.

Take that first track: “Come all ye rolling (roving?) minstrels / And together we will try / To rouse the spirit of the earth / And move the rolling sky…” While it may sound like a traditional song, I see it is in fact a Denny/Hutchings composition, which only goes to show how steeped they became in the genre.

After that up-tempo start, Reynardine is a slower, more contemplative traditional song arranged by the group, with Denny’s vocals again brilliant. Typical of these old ballads, each tells a tale of love, often of betrayal, and of revenge. This one starts: “One evening as I rambled / Among the leaves so green / I overheard a young woman / Converse with Reynardine.” I love this next verse: “Her hair was black, her eyes were blue, / Her lips as red as wine / And he smiled to gaze upon her, / Did that sly, bold Reynardine.” She says she fears he is a rake, but he can’t resist her: “Your beauty so enticed me / I could not pass it by / So it’s with my gun I’ll guard you / All on the mountains high”. On each song, as a verse ends, so that fiddle bursts through, weaving a couple of seconds of magic, before the next begins.

Matty Groves is another traditional song upon which Fairport worked their magic. It starts with a soft fiddle-led lilt, before Denny launches into the lyrics, and who can forget those opening lines? “A holiday, a holiday, and the first one of the year / Lord Donald’s wife came into the church, the gospel for to hear”. This is a tragic move, for with her husband away, she invites “little Matty Groves” to “sleep with me till light”. He, of course, is terrified, because “by the rings on your fingers I can tell you are my master’s wife”. She assures him is far away in the cornfields “bringing the yearlings home”. However, a servant nearby overheard them, and sped off to inform on them. We are spared the details of their illicit lovemaking, but Matty wakes with a start to find Lord Donald “standing at his feet”. Here we enjoy some typical English wit, with Lord Donald “Saying ‘How do like my feather bed and how do you like my sheets / How do you like my lady who lies in your arms asleep?” Matty is emboldened and tells him he likes the bed well, and the lady even better. Lord Donald orders him to get up and dressed so that: “It’ll never be said in fair England that I slew a naked man”. Matty refuses, saying he only has a pocket knife. Donald sys he has “two beaten swords and they cost me deep in the purse” – I love that line – and he offers the best to Matty, and lets him strike the first blow, which he does. Matty hurts Donald, but he in turn kills Matty. Putting his wife on his knee he demands who she now likes the best. But his wife, “never heard to speak so free”, responds: “I’d rather a kiss from dead Matty’s lips than you or your finery”. Not surprisingly, Donald dispatches her through the heart, then orders a double grave for them both. One lyric site includes an interesting query: could it be Lord Dunnell, not Donald?

The next track, Farewell, Farewell (written by Richard Thompson), is a gentle folk song which again showcases Denny’s angelic voice. Notable here is the combination of electric guitar and violin. Again, the lyrics are evocative of a tranquil English countryside which is rapidly disappearing: “Farewell, farewell to you who’d hear / You lonely travellers all / The cold north wind will blow again / The winding road does call.”

Side 2 starts with a traditional song, The Deserter, that has long been a favourite. It starts with some great fiddle and strong acoustic guitar chords. Then into Denny’s vocals: “As I was a-walking along Ratcliffe Highway / A recruiting party came a-beating my way / They enlisted me and treated me ’til I did not know / Unto the Queen’s barracks they forced me to go.” Of course he then deserts, and “ thought myself free / Until my cruel comrade informed against me”. “I was quickly followed after and brought back with speed, / I was handcuffed and guarded, heavy irons put on me.” Then comes the court martial, and a sentence of “Three hundred and three”. Then next time he deserts it is his sweetheart who informs against him, and this time his sentence is to be shot. Until Prince Albert arrives in his carriage and announces: “Set him free from his irons and let him go free, /For he’ll make a good soldier for his Queen and country.”

Probably about the same time as we had heard the great fiddle-pennywhislte medleys on the Dubliners albums, we would have heard the next track, a medley comprising The Lark In The Morning, Rakish Paddy, Foxhunters’ Jig and Toss The Feathers. Here, Swarbrick’s credentials as a virtuoso fiddle player steeped in old English traditional music are more than proven. And of course the rest of the band are well up to the task of giving the medley the necessary rock edge, with a lilting bass line running parallel to the fiddle.

Drums and guitar kick Tam Lin into action, yet another of those clever adaptations of traditional English ballads to the new folk-rock genre. “I forbid you maidens all that wear gold in your hair / To travel to Carter Hall for young Tam Lin is there ...” This is Denny at her sultry best, telling the Chaucer-like tale of girls losing their maidenheads, which is a very English way of saying their virginity, and far more seductive. “None that go by Carter Hall but they leave him a pledge / Either their mantles of green or else their maidenhead ...” So what did our protagonist do? “Janet tied her kirtle green a bit above her knee / And she’s gone to Carter Hall as fast as go can she ...” She meets up with Tam Lin and, a little further, her father proclaims: “Oh, and alas, Janet … I think you go with child.” She’s angry. “Well, if that be so,” Janet said, “myself shall bear the blame / There’s not a knight in all your hall shall get the baby’s name”. The story twists and turns, until she meets Tam Lin again, who says: “Oh, they will turn me in your arms to a newt or a snake / But hold me tight and fear not, I am your baby’s father.” With a Faery Queen and other magic, this song is clearly a classic of early English balladry, where tales of knights and kings were the order of the day. It is fascinating to read the actual lyrics, which are not that easily discerned on the album.

If there is one song that, more than any other, encapsulates the Fairport sound in the Denny days, it is Crazy Man Michael, which had a profound impact on me when I first heard it in the early 1970s. Another Swarbrick/Thompson composition, it is a “traditional” English folk song, despite its contemporary origins. Yet, until now, I had not full divined the lyrics, so here is a sample, as hauntingly sung by Sandy Denny: “Within the fire and out upon the sea / Crazy man Michael was walking / He met with a raven with eyes black as coals / And shortly they were a-talking / Your future, your future I would tell to you / Your future you often have asked me / Your true love will die by your own right hand / And crazy man Michael will curs├Ęd be.” The scene is thus set for another of those bloody tragedies which are common coinage in old English folk songs. After slaying the raven, he endures all sorts of misgivings, before the final verse, sung quietly: “Michael he whistles the simplest of tunes / And asks of the wild wolves their pardon / For his true love is flown into every flower grown / And he must be keeper of the garden.”

It is a crazy, wonderful song, rich in magic of the sort which probably led to such splendid creations as King Arthur, Lancelot and the like.

Full House

With Sandy Denny gone, it was now up to the men to take over the lead vocals role, and to my mind in doing so they changed the whole quality of the band. Gone was Denny’s incredibly powerful, sensuous voice, so well suited to the traditional English folk ballads which were such a feature of Liege & Lief. But, while the band retained, and indeed expanded on this formula on their next album, Full House (1970), now it was the time for Swarbrick, Thompson, Pegg and Nicol to share the vocals, and they do it with great, great aplomb.

I have a lasting memory of listening to this album on a visit to our old schooldays friend, Graeme Holding, who had a magnificent 12-string guitar. For some reason, that day, I heard this album like I had never heard it before. Perhaps his folks had really good hi-fi equipment, but for the first time I sat and heard every instrument, every note, on what for me is one of the greatest albums of all time. And, if I recall correctly, I don’t think we had even smoked anything more than Texan that day.

Naturally, it is the soaring fiddle of Dave Swarbrick which makes the first, and lasting, impression on this album. He must surely rank as the musician who first popularised the concept of having an upfront fiddler playing in a folk-rock band. Having watched a few YouTube clips of the band down the years, it is clear that this became a hallmark of their live act. It was something we’d get to appreciate live many, many times in the 1970s as we followed the career of East London’s own fiddler extraordinaire, Dave Tarr, when he played for bands like Newton Fig, the South Country Band and, most notably, the Silver Creek Mountain Band, arguably one of the finest ever in this country. It was a thing to behold. And, with Swarbrick, I suspect it was the same, the slightly crouched figure of the fiddle player as he gears up to unleash his wizardry alongside the rest of that gifted outfit. Just how gifted is evident from the first notes on the first track, Walk Awhile, a Thompson / Swarbrick composition which might easily be a traditional folk song, so steeped is it in the genre. Indeed, thanks to Wikipedia, I discover that it was actually composed around the traditional song, Bonaparte’s Retreat.

Just which of the three is responsible for those distinctive Fairport vocals, I don’t know. But there is one voice, among the many on this album, which I’ll always associate with the band, and which give it its special colour, just as Denny had done previously.

Bizarrely, Thompson left the band in 1971, soon after the album, which would peak at No 13 in the UK, was released. And it was he who requested that Poor Will And The Jolly Hangman, which was on the original test pressing, be removed before the official release.

Joe Boyd, on his 1986 sleeve notes for the House Full live album, recorded in September, 1970, says: “Full House certainly hasn’t the renown of its predecessor. And probably for good reason. I will once again register my complaint that Richard (Thompson) made me take off Poor Will And The Jolly Hangman for a reason no longer clear to me. That track would have balanced things out and made for a stronger LP.” His wish that “one day we may reissue it the way it was meant to be” was granted in 2001, when the original track order was installed, plus four additional tracks added, one of which has arguably the longest title in the history of modern popular music. Firstly, there are two versions, the mono and stereo mixes of Now Be Thankful, which I happened to see performed on YouTube just recently. Then there is Bonny Bunch of Roses. But the long one is Sir B McKenzie’s Daughter’s Lament For The 77th Mounted Lancers’ Retreat From The Straits Of Loch Knombe In the Year Of Our Lord 1727 On The Occasion Of The Announcement Of Her Marriage To The Laird Of Kinleakie. I’d love to hear them. It seems Sir B McKenzie was a gimmick, an attempt to get into the Guinness Book of Records for the longest song title. It was in fact a medley comprising traditional tunes Bonny Kate; Biff, Bang, Crash and The Kilfenora and Boston Tea Party, written by Swarbrick.

Omission of Poor Will led to a black block having to be printed over the original list of the first album sleeve, with the revised list overprinted in gold. A few albums slipped out without the correction.

The list of instruments played by each musician on the album is an indication of just how steeped in traditional folk it is. Swarbrick plays fiddle, viola and mandolin, Thompson electric guitar, Pegg bass guitar and mandolin, Mattacks drums, percussion, harmonium and bodhran (that Irish hand-held drum) and Nicol electric and acoustic guitars and bass guitar. With these, it was possible for the band to produce some of the tightest, most powerful instrumental medleys ever performed on Dirty Linen and Flatback Caper. Both are notable for the wonderful changes of tempo as they switch between the various folk tunes. Fiddle, mandolin and guitar are often heard playing the identical notes together at break-neck speed – an amazing feat of musicality. And with electric bass and drums adding body, these two assert themselves as highlights of an album which I believe Boyd is wrong in finding fault with. Of course I haven’t heard Poor Will yet …

But the Full House we grew up with was a masterpiece, an album whose time had come. There’s nothing flashy here, just musical excellence, with a fiddle, and mandolin, which redefined the concept of rock music.

But if the instrumentals provided thrust and drive, the ballads provide the meat. Certainly Dylan and others had taken old folk tunes and written new lyrics for them – but few, if any, have managed to maintain the Englishness which Fairport achieve. Walk Awhile is, in itself, an impeccably old English phrase. We don’t say “walk awhile, walk awhile, walk awhile with me” any more, but I often wish we did. It speaks of a slower, more refined era, when life, like the language people spoke, was a considered, contemplative thing – in literature at any length. The song continues: “The more we walk together, love, the better we’ll agree / We’ll agree”. Having not previously read these lyrics, I am surprised by their content, having long heard them without listening for a meaning, if you know what I mean. “One hand in your mouth and your finger in your eye / Undertakers bow their heads as you go walking by.” Then back to the chorus. The next verse, also “new” to me, goes: “Here comes another Sunday, ringing on the bell / And here comes a wounded child, another tale to tell.” It speaks of the intimacy of village life, where Sundays are marked by the ringing of a church bell, and family life by a child telling its mother how it got hurt while playing. How English isn’t this verse? “ ‘Bring along,’ the brewer said, ‘bring the cuckoo tree / Bring your lady mother along to keep us company’.” And how will she bring a cuckoo tree – unless that is rhyming slang for a drink of some sort. Those words, “two miles”, are like a beacon to me. The song changes somewhat as THAT voice intones: “Two miles down the road, Henry Tompkins wife / Three miles down the road and he’s running for his life.” The poetry analysts will tell you what’s happening here, but to me it speaks of an upset wife and a fleeing husband. Lovely stuff.

Sloth is another defining song on the album. Who can mention the name Fairport without thinking of those first words on this song: “Just a roll, just a roll / Just a roll on your drum / Just a roll, just a roll / And the war has begun.” Yet another Thompson /Swarbrick composition, this album is undoubtedly a testament to their joint song-writing ability, something sadly lost with Thompson’s departure. The song, like so many, starts with the chorus, then goes into some intriguing verses: “Now the right thing’s the wrong thing / No more excuses to come / Just one step at a time / And the war has begun.” Funny how, as a teen, I misheard that. I thought it went “just one step out of line … and the war has begun”. The verses all smack of ancient conflicts and allegiances. “She’s run away, she’s run away / And she ran so bitterly / Now call to your colours, friend / Don’t you call to me.” The last verse, as mysteriously, goes: “Don’t you cry, don’t you cry / don’t you cry upon the sea / Don’t you cry, don’t you cry / For your lady and me.” There is a smoothness about this song which is like a good whisky. It turns into one of the great folk-rock jams of the era, full of brilliant improvisation, before returning for that final, haunting verse.

The next song is too long and obviously historically based to be modern. Fairport, however, achieve a miracle arrangement of a traditional song. If the fiddle and guitarwork is superb, it is so against some harmonising that is out of this world. And what lyrics: “The King sits in Dunfirmline town, / Drinking of the blood-red wine / ‘Where can I get a steely skipper / To sail this might(y) boat of mine?” A “bonny boy” tells him about Sir Patrick Spens, “the very best seaman / that ever sailed upon the sea”. However, when summoned, Sir Patrick denies he’s good, saying “I was never a very good seaman / Nor ever do intend to be”. He’s persuaded however, and with portents of a storm ahead, the song continues: “They had not sailed upon the deep / A day but barely free / When loud and boisteroius blew the winds / And loud and noisy blew the sea”. Having not read this before, I was interested to read the next verse: “Then up there came a mermaiden / A comb and glass all in her hand / ‘Here’s to you my merry young men for / You’ll not see dry land again.” I’d heard this song many times, but finally I get the full gist. Of course the boat goes down and “Forty miles off Aberdeen / the waters fifty fathoms deep / There lies good Sir Patrick Spens / With the Scots lords at his feet”.

But if we thought Thompson and Swarbrick weren’t capable of lengthy “traditional” folk songs, we were mistaken. Because Doctor of Physick, from the title on, is just such a song. And it’s full of sexual innuendos to boot. “Take care daughter dear / don’t dream on many gallant men tonight / Take care daughter dear / for a doctor comes to steal your books / In the dead of night”. The website I consulted for these lyrics has question marks over the word “sign” in the chorus. “Every sign in here / so wear your relic near / Doctor Monk unpacks his trunk tonight”. A keen sense of mystery is wrapped around the entire song. And then comes the naughty bit: “ ‘Oh, father dear / I dreamed last night / A man sat on my bed / And I fear / When I awoke / I could not find my maindenhead”. After the chorus comes the warning: “He’ll have you all / You fine young ladies / Pure as fallen snow / He’ll have you all / If you think upon improper things, / The doctor will know”.

The guitar on The Flowers Of The Forest sounds like a set of bagpipes. That’s how good they are. This arrangement, with reworked, simplified, lyrics of a traditional Scots song is another wonderful achievement. “I’ve heard them liltin’ / At the ewe milkin’ / and I’ve heard them liltin’ / Before light a-day”. Then comes: “Now they are mourning’ / For all time a –liltin’ / The flowers of the forest / Are all a’ wede away”. This seems to hark back to battles lost and won: “Sad they for the order / That sent them to the border / the English by guile / For once won the day”.

All in all, then, one of the all-time classic albums in the history of rock.

House Full

It’s time for a bit of personal history, I’m afraid. Having married Robyn in London in 1990, while on a two-year secondment for the SA Morning Group of newspapers, our contacts with the UK were maintained because her mom had remarried a Yorkshireman and settled in Leeds. One year, in the mid-1990s, she asked what I wanted for Christmas, and I, hankering after that Full House album, requested the same. Surprise, surprise. She arrived with, well, House Full, a live album recorded in Los Angeles in September 1970, when the band was at its peak, and featuring the Full House lineup. While only released in 1986, it is an interesting experience of how the band performed live, without all the frills made possible in the studio. Significantly, the band retains its taughtness, along with much of the subtlety of the studio sounds.

The opening track, Sir Patrick Spens, is superb, while Banks Of The Sweet Primroses was a pleasant surprise. “As I walked out on a midsummer’s morning …”, which shows off the combined male vocal talents of the band in its post-Denny form.

The instrumental, Toss The Feathers, is a typically virtuoso performance, with the plucking of the violin by Swarbrick a reminder of Dave Tarr at his best.

Sloth became a key vehicle for a folk-rock jam, and the one here gets especially heavy – yet always has that basic melody in sight, to which the band ultimately returns. It was Sloth which dominated that Fairport concert I saw in London in 1990.

Side 2 starts with Staines Morris, a lively jig with clear morris dancing links. I love the four-man vocals in the chorus, alongside tight fiddle, bass and lead guitar: “Then to the maypole haste away, for ‘tis now our holiday.”

Richard Thompson takes over the Denny role in the lengthy Matty Groves performance, and one gets the feeling he rather dashes off the verses so the band can get stuck into another long, loud jam which again is out of the top drawer.

Masons Apron is another tight, fiddle-led reel, before the album closes with the rather somber, but quite beautiful Battle Of The Somme, which again reminded me of the Dubliners at their peak.

Richard Thompson

When Thompson left the band, I’m afraid, something of its soul went as well. There can be no gainsaying the fact that the Thompson/Swarbrick combination was one of the best partnerships in modern rock, alongside the likes of Lennon/McCartney and Jagger/Richards. There must have been a very special chemistry at work when these two set their minds to composing music.

“Babbacombe” Lee

The impact of Thompson’s absence, for me, is most evident on “Babbacombe” Lee, release in November, 1971, a copy of which I picked up in a second hand shop. This is not to say that it is a weak album. Quite the reverse. Anything featuring so much of Swarbrick’s influence has to be good. I just feel, particularly in the lyrics and maybe also in the vocals, it lacks Thompson’s touch – or at least the sort of feel one got on the Full House album.

The was really Swarbrick’s baby. Wikipedia says he arrived at the idea after finding a file of old newspaper clippings in a junk shop. Included were John Lee’s own copies of articles about him, signed and dated January 30, 1880. Because of the strong use of folk instruments like fiddle, mandolin and dulcimer, the album has been deemed the first folk-rock rock opera. It traces the story of the young John Lee who decides to join the navy, but gets wrongly accused of murdering an old woman. It takes in his trial and finally, his tribulations, and ultimate redemption, on the gallows. There were no song titles on the album, although these have been given on the later CD. While apparently critically acclaimed, I am not surprised to read on Wikipedia that it sold “very poorly”, becoming the band’s least successful effort. The only song not composed by the band, The Sailor’s Alphabet, is a lovely look at nautical terms, with a catchy chorus of: “Merrily, merrily, so merrily sail we / No mortal on earth like a sailor at sea / Heavaway, haulaway the ship rolls along / Give a sailor his grog and there’s nothing goes wrong.” Just one example of the turgidity of some of the writing are the lines: “This man called Lee has had his day and soon he’ll be forgotten / So put that paper down before you breakfast goes quite rotten.”

That, then, was that. I retain a devotion to the memory of Fairport in its heyday, and am sure the various key players in the band continue to make wonderful music. But it was for those couple of years, as the ’60s became the ’70s, that they’ll best be remembered, when they took traditional English folk songs and gave them a rocky edge that thrust that great, rich cultural tradition, as old as the English language itself, to the forefront of the global rock music revolution.


Saturday, February 14, 2009

Jethro Tull



THERE are some bands which transcend simple classification, or pigeonholing. Jethro Tull was huge for us, growing up – particularly in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when they were in their youthful prime. For a time, in high school, many of us would dress wearing long baggy coats bought at second-hand shops, and knee-high moccasins into which we tucked our jeans, in an impersonation of Ian Anderson. We even made flutes out of bamboo, which we played in the Anderson position – flamingo-like, with one leg raised and tucked around the knee of the other.
My abiding memory of the group revolves around three key albums, Stand Up, Benefit, and Aqualung. We only had the first two, but Aqualung was so popular, it was one of those albums everyone heard through the chain of lending, borrowing, taping and swopping that occurred at the time. It must surely have been their greatest commercial success, thanks in large part to the title track. But it was those two earlier albums which for me set the standard by which all subsequent Jethro Tull albums would be judged.
Folk, rock, blues, jazz. The various influences seemed to merge into a unique Jethro Tull sound driven, in large measure, by the genius that was Ian Anderson, composer, vocalist and flautist supreme.
I remember a tall Dutch friend we had in Bonza Bay, Jan Raudinck (or at least that’s how it was pronounced; we never worried much about how surnames were spelt in those days). For some reason I associate those two albums with the period, in the early 1970s, when Jan spent time with us on the beach, kicking soccer balls around. He was tall and muscular, like so many Dutch people, and had the ability to shoulder the ball almost as far as most of us could kick it.
There is something terribly special about those two albums. I listen to them with a reverence normally reserved for masterpieces. In fact, I believe they were masterpieces. But I wonder what the brains trust on Wikipedia think …
The interesting thing about researching these pioneer bands is that interesting information emerges. I mean who would have thought that Jethro Tull would have been formed in the relative backwater of Blackpool? But that is where they started in 1967. My attempt NOT to categorise them failed, because Wikipedia has them as that all-embracing term “progressive rock”. “Initially playing blues rock with an experimental flavour, they have over the years incorporated elements of classical, folk and ‘ethnic’ musics, jazz and art rock. Eclectic influences, diverse instrumentation and often elaborate song construction led them to be labeled as an archetypal ‘progressive rock’ band,” says Wikipedia.
Ian Anderson

Anderson’s music career started back in 1963, says Wikipedia, with his first band, The Blades. By 1966 it was a seven-piece “white soul” band called the John Evan Band, named for their pianist-drummer, John Evans, who dispensed with the “s”. Inevitably, the band moved to London – at least those who did not quit, which was Anderson and bassist Glenn Cornick. They later joined up with blues guitarist Mick Abrahams (whom we’ll encounter later in Blodwyn Pig, another band from the period we “got into” in a pig, or big, way), and drummer Clive Bunker. They battled to make it on the London club circuit, often having to change the band’s name to get bookings. Indeed, it emerges – and here’s comes the inevitable tale of “how they got their name” – one booking agent, a history buff, eventually christened them Jethro Tull, after an 18th-century agriculturist who invented the seed drill, whatever that is. The name may well have gone the way of the many others used previously, but for the fact that it was the one they were playing under when a club manager, John Gee of the Marquee, actually invited them back to play again. They also became the third band, says Wikipedia, to fall under the nascent Chrysalis empire.
This Was

They started as a progressive blues outfit, and released an Abrahams composition, Sunshine Day, as a single, in 1968. Memorably, and collectably, the band’s name was spelt Jethro Toe on the single. The spelling was corrected for their debut album, This Was, from 1968, which was not part of our initial Tull experience. It was, by all accounts, an Abrahams-dominated album, although Anderson also contributed songs. But on one tune, Serenade To A Cuckoo, written by Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Anderson evidently exhibited his “growing talents on the flute”, which he had only started learning to play six months earlier. Anderson described their sound as “a sort of progressive blues with a bit of jazz”. Ah yes. Two bulls cannot share one kraal. So it was that Abrahams quit after the album to form Blodwyn Pig. The key reason, says Wikipedia, was that Abrahams was a blues purist, while Anderson wanted to explore other types of music. Abrahams also did not get on with Cornick and was unwilling to travel abroad or play more than three nights a week. Tony Iommi (Earth/Black Sabbath) replaced him for a while, but returned to his roots soon afterwards. (And here I sense we are getting to the meat of the matter.)
Who would have thought it, but they actually auditioned for a replacement guitarist, and Anderson chose Martin Barre, who was playing for former Hendrix partner Noel Redding’s Fat Mattress. Incredibly – and this is surely a lesson to all of us – Barre’s audition was a disaster, but he still got the nod. Wikipedia says he was so nervous at his first audition he could hardly play at all. At the second he arrived without a cable to link guitar and amplifier. But Anderson could recognise talent when he saw it, and Barre went on to become the longest-serving member of the band after Anderson himself.
Stand Up

And then they released Stand Up, in 1969. From nowhere, the band achieved it’s first and only UK No 1 album, with every song an Anderson composition, except his jazzy arrangement of J S Bach’s Bouree. Wikipedia says as it departed further from the blues, it marked a new direction for the band, “which would come to be categorised as progressive rock, alongside such diverse groups as King Crimson, Genesis, The Nice and Yes”. With Anderson now in full control, Wikipedia observes that on Stand Up, influences from Celtic, folk and classical music are evident. I may be confused, but Wikipedia says the cover, with its intricate woodcut designs on front and back of the band, opened up and the band members stood up, as in a child’s pop-up book, which linked to the title. But surely it was the five figures on the cover of Benefit who are paper cut-outs. Then again, we only got the “Interpak” – locally pressed – version of Stand Up in South Africa, so we probably missed out on this more elaborate cover.
Having just given Stand Up my undivided attention on the old record player – after nearly 40 years the album is still in quite good nick – I was gobsmacked by the quality of the group. I mean this was only their second album, yet it is arguably their best. Just reading the notes on the back cover, it emerges that the cover idea – and I’m not sure if this includes those “stand-up” figures – was based on ideas from Terry Ellis and John Williams. It was printed from woodcuts by New York graphic artist Jimmy Grashow. Ellis, by the way, produced the album with Anderson. But what of the music itself? As I said, this album has been part of my soul for nearly 40 years, so it is difficult to be objective. But I defy anyone not to be impressed by the sheer quality of the musicianship, the arrangements and the lyrics. Also, Ian Anderson’s voice is at its most iconic on this album, while it was here that he set a new standard for flute-playing in rock music which no-one that I have heard of has come near to equalling.
What I haven’t had previously is a copy of the lyrics, so finally I am discovering precisely what those songs were about. Anderson seemed to favour music involving a series of short, crisp notes giving songs a thumping rhythm, which would then often slow for quieter interludes, before picking up again. That, in totally layman’s terms, is what happens on A New Man Yesterday, the opening track. “My first and last time with you / And we had some fun / Went walking through the trees, yeah! / and then I kissed you once” These actual words are all new to me. “Oh I want to see you soon / But I wonder how. / It was a new day yesterday / But it’s an old day now.” Here we have a verse that is delightfully poetic – and once again love is the muse. For those, like me, who never knew precisely Anderson was singing, the next and last verse reads: “Spent a long time looking / for a game to play. / My luck should be so bad now / to turn out this way. / Oh I had to leave today / just when I thought I’d found you. / It was a new day yesterday / But it’s an old day now.” You have to hear Anderson’s vocals on these songs to understand just why this album was so impressive. Words like “old day now” are sung “o-o-old da-a-ay now”, or suchlike, in that inimitable voice of his. But this, of course, is all couched in musicianship of the highest order. There are lead guitar breaks by Martin Barre that are superb, while this is the first time, probably, many would have heard Anderson’s unique way of almost mumbling into his flute, grappling with it as he turns what up till then had been considered more of a classical instrument into a frontline rock instrument.
Another key to this album’s success is the track sequence. After the fairly heavy opening number, Jeffrey Goes To Leicester Square starts with soft guitar notes, copied by bass and drums before Anderson launches into words I am reading for the first time. I always heard something like “why say woman”, when in fact the song starts: “Bright city woman / walking down Leicester Square every day. / Gonna get a piece of my mind.” Stop right there. You must remember that “every day” and “my mind” here become treasured pieces of Andersonia, tremulous words worked into incredible shapes to give the song that much more meaning and depth. “You think you’re not a piece of my kind. / Ev’rywhere the people looking / Why don’t you get up and sing?” Also, don’t underestimate the roll of Glen Cornick on bass. He makes the notes flow effortlessly up and down the fretboard, helping to give the song its impetus. And of course the flute – this time, interestingly, played by Barre (as well, probably, as Anderson) – gives that added dimension. One heard the words in those days without really listening. It was more about the feeling the song induced, than what it was about. But here, finally, I read that the next verse goes: “Bright city woman / where did you learn all the things you say? / You listen to the newsmen on TV. / You may fool yourself but you don’t fool me. / I’ll see you in another place, another time. / You may be someone’s, but you won’t be mine.”
On the next track, Bouree, Anderson did what many others would try – some may even have preceded him – and that is transfer a classical tune, this time one by Bach, to the rock medium. In order to do so, you need to be a consummate master of your instrument, like the guys in Emerson, Lake and Palmer were, and like Anderson was on his flute – surrounded by other men equally competent on theirs. This isn’t rock and it isn’t classical rock, or classical music. It is a unique fusion of styles with a taughtness that is truly inspirational. The melody is struck by the flute and bass, with a second flute joining in at a lower pitch. Drums come in to add body and before long the flute takes on a magical character never heard on record before. There are lovely quiet sections where just the bass and cymbals predominate. Gentle guitar chords add texture before a lovely ending during which Anderson literally grapples with that flute as he squeezes every ounce of sound out of it. No music lover has truly lived till he or she has heard this version of Bouree. My humble opinion, mate.
Naturally, the mood changes for the next song, Back To The Family, which kicks off with some emphatic drumming, before the words: “My telephone wakes me in the morning - / have to get up to answer the call. / So I think I’ll go back to the family / where no one can ring me at all.” Here, again, it must be stressed that Anderson is injecting his full being into singing those last words of each line. There must be a word  in the lexicon of music appreciation for what he does, but I’d just recommend you go out and listen to these songs. “Living this life has its problems / so I think that I’ll give it a break. / Oh, I’m going back to the family / ’cos I’ve had about all I can take.” Would that one could opt out like this when you’re older, and return to the safe haven of the family home. But as a young man, no doubt Anderson felt the pressures of his newfound fame. Oh, and I love this change of pace – and the obvious allusion to a certain nursery rhyme – as the song gets heavier: “Master’s in the counting house / counting all his money / Sister’s sitting by the mirror - / she thinks her hair looks funny. / And here am I thinking to myself / just a wond’ring what things to do”. Da-da-da-daa, da-da da da-da-da. It’s that kind of song. Most of them are, with an insistent rhythm which drives the thing wondrously on. But, as the song proceeds, he gets tired of the “soft life”, where “doing nothing is bothering me”. “There’s more fun away from the family / get some action when I pull into town.” But almost immediately he regrets it: “Everything I do is wrong, / what the hell was I thinking? / Phone keeps ringing all day long / I got no time for thinking. / And every day has the same old way / of giving me too much to do.” Da-da-da-daa, da-da da da-da-da. Slip in lashings of great lead guitar and flute counterpointing, if there’s such a term, and you have another great number.
And the next song had to be soft and gentle, which it is. Look Into The Sun starts with slow, subtle acoustic guitar and bass, as Anderson eases into: “Took a sad song of one sweet evening / I smile and quickly turned away. / It’s not easy, singing sad songs / But still the easiest way I have to say.” Again, those last words are being caressed in Anderson’s unique way, while an electric guitar insinuates its sound into the melody. “So when you look into the sun / and see the things we haven’t done - / oh was it better than to run / than to spend the summer crying. / Now summer cannot come anyway.” A couple more equally insightful verses complete this song on which the bluesy guitar work just develops and develops, with wah-wah added at the end for added flavour. As with all the songs on this album, one gets the sense that every note of every instrument is carefully choreographed. Nothing is left to chance, or is allowed to be slightly below par.
And, as George Harrison might have said, it don’t come easy. In fact, Anderson on the next track says Nothing Is Easy. The song starts with soaring flute backed by drums, with Anderson diving into the racy rhythm with: “Nothing is easy / Though time gets you worrying / my friend, it’s OK / Just take your life easy / and stop all that hurrying, / be happy my way.” Really, this is the first time I’m really hearing this lyrics, though I’ve loved these songs madly, as Bowie might say. It’s a paradoxical song, really. While he espouses being laid back, he concludes in each verse that, well, nothing is easy. “When tension starts mounting / and you’ve lost count / of the pennies you’ve missed, / just try hard and see why they’re not worrying me, / they’re last on my list. / Nothing’s easy.” Da-daa-da, da-daa-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-daa, da-da-daa!”
Hell, the next song I always used to sort of dismiss as the fun track on the album, in which they poke fun at fatties. Nothing of the sort. Fat Man is arguably the finest track on the album, with Anderson proving his incredible versatility by leading matters on, not the flute, but the mandolin. Indeed, on this album he also plays the acoustic guitar, Hammond organ, piano, balalaika and mouth organ. And it is on this song that we hear that voice, that incredible playing with the last word of each line, at its most emphatic. “Don’t want to be a fat ma-a-a-a-an, / people would think that I was / just good fun. / Would rather be a thin ma-a-a-a-an, / I am so glad to go on being one. / Too much to carry around with you, / no chance of finding a woman who / will love you in the morning and all the night time too-oo-oo”. Reading these lyrics for the first time, I love the humour in the next verse: “… Won’t waste my time feeling sorry for him, / I seen the other side to being thin. / Roll us both down a mountain / and I’m sure the fat man would win.” A hallmark of this song is also the great bongo solo by Clive Bunker, as well, again, as some magnificent electric guitar solos.
Naturally, the mood changes for the next song, We Used To Know, which starts with desultory, gently strummed acoustic guitar, possibly 12-stringed. “Whenever I get to feel this way, / try to find new words to say, I think about the bad old days / we used to know.” You know, the more I think about this music, the more I marvel at how we got any school work done at all. With all this talent around, made especially for us, the youth of the early 1970s, what were we supposed to do? We had to devote most of our energies to getting into it, appreciating it, savouring it. I remember my brother Alistair, who died so suddenly of heart failure at age 41 in 1996, loving this next verse: “Nights of winter turn me cold - / fears of dying, getting old. / We ran the race and the race was won / by running slowly.” That was an unfortunate coincidence, because I was looking at the last two lines, about winning by running slowly, not thinking that the first two lines may have been written about him, too. Indeed, this song seems to have a somewhat morose fascination with death. “Could be soon we’ll cease to sound, / slowly upstairs, faster down. / Then to revisit stony grounds. / We used to know.” There is some excellent writing here: “Remembering mornings, shillings spent, / made no sense to leave the bed. / The bad old days they came and went / giving way to fruitful years.” The next verse, in particular, I think is a classic: “Saving up the birds in hand / while in the bush the others land. / Take what we can before the man / says it’s time to go.” And so it concludes: Each to his own way, I’ll go mine. / Best of luck in what you find. / But for your own sake remember times / we used to know.” Again, throw in brilliant flute and wah-wah guitar breaks, some excellent bass, and you have another work of the highest quality.
The penultimate track, Reasons For Waiting, starts with some of the finest, most intricate acoustic guitar work on the album, alongside that wonderful flute. “What a sight for my eyes / to see you in sleep. / Could it stop the sun rise / hearing you weep? / You’re not seen, you’re not heard, / but I stand by my word. / Came a thousand miles / just to catch you while you’re smiling.” Funny that, but there is a similarity here to a song by Audience, who are from about the same era and play similar sort of music. “I came a long, long way just to see you smiling / You’re not smiling…” The Tull song is again sung with that Anderson touch, with the flute and acoustic guitar giving it a folksy feel. There is even an introduction of strings near the end, which soar heavenwards beside that voice.
The final track, For A Thousand Mothers, sounds like a continuation of the previous song, the drum beats seeming to rise from the ashes of the sudden ending of Reason For Waiting. It is a song so many of us know about: relating to our parents. “Did you hear mother - / Saying I’m wrong but I know I’m right. / Did you hear father? / Calling my name into the night. / Saying I’ll never be what I am now. / Telling me I’ll never find what I’ve already found. / It was they who were wrong / and for them here’s a song.” In the second verse he reveals that a child’s success arises because “unknowing you made it all happen this way”. This is a tribute, especially, to mothers.
And so there we have it. This album is a must for all who love good music. It is pioneering stuff be a special bunch of talented lads.
And, while it may have done well, the band were wise to realise they had to make a decent living, so they followed it up with a single, Living In The Past, which I’ve probably heard, but can’t place, which that same year, 1969, made it to No 3 in the UK. While other prog rock groups eschewed singles, Tull had further success with Sweet Dream (1969) and The Witch’s Promise from 1970. A five-track extended play (or EP, the likes of which we I don’t think saw much of in South Africa), Life Is a Long Song (1971), made it into the Top 20.
Benefit

And then that Evans lad from up north, who dropped his “s” to become John Evan, joined in 1970, and was part of the magic formula that produced Benefit. Incredibly, Wikipedia has only one sentence about an album which also profoundly impacted on my soul. I’m shaken and flabbergasted.
Evan’s piano gives Benefit a different shape, a new range of emphases, to Stand Up. The cover says that “piano and organ (are) played by John Evan . . . for our benefit”. Oddly, the actual band members are only named on the backs of their cardboard “cut-outs” which, seen from the front, reveal a full-frontal of Anderson in classic bent-leg flute-playing pose, complete with long jacket and high boots, not to mention that shock of long hair and beard. Oh and the maniacal wide-eyed stare. Looking through a pair of windows behind the stage are the four Tull members, sans Evan of course, though he became a full member afterwards.
Only a year separates these two great albums, but an incredible amount of change is evident, while at the same time Benefit retains most of the best traits of its predecessor. With You There To Help Me starts with some echoing flutes – suggesting immediately a more progressive sound – and then unusually muted opening lines from Anderson, which however build and strengthen as the song progresses. “In days of peace - / sweet smelling summer nights / of wine and song; / dusty pavements burning feet…” You are shaken out our your reverie as he then changes mood: “Why am I crying, I want to know. / How can I smile and make it right? / For sixty days and eighty nights / and not give in and lose the fight.” Like Back To The Family on Stand Up, there is a similar need to escape: “I’m going back to the ones that I know / with whom I can be what I want to be. / Just one week for the feeling to go - / and with you there to help me / then it probably will.” The song is marked by great vocal harmonies, along as always with superb electric guitar and of course those reverberating flute notes.
There are 10 beautifully crafted songs on this album, each a unique gem in the history of modern music. And they often seem to be created out of virtually nothing. A whim, a turn of phrase, a feeling. Da-daa, da-daa, da da-da daa. Most of Anderson’s songs have this  simple sort of structure, and it works wonderfully. On Nothing To Say, the lead guitar strikes up the tune, and is followed by some lovely acoustic guitar as Anderson launches into: “Everyday there’s someone asking / what is there to do? / Should I love or should I fight / is it all the same to you? / No I say I have the answer / proven to be true. / But if I were to share it with you, / you would stand to gain / and I to lose. / Oh I couldn’t bear it / so I’ve got nothing to say. / Nothing to say.” Unless I’m mistaken – and I’ve been here, having been divorced by my first wife after three turbulent years of marriage – this is about a love-hate relationship with a girl. Take these lines: “Every morning pressure forming / all around my eyes. / Ceilings crash, the walls collapse, / broken by the lies / that your misfortune brought upon us / and I won’t disguise them / So don’t ask me will I explain / I won’t even begin to tell you why. / No, just because I have a name / well I’ve got nothing to say / Nothing to say.” It goes on with this beautifully jumbled logic of a relationship in crisis. The piano is much in evidence here, along with superb bass, electric guitar and drums. Again, an expertly crafted song.
Who, if I asked them, could recall how the song, Inside, goes? Yet, as soon as you see the lyrics, it comes back. “All the places I’ve been make it hard to begin / to enjoy life again on the inside / but I mean to. / Take a walk around the block / and be glad that I’ve got me some time / to be in from the outside / and inside with you.” A bit like Ian Matthews, these songs are all about affairs of the heart, the subject which occupies the minds of most people, most of the time, especially when they’re young. The song picks up a bit with the lines: “I’m sitting on the corner feeling glad. / Got no money coming in but I can’t be sad / That was the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had / And I won’t worry about a thing / because we’ve got it made / here on the inside, outside so far away.” This song ends on a high note: “Counting lambs, counting sheep / we will fall into sleep / and awake to a new day of living / and loving you so.”
After that gentleness, there is need for some urgency, and that is what Son offers, with powerful electric guitar alongside the vocals: “Oh, I feel sympathy. / Be grateful my son for what you get. / Expression and passion. / Ten days for watching the sunset; / when I was your age amusement we made for ourselves. / ‘Permission to breathe sir,’ don’t talk like that, I’m your old man. / They’ll soon be demobbed son, so join up as soon as you can. / You can’t borrow that / ’cos that’s for the races and doesn’t grow on trees.” After this confrontation, the mood switches: “I only feel what touches me / and feel in touching I can see / a better state to be in. / Who has the right / to question what I might do, / in feeling I should touch the real / and only things I feel.” This is heady philosophical stuff, methinks. But the old man is not impressed: “It’s advice and it’s nice to know when you’re best advised. / You’ve only turned thirty, so son, you’d better apologise. / And when you grow up, if you’re good / we will buy you a bike.” Ouch! And we’re not even halfway through this album.
The last track on Side 1 is For Michael Collins, Jeffrey And Me, and it starts off with gentle acoustic guitar. “Watery eyes of the last sighing seconds, / blue reflections mute and dim / beckon tearful child of wonder / to repentance of the sin. / And the blind and lusty lovers / of the great eternal lie / go on believing nothing / since something has to die. / And the ape’s curiosity - / money power wins, / and the yellow soft mountains move under him.” It’s profound stuff, with the crescendo building until Anderson unleashes: “I’m with you L.E.M. / though it’s a shame that it had to be you / the mother ship is just a blip / from your trip made for two …” And so continues yet another grandee, which seems to address man’s exploitation of animals. “And the limp face hungry viewers / fight to fasten with their eyes / like the man hung from the trapeze - / whose fall will satisfy …”  I like the last few lines: “And the yellow soft mountains / they grew very still / witness as intrusion the humanoid thrill.” It has a nice sci-fi ring to it.
“Flying so high, trying to remember / how many cigarettes did I bring along? / When I get down I’ll jump in a taxi cab / driving through London town / to cry you a song.” To Cry You A Song launches Side 2, and those lines surely are about a drug trip. Here it is searing, soaring electric guitar which sets the pitch. The chorus: “It’s been a long time - / still shaking my wings / Well, I’m a glad bird / I got changes to ring.” Then that tight da-da da-da da-da da-da da-da-da-da! The imagery is as good as anything the Beatles did. “Closing my dream inside its paper-bag / Thought I saw angels / but I could have been wrong. / Search in my case, / can’t find what they’re looking for. / Waving me through / to cry you a song.” Was that a near drug bust?
We literally do come down for the next song, A Time For Everything, which has a slow, steady momentum. “Once it seemed there would always be / a time for everything. / Ages passed I knew at last / my life had never been. / I’d been missing what time could bring.” The other verse is equally powerful, and between the two there is some of the nicest flute on the album, along with lead guitar and organ.
The next track, Teacher, is another tour de force, a masterpiece of poetic story-telling. Most familiar will be the up-tempo chorus-type verse. “Jump up, look around / find yourself some fun, / no sense in sitting there hating everyone. / No man’s an island and his castle isn’t home, / the nest is for nothing when the bird has flown.”
Play In Time uses fuzz and wah-wah and other devices to give it a decidedly progressive sound. And is that an organ or synthesizer I also detect? As an indication of Anderson’s musical progression, I like the lines: “Blues were my favourite colour, / till I looked around and found another song / that I felt like singing.”
The best acoustic guitar work is saved for the last song, Sossity, You’re A Woman, which features some intricate finger-picking and lovely changes of tempo. “Hello you straight-laced lady, / dressed in white but your shoes aren’t clean …” This is another relationship with an older woman that is on the rocks: “The bitter-sweet kiss you pretended / is offered, our affair mended.” And further on: “All of the tears you’re wasting / are for yourself and not for me. / It’s sad to know you’re aging / Sadder still to admit I’m free.”
This is another incredible contribution by Jethro Tull, but they had more tricks up their sleeve.
Aqualung

Ever wondered why the name “Jeffrey” was so favoured in certain Anderson compositions? Was he openly homosexual? Well, Wikipedia tells us that when bassist Cornick left following Benefit, he was replaced by Jeffrey Hammond, a childhood friend of Anderson. In typically playful fashion, when Hammond was credited for such songs as The Story Of The Hare Who Lost His Spectacles from the A Passion Play album, it was often as Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond. This was an inside joke born of the fact that, though unrelated, his mother’s maiden name was also Hammond.
And so the stage was set for Aqualung, which was released in 1971 and described by Wikipedia as “Tull’s best-known work”. I mean it was so widely known and listened to that I recall once getting a lift back to Beacon Bay from my high school, Clifton Park in Nahoon, East London, after tennis practice, with our coach, whose name escapes me, in his VW Beetle. And on his car tape was playing none other than Aqualung. I immediately afforded this oke more respect. Just how “in” with the younger generation he was became clear a few years later when he got a matric pupil up the spout, as it were. Though he was no “disreputable tramp” like the title character of this album, who walks the streets “eyeing little girls with bad intent”.
Not surprisingly, Wikipedia has a fair amount to say about Aqualung. And, on relistening to this album, I have to correct my earlier view that Stand Up and Benefit were their greatest works. They were great early works, but Aqualung marks a progression from romance-linked songs, beautiful in themselves, to something far deeper. Anderson was now looking beyond himself to big issues – and few are bigger than the role of religion, which is pretty much the theme for most of the second side of this album.
The first side, says Wikipedia, contains six “character sketches”, including those of the lecherous hobo, Aqualung, and Cross-Eyed Mary, a prostitute. Aqualung itself was played so often most of my generation will be more than familiar with most of the lyrics, not to mention those powerful opening bars, played with heavy lead, bass and drums, which send Anderson on his way: “Sitting on a park bench - / eyeing little girls with bad intent. / Snot running down his nose - / greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes. / Drying in the cold sun - / Watching as the frilly panties run. / Feeling like a dead duck - / spitting out pieces of his broken luck.” I’ve seen the tramps in London. As one coming from the race-riven, skewed society that was apartheid South Africa, in 1990 it was something of a shock to see aged white men like Aqualung. Now, as I write, 15 years after the advent of democracy in our land, the number of white tramps grows exponentially. But how is this for good writing. He eyes the little girls “with bad intent”, and all he sees is, not the children running, but the “frilly panties”. He seems to have a cough, maybe TB, with the epithet transferred as he spits out pieces of his “broken luck”. Given that he is “aqualung”, and therefore has water on the lungs, he might as easily be spewing out pieces of broken lung. Not a pretty image for a rock song. Then, in typical Tull style, the mood switches, just as the Burton Silverman picture of Aqualung on the front cover is of an evil-looking lecher, while there is more sympathy for him in the painting on the back. Now we see him for what he is, a lost, lonely soul: “Sun streaking cold - / an old man wandering lonely. / Taking time / the only way he knows. / Leg hurting bad, / as he bends to pick a dog-end - / he goes down to the bog / and warms his feet.” Later, he seems to meet the narrator, as the pace of the song picks up: “Do you still remember / December’s foggy freeze - / when the ice that / clings on to your beard is / screaming agony. / And you snatch your rattling last breaths / with deep-sea-diver sounds, / and the flower blooms like / madness in the spring.” That is good writing. I’m reminded of Henry Reed’s Naming Of Parts, in which he juxtaposes the bursting forth of spring with the efficiencies of preparing weapons of war. Here, an old man’s decay contrasts with the “madness” of flowers blooming in spring.
Cross-Eyed Mary starts with some romping bass and flute. The opening lines are as familiar as family, though precisely what was being said I only discover now: “Who would be a poor man, a beggarman, a thief - / if he had a rich man in his hand.” This seems odd since the song is about a poor girl, not man, a young prostitute who “signs no contract / but she always plays the game”. This is life in the underworld: “Dines in Hampstead village / on expense accounted gruel, / and the jack-knife barber drops her off at school.” So she’s still at school, which would have made the song relevant to teenagers like us. Indeed, references to school, especially disparaging ones, were lapped up by the rebels in us. She’s old before her time: “Laughing in the playground – gets no kicks from little boys: / would rather make it with a letching grey.” And then the line which makes you think this was indeed a “concept” album, that these two songs, are linked: “Or maybe her attention is drawn by Aqualung / who watches through the railings as they play. / Cross-eyed Mary finds it hard to get along. / She’s a poor man’s rich girl / and she’ll do it for a song. / She’s a rich man stealer / but her favour’s good and strong: / She’s the Robin Hood of Highgate - / helps the poor man get along.” Throw in an incredible flute break at this point, followed by an equally incisive lead guitar and the song is rounded off.
If the authorities in this country had been privy to these lyrics at the time, I’ve no doubt it would have been banned. And that’s even before we look at Side 2, which would have shocked their pseudo-Calvinistic selves to the core.
Just when you’re in for an album of hard-core rock, Anderson pulls the unexpected on the next track, which starts with some beautifully picked acoustic guitar and gentle bass. I never did know what Cheap Day Return was all about, so it’s nice to finally discover: “On Preston platform / do your soft shoe shuffle dance. / Brush away the cigarette ash that’s / falling down your pants. / And you sadly wonder / does the nurse treat your old man / the way she should. / She made you tea, asked for your autograph - / what a laugh.” This short song was, says Wikipedia, written by Anderson after a visit to his critically ill father in hospital.
Is that a recorder I perceive alongside the strummed and picked acoustic guitars on the energetic Mother Goose? It is another immortal Tull song, so well known yet, to me, not yet properly probed. What is it all about? “As I did walk by Hampstead Fair / I came upon Mother Goose – so I turned her loose - / she was screaming. / And a foreign student said to me – is it really true there are elephants and lions too / in Piccadilly Circus?” I’d have to recommend he come out here, to South Africa, to find what he’s looking for. But still I’m searching for some meaning in this song, which now takes a typical new mood direction: “Walked down by the bathing pond / to try and catch some sun. / Saw at least a hundred schoolgirls sobbing / into handkerchiefs as one. / I don’t believe they knew / I was a schoolboy.” What it means, I don’t know, but as schoolboys we loved it. And it just got weirder and weirder. “And a bearded lady said to me - / if you start your raving and your misbehaving - / you’ll be sorry. / Then the chicken-fancier came to play - / with his long red beard (and his sister’s weird: / she drives a lorry).” Wikipedia says this is one of six character sketches, but I don’t see it. With references to labourers “digging up their gold” and “Johnny Scarecrow” in his “jet-black mac” which he stole from a snow man, this is one wacky, fun, song.
The more contemplative Wond’ring Aloud offers some respite, as one is soothed by soft piano and gentle strings. I was reminded of Ian Matthews at his most sublime. I never knew what that first line was, so here it goes: “Wond’ring aloud - / how we feel today. / Last night sipped the sunset - / my hands in her hair. / We are our own saviours / as we start both our hearts beating life / into each other.” Isn’t that great poetry? She goes to make some buttered toast and returns “spilling crumbs on the bed”. “And,” he concludes, “it’s only the giving / that makes you what you are.”
Up To Me, the last song on the side is, inevitably, more upbeat, and it starts with a guffaw, before the band launches into ra ta da-da-da-da da da! “Take you to the cinema / and leave you in a Wimpy Bar - / you tell that we’ve gone to far - / come running up to me.” It’s a cosy, domestic song, I think: “Make the scene at Coucin Jack’s - / leave him to put the bottles back - / mend his glasses that I cracked - / well  what one’s up to me. / Buy a silver cloud to ride - / pack the tennis club inside - / trouser cuffs hung far too wide - / well it was up to me. / Tyres down on your bicycle - / your nose feels like an icicle / the yellow fingered smoky girl / is looking up to me” And so the scene is set for I’m not sure what, because some embittered lines now follow, if you’ll pardon the pun, as the tempo lulls. “Well I’m a common working man / with a half of bitter – bread and jam / and if it pleases me I’ll put one on you man - / when the copper fades away. / The rainy season comes to pass - / the day-glo pirate sinks at last – / and if I laughed a bit too fast / well it was up to me.” There is some lovely Traffic-like flute in this quieter final section, again underscoring Anderson’s versatility.
Wikipedia says that the first track on Side 2, My God, is a “full-frontal assault on ecclesiastic excesses”, putting religion before God. Bear in mind that at this point Anderson was only in his 20s. Yet here we have him writing a song which will be heard by millions and it is about the nature of religion. Bizarre. Yet the band pull it off with consummate ease, indeed they do it masterfully. At over seven minutes, this is a kind of mini-rock opera. It starts with some complex acoustic guitar work, with equally good piano setting the stage for those opening lines, which are an admonition of those who would foist their version of God on us: “People – what have you done - / locked Him in His golden cage. / Made Him bend to your religion - / Him resurrected from the grave. / He is the god of nothing - / if that’s all that you can see. / You are the god of everything - / He’s inside you and me. / So lean upon Him gently / and don’t call on Him to save you / from your social graces / and the sins you used to waive. / The bloody Church of England - / in chains of history - / requests your earthly presence at / the vicarage for tea. / And the graven image you-know-who --/ with His plastic crucifix - / he’s got him fixed - / confuses me as to who and where and why - / as to how he gets his kicks.” It is something of a ramble, but within it lies an anger which cannot be subdued: “Confessing to the endless sin - / the endless whining sounds. / You’ll be praying till next Thursday to / all the gods that you can count.” It may look bland on paper, but with a choir chanting alongside beautiful flute work and all manner of nuances this is a real work of art. And it is followed by an almost heavy metal “hymn”.
The vocals on Hymn 43 starts almost aggressively, like an angry preacher. “Oh father high in heaven – smile down upon your son / whose busy with his money games – his women and his gun.” Then the chant, “Oh Jesus save me!” alongside some distorted lead guitar. Yes, I see this is an anti-war hymn, also anti-racism and exploitation, as the next verse makes clear: “And the unsung Western hero killed an India or three / and made his name in Hollywood / to set the white man free. / Oh Jesus save me!” Then the indictment: “If Jesus saves – well, He’d better save Himself / from the gory glory seekers who use His name in death.”
Anderson could read people like a book. After that onslaught, one hankered for a bit of peace, and that is what Slipstream provides. It is a gentle folk song, complete with soothing strings. I only ever heard the words as a flow of sound beside the acoustic guitar, so it’s great to see what was being said: “Well the lush separation unfolds you - / and the products of wealth / push you along on the bow wave / of the spiritless undying selves. / And you press on God’s waiter your last dime - / as he hands you the bill. / And you spin in the slipstream – timeless – unreasoning - / paddle right out of the mess.” Gentle, perhaps, but the attack is no less barbed. And this sets the scene for arguably the most well known tracks on the album. Few people older than about 40 will be unaware of Locomotive Breath. But what was it all about?
It started off slowly, with long, deliberate notes on the piano. A guitar answers as the pace picks up, before finally we are confronted by that heavy staccato sound: da-da-da daa daa daa! “In the shuffling madness / Of the locomotive breath, / Runs the all-time loser, / Headlong to his death. / He feels the piston scraping - / Steam breaking on his brow - / Old Charlie stole the handle and / The train won’t stop going - / No way to slow down.” Hell, isn’t that a great opener? This is a guy in trouble. “He sees his children jumping off / At the stations – one by one. / His woman and his best friend - / In bed and having fun. / He’s crawling down the corridor / On his hands and knees - / Old Charlie etc.” Then: “He hears the silence howling - / Catches angels as they fall. / And the all-time winner / Has got him by the balls. / He picks up Gideon’s Bible - / Open at page one – God stole the handle etc.” Phew! I’m just relieved I wasn’t privy to those lyrics as a teenager, man. They would have twisted my little brain even more than it was already.
If organised religion has taken a hammering thus far, the last nail, as it were, comes on Wind-Up, in which Anderson puts it all openly on the table. Again, it starts off with some slow piano and acoustic guitar, before the bass and drums add urgency. Then, in what is surely an autobiographical account, Anderson sings, often with an icy humour, about this thing called religion. “When I was young and they packed me off to school / and taught me how not to play the game, / I didn’t mind if they groomed me for success, / or if they said that I was a fool. / So I left there in the morning / with their God tucked underneath my arm - / their half-assed smiles and the book of rules. / So I asked this God a question / and by way of firm reply, / He said – I’m not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays. / So to my old headmaster (and to anyone who cares): / before I’m through I’d like to say my prayers - / I don’t believe you: you had the whole damn thing all wrong - / He’s not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays.” I love this chorus line. Imagine a child going through this, which is not unlike what probably happened to many kids down the years: “Well you can excommunicate me on my way to Sunday school / and have all the bishops harmonize these lines - / how do you dare tell me that I’m my Father’s son / when that was just an accident of Birth. / I’d rather look around me - compose a better song / ’cos that’s the honest measure of my worth. / In your pomp and all your glory / you’re a poorer man than me, / as you lick the boots of death born out of fear. / I don’t believe you: / you had the whole damn thing all wrong - / He’s not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays.”  
As I said, this was a somewhat heavier subject than previously tackled by Anderson. I wonder what the repercussions were within the church at the time? Wikipedia says the album reached No 7 in the US, with Hymn 43 reaching No 91 on the singles chart. In 2003 Rolling Stone ranked it at No 337 in its top 500 albums list.
I kind of lost interest in Tull for a while after these three key albums, which sustained me Tull-wise throughout my high school years, even though they would still venture out into a wide range of concept albums, such as Thick as a Brick, from 1972. While I was only in Standard 8 then, this album kind of passed me by, as did most of the others.
20 Years of Jethro Tull

Tull were just simply massive in terms of their productivity and creativity. Earlier I dismissed their debut album, This Was, as somehow a lesser work preceding their greater albums to come. However, one side of a tape, recorded for me by my late brother Alistair around 1990, dispels that theory. Though I don’t recall us having This Was, (yet the cover featuring the band dressed as woodsmen was definitely familiar), the 14 songs from 20 Years of Jethro Tull from 1988 (which in fact features over 50 tracks), gives some indication of what is included on that and other albums not part of my personal, very limited, listening repertoire. This is in fact a fascinating compilation album, which includes several “BBC Session” tracks, including the opening one, Song For Jeffrey, from This Was. And what a cracker that BBC version is – and of course it was part of my “repertoire” because it is very familiar, especially the chorus about “I cease to see where I’m going / Cease to see where I’m going”. And there, too, is that dynamic Anderson flute, as bright as ever. But let this be an example of how one misheard lyrics. A check on a lyrics site reveals that the chorus is not what I thought I heard (as noted above), but in fact it goes: “Don’t see, see, see where I’m goin’ to / I don’t want to.” At least that’s presuming they’re correct.
Also from This Was, and part of the BBC Sessions, is a cracking version of Love Story, another all-too familiar song with typical Tull zing and zest: “Going back in the morning time / to see if my love has changed her mind, yeah”. That Anderson vocal touch is just as prominent here as on Stand Up and Benefit.
The BBC Sessions versions of Fat Man and Bouree from Stand Up are not, in my mind, as good as the studio versions, but a real stand-out on this album is another song from the Sessions, a T-Bone Walker song, Stormy Monday Blues. The announcer seems particularly excited about this song which is an instrumental and ranks as one of the finest jazz-blues tunes I’ve heard. The BBC guy, perhaps showing his age, declares: “You know this group could be the biggest attraction since the Stones”. Then, really showing his age – by trying too hard to be hip – he concludes after the song: “All together too much … Jethro Tull – remember that name friends.”
 A New Day Yesterday is the final track on the album from the BBC Sessions, and while good, I believe it, too, does not have the polish of the studio version from Stand Up.
My brother was selective when he put together this tape – the other side features tracks from Bob Dylan’s Biograph album, another treasured nine tracks which not only serve as a reminder of AB’s generosity of spirit, but also of the depth of Dylan’s output.
Thick as a Brick

But let’s return to Thick as a Brick, because that’s where I stopped, for a while, loving Tull, simply because I never heard the album. From 1972, the album on vinyl ran, says Wikipedia, as “one seamless track on both sides of the record”. It was a concept album, “with lyrics built around a poem written by a fictitious boy, ‘Gerald Bostock’, a.k.a. ‘Little Milton’”. Odd that. I wonder if our friend Dave Tarr, the fiddle player’s dad, Milton, who stood well over six feet, was nicknamed Little Milt after this, or if it was a coincidence. His diminutive wife was Big Jean. Wikipedia says the album is notable for “its numerous time signature and tempo changes, as well as a large number of themes throughout the piece, resembling a typical classical symphony in this regard, rather than a typical rock song”. I have no doubt heard snatches of it, but would dearly love to hear the whole thing. Interestingly, Wikipedia says beyond the concept of integrating the music around the trials of a young boy growing up, the album is meant as a send-up of all pretentious “concept albums”. Incredibly, the album reached No 1 in the US. That newspaper-type cover, we learn, was a rip off of “parochial and amateurish local journalism”. It also included all the lyrics.
Living in the Past

Another album not to be sneezed at is Living in the Past (1972). While a supposed greatest hits collection, it also contains unreleased songs and several singles and B-sides that never made it onto albums. The gatefold packaging evidently included a colour photo booklet with over 50 images of the band. Two songs were recorded live at Carnegie Hall. The album reached No 3 in the US, with the title track reaching No 11 among the singles – three years after its UK release. This just indicates the time lag that often existed when groups like Tull, or individuals like Dylan, were at their most prolific, between the songs being recorded and actually reaching their markets. Interestingly, Wikipedia tells us the song Living In The Past was written in quintuple meter (5/5), evidently a rarely used format inspired by Take Five, the jazz classic first recorded by the Dave Brubeck Quartet.
A Passion Play

A Passion Play, from 1973, I did not hear. Another so-called concept album, it evidently concerns, says Wikipedia, “the spiritual journey of one man in the afterlife”, and like Thick as a Brick is one long track, although it is in fact a medley of sequed shorter songs and the “oddly whimsical spoken word piece, ‘The Story Of The Hare Who Lost His Spectacles”. The lyrics were apparently dense, “filled with wordplay and allegory”, and the music not as creative as their earlier work. Incredibly, again, it reached No 1 in the US, but only No 13 in the UK.
War Child

War Child, their eighth album, was released in late 1974, having originally been planned as part of an abortive film project, says Wikipedia. The War Child movie concept sounds fascinating. A “metaphysical black comedy”, it would have concerned the life of a teenage girl in the afterlife. Characters based on God, St Peter and Lucifer would be portrayed as shrewd businessmen. And here’s the interesting part. It was to have featured ballet dancer Leonard Rossiter, with Margot Fonteyn as choreographer and Monty Python’s John Cleese as possible “humour consultant”. It ended up being a rock album after no studio could be found to finance the film. By all accounts it sounds a fascinating record which no doubt is worth hearing.
Minstrel in the Gallery

We did not have Minstrel in the Gallery, released in 1975, my first year out of school. It was a time of upheaval. After the military initially called me up for July of that year, they suddenly delayed it a year. I worked for five months on the East London Daily Dispatch as a cup reporter under legendary editor Donald Woods. Giving myself a month’s holiday before the dreaded army, I was suddenly at a loose end – and decided to follow eldest brother Ian on a fine art course at the EL Technical College under Jack Lugg. I completed my first year in half a year, somehow doing enough to pass. And I waited for my next call-up, while our family increasingly threw in its lot with the Progressive Party of Helen Suzman and Colin Eglin, the only truly anti-apartheid party in parliament at the time. So what of this album? Fortunately, a couple of tracks are on that tape I have from 20 Years of Jethro Tull, so I do have some insight into its quality. Dubbed progressive rock, it is apparently an introspective album, with Anderson’s lyrics taking on a cynical air following his divorce from first wife Jennie Franks. It is also, says Wikipedia, a strongly acoustic album, with Anderson evidently not all that happy with the band’s performance.
Yet, listening to those few tracks, I’d say this must be one of the best Tull albums. The title track starts with a bit of laughter before typically complex acoustic guitar work, and Anderson’s vocals: “The minstrel in the gallery looked down upon the smiling faces. / He met the gazes – observed the spaces between the old men’s cackle. / He brewed a song of love and hatred – oblique suggestions – and he waited.” And so continues another classic piece of song-writing, wonderfully executed.
Cold Wind To Valhalla starts with complex acoustic guitar and flute. Only a snippet of it is on my tape, but it suggests more excellence. “And ride with us young bonny lass – with the angels of the night. / Crack wind clatter – flesh rein bit on an out-size unicorn. / Rough-shod winging sky blue flight on a cold wind to Valhalla. / And join with us please – Valkyrie maidens cry above the cold wind to Valhalla.” This sort of creativity never stops with Anderson. Every song seems new and vital, as if he had an endlessly generous muse feeding him ideas.
Also on my little tape is Summerday Sands, which is only listed as a bonus track on a later CD release, and therefore not on the original. Which implies it never made it onto an LP, back then. Which is incredible, because it is another excellent piece, again kicking off with gentle acoustic guitar and Anderson’s great, great voice: “I once met a girl with the life in her hands / And we lay together on the summerday sands. / I gave her my raincoat and told her, ‘lady, be good!’ / And we made truth together, where no one else would. / I smiled through her fingers and ran the dust through her hands - / The hour-glass of reason on the summerday sands.” And so continues yet another brilliant song, but which album it is from originally I have been unable to discover. The understated, yet oh so powerful electric guitar on this track just adds to its impact.
I also find it hard to believe March Of The Mad Scientist is only a bonus track, and was not on the original album. This is one of the nicest Tull songs I’ve heard, characterised by incisive acoustic lead guitar breaks reminiscent of Mark Knopfler. “What would you like for Christmas: a new polarity? / You’re binary, and desperate to deal in high figures / that lick us with their hotter flame / lick each and everyone the same. / And March, the mad scientist, brings a new change / in ever-dancing colours.” 
Yet another of those bonus tracks is Pan Dance. Thanks to my late brother, I have heard this superb instrumental which starts with haunting echoing flute, then a Snowman-like melody which grows and grows. There are incisive strings and solo violin in a work that is almost symphonic in its sweep.
Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die!

Another album I did not pick up on at the time was Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die! From 1976, the year of the Soweto uprising in South Africa against inferior education – and more broadly against racial oppression. I see the two bonus tracks on a 2002 CD were cut from the original. One, Strip Cartoon, is on that tape from 20 Years of Jethro Tull. It is a gritty rock tune steeped in English culture. “Fish and chips, sandpaper lips and a rainy pavement. / Soho lights, another night – thinking of you. / Black cat, sat on a wall, winks at me darkly. / Suggesting ways and means that I might win a smile …”  The song concludes: “Life’s no bowl of cherries – it’s a black and white strip cartoon.”

Wikipedia says the album was planned as a rock musical, following an aging and retired rock star. Anderson was quoted as saying the story revolved around how, if one stuck to what one did best, musical tastes would come around again. Again, having heard only that snippet from Strip Cartoon, I can only suggest that this is another Tull classic deserving of better acquaintance.
Songs from the Wood

Their next album, Songs from the Wood, I did get to know well – but only years after its release in 1977, evidently the first of a trio of folk-based albums, with Heavy Horses and Stormwatch to follow. It was, says Wikipedia, the first Tull album to receive largely positive reviews since Benefit and Living in the Past. Which underscores Anderson’s point about fads and fashion in modern musical tastes. A couple of tracks did, I recall, receive airtime in South Africa, especially the catchy The Whistler. So when my first wife and I arrived in London on a belated honeymoon in the northern spring of 1983, I decided we had to visit Carnaby Street. Of course it was a letdown. What had been the heart of pop/hippie culture in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was just another London street. It did, however, have a record bar and that is where I bought a copy of this album.
Having recently given it a fresh listen, I was more than impressed. Anderson’s genius showed no sign of letting up. Wikipedia says it is “filled with folk and fantasy imagery, and ornamental folk arrangement”. Neither of the subsequent two albums was “as cheerful or purely folk as this”.
A male choir, of all things, starts the title track, Songs From The Wood, before Anderson takes over the lead. The song becomes progressively heavier, but time signatures vary as folk and electric aspects are given prominence. “Let me bring you songs from the wood: / to make you feel much better than you could know. / Dust you down from tip to toe. / Show you how the garden grows. / Hold you steady as you go. / Join the chorus if you can: / it’ll make of you an honest man.” Admit it: another brilliant bit of songwriting, with the intelligent lyrics driving the song along. And, mark my words, Anderson’s words just get better and better. “Let me bring you love from the field: / poppies red and roses filled with summer rain. / To heal the wound and still the pain / that threatens again and again…” Indeed, future analyses of lyrics will place this near the top in any anthology. I love these lines: “I am the wind to fill your sail. / I am the cross to take your nail: / A singer of these ageless times. / With kitchen prose and gutter rhymes.”
Jack In The Green is the perfect follow-up, maintaining that level of excellence. Complex acoustic guitar, flute, bass, drums. It is the full Tull sound, with Anderson’s lyrics again exploring interesting areas. “Have you seen Jack-In-The-Green? / With his long tail hanging down. / He sits quietly under every tree - / in the folds of his velvet gown. / He drinks from the empty acorn cup / the dew that dawn sweetly bestows. / And taps his cane upon the ground - / signals the snowdrops it’s time to grow.” This is a magic figure which keeps the green of old England flourishing. Wikipedia says Anderson describes Jack as “an English folk creature full of a kind of elfish magic that lets him take care of everything that grows … and helps the vegetation survive those long English winters.” What a fascinating concept, and so ahead of its time given how ecological considerations are now the major political and economic issue of our time.
The album remains in that bucolic mode on Cup Of Wonders, which Wikipedia says “explores English traditions, sayings and pagan/druidic rituals”. Endorsing my views on Anderson’s literary abilities, it says the song can be “studied a line at a time, finding references to English antiquity at every turn”. This quick, tight, folk-rock number starts: “May I make my fond excuses / for the lateness of the hour, / but we accept your invitation, and we bring you Beltane's flower. / For the May Day is the great day, sung along the old straight track. / And those who ancient lines did lay / will heed the song that calls them back. / Pass the word and pass the lady, pass the plate to all who hunger. / Pass the wit of ancient wisdom, pass the cup of crimson wonder.” Consider the opening lines of the second verse: “Ask the green man where he comes from, ask the cup that fills with red. / Ask the old grey standing stones that show the sun its way to bed.” Stonehenge, perhaps? The likes of Pentangle and Fairport Convention must have marveled at what Anderson was achieving.
An organ opens the next track, Hunting Girl, which Wikipedia says “speaks in various innuendos of the sexual encounter of an aristocratic girl and a farm boy”. I saw this as a kind of rock-jig, with synthesizer, distorted lead guitar, flute, bass and drums. At other times the strings take over, making if almost orchestral. The story tells how the farm boy met up with the girl after her horse refused to jump a hedge during a fox hunt. He chats up “the queen of all the pack” as she “sat high upon a throne of finest English leather”.
And he found “this highborn hunter had tastes as strange as they come”. After that heady encounter, Ring Out, Solstice Bells takes us back to nature itself, not a raunchy female version of it. Anderson, says Wikipedia, calls it “a dance to welcome winter”. It is another complex, skilfully co-ordinated track which takes in some Morris-type clapping, and ends with the chiming of those bells.
Side two starts with the folk-rock Velvet Green, which, if Wikipedia is correct, also has its share of sexual innuendo. This is an incredibly complex arrangement, again superbly executed. Often wondered what those opening lyrics were? “Walking on velvet green. / Scots pine growing. / Isn’t it rare to be taking the air, singing. / Walking on velvet green. / Walking on velvet green. Distant cows lowing. / Never a care: with your legs in the air, loving. / Walking on velvet green…” And what of that innuendo? Consider the lines: “I’m tight against the seam. / And I’m growing up to meet you down on velvet green.”
Anderson was the whistler on The Whistler, which is like an Irish reel couched in rock. It also features some great glockenspiel by Barrimore Barlow. John Evans on piano, organ and synthesizer has, I notice on the album cover, regained his lost “s”. But is it a whistle or a flute that Anderson plays? Wikipedia says “the flute lines … are beautiful, enhanced by a drumming style that elevates it instead of obscuring it and guitar and bass lines which state the actual rhythm of the song”. Things happen at a right pace, so it is good to read about what is actually happening. “I’ll buy you six bay mares to put in your stable / six golden apples bought with my pay. / I am the first piper who calls the sweet tune, / but I must be gone by the seventh day.” Wikipedia says the song has a “rural setting, with mystical places and a no-wories attitude”. This is clear from the chorus: “So come on, I’m the whistler. / I have a fife and a drum to play. / Get ready for the whistler. / I whistle along on the seventh day - / whistle along on the seventh day.”
An electric guitar wails, as flute, drums and bass join in, before the song settles into a slow rhythm. Pibroch (Cape In Hand) peers through a window and discovers  his woman has another man in her life. This song has a rock opera quality, with elaborate orchestration in places.
The mood lifts for the final track, Fire At Midnight, which starts with a humming organ and folksy flute and piano which reminded me of Strawbs. Wikipedia says it’s a song about the joy of coming home to a loved one after a hard day’s work. “I believe in fires at midnight - / when the dogs have all been fed. / A golden toddy on the mantle - / a broken gun beneath the bed ...”
If ever an album proved the longevity of a band, it is this one. I have, however, run out of any other links to Jethro Tull, since I am unfamiliar with their subsequent albums, of which there were many, none of which, I’m sure, can be scoffed at.
I almost overlooked Coronach. This song, off that 20-years compilation album, is to my mind one of the greatest Tull songs I have heard. It explores that interesting period before recorded history, some call it the Dark Ages, which lasted about 1000 years after the Romans left Britain. King Arthur sits at the centre of the mysterious times, with all manner of interesting links to Jesus being imputed. What was the Holy Grail? Did Jesus marry and have children? Did Mary Magdelene travel with her family to Albion’s isle? Is there any merit in Dan Brown’s The Da Vince Code? Well this song predates much of the modern hype surrounding these issues, though I haven’t ascertained which album, if any, it was first a part of. Interestingly, it seems the words and music were by David Palmer, not Anderson, though he naturally handled the vocals. It is again one of those songs where you hear the words somewhat differently to what is actually being said. This song is particularly noteworthy for the prominent role given to what to my untrained ear sounds like a clarinet. Though a folk song, this doesn’t prevent the use of heavy electric guitar and drums in places. “Grey the mist - cold the dawn; / Cruel the sea and stern the shore. / Brave the man who sets his course / For Albion.” I’m sure there are arcane images in most of the verses, as the song continues: “Sweet the rose - sharp the thorn; / Meek the soil and proud the corn. / Blessed the lamb that would be born / Within this green and pleasant land.” The chorus, would you believe, I thought was saying something like “you’re any rose”. Instead, it is: “Hi-o-ran-i-o / Hi-o-ran-i-o”. Then follows: “Brown furrow shine / Beneath the rain washed blue. / Bright crystal streams / From eagle mountains born. / Fortune has smiled on those who wake anew, / Within this fortress nature built / To stay the hand of war.” Finally, the last verse: “With the wind from the east / Came the first of those who tread / Upon this stone, this stone of kings; / This realm, this new Jerusalem.”
Ian Anderson

One remaining question needs to be answered. Who was Ian Anderson? How did such a prolific and talented musician develop? Wikipedia tell us Ian Scott Anderson was born on August 10, 1947, in Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland. So he would have enjoyed the Fairport song about the king who sits in Dunfermline town, drinking of the blood red wine. His dad managed a hotel and he spent his first five years in Edinburgh. The family moved to Blackpool in 1959. Anderson attended a normal grammar school before going to study fine art – as so many other rock musicians did. While doing odd jobs, he read Melody Maker and New Musical Express on his breaks, which inspired him to form a band, The Blades, in 1963.
The rest, as they say, is history. Interesting is the fact that, once ensconsed as Jethro Tull in London, Anderson abandoned an ambition to play the electric guitar, and instead taught himself the flute, which features prominently on that first album, This Was. Meanwhile, his acoustic guitar expertise would provide the underpinning for the bulk of his massive output to come. Wikipedia says he became “one of the few recording artists outside the classical realm to use the nylon-string acoustic guitar as a melodic, rather than a rhythm instrument”. He later added soprano sax, mandolin and keyboards to his musical arsenal. Weirdly, Wikipedia tells us he first started playing harmonica on one leg, holding the mic stand for support, but later, after a journalist incorrectly said he’d done so while playing the flute, he started doing just that – even though to begin with he battled to keep his balance. His flute style involves, I learn, “flutter tonguing and occasionally singing or humming (or even snorting) while playing”, says Wikipedia, and was influenced by Roland Kird.
As one who prided himself in not indulging in hallucinogenic drugs, it is no surprise to learn that, apart from his music, Anderson became a successful salmon farmer at Strathaird, Isle of Skye. One also learns that his first wife, Jennie Franks, a photographer (he was married to her from 1970-74) is credited with writing some of the lyrics to the song, Aqualung. Shona Learoyd, whom he married in 1976, was the daughter of a wealthy wool manufacturer. They live in a 16th century farmhouse in Buckinghamshire and in the Western Isles of Scotland. One of their children, James, is a musician, the other, Gael, works in the film industry. Anderson received two honours in 2006 for his achievements.
But few honours can do justice to the legacy he has left us, both in terms of his numerous compositions, but also his ability to execute his ideas so well. And of course his voice and flute playing will go down in history as having set a standard and style never to be equalled or surpassed in terms of originality and vitality.

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