'Electric Eden'

A Musical Retelling of the Elusive Past

by John L. Murphy

20 April 2011


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.

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