Days of Pearly Spencer

 

sinking fast

Sometimes I feel I’m losing the will to live. It’s usually when I’m ironing – shirts are so darn fiddly, aren’t they? So I do my ironing weekday afternoons between 1 and 4 pm so that I can listen to the Radcliffe and Maconie show on the radio. They play some good music and they have a lot of laughs; it’s the most effective antidote for boredom that I know.

So there I was, ironing another shirt, when a jaunty disco tune came on. I barely noticed it at first. Then, over the funky bass and perky drum machine, a familiar jingle wormed its way into the Crotchety ears. I know that song, I thought, and its title flashed up on the mental display screen: The Days of Pearly Spencer.

But Pearly Spencer, as I remembered it, wasn’t a disco record. And yet there was that distinctive motif that pervaded the airwaves of every decent radio station back in the late sixties. If it wasn’t the song I knew it had to be a later cover. For the next 3 or 4 minutes ironing shirts was no longer a chore. Wrinkles in the cloth magically disappeared amidst little puffs of steam, while the Crotchety mind wandered elsewhere and the hands moved on autopilot.

The Pearly Spencer theme ran for another minute or so before the vocals came in with a dire warning for humanity. We are poisoning the planet with pesticides and, sooner or later, nature will have her revenge. That’s not the Pearly Spencer story; some reprobate must have stolen his theme for a completely different song. It was, in fact, a song called Supernature by Marc Cerrone, who (I discovered later) was a disco producer in the late 1970s and early ’80s.

Supernature is quite listenable at its 4:22 radio edit length. The full version on the Cerrone I,II,III album is much too long at 9:45 and the YouTube video below runs three tracks together for an interminable 18 minutes plus. It’s visually rather good, though, so watch it until you get bored and then read on.

OK, so you’ve heard the rip-off, now hear the David McWilliams original. There are two versions: the single and a longer one from the album, Working for the Government. Here’s the single on YouTube:

On the Crotchety patented pop-meter that scores an almost perfect 10. The lyrics paint a picture of an old man, battered, bowed and finally defeated by life’s endless battles. And yet, it rocks along irrepressibly. The megaphone sound of the vocals in the chorus gives it an air of the supernatural. And there’s that unforgettable haunting riff in the strings, a phrase that can be plagiarised but never merely quoted, even in homage.

The album was recorded some 20 years after the single release and that version has a completely different arrangement. It dispenses with the rocking beat, the fuzzy chorus vocals and the characteristic haunting riff. It throws away nearly everything that makes the single so memorable and appealing. It slows the pace and nearly doubles the playing time, too. It’s almost a different song. And Crotchety Man says it’s amazing.

I can’t find this version on YouTube, so here it is on Spotify.

David McWilliams was a singer, songwriter and guitarist from Northern Ireland. The Crotchety memory banks have him down as a one-hit wonder but the usual online sources say he released some 14 albums and was, for a time, very popular in continental Europe.

Surprisingly, although The Days of Pearly Spencer topped the charts in “numerous countries” and sold over a million copies, it was never a hit in the UK. Wikipedia puts this down to the record being banned by the BBC because of somewhat indirect links to the ‘pirate’ radio station, Radio Caroline. I find that explanation hard to swallow because Pearly Spencer had no trouble reaching my ears – and the only pirate station I listened to had been shut down before the record was released. Perhaps my memory is at fault.

David McWilliams died in 2002 but the Pearly Spencer story lives on. McWilliams had a daughter, Mandy Bingham, and she released a version of The Days of Pearly Spencer just last year, 50 years to the day after her father’s single. The Mandy Bingham version brings back the distinctive riff as a viola’s lament in a lovely folk song arrangement where it complements Mandy’s lead vocal beautifully. This release also features Mandy’s daughter, Lola, on backing vocals.

The Crotchety pop-meter gets horribly confused by the Mandy Bingham recording but the prototype folk-meter goes right off the scale. It’s subjective, I know, but to the Crotchety ears this is the best rendition yet of a timeless song in the pop/folk tradition.

The  ironing pile of life will never be too big if Pearly Spencer is there to relieve the tedium.


Headline Image: https://w-dog.net/wallpaper/pauper-the-homeless-man-dog-street/id/346396/

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

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.

Whistle Down the Wind

girl + jesus

Hayley Mills and Alan Bates in Whistle Down the Wind

This week it was announced that Joan Baez is releasing a new album on 2nd March. Whistle Down the Wind will be her first new recording for a decade and its promotion marks the end of more than 50 years of touring for Baez.

The phrase, “whistle down the wind”, evokes a forlorn sense of helplessness as if the sound of your nervous whistling is being carried away on the breeze, betraying your presence to the spirits of the forest, both good and evil. But whistle you must because otherwise your feeble courage will melt away and your fate will be cast to the cold capricious wind.

Whistle Down the Wind was the title of a novel by Mary Hayley Bell which was published in 1959 and made into a film in 1961. The film starred the author’s daughter, Hayley Mills, and the British actor Alan Bates. In the story some children discover a bearded man hiding in their family’s barn. When the man exclaims, “Jesus Christ!”, the youngsters think he is telling them his name and that they are witnessing the Second Coming. The film was nominated for four BAFTAs and the British Film Institute included it in their list of the 50 films you should see by the age of 14.

Tom Waits later used Whistle Down the Wind as the title for one of the tracks on his 1992 album Bone Machine. It is that song that Joan Baez has chosen as the title track of her forthcoming album. It is a simple folk song in a waltz time featuring folk guitars and a backing track with accordion, bass and drums. On this song Joan’s voice is sweet and satisfying but it has lost some of the characteristic lustre of her earlier work. As if to make up for that missing sparkle the Baez version of Whistle Down the Wind adds short strains of theremin notes, taking us into a mysterious world where gods and goblins determine our future, unswayed by any wishes of our own.

joan baez

The other important event in Crotchety Man’s week was the Third Age Orchestra’s Christmas/New Year ‘fuddle’, a social gathering in which we played a few songs before delving into a buffet to which we all contributed. In the rehearsal room everyone drifted around like dandelion seeds on a summer breeze, balancing paper plates and chatting amongst ourselves, until our leader called for our attention. “Pull a cracker”, she said, “and keep what you find inside”.

Bang, crack, snap went the party crackers. And soon we were all holding plastic whistles marked with a number between 1 and 8. Lining us up in whistle number order our maestro then called out numbers: 3, 2, 1, pause, 3, 2 … As each number was called the musician(s) with that number on their whistle blew hard and the air was filled with a laughable rendition of Three Blind Mice or Good King Wenceslas. Believe me, it’s a lot harder than you think to puff into a plastic tube in time with the conductor when you don’t know which tune has been chosen. Especially when you’re laughing at everyone else’s efforts! And, as most of us found out, it’s harder still to conduct such a performance. You may as well try and catch the whistling wind.

Starless

starless night

For those who are unfamiliar with the British folk music scene The Unthanks are a five-piece folk group led by sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank. The band was formed in 2004 as an all female group called Rachel Unthank and the Winterset. After lineup changes that brought Adrian McNally into the band as pianist, arranger, producer and manager the name was shortened to The Unthanks.

They perform mainly traditional English folk songs. The credits for their second album, The Bairns, list Rachel’s contributions as voice, cello, ukulele and feet, the latter being a reference to the sound of clog dancing which formed part of their live act. So, you see, we are deep in folk music country here, but The Unthanks frequently flirt with other musical genres, too, and that is what qualifies them for inclusion in the Crotchety Man pages.

rachel & becky

Rachel and Becky Unthank

For my Track of the Week I have chosen Starless from The Unthank‘s 2011 album Last.

A gentle violin and piano introduction leads into a haunting trumpet melody. Reflected in the trumpet’s shining brass we see a dark brooding landscape lit only by the faint glow of moonbeams filtering through a charcoal sky. Any stars have been suffocated under a thick blanket of low cloud. The night cloaks the scene in a bible black shroud. On the Earthly plane we are alone; in spirit we share this god-forsaken place with the ghost of a brass band soloist.

As if wakened by the trumpeter’s song the black treacle voices of the Unthank sisters take up the story. Somewhere beyond the horizon a brilliant sun is setting but it is hidden by a curtain of doubt and despair.

Sundown dazzling day
Gold through my eyes
But my eyes turned within
Only see
Starless and bible black

Spectral figures drift across our vision and the soulful sounds of a chamber orchestra emphasise the bleakness of our inward gaze. Listen. That is the sound of Churchill’s black dog stalking the night.

The Unthanks have taken a modern folk song and given it a wonderfully atmospheric orchestral arrangement. Or so it would seem. But Starless was not conceived as a folk song. It was originally intended as the title track of King Crimson‘s Starless and Bible Black album released in March 1974.

The lyrics and melody were written by John Wetton, King Crimson‘s then bassist, but Robert Fripp and Bill Bruford didn’t like it and the title was used for an unrelated instrumental on that album. When the original song was subsequently revised and revived for King Crimson‘s next album, Red, it was given the shorter title of Starless. By this time David Cross had left the band and the melody that he would have played on his electric violin was switched to Robert Fripp’s guitar. Even in 1974, several decades before The Unthanks rearranged it again, the melody line had jumped like a dancing will-o’-the-wisp from one instrument to another.

Starless is still performed by King Crimson. In their hands it is a sweeping progressive rock track with passages in 13/4 and 13/8 time. Here’s a live version from 2015 that is included on their latest album Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind. It still has that haunting melody but this rendition builds to a frantic climax propelled irresistibly forward by KC’s three drummers. Watch and marvel!

Whichever way you slice it, orchestral folk or progressive rock, Starless is a truly great track that will haunt you long after Hallowe’en. There is no trick. It is a treat to be savoured. Especially when the black dog comes stalking and dark thoughts rise from the mists of the subconscious monkey mind.

Finale

A new album by Pentangle was released last year. Given that the band had split up shortly after I saw them in Oxford back in 1973¹ and, more pertinently, that two of them have died, it couldn’t be a new recording. But it’s not just another compilation, either. The original line-up reformed in 2008 and did a 12-date UK tour that year. Finale: An Evening with Pentangle, released on 7th October 2016, is a two-CD album² of recordings from the 2008 tour. Why it took so long to get it onto the shelves of the brick-and-mortar shops and into the catalogues of the online retailers is a mystery that my Google Fu has been unable to solve.

The latest album has several things going for it. For a start it’s a relatively recent recording that captures the sound of a live performance extremely well. Just listening to the deep, round, plummy tones of Danny Thompson’s double bass (he calls it ‘Victoria’) is enough to bring a joyful tear to the eye. The guitars of Bert Jansch and John Renbourn ring out as if all the paraphernalia of the recording process has dissolved. There are no pickups, microphones, mixers, equalisers, recorders or speakers between the instruments and our ears, nothing to distort or subtract from the musicians’ art. OK, so Terry Cox’s drums sound a little muffled and Jacqui McShee’s voice is a little indistinct at times but as live recordings go this is a good one, a really good one.

Then there’s the performance, fresh and vibrant as the day the band was born. If you’ve never heard Pentangle live, take this album for a spin. It has songs that will caress and delight you. It has folk tales that will enchant you, too, transporting you to another place, another time; and it will welcome you and your friends to the telling.

Finale has nearly all the fans’ favourite Pentangle songs on it: Light Flight, Hunting Song, House Carpenter, Cruel Sister, Bruton Town and more. In the past I recommended Light Flight – The Anthology as the one essential Pentangle album but with Finale it has a rival. The Anthology compilation has my own all-time favourite song, The Trees They Do Grow High, but Finale has the better sound and the immediacy of a live show. Sadly, neither include the heart-warming story of Willy of Winsbury (from Solomon’s Seal) but no album is perfect.

There are no bad Pentangle albums (as far as I know) but Anthology and Finale provide a magnificent summary of the band’s work. So, ignore my previous advice. Both albums are, I think, essential for any Pentangle fan. Get them both and when you fancy a little folk with a light frosting of jazz pick one or the other according to your mood.

Notes

  1. I had nothing to do with the band’s demise, I assure you!
  2. Finale was also released as a 3-disc vinyl LP in 2017.

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