The Black Rock

antarctic ice

March came in with an icy blast here in the UK. We had 10 – 20 cm of snow, much of the country’s transport system ground to a halt and some unfortunate motorists got stuck on a Scottish motorway for eight hours. It was all due to “the beast from the east” – a weather pattern that drew extremely cold air from Siberia across mainland Europe and over the North Sea to chill the bones of the British people. The beast didn’t stay long but this weekend he wagged his tail again and some parts of the country have had freezing temperatures and more snow showers. So I thought it was time to feature a track by the Scottish group, The Cauld Blast Orchestra, in these pages.

You won’t find the Cauld Blast on streaming sites. There are a few videos on YouTube, all uploaded by a member of the band, Steve Kettley. Those videos are live recordings with less than perfect sound quality and intrusive text captions added by the video recorder. They serve as an archive of the band’s performances but they don’t do full justice to the 8-piece orchestra. So Crotchety Man has had a go at making a YouTube video from his copy of an album the band released in 1994. Here’s The Black Rock from Durga’s Feast.

I think I must have picked up the CD at the end of a concert but, frankly, I don’t remember the occasion at all now. Certainly, I was not familiar with the band before buying the shiny round disc in the standard jewel case. Steve Kettley’s website describes Cauld Blast‘s music as a “heady mix of jazz, folk, classical and rock, not to mention the odd tango or march for good measure”. That sounds like an event for the local arts centre and that’s probably where this seeker of all things weird (wonderful or not) stumbled upon them.

Between them the eight members of the band play nearly all the instruments in a modern orchestra: violin, cello, flute, clarinet, tenor horn, tuba and piano all feature on Durga’s Feast. Whistle, concertina, accordion and mandolin add folk music sounds to the mix. Then there are saxophones, bass guitar, drums and assorted percussion to spice up the tunes with a little jazz. Notable by their absence are guitars and vocals. The rock element sneaks in surreptitiously in the pulsing rhythms of the compositions.

The Black Rock, though, is a quiet instrumental; “the gentle side of the Cauld Blast” to quote Kettley again. It’s a piece for piano, violin and clarinet that ambles along in a contented 5-time, just the thing for looking out onto snow-covered fields from a comfortable armchair in a snug room. Come, sit beside me and together we will laugh at the mini-beast as it sidles off to bring shivers to some other part of the world.

cauld blast orchestra, trimmed

Off the Radar

shadowy figure

Decisions, decisions … What shall I choose for my Track of the Week? Well, there are several good candidates on my Release Radar today.

How about Dança dos Miseráveis from the Marinheiro de Terra Firme album by Puppi, an Italian cellist based in Brazil? (The track starts at 22:54 in this YouTube video and you can ignore the first 20 seconds.)

Google Translate tells me that the language is Portuguese; the track title means “Dance of the Miserables” and the album title translates as “Landed Sailor”. This web page quotes Frederico Puppi as feeling like a perpetual outsider in his new home country – a man of the sea marooned on the land. I guess, in English, we’d say “a fish out of water”. Or, more pertinently perhaps, “a stranger in a strange land”.

That same (translated) article describes the music thus: “The album … unites the sounds of his cello with a strong electronic footprint inspired by hip hop, contemporary New York jazz and psychedelic rock”. That’s a reasonable stab at what Puppi is doing but I’d say the Dance of the Miserables is simply a rock cello track. Either way, it’s interesting enough for these pages.

But, this radar sweep has more to offer. Having started in Italy and trekked over to Brazil let’s return to Europe and visit the stylish city of Paris guided by our old friends, L’Impératrice.

There’s a funky groove in the air with seductive French accents all around us. It’s a warm evening, the wine is flowing and over the last couple of hours all the diners sharing this back street café have become our friends. “I barely speak your language”, you say to Brigitte Bardot at the next table, “but will you dance with me?”. And she accepts your invitation with a smile. Anywhere else you would be accused of flirting but here, in Paris, it’s just another way of saying “pleased to meet you”.

Our next stop is the other side of the world – Melbourne, Australia to be precise. It’s been a long, long flight and we’ve crossed too many time zones. Our body clocks need to be reset, to get back into Phase with the local time. And our hosts, Mildlife, know just how to ease us into a new routine.

The title track of their first album takes the tempo down but keeps a gentle groove going, soothing away the stiffness with what Kitty Empire of the Guardian called ‘space-kraut-jazz’. In her review of the album she hits the nail on the head when she says that it

“… falls just on the right side of the line dividing smug progressive fusions a la the Alan Parsons Project from questing psych-disco-jazz, the kind that wouldn’t sound wrong supporting Tame Impala on tour”.

Cleverly, of course, she doesn’t say which side is “the right side”, so if you dig The Alan Parsons Project or Tame Impala (or both) Mildlife‘s Phase should go down like a cold lager on a hot Australian beach.

worldwide radar

That’s quite enough travelling for this tired old man but your journey, young hobbit, is still not over. You have one more destination to visit and this one takes you completely off the terrestrial radar. It takes you all the way to Middle Earth where Isildur’s Bane will serenade you Under Your New Moon.

The sustaining power of YouTube doesn’t reach those lands of elves and orcs so you will have to take your own supplies. I have assembled a pack of essentials for you. Take care my friend and may Sauron’s eye be blind to you.

Decisions, decisions … Why choose one track when you can have four? Because those are the house rules. I admit I’ve cheated a little bit here. But I see the Fates have provided a tie-breaker. Under Your New Moon is from an album called Off the Radar so I’ll nominate that as my Track of the Week.

Auntie Aviator“Zoom, zoom, zoom, zoom”, said Auntie, whisking the model aircraft high above her niece’s head, adding “we’ll never touch the ground”. “And if we don’t want to”, replied her niece with a grin, “we won’t come down”. They were both remembering last week’s flight when Auntie took the controls of her light aircraft and took the little girl up into the clear blue skies for the first time. Soaring over the green fields of the English countryside with its quaint little villages knitted together by roads and rivers, pilot and passenger had wished the flight would never end.

There’s a serenity about John and Beverley Martyn’s Auntie Aviator that transcends time and place. I first heard it on the John Peel radio show nearly fifty years ago and when it came up on a playlist this week the title alone was enough to trigger a wave of warm nostalgia. The choice of this latest Track of the Week was never in doubt.

John Martyn

John and Beverley Martyn were a husband and wife folk duo. John had a highly successful career, releasing two studio albums with Beverley and another twenty as a solo artist between 1967 and 2004. Beverley was passed over by the record companies after the second John and Beverley Martyn LP, The Road to Ruin, although she continued to contribute to her husband’s solo projects until the marriage broke down at the end of the seventies.

John Martyn was a gifted singer/songwriter and guitarist. The biography on his official website mentions a long list of influences and collaborators including: Danny Thompson, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, David Gilmour, Ronnie Scott, Tim Buckley, Paul Weller and John Paul Jones. But John is, perhaps, best understood as another Nick Drake. By that I mean a folk guitarist with a flair for original songs and a flawless technique. He was also a troubled man at times.

Though scores of musicians, including Eric Clapton, delighted in working with Martyn, his most important musical foil was undoubtedly Pentangle’s double-bassist, Danny Thompson. As 1975’s Live at Leeds testifies, near telepathic interplay informed the pair’s musical unions even when both players were roaring drunk.

James McNair, From his obituary of John Martyn, 30 January 2009

album lions

Although John Martyn was a singer and guitarist, the vocals on Auntie Aviator are Beverley’s and the acoustic guitar retreats behind prominent piano and theremin-like electronic sounds. It’s a combination that lifts us up into a child’s playground among the clouds.

Zoom, zoom, zoom, zoom. … We won’t come down.


maisie who?

Ashildr, the Viking, in the guise of The Knightmare

The old walled city of York is famous for several things. It was a Roman fort and a Viking settlement, it has an impressive Gothic Minster and it was the birthplace of the actress Judi Dench. But the character most closely associated with York is Dick Turpin, butcher by trade, burglar and highwayman by profession, who is buried in the city¹.

The story goes that Turpin fled from the authorities in London, riding his horse, Black Bess, the 200 miles to York in a single day. Although no-one believes that highly romanticised account, Turpin did go on the run, leaving his stamping ground of London and Essex and taking up residence in Yorkshire under the alias of John Palmer. After an altercation in the street in which Palmer shot a game cock and threatened to shoot another man he was questioned by magistrates who decided he should be bound over. But Palmer refused to pay the surety and was sent to a house of correction where those “unwilling to work” were given arduous and demeaning jobs to do.

Suspecting that Palmer’s lifestyle was funded by criminal activities the magistrates made further enquiries bringing to light evidence that Palmer was involved in stealing sheep and horses. Horse stealing was then a capital offence so Palmer was transferred to the more secure prison of York Castle pending trial at York Assizes. While in prison Palmer wrote to his brother-in-law in Essex. Unfortunately for him an official in the receiving post office recognised the handwriting as Turpin’s and travelled to York to reveal Palmer’s true identity, claiming the reward offered after Turpin had shot and killed a man two years before.

Dick Turpin was found guilty of horse theft and hanged on 7th April 1739. He was buried in the graveyard of St. Georges Church, Fishergate and there is a grave there today marked with a headstone although there is some doubt about its authenticity.


I was reminded of York’s famous highwayman the other day. Mrs. Crotchety was flicking through the channels on the TV and came across a programme showing a guitarist I did not recognise. After watching for a while I was intrigued to see in the background the logo of an old BBC TV programme called The Old Grey Whistle Test. The Whistle Test, as it was known from 1983 onwards, was the only TV programme available in the UK in the seventies and eighties that broadcast rock and other non-chart music styles; it would have been my favourite TV programme had it not been on so late in the evening².

As we watched, ‘whispering’ Bob Harris, the DJ who hosted the Whistle Test from 1972 to 1978, came on. Although it’s 40 years since he last hosted that show he doesn’t seem to have aged a bit and a wave of warm nostalgia washed over me. For a moment I thought we might be watching a recording from the seventies but the images were too clear and the sound of Bob’s voice was too crisp. It was, in fact, a one-off, three-hour programme celebrating 30 years since the Whistle Test was last broadcast in 1988³.

Friday’s programme was a mix of recordings from the original 445 shows, interviews with musicians and BBC personnel, and live performances from both well-established and up-and-coming artists. It was a thoroughly enjoyable set all round but the clip that caught me by surprise was Albert Lee’s performance of The Highwayman. I knew Albert Lee as a guitarist, well respected in the industry and associated with artists like Emmylou Harris and Eric Clapton. For this song, though, he was playing an electric piano and singing, live in the TV studio. Here’s a YouTube video from a few years ago that looks and sounds very similar.

The Highwayman is a pop song. It was written by Jimmy Webb, the American songwriter, composer and singer responsible for a slew of deceptively catchy songs such as By The Time I Get To Phoenix, Wichita Line Man and Galveston. It’s not rock music and it would be easy to dismiss the whole of Webb’s output as superficial twaddle churned out to satisfy the bean counters of the big-name record companies. But suspend your disbelief for a moment. These are well-constructed pieces. They have a tune that the grey-coated doormen of Tin Pan Alley could whistle after hearing them just once or twice. They have a harmonic structure that is both unsurprising and at the same time distinctive. And even the words have a spark of originality about them. The Highwayman, for example, lives, like the eternal soldier, in the past the present and the future.

bob harris

There was one other item in the Whistle Test special that deserves a mention here. One of the promoters at Epic Records, Judd Lander, remembered a time when Jeff Beck was scheduled to be interviewed on the programme. Judd had received a phone call on the morning of the broadcast saying that Jeff had changed his mind and wouldn’t be doing the interview after all.

Not content with this, Judd had a company car drive him over to Jeff’s home. Determined to talk Jeff round Judd removed all his clothes in the car and when they drew up at Jeff’s front door Judd got out, naked, and played “Hi, Ho, Silver Lining”, loudly, on the bagpipes. A heated argument ensued but Judd refused to pipe down so, in the end, Jeff said he’d do the interview on one condition: that Judd would repeat his bagpipe stunt, unclothed, live on air. The first 30 seconds of this YouTube clip show the result of those negotiations.

It’s good to have a little nostalgia occasionally, don’t you think?


  1. When the Crotchety Couple moved to York in 1997 the house they bought had once been owned by a Mr. Turpin – George, not Richard, and not related to the highwayman as far as we know.
  2. This was long before the days of video recorders and catch-up TV – either you watched it live or you missed it.
  3. Apparently, the Whistle Test was axed by Janet Street-Porter when she took over as head of Youth Programmes at the BBC. The special shown on Friday, 23rd February 2018 is available for another 28 days on the BBC’s iPlayer service for those in the UK.

River Man

river man

Cormorant fishing on the Li river, Guilin province, China.

I don’t have much to say about this Track of the Week. So, instead, here’s a silly little ditty about the Chinese fisherman’s friend, the cormorant.

The common cormorant, or shag,
Lays eggs inside a paper bag.
The reason you will see, no doubt,
Is to keep the lightning out.

But what these unobservant birds
Have failed to notice is that herds
Of wandering bears may come with buns
And steal the bags to hold the crumbs.

[A Crotchety memory from Verse and Worse.]

It’s unlikely that Nick Drake was thinking of the cormorant fishermen of China and Japan when he wrote River Man, although quite what was in his mind isn’t entirely clear. My personal interpretation is that Nick was feeling stifled by the mores and conventions of the middle-class society in which he was brought up. He envied the river that flowed by, unconstrained by the invisible shackles that bind individuals into a stable, coherent society. As the song puts it:

Going to see the river man
Going to tell him all I can
About the ban
On feeling free.

Perhaps the river is wiser than he. Perhaps the river has the key to his metaphorical ankle-irons. Perhaps if he immerses himself in the river’s swirling thoughts it can set him free.

The lyrics given with this YouTube video are credited to Emily Dickinson and Nick Drake. But the great god Google can find no connection between the American 19th century poet and the English singer-songwriter. There are some curious similarities, though. Both withdrew from public life, becoming semi-detached even from their family and friends. There’s a certain similarity, too, in the major themes of their work: death and mortality in Dickinson’s poetry; dark, autumnal overtones in Drake’s songs. Was River Man influenced by Emily Dickinson’s poetry? Perhaps, but I can find no evidence to support that suggestion.

River Man is from Nick Drake’s first album, Five Leaves Left, released in 1969. It was a time when Nick and his record company were expecting considerable commercial success. The song is dusky in tone, but far from gloomy – like dark molten chocolate rather than the looming shadow of sorrow and loss. Nick’s precise guitar playing and warm voice are complemented by Danny Thompson’s resonant double bass and backed by a silky string section. This is a song that is searching for an answer to one of life’s troubles and fully expects to find it.

Unfortunately for Nick neither that first album nor his next two, Bryter Layter (1971) and Pink Moon (1972), sold well. The lack of sales contributed to a developing depression and in 1974, at the age of 26, Drake took an overdose of anti-depressant pills. The coroner concluded that he committed suicide although Nick’s producer, Joe Boyd, prefers to think he was trying to recapture his earlier optimism and “making a desperate lunge for life rather than a calculated surrender to death”.

nick drake

There were no fond retrospectives of Nick Drake’s music immediately after his death but in 1979 a new box set, Fruit Tree, was released and an appreciation of his songwriting talent gradually grew through the 80’s. Although undoubtedly under-appreciated in his lifetime Nick Drake’s influence has turned out to be, like a great river, deep and widespread. For those of us fishing for good music his River Man is as fine a catch as you could hope to land – with or without the help of a cormorant or two.

The Weaver’s Answer

bayeux tapestryLast week we had an Audience with a House on the Hill. They told us a story that asked where in life’s rich tapestry we belong. So, this week, it seems entirely appropriate that we look for some answers. And where better to find them than in the studio of those master weavers of sonic and lyrical threads, Family.

Family came into existence in 1966 when line-up changes in an R&B band called The Farinas¹ resulted in a change of direction towards psychedelic rock, with folk and prog rock influences. The name change was suggested by an American record producer because, at the time, they wore double breasted suits on stage making them look like a contingent of the mafia. The dress code was soon abandoned but the name stuck.

There are quite a few similarities between Audience and Family. So much so that Crotchety Man often confuses the two. Most strikingly, Roger Chapman’s singing for Family has been described as “bleating vibrato”, a phrase that perfectly describes Howard Werth’s vocals on Audience tracks. Add to that the fact that Family, like Audience, made full use of their multi-instrumentalists to craft a pleasing patchwork of sounds (Jim King contributed saxophones, harmonica and piano; Ric Grech bass, violin and cello) and you can begin to see how easily one’s thoughts can become tangled.


Family ca. 1970

As a band, Family was relatively short-lived, but between 1966 and 1973 they wrote and recorded many highly original songs. There were something like a dozen candidates for Track of the Week this time², but the one that always sticks in my memory is The Weaver’s Answer.

It starts gently with an acoustic guitar and violin introduction, the opening words falling on the ears like a poetic spell:

Weaver of life, let me look and see
The pattern of my life gone by
Shown on your tapestry.

An old man is reflecting on his life. It rolls by in his mind’s eye, unfurling like the Bayeux tapestry, telling a story. Not a story of war and invasion but of love and marriage, of his children growing up, of exquisite joys and the bitter tragedy of losing his wife.

There is a pause filled with a saxophone echoing both the good times and the bad.

When the tale resumes we find the old man now is blind and lonely. Though he can hear their laughter he can not see his grandchildren. His only comfort lies in the memories stitched into the warp and weft of his past and he longs to rewind the cloth, to see again the people and the places he has loved. Then, as if the Weaver of Life has heard his plea, he begins to see the loom on which his living threads are woven. And he sees, too, that the spools are empty. He is about to die.

Weaver of life, at last now I can see
The pattern of my life gone by shown on your tapestry.

The violin returns to tie off the loose ends. The old man has his answer. One more life has ended, the tapestry is complete.

Additional Notes

  1. This name reminded me of the Italian design company, Pininfarina, responsible for the styling of Ferraris and many other sports cars. It also triggered a memory of a concept car called the Ikenga which got a Crotchety lad very excited back in 1969. So much so that he went up to central London to see the prototype on display in the Harrods department store. Here’s an article that casts a fond look back at that project. And there’s a YouTube video of the car on the set of the Blue Peter children’s programme.
  2. I’ll mention here three other tracks that are well worth listening to: Burlesque, In My Own Time and No Mule’s Fool.


The House on the Hill

album cover

The English master was about to hand back our homework. “Before I return your books”, he said, “I’d like to read you one of the essays”. We sat there nervously for a moment, not knowing what to expect. Was he about to praise the text he held in his hands or lambast it mercilessly? And whose work had he singled out for special attention?

As soon as the master began to read I knew I was off the hook. The piece had a title, something like “The House on the Hill”, and mine was gloriously untitled. So, with considerable relief, I listened, intent on understanding why this ordinary piece of homework was getting such exceptional treatment.

From the title I had expected the essay to be a descriptive piece but it turned out to be a short story. It was written in the first person and told of a boy who wanted to explore a ramshackle old house. For the sake of this blog post I’ll call him Joe.


The house had been empty for years and there was an element of mystery about it that fascinated Joe. He knew his parents would forbid him to go. He knew, too, that there were perfectly good reasons not to go sniffing around – the structure might be unsafe and he might be arrested for trespass. But the dark windows beckoned him and the more he tried to put it out of his mind the larger it loomed in his thoughts.

So, one day, Joe gathered his courage and walked up the drive to the house. All was quiet. The house looked unoccupied. As he stood there on the porch Joe got the feeling that something wasn’t quite right. Perhaps he should go home. But, if he chickened out now his curiosity would never be satisfied. Joe tentatively pushed the door and it swung open easily as if the house was welcoming him in.

Stepping into the hall Joe saw nothing unusual, just a traditional entrance with a big oak staircase and some wooden panelling. An open door led to the living room. With its patterned wallpaper and faded carpets this struck Joe as a bit old fashioned, but there was something else, too. The feeling that something wasn’t right was stronger here. Something was out of place, he was sure, but what was it?

Going from room to room Joe searched for something that didn’t belong here. It wasn’t the furniture or the ornaments, they were as much at home as the walls and the floors. But the house was blighted by something. Something out of place or something out of time. Joe had to find it. Then, upstairs in a bedroom, Joe suddenly realised what it was. It was him!

The story ended, I think, with Joe running home, never to return to the house on the hill – not because he was scared, simply because he didn’t belong there. When I heard that story I was, like my English teacher, immensely impressed. The writer would have been 12 or 13 at the time and his story was so well written that it could have been published alongside established authors. That was why it had been singled out to be read to the class.

Some six or seven years later a band called Audience wrote a song with a similar theme; The House on the Hill was the title track of their 1971 album. As far as I know there’s no connection between the schoolboy’s story and the Audience song but the band did play at our school dance around the time the album was being recorded. (Caveat: I didn’t go to the dance and I only have my feeble and unreliable memory to rely on for that curious fact.)

Audience were an unusual band. With Keith Gemmell on tenor sax, clarinet and flute as the lead instrument and Howard Werth’s nasal, warbling vocals their sound comes very close to Jethro Tull at times. And yet, at other times their material strays too far from Tull territory to categorise them as progressive rock. So much so that one review of the band’s eponymous first album describes three of the tracks as “pure twee twaddle”. The consensus seems to be that we should file Audience under ‘art rock’, but there are definite folk and prog rock influences, too.

Here’s The House on the Hill on YouTube. I find it peculiarly unsatisfying visually but it’s a good example of the band’s arty, proggy music.