Lal and Mike Waterson: Bright Phoebus
Once considered too weird for the folkies, this long-out-of-print 1972 album featuring Ashley Hutchings, Martin Carthy, and Richard Thompson in addition to Waterson siblings is a long-lost masterpiece.
The long-awaited re-release of Lal and Mike Waterson’s 1972 album Bright Phoebus is nothing short of a major event for fans of British folk music. Domino Records offers an expertly remastered version of the record with a separate disc of demos, including two songs that didn’t make the cut to the final album. Pete Paphides provides extensive liner notes that tell the fascinating story behind the album.
Mike and Lal Waterson, along with their sister Norma and cousin John Harrison, formed the a capella singing group The Watersons in the 1950s and grew to prominence as center points of the English folk renaissance of the 1960s, releasing three highly influential albums of traditional material before splitting up in 1968. While they’d earned great respect for their work, they’d earned barely enough money to get by, so with Mike and Lal having young families, they sought other means of making a living. Both, though, continued to make music privately and quickly began collaborating on songs that they had no immediate thought of recording professionally.
Lal’s daughter, Marry, describes her mother as “living on coffee and Woodbines” while writing the songs that would be featured on Bright Phoebus. Mike, meanwhile, was equally focused. Describing the composition of the title track, he tells a story of working as a painter when one of his partners asked him how he got his ideas for the songs; at that moment the sun broke through the big Victorian window they were painting, and Mike improvised the opening lines of the song out loud in answer before rushing off from the work site to get it written down. An hour later, “Bright Phoebus” was complete, and Mike had been docked an hour’s pay. The resultant album was recorded through the beneficence of producer Bill Leader, who turned the downstairs of the Cecil Sharp House into a makeshift studio following the repeated cajoling of Ashley Hutchings and Martin Carthy, who’d heard the siblings each play their songs in progress and were convinced that the material needed to be recorded. They then coaxed Richard Thompson, Tim Hart, Maddy Prior, and Dave Mattacks to join the sessions.
Despite only approximately 1,000 playable copies of the album being distributed, its influence spread, especially among British and continental musicians, with bootleg tapes openly passed among the knowing and appreciative. There’s little doubt that Kate Bush, whose predilection for oddly tuned choral vocals and English paganism shows her debt to the Watersons, found inspiration for “Rubber Band Girl” from her 1992 album The Red Shoes from Bright Pheobus's wry opening track “Rubber Band”. Colin Meloy of the Decemberists has been another vocal devotee. At the time of its release, though, despite an overall warm response from the music press, limited distribution quashed its commercial prospects, and it quickly went out of print where it has stayed until now.
For those hearing Bright Phoebus for the first time but who are already familiar with the assorted creative offshoots of the Watersons (Blue Murder, Waterson:Carthy), Bright Phoebus won't be the jarring surprise it was to listeners in 1972. The mix of traditional folk, rock, music hall and other assorted inspirations is now a familiar fixture of British folk, but at the time of its release, mainstream folk fans were still debating Dylan’s “Judas” status, and they tended toward a conservatism best exemplified by Ewan MaColl’s staid and stubborn adherence to a “historically accurate” approach to recording. During the small tour that Lal and Mike arranged to support the album, they found themselves relying on their old catalog as many fans asked impatiently about when they were going to record another “proper” album.
But in the years since vanishing from the record bins, Bright Phoebus has been dubbed “UK folk’s Sgt. Pepper”, and not without reason. Like John, Paul, George, and Ringo, Lal, Mike, Ashley, and Martin, etc., brought an adventurous kitchen-sink quality to their sonic ideas that were nonetheless guided by a deep appreciation of Englishness and its musical traditions. Certainly, a song like the carnivalesque “Magical Man” recalls “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”, though the Watersons' wit implies a less-than-heroic end for the performer (witness the horrific gasp that interrupts each chorus). But then there are the music hall echoes matched to Thompson’s bluesy electric guitar accompaniment of “Danny Rose”, Mike’s narrative of the brash and doomed but smartly self-marketing criminal.
Despite the years and the weight of its legend, Bright Phoebus is capable, still, of shocking with its unadorned beauty. “Child Among the Weeds”, a duet between Lal and Mike, ranks among the strongest vocal performances that either ever committed to tape. It’s a song that sends chills even after repeated listens. Mike’s “The Scarecrow”, with its intimations of human sacrifice, reaches back to the Frost and Fire era of the family band but is all the more stunning as a modern composition that reveals his deep understanding of the old world. So, too, does Lal’s “Fine Horseman” resonate with an ancient character. Then there’s Lal’s widely-commented-upon “Red Wine Promises”, a raw testimony to the cyclical damnation of addiction. Singing from the perspective of the addict, fallen in the rainy street, she compares herself to a beetle on its back but is confident that she’ll get up again to complete the cycle, neither needing nor wanting another’s help.
The demos are also a wonder. Lal and Mike’s voices on these simple recordings resonate with depth and passion as if every rendering of a song required an all-in approach. To say these songs live is hardly an understatement and the two demos that did not make it to the album, “Song for Thirza” and “Jack Frost”, are worth hearing. The former had been featured previously on the Waterson’s comprehensive Topic Records anthology Mighty River of Song, which was, previously, the only place to hear the title track “Bright Phoebus”.
Lal and Mike Waterson’s Bright Phoebus more than lives up to its legendary status. Long lost, it's a necessary purchase for fans of British folk.