British Music During Its Most Fertile Period
There’s a scene in Jerry Lewis’ 1963 movie The Nutty Professor where the students and the faculty discuss entertainment options for the senior prom. The options include jazz and pop musicians, comedians, and other performers. The college president chimes in with his choice—a folk group—and starts singing an old English folk tune. The comic situation makes clear that this music is totally unhip. Before The Beatles and other British Invasion artists set foot in the United States, young people already saw folk music as a safe and respectable entity. Even Jerry Lewis knew that. No wonder Bob Dylan plugged in and went electric.
But folk music never really disappeared, especially in England. While it largely morphed into folk rock on American shores, the purer product remained popular in the United Kingdom. Generally, English folk artists differed than their New World contemporaries in that they were much more concerned with the technical craft of playing their instruments than in the protest and poetry of the lyrics. While the American stars tended to be singers and songwriters, the Brits favored guitarists like Bert Jansch and John Renbourn. These two fellows were already well-known players with several solo albums and one made as a pair when the duo formed Pentangle in 1967, along with bassist Danny Thompson, drummer Terry Cox and vocalist Jacqui McShee. The name Pentangle was meant to correspond to the five members of the band, and the symbol enjoyed the advantage of having mystical associations.
The new, plush, four-CD, 65-track set, The Time Has Come successfully showcases the many pleasures found in Pentangle’s music during the quintet’s creative heyday. Although the band continued in various forms and reunions over the years, this anthology only contains songs recorded between 1967-1973. The group’s hits are here, as are many rarities that includes unreleased live material, alternate takes, cuts from television programs and movie soundtracks, and the B-sides of singles. The overall quality suggests the compilers were panning for gold rather than dredging the vaults. Jansch, Renbourn and Thompson play their stringed instruments masterfully through out. One can understand why famous English rockers from this era, like Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and The Who’s Pete Townshend, thought so highly of these players.
The band members concentration on the intricacies of acoustic instrumental music took them on varied paths. Many critics consider Pentangle’s sound to be folk jazz because of the performers dexterity on their instruments. Indeed, the band regularly took excursions into other genres. This anthology includes the group playing everything from a stately arrangement of J.S. Bach’s “Sarabande” to a bouncy rendition of jazz master Charlie Mingus’s “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” to an ethereal cover of Phil Spector’s girl group classic “Sally Go Round the Roses”. But traditional tunes, and Jansch or Renbourn compositions based on folk sources, comprise the overwhelming bulk of the material on the box set.
While Pentangle were successful with chart hits and sellout live performances at such places as the Fillmore West and Carnegie Hall in the states and Albert Hall (disc three of the anthology features 19 tracks from the band’s June 29, 1968 concert) and the Isle of Wight festival, Pentangle never achieved the supergroup status attained by so many of its peers. One can speculate why: the music may have been too cerebral for a mass audience, the most popular groups of the time incorporated rock in a way the mostly acoustic Pentangle never did, etc. My guess would be the limitations of lead female vocalist McShee. She mostly sings in a wispy soprano that seems overwhelmed by the instrumental talents that surround her. McShee is often compared with her contemporary from Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny. But Denny has a much more powerful voice and can reach a much a wider range. Denny can sing like McShee when Denny wants to sound nymph-like. Unfortunately, McShee can’t do everything Denny could. Few people could as Denny was in a class by herself.
The role of McShee does illustrate what was going on in the sexual politics of the time. Girl singers—particularly girl folksingers—were expected to sound pure. Think of Joan Baez as the penultimate example. McShee played the part expected of her. Perhaps it’s asking too much, with the benefit of hindsight, to want her to do more. If she would have, McShee may have been rejected by the band’s audiences.
That said, McShee is not the main attraction here and her limitations allow the instrumentalists to shine. This is especially true on the longer tracks, especially the almost 20-minute long “Pentangling”, which really allows Jansch, Renbourn, and Thompson to stretch, but can also be found on shorter cuts like “Green Willow”, with its complex interplay of rhythms and textures that mimic the wildness of the woods. The best thing about all 65 tracks here has little to do with the singing and everything to do with the playing.
A word about Cox’s drumming also seems in order here. He does come from a jazz background and his beats add a textured counterpoint to the proceedings. Take for example, “In Your Mind”, a simple tune with lilting, layered strings that’s made considerably more interesting by Cox’s almost martial tempo. The song simulates the lyrical concern about how taking a walk can create reflective thoughts. The cadenced pace conveyed by the drum beats beneficently enhances the overall effect.
The Time has Come should please people of a certain age who remember Pentangle from their youth and should also find favor with a new audience who only recently discovered Bert Jansch due to his fantastic solo release from last year, The Black Swan. The depth and breadth of material make this essential listening for anyone interested in British music during its most fertile period. After all, this is the time of The Beatles’ from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band until the band’s breakup, the first eight Pink Floyd albums, the first five Led Zeppelin releases, and way too many other important records to name. Pentangle were there and were a force to be reckoned with. This serves as evidence of why.
The compilation also comes with a bonus: a 50-plus-page set of informative liner notes that includes interviews with the band members, documentary photographs, and an explanatory listing of the song contents. The history of the band can be found therein. Pentangle is given the deluxe treatment. The music has found a good home.