Saturday, April 23, 2011

Rob Young's "Electric Eden": Book Review

What Becomes of the Oaken Hearted? Rob Young’s quest spans the last century’s search for pastoral evocations and folk recreations of a British quest to summon its lingering “ghost memories”. Over 600 pages, narrated with verve and ease, this editor at The Wire music magazine conjures up the contradictions of sound technology harnessed to rural moods, and an urban audience longing for antiquarian lore. In a nation built along Roman roads, the lure of open space limits the adventurer. In a land so long civilized among landscapes tamed, modern freedom seekers turn to the imaginary tale, the mythological ritual as liberating paths. For the British listener, nostalgia and fulfillment lurk in a golden age before machines, yet one which plugs into electricity, and exotic instruments and moods, to convey a retelling of the elusive past.

He begins with the “inward exodus” by singer Vashti Bunyan, whose 1968-69 trek away from London by horse-drawn caravan up finally into Gaelic-speaking Scotland symbolizes this era’s idealism. Young’s discography lengthens as hippies crowd out folksingers; Bunyan’s search brings her to Donovan, producer Joe Boyd, and his clients The Incredible String Band, who epitomize the fashions and styles she imagined but did not know. In “the dual landscape/ dreamscape of Britain’s interior”, rock met and blurred and blended with folk.


The preliminary section, “Music from Neverland”, efficiently explains the contexts for this Aquarian Age. Young charts the contributions of Cecil Sharp and Francis Child as song and ballad and dance collectors. Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams enriched classical forms with folk melodies drawn from the last remnants of the oral tradition, its untutored composers from the peasantry. Invented characters as composer Peter Warlock and bard Ewan MacColl enliven this stage. Tension arises between music of a people as Child and Sharp had compiled vs. music from the people as favored by interpreters of the proletariat, often Marxist and radical themselves, in the industrial, trade-unionized post-WWII decades.

This period ends as Bob Dylan enters. He preferred his own words to those in archives, field recordings, or transcribed lyrics. This Americanized approach clashed with MacColl’s class-conscious fidelity to the oral tradition. By the end of 1962, when Dylan visited England’s folkies, revolution looms. But, unlike the uprising predicted by 60 years of diligent researchers, leftist agitators, and earnest re-creators, British Eden would be electrified. The cultural rebellion “would take place not on the streets, but in the head.”

Dylan met fellow guitarist-singer Martin Carthy. Carthy’s renditions of “Lord Franklin” and “Scarborough Fair” impressed Dylan so much that he reworked them for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, as “Bob Dylan’s Dream” and “Girl from the North Country”.  In 1965, Simon & Garfunkel, after learning the song from Carthy, copyrighted their version (with no credit to Carthy) of what had been a tune nobody had taken credit for authoring, “Scarborough Fair”. Such American ambitions, clashing with the anonymity in which many folksongs had been passed down, reworked, and tinkered with, edged many British singers and songwriters away from jazz and the blues into a more indigenous, yet eclectic, compositional style.

As Dylan and the British Invasion emerged, beatniks returned from abroad with a North African oud or Balkan bouzouki. The DADGAD tuning of Davy Graham’s guitar, the modal music of Bert Jansch, and the coffeehouse stylings incorporating electrification entered folk. Early Music masters David Munrow and Christopher Hogwood revived old instruments that enriched what had been sparer tunes often passed down a capella. While “pop” derives from mass spectacles manufactured for the Roman urban populi, Young reminds us, volk derives from the Germanic peasantry, villagers and vagrants bearing songs from the wood, the forest, the barbaric heath where rituals endured and perplexed their heirs.

Shirley Collins defines for Young the essence of “an ideal folk voice, sounding as though it was grappling with the words for the very first time, and yet equally as though it was so inured to the pain and suffering so often portrayed in the songs that it had insulated itself from them”. Symbolically, Collins no longer worked with American folklorist and musicologist Alan Lomax by the Summer of Love. Her new producer, via Elektra Records, arrived to run London’s UFO club. During 1967, Joe Boyd hosted Pink Floyd (producing their “Arnold Layne” single) and lysergic luminaries, accompanied by acid-rock lightshows. Nearby if not always blended into this heady milieu, folk-rock fermented.

Boyd had already produced The Incredible String Band. He continued with Fairport Convention, as jazz, jug-band, and rock-schooled rhythm sections joined with a sprightly sets of singers and guitarists. For Pentangle, their “aerated play of light” fragmented into “a sonic mirage” with “a curly line between a courtly medievalism and the enlightened foolery of Haight-Ashbury”.  Vocalist Jacqui McShee, acoustic guitarists Jansch and John Renbourn created above Danny Thompson’s string bass and Terry Cox’s brushed drums a typical tune which patters “like butterflies trapped in a balsa-wood box”.

Boyd’s Fairport played their first gig in May 1967 and two months later opened for Pink Floyd at UFO, before cutting the first of four increasingly daring records. They often covered Dylan and followed an eerie parallel. After Dylan’s motorcycle accident required The Band to retreat to Big Pink and regroup as a rooted ensemble, so Fairport faced a fatal van crash. Survivors recouped to refine their sound.

They departed from their genial West Coast harmonies. “A Sailor’s Life” from Unhalfbricking featured the first recorded use of sticks with drums to back up a folk tune. Dave Mattacks earned percussive credits on countless sessions. His “funky plod” provided “the ideal foil for the mushy instrumental palette of English electric folk, propelling its accordions, fiddles, abrasive guitars and astringent harmonies forward without denying their bulk and grit”.

Liege and Lief, under the influence of venerable folk interpreter A. L. “Bert” Lloyd, transferred the century’s leftist, proletariat, song tradition to the flower children. While Pentangle’s members grew up with folk transmitted on the BBC and taught in classrooms, Fairport matured with skiffle and Elvis. Richard Thompson’s and Simon Nicol fuzzed their guitars, over Sandy Denny’s ethereal voice, Dave Swarbrick’s slashing fiddle and Ashley Hutchings’ thumping bass guitar. Fairport, at the center of this book and this tale, epitomized the late-60s evolution.

These musicians fueled the next decade of folk-rock. But their heyday rushed by. Advertising copy for 1969s Liege promoted it as “documenting a (very brief) era”. Even during “A Sailor’s Life”, Young asserts that Denny tired of folk’s limits; she went solo after Liege. Young explains her neediness and her search for companionship as she pursued a singer-songwriter pop-folk muse whose comforts eluded her.

Hutchings also left then, hastening backwards to ‘70s sonic fidelity, if that makes sense for his leadership—in its first and boldest two of many incarnations—of a plugged-in Steeleye Span, grounded in archived ballads and decked in burnished apparel.  Their first two albums “are textured with a loamy, atavistic grit.” Tellingly, while Mattacks played on their debut, their follow-up left out drums but added Martin Carthy’s power chords distorted across a “massive Fender amplifier”, to mesmerizing and exhilarating effect on Please to See the King. But, the fireworks dimmed. Hutchings left to revive with his new wife Shirley Collins and then The Albion Band an “English country music” reviving Morris dance and performance, delivered in acoustic intimacy as intricately plotted and researched presentations.

Another of Boyd’s protégés, Nick Drake, shared this gentler, erudite approach. Young takes us, as with Denny, cautiously along as we watch the demise of another talented troubadour, soon reduced to a “withdrawn, solipsistic, shrunken seer”.  John Martyn’s existential pain earns a chapter, as his Echoplexed guitar, full of distortion, adapts free-jazz and dub techniques to his “boiling electric lyre”.

West Coast psychedelia celebrated summer meadows, but for the British, this could be a brief picnic. “When Joni Mitchell sang of getting back to the garden, you felt she pictured a lot of naked longhairs disporting themselves in love games off the coast of Big Sur. For Brits, the image that springs to mind is a cheeky reefer in the potting shed before getting back to work on the allotment”.

The period 1967-71 earns the most entries in the appended discography arranged by timeline. Its highlights, as with Pentangle, Fairport, and Steeleye, flickered and flared rapidly. Pioneers of folk-rock expansion, Boyd’s first clients The Incredible String Band, concocted a “global village” world music sustaining an ecumenical if acid-driven vision quest. But their records, for all their “very cellular” song structures and shape-shifting scope, could not sustain a career, given the heady vistas and drug-driven nature of their ambitions. After the bonfires collapse, as Young asks: “What becomes of the oaken-hearted?”

The book’s cover shows a semi-acoustic band, Heron, in a Berkshire field the summer of 1970. A piano nestles in a meadow, as pastel-shirted, long-haired musicians sit and play. Pye Records miked them to “capture the ambiance of the great outdoors.”  Booms surround them. This depicts an “electric Eden” created by an idealistic, disenchanted middle-class whose dreams and (lack of) ambitions mirrored Withnail & I, Bruce Robinson’s 1986 film of two unemployed actors fleeing to the Lake District in 1969.

Weariness pervades the songs of Drake and Martyn. Folk’s early-‘70s singer-songwriters woke to a comedown. Tiring of their past, Young argues, glam emerged with David Bowie and Marc Bolan as these gnomic performers reinvented themselves for the future, turning away from “warped Victoriana”. The riots of 1968 followed “Strawberry Fields” and an endless summer filled with “vertiginous trippiness and crooked-mirror Anglicana”. Mr. Fox, trained folk archivists and musicians, briefly kept the firmest hold on electric pastoralia that followed Steeleye and Fairport’s ascent. 

Fittingly, all three were guided by the enduring “Bert” Lloyd, whose book Folk Song in England (1967) was the first commission for Hipgnosis. They gave Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin “classic” rock album covers, while Young excels at explaining how urban-pastoral sepia tension seeps into artwork gracing Fairport’s Unhalfbricking, Sandy Denny’s The North Star Grassman and the Ravens, and the album Denny sang on, Led Zeppelin’s fourth.

A Shattering of the Rosy Lens

Magic and the supernatural beckoned bands away from confessional ballads towards often twee and fey attempts (Young possesses admirable patience as he sums up their efforts) to channel invented forces. Young pinpoints currents joining Wicca and folk as artificial energies. This does not diminish their organic power. “The Cruel Mother” may be sung with different lyrics by various voices, but she “will continue to be haunted by the guilt-inducing spectre of her child, because, whether sung by a Highland crofter, an acoustic duo in a folk club, an electric rock band at an outdoor festival or in a home studio with an electronic ambient backing track, the song itself is undead, a ghost that refuses to be forgotten”.

Festivals link neatly with Young’s survey of the British inheritance of the commons; unlike Greil Marcus’ over-determined Lipstick Traces, Young constructs his argument modestly and carefully. He shows how anti-authoritarian responses transmitted over the centuries persisted in debates over access to land. The ecologically-aware Glastonbury Fayre and its charity donations outlived the massive freak-outs which doomed the Isle of Wight’s festival. Disenchanted city dwellers tried to create, if for a weekend, alternative communities. New Age and environmental causes benefited greatly from cross-promotion.

Diminishing returns meant folk fans met with caricature, all bearded, clogged boffins with pewter flagons desperately seeking real ale. The ‘70s bring economic recession and political gloom; later chapters convey this strain in the realm. Arthurian and medievalist films flourished in the first half of the decade. The Wicker Man (the original version) still haunts with its imperious pagan revival. But, as Monty Python’s Camelot collapsed into stage sets of canvas and plywood, the English fascination with a manufactured soft-focus past ended.

Musically and culturally, the rise to prominence lasted only a few years. After 1972, Steeleye Span in another incarnation had, as with similarly successful musicians, outgrown the small folk music circuit. They opted for glossier, amplified stadium rock, while Richard and Linda Thompson spent the decade struggling “with a sense of hard-won knowledge, a literal dis-illusionment, a shattering of the rosy lens. It was as if the music permitted a wallowing in an imaginative world of filth from which Sufism might elevate and insulate them”. The String Band departed for Scientology, while Young passes over intriguingly if quickly such micro-genres as the Jesus People’s incorporations of operatic or mystical folk.

Young delves into the underground, but when its musicians emerge to Top 40 success, they fade from view. As a boy, I first heard Sandy Denny as a guest on “The Battle of Evermore” on Led Zeppelin’s new, fourth LP. I discovered via a dim recollection of Denny her folk-rock lineage much later. I imagine for fans of Ireland’s Horslips (mentioned once), Scotland’s Runrig, or England’s The Oyster Band (both unmentioned) as these bands merged traditional folk into louder rock, the impulses to track back to British “visionary music” trickled down from the top of the charts rather than up through cult releases.

Similar shortcomings arise when The Kinks get one sentence for the title track from 1968’s concept album The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society. Surely this LP encapsulates the sylvan chronicling and macabre components of British invention that define Young’s project. Jethro Tull’s “kitchen prose and gutter rhymes” may earn contempt from folk purists, but their ditties opened ears to search out venerable melodies. Pink Floyd explored experimental pastoral electronics in their later-‘60s and early-‘70s albums, but Young understates their popular impact.

In this massive compendium, I found some slips. Donovan’s songs here and there are jumbled as to what appeared where. “A twelfth-century Saxon church” is a misnomer. Robert O’Flaherty’s documentary Man of Aran filmed fishermen off an Irish rather than a Scottish island. Marshall McLuhan, while he taught for a time in the US, should be identified as Canadian rather than American.  Irish-born Chicago police chief Francis O’Neill’s Music of Ireland “bible” contains 1,850 pieces of music but it was not published in 1850. It debuted in 1903. Young’s black-and-white illustrations (at least in the proof copy) often strain the eye; many telling details reduce to thumbnail-sized reproductions of LP covers.

One album cover for Young depicts the downward spiral of ‘70s folk-rock. Steeleye Span’s fortunes crashed in the year punk hit, 1976. Their Rocket Cottage in free fall (its hideous art as fatal portent) frames a quirky semi-fictionalized chapter where Young allows a skewed sensibility freer rein. Diminishing returns meant folk fans met with caricature, all bearded, clogged boffins with pewter flagons desperately seeking real ale. While Young ignores Robyn Hitchcock, who with and after The Soft Boys applied hallucinogenic, hyper-natural lyrics to rambling folk tunes wired with new-wave vibrations, he does champion admirably another survivor of these end of the ‘70s mash-ups, Julian Cope.

Cope’s The Modern Antiquarian gazetteer near the millennium surveys his native landscape aligned with soundscapes of “attritional and introspective rock.” Young tells how “Cope sings, speaks and writes in the voice of the heathen—the aboriginal ‘people of the heath’ who worshipped the earth as a mother goddess”. In this “alternative, humane heritage movement”, room for the dissenter must be built: “no poetry without heretics”. Cope and his monumental concerns seek to separate the pagan substrata from the non-Christian detritus. Delightful as the hobby-horse set can be, cobbling together patchworks of tunes and dress, Cope seeks what he hears as “mysterious and tortuous” beneath these motley fabrics.

Kate Bush floats past steampunk, David Sylvain into alchemy, while Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis finds solitude. Their connections appear tenuous. For all I know The Skids and Big Country merited worthy analysis. What goes missing is in-depth discussion of contemporary electric folk. Young never cites Britta Sweers’ 2005 study. He neglects Gaelic-influenced bands. Scotland fades early, while Ireland earns diminishing returns, typified by the odd absence of Mark J. Prendergast’s 1990 history of its folk and rock, The Isle of Noises.  Nic Jones and June Tabor, John Tams and Home Service, Fairport’s Cropredy reunions, fanzines and the Net, the Free Reed label, the revival of English dance bands: such topics may or may not earn but a sentence. Inclusions of bands and musicians add often only lists of names.

Later chapters, reflecting instead Young’s own tastes rather than providing a comprehensive survey of post-‘70s trends, may appeal to fans lured here by personalities from the video era. The sounds do not linger as long on the page, and readers who aren’t listeners may struggle to figure out the sonic appeal of the poetic songwriters profiled. Young displays the private, personal evolution of a few malcontents, as they drift away from the new-wave charts and MTV publicity to burrow into uneasy moods. These tunes seem to resist Young’s capture in print. The tradition of backwards sight as a forward direction for cultural and musical progression among these self-marginalized seers endures.

Martyn Bates exemplifies this complex contemporary stance, inheriting the legacy of those with whom this narrative commenced. After singing in the post-punk duo Eyeless in Gaza—which included avant-folk—he released in 1994 Murder Ballads (Drift). He paired with Mick Harris, drummer for thrash-metal exponents Napalm Death. Harris and Bates sought, as had earlier hippies and folksingers, a quieter if no less disturbing way to conjure darker tones. Bates later worked with Max Eastley, cohort of Pentangle’s John Renbourn and of Donovan. And, with the latter paisley pop star, we return to the destination Vashti Bunyan sought. Donovan had opened up his land bought in the Isle of Skye for artists and musicians to settle. By the time Bunyan reached Skye, traipsing north across Britain by horse-drawn caravan, a year and a half had passed. Donovan had long left what was now his half-deserted fiefdom, for Los Angeles.

Young concludes with a sobering message. Misfits and a few progressives still gravitate towards the volatility of unconventional folk. Its dream of rural self-sufficiency, for an overpopulated and suburbanized island nation, cannot sustain itself. Wilderness shrinks. Sixty million Britons may long for their national symbol, their own enclosed garden. Yet this collective dream must endure. Young proclaims that “to preserve the sense of enchantment with British landscape that is hard-wired into the nation’s psyche it will become even more important to screen out modernity, to not quite see what is actually there, but to distort through the antiquarian eye and the mental scrying glass”.

This enchanting and engaging, if uneven, contribution to cultural musical history deserves to grow dog-eared. It will be opened by a contemporary reader turned informed listener, rather than shut up by an antiquarian.

(PopMatters featured April 21, 2011; in shorter and altered form on Amazon US & Lunch.com)

2 comments:

Layne said...

Spectacular review and certainly dispels the notion of folk music being trivial and irrelevant and almost makes me want to go poking around in the garage for some old albums except I don't think we have a turntable...

Fionnchú said...

You're not playing Tír na nÓg no matter what format in which they've been reissued.