I do need to write more about my enduring passion for British folk-rock and electric folk. So what better way to take care of some business than a list! An overview of what exactly this genre entails is in my review of Steeleye Span’s incomparable Below the Salt, so I shan’t reprise it here. What we have here are not necessarily the most famous albums produced in this genre in that period (though some are), but a collection of personal favourites. Each has something special and distinct to offer, great performances, nifty songwriting and ancient atmospheres — so very inspiringly different to what is presented as creative and cool in the world of rock and roll, then and now. You don’t have to be English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish to appreciate the magnificent imagery and majestic modal melodies of British indigenous music. And each of these acts had its own special way of electrifying and dramatizing the themes inherent in the cultural memory of these peoples. If you want to read a big-ass book on the subject, find Rob Young’s Electric Eden, which, while it gives short shrift to some acts I consider significant and spends far too many pages on The Incredible String Band, does provide a great in-depth overview of not only the music, but how it came to be and the movement behind it.
Read on and collect!
(and read part II, the eighties!)
(NEW! Fall 2016, read the sequel to this post, 10 More Essential British 1970s Folk-Rock Albums)
NEW! Check out (meaning listen to) my mix version of this post on Mixcloud.
Oh, and you could listen to this humble scribe’s recently re-released album of Brit-folk, “Larkrise Revisited”. You’ll probably know all the songs!
Steeleye Span is unquestionably the greatest folk-rock band of them all, based on the criteria of musicianship, song selection, showmanship, background in the tradition, the whole shebang. See my review of the slightly superior Below the Salt for more info. But this album is quite something in itself. While the group did not have a drummer yet at this point, these songs are very aggressively electric but still very respectful of the source material. The production is weird, almost metallic and boomy. The songs and arrangements are incredible and so very atmospheric, from the mournful, echoey tale of exile “The Bold Poachers” to the epic harmonizing, insistent bass pulse and catchy licks of “The Weaver and the Factory Maid“, to the shocking heavy metal chords and shrieking violin solo of “Alison Gross” (one scary witch!) to the dirge-like multi-part harmonizing of “Rogues in a Nation” (there’s a Scottish theme to side two). Basically the massive inventive genius at work on this album never fails to blow me away. No band ever brought the past to life with the aid of electric instruments as well as Steeleye Span did.
The Albion Band – Rise Up Like the Sun (1978)
Bassist Ashley Hutchings, the driving force of the whole folk-rock movement, constituted a new version of his mega band to update the sound of the genre, and the result is this album that mixes established folk-rock styles with jazz-rock and prog-rock (violinist Ric Sanders was in Soft Machine and guitarist Graeme Taylor in Gryphon) and even some pub rock fun. The large cast includes John Tams, a wonderful vocalist who later led Home Service, one of the finest eighties groups. “Ragged Heroes” is a patriotic call to arms for English culture. “Lay Me Low“, based on a Shaker hymn, is quite grand with its group vocals and dramatic soloing. The main reason to get this album, though, remains the eleven-minute-long “Gresford Disaster“, a really sad tale of trapped miners that goes through many permutations, including a lengthy wah-violin solo as well as opportunities for long guitar solos — probably the only 100% true prog-folk-rock fusion I’ve come across. Not all the songs on this album are great but the energy is impressive and the best songs are wonderful. Rightfully considered a landmark of British music.
Yes, Horslips is Irish. By “British” I mean isles, not Her Majesty’s subjects. Horslips at this point, though they also released albums of more contemporary compositions (as heard on Dancehall Sweethearts), occasionally released ambitious concept albums inspired by Ireland’s traditional music, history and mythology. As far as I know, it was the only band doing this at the time. The Táin is a roaring success, because Horslips brings this mythology alive through the drama of very good, melodic compositions and some great playing, particularly from bluesy guitarist Johnny Fean. Highlights are the glammy stomp of “Dearg Doom“, the muscular masculinity of “You Can’t Fool the Beast” and the psychedelic swirl of “Faster than the Hound.” Also starring are multiinstrumentalist Jim Lockhart and chain-mail-fisted fiddler Charles O’Connor. One of the best concept albums ever made, with the bonus that it dragged Irish music kicking and screaming out of O’Carolan’s days right into our own.
Spriguns, best known as a vehicle for the voice and writing of Mandy Morton, was a much lesser-known second-tier folk-rock band — it was a small scene with only so many gigs to go around, I hear, so it was hard to make it on any level. But Spriguns’ music was anything but second-tier, as this album proves. While Fairport Convention/Sandy Denny are inevitable influences, Morton actually has her own style. Her songs are generally very dark, melancholy and almost Gothic in tone, and any trad folk enthusiast knows that the repertoire is full of dark and disturbing material, so Morton’s distinctive compositions such as “Dead Man’s Eyes” and “Devil’s Night” fit right in. She also had an odd, clipped and matter-of-fact vocal delivery that is somehow rather enticing. A nice combination of grand folk melody, eerie synth moods and tasty rock guitar, with the obligatory rendition of “Blackwater Side” thrown in, this is an excellent entry in an underappreciated discography.
Scots band Runrig found commercial success in the eighties and nineties by changing their sound to smooth eighties pop with folk influences. Some of that music is pretty good, but prior to that Runrig’s music was a roaring heavy rock/folk fusion that definitely highlighted the dexterity of guitarist/piper Malcolm Jones. They were also highly politicized advocates of Scottish nationalism, and much of their repertoire dealt with injustices perpetuated against the Scots. More so on Recovery, a later album. The Highland Connection is a high-energy album that has moments of almost punkish/metal aggression, which is a lot of fun. Check out particularly “What Time“, in which Jones totally blows the roof off the joint. The vocal combination of Donnie Munro and Rory Macdonald is as sweet-sounding as ever. There are also tender ballads like “Going Home” and “Mairi” amongst the bombast, though I could do without the rendition of “Loch Lomond” for the cheese factor (they did a much superior version on a later live album). A top album by the top Scottish folk-rock band.
Trees has a bit of an inflated reputation with freak folkies desperately searching for a super-cool hip version of Fairport to worship. The fact is, the two albums are pretty good but flawed. When the band stuck with traditional songs or traditional-sounding ones, it was quite successful, but some of the contemporary-style originals are not good. Witness track one, “Nothing Special”, which features some terribly raw, overblown soloing that interferes with the overly-sweet lead vocal. Fortunately, things improve greatly after that with some truly wonderful psych-folk and psych-rock performances. Celia Humphris had a very pure voice, and the moody arrangements on “The Great Silkie”, the original “The Garden of Jane Delawney” and “She Moves Through the Fair” are just perfect. While Trees may not be the geniuses some would make them out to be, there’s no doubt their two albums made a great contribution to British electric-folk.
Ex-Fairport Convention singer Sandy Denny was extremely popular in the early seventies — just a few years later her self-destructive behaviour sent her from this world. But what a legacy! This, her first solo album, is a crazy quilt of melancholy autumnal imagery, backed by an incredible band of folk-rock stars. Sure, she had that enchanting voice and romantic yet tragic style, but man, there’s an embarrassment of riches here — the spooky strings of “Next Time Around”, the odd storytelling of “Wretched Wilbur” and “The Sea Captain“, the incredible poetry of “Late November” and the rousing anti-war sentiments of “John the Gun” (also featuring a mind-blowing fiddle solo by Barry Dransfield), and an impossibly groovy version of the trad “Blackwater Side“. A few rock n’ roll covers are less successful mood-breakers, but overall this is the untrammelled creativity created by the late sixties in full flight and probably Denny’s finest hour as a writer.
I would argue that renowned guitarist and songwriter Richard Thompson’s best albums were made with his wife. Not that his material from the eighties and onward is terrible, but there was something special about their dynamic (which later exploded, unfortunately), and the icy purity of her voice was the perfect vehicle for his often morose songs. I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight is an acknowledged classic, while this album is overlooked a bit. In fact, there’s a greater variety of material on here than he ever wrote before or after. The songs are about odd people in weird, surreal situations, and there’s a twisted sense of fun about the grotesque proceedings. The opening title track probably features Richard’s hottest, most searing lead playing on record. “Never Again” is possibly his saddest ballad, and “A Heart Needs a Home” his most touching love song. The weird characters of “Georgie on a Spree” and “Smiffy’s Glass Eye” are just the icing on the cake. This album too is a classic and a work of pure genius.
Yorkshire-based Mr. Fox was one weird band. Bob and Carole Pegg were probably more devoted as folklorists to using their music to promote a purely English culture than anyone else. While they mostly wrote their own stuff, these creaky, almost sloppily recorded compositions and the Peggs’ rough-n-ready voices and archaic lyrics really do have a strange magic that transports the listener to a bizarre alternate reality of dark, magical moors. The thumpy version of “The House Carpenter” is an example of their intense style. The very lengthy “The Gypsy” takes a while to get through at thirteen minutes but is quite the achievement on its own. Not the best album to introduce yourself to this genre, but once you acquire an appreciation for it, you’ll likely be seduced by Mr. Fox’s strange Dales allure.
Ashley Hutchings was at it again with this one. He realized that almost certainly no one had made an album of electrified Morris dance tunes! (Morris dancing is an odd pagan holdover that was revived to an extent by hippies and is now becoming rare again) So he set about rectifying that. Morris tunes have a stately, stomping elegance and dignity that is quite different to the wild prancing of Celtic dance music like jigs and reels. It lends itself surprisingly well to the dynamic of a rock rhythm section, and Hutchings had an excellent one here in Dave Mattacks and … Hutchings. The album was plainly a ton of fun to record, considering you can hear the chaps bantering back and forth in the middle of pieces. Fun, racy songs like “The Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Nutting Girl” add even more saucy enjoyment to the experience. As does the virtuosic playing of super axe-wielder Richard Thompson. Probably the cheeriest music in my entire record collection and guaranteed good times.
In the late seventies it looked like folk-rock was toast. Fairport, its kings, had flamed out commercially with Rising for the Moon, a collection of (really good) original songs with Denny. But these guys had the music in their blood, so they got themselves a new contract, a four-man skeleton crew and kept on with the mission. This lineup of drummer Bruce Rowland and mainstays Simon Nicol, Dave Swarbrick and Dave Pegg actually managed to produce a rip-roaringly fun album of rockin’ unpretentiousness. From the fast-paced groove of “Ye Mariners All” to the boozy fun of “Three Drunken Maidens” to a crazy long version of “Jack Orion” to the canine highland lope of “Reynard the Fox“, these dudes are having the time of their lives and it shows. Rousing group vocals and joyous fiddle soloing are this album’s hallmarks. If you start investigating the Fairport discography, do not overlook this.
A one-shot Irish band as much psychedelic rock as folk that got snapped up in the prog-rock recording explosion. This is actually a bit superior to any of Trees’ work, mainly because of the dynamic between commanding dual lead singers Clodagh Simonds and Alison Bools, but also because there really is a great flower-power balance between ancient vibes and progressive rock grooves. Highlights for me are the very spacy “Sheep Season“, the sweet “Messenger Birds” and the eerie “Reverend Sister.” Hell, this is actually great from start to finish. The songs and arrangements are highly dramatic. It’s kind of amazing that this was not more successful at the time, but certainly a lot of people appreciate it now — Simonds gets to do cool stuff like guest on Steven Wilson albums.