VARIOUS ARTISTS – Strangers In The Room: A Journey Through The British Folk-Rock Scene 1967-73

A product of the late 60s freedoms and musical experimentation, British folk-rock gave the world a few classic albums in its formative years. Fairport Convention’s ‘What We Did On Our Holidays’ and ‘Leige & Leif’, both released in 1969, arguably took the musical fusion from being of cult status and into the more mainstream. Now considered indispensable by fans everywhere, these are albums without which Led Zeppelin’s third album might not exist in quite the same way…or even at all. Often taking a more trad direction in their early years, Steeleye Span captured the fingered-ear of folkies with 1970’s ‘Please To See The King’, whilst Lindisfarne also gained a great deal of commercial success with a slightly more raucous take on a rapidly growing genre, even if that success has been somewhat overlooked in the passing of time.

Grapefruit Records’ ‘Strangers In The Room’ is a fine celebration of British folk rock. Rarely having anything in common with the American movement spearheaded by The Byrds, the British scene was far more whimsical and seemingly encouraged acoustic guitar players everywhere to think a little more broadly about how they could use their talents. Not all of them used those talents for good – as, indeed, this three disc anthology more than shows at times – but like many of the label’s genre-led anthologies, this sixty track adventure is often fascinating…and when it’s good, it’s very, very good indeed.

Naturally, the movement’s true giants are all featured here – Fairport, Steeleye, Strawbs, Sandy Denny, Pentangle – but in true Grapefruit form, they’re not necessarily represented by the tracks you’d expect. After all, who needs yet another compilation featuring ‘Meet On The Ledge’ or ‘Gaudete’ when ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ is every bit as good? In this case, of course, Fairport’s treatment of the trad folk tune is the very epitome of what folk-rock pioneers set out to create, even if it veers closer to the folk than rock as we’d come to know it. It’s a real pleasure to hear the 1967 version of ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’ by a solo Sandy Denny too. While fans will have this in their collections already – and a lucky few will even cherish their copies of the nineteen disc Denny box set from 2010 – for the more casual listener, this recording will be a timely reminder of a talent lost to the world far too soon. With just a finger-picked acoustic for company, Denny’s voice is at its richest, hitting longer notes with a beauteous clarity, showing that same natural talent that would add to Fairport’s timeless legacy. The 1969 Fairport recording of ‘Who Knows…’ is good, but this is truly special.

Of the greatest interest to folk collectors are the previously unreleased tracks scattered throughout this set. It seems almost inconceivable that after several decades and countless compilations of seven inch rarities that there’d be anything left on the shelf – at least anything actually worth hearing – but ‘Strangers In The Room’ actually turns up a couple of real gems. There’s also something you’ll only want to hear maybe once, but you can’t win ’em all, as the old saying goes…

Spirogyra – not to be confused with the late 70s easy jazz one hit wonders of ‘Morning Dance’ fame – are represented by a previously unheard take of ‘Dangerous Dave’. If the version used as the opening track on their 1972 LP ‘Old Boot Wine’ accentuates the rock within folk rock, then this alternate take is even sharper. Gone is the very 60s sounding stereo split; instead, the stereo comes over far more subtly. In turn, the vocals are louder and more energetic, with Barbara Gaskin’s occasional “woo-hoo’s coming across with plenty of enthusiasm. It might not seem as fussy as it’s album companion, but in many ways it’s actually better. Lifeblud’s ‘Waxing of The Moon’ is such an obscurity, nobody actually remembers when it was actually recorded! It’s suspected to be from early 1970, by which time, the English folk rock movement was in full flow. It might have been left behind at the time, but decades on, it’s interesting to hear this Hertfordshire band unashamedly whip out a sitar to compliment some fairly rudimentary acoustic work. Despite the fact that the sitar was in danger of becoming passé, it’s actually one of the best things about the song. The recording source is a little hissy, but the general charm in this previously unheard song should be obvious to all fans of English folk. Singer Michael Wainwright has the kind of voice that could perhaps fall apart at any second, but along with the sitar, his fragility is actually what makes the track work. It sounds a bit like a Donovan sketch at times, so this should appeal to a few fans of all things wistful, even if it’s far from folk-rock perfection.

Best avoided, a rejected number from the mysterious Jude (dating from 1971) is a budget recording that doesn’t even bother to put Jude in the vocal spotlight. Most of the vocals are in harmony with her then boyfriend, musician Steve Howden (formerly of Red Dirt, then of Fickle Pickle) and it’s Howden who’s been given the more prominent voice. This might have almost everything to do with the fact that Ms. Jude doesn’t have a very strong talent for singing at all. Throughout these three minutes, she’s heard tentatively warbling what should have been a great melody, but as it is, this track just sounds like generic living room fodder recorded by those looking to stay alternative. It’s never flat out terrible, but there’s pretty much nothing to make it hold up decades later, especially among thousands of similar recordings issued between 1967-73. For the hardened folk rock enthusiast, an unreleased demo by the short-lived Fresh Maggots screams “hippie throwaway”, and yet there’s something about the simplicity of the acoustic work combined with a gentle glockenspiel that seems like a natural snapshot of the age. The recording is rough, but the love and obvious hints of soft drugs come through at every turn. It’s easy to see why Fresh Maggots have never really been celebrated – aside from a terrible name – but their inclusion here is a welcome one. Even if this is a little naive, it’s still miles better than Incredible String Band’s most lauded trash.

Best of all, though, there’s even a previously unreleased Gerry Rafferty recording. One of several leftovers captured on tape during the making of his solo debut ‘Can I Have My Money Back’, ‘Who Cares’ is heavy on the piano, finger cymbals and echoing vocal. It’s not so much folk-rock as a dry run for the lavish soft rock Rafferty would record with Steeler’s Wheel, and that won’t be surprising to anyone familiar with his early works since a much more polished version closed the second Stealers Wheel LP ‘Ferguslie Park’. On this earlier solo take, the arrangement is rougher and the vocal louder, but most notably, the tinkling harps are still punchy brass interjections, thus making this different enough to be of huge interest to Rafferty’s many fans. Yes, it feels like a musical cuckoo in direct comparison to so much of this box set, but to be allowed a new insight into something so familiar shouldn’t be undervalued.

Obviously, between the world beaters, the household names and the unreleased trinkets, there are a couple of hours’ worth of other folky nuggets and forgotten sides, lots of which make this box more than worthy of your time.

Giving the set its name, Michael Chapman’s ‘Stranger In The Room’ is a perfectly balanced mix of folk and rock, with a harsh twelve stringed guitar heavily featured. The strongest elements settle for a very Richard Thompson-esque brand of bluesy pop-rock, complete with a howling lead guitar, meaning that for lovers of the first two Fairport albums, Chapman’s gifts for a wordy lyric applied to a sub-Roger McGuinn vocal combined with even more bluesy guitar should really appeal. [For further listening, Chapman’s 1970 album ‘Fully Qualified Survivor’ features some cracking music and passes forty six minutes in fine form, even if he’s not the best of singers.]

Always mentioned on the fringes of folk cultdom, Third Ear Band’s ‘Fleance’ offsets some of this box set’s more feel-good sounds with a really dark and downbeat number. The penny whistle playing and bongos will be enough to bring back Viet Nam style flashbacks of Incredible String Band’s stoned freakouts or an unpleasant day trip to Lewes, but thankfully a heavy, downtuned acoustic strum brings more interest. It mightn’t ever be as smart, but it taps into the kind of unnerving mood that cuts through Cream’s ‘As You Said’. Adding further to the sense of unravelling darkness, the lyrics are adapted from Chaucer and sung by a teenager whose voice has yet to break. That teenager is none other than UK broadcasting legend Keith Chegwin! How and why remains a mystery. It mightn’t be something you’d want to hear very often, but this is definitely one of this anthology’s more bizarre offerings. Recorded in 1970 but subsequently unissued, Chimera’s ‘Sad Song For Winter’ weaves dual acoustic guitars in and out of each other in a way that’s more than reminiscent of Mike Oldfield, before augmenting those with retro sounds that pull influence from decades earlier, lending an almost Tudor feel. Such a pity, then, that such intricate music would be completely spoilt by a heavy going and tiresome warble… Sometimes the skip button comes in very handy.

Storyteller’s ‘Morning Glow’, on the other hand, is a thing of true folk-rock beauty. A warm bass, post-psych harmonies, understated strings and the kind of acoustic guitar you might find on an early Rod Stewart hit all come together to create something very rich and multi-layered, before shift into something bigger combines Seekers-ish choirs of voices with psych-ish harpsichord sounds. It’s a real kitchen sink affair – and once you’ve applied frontman Terry Durham’s rich croon, this becomes an absolutely captivating three minutes. Durham was seen by audiences in support of Ralph McTell at live shows during the era…and one listen to this and you’ll completely understand why. Ralph, meanwhile, is represented by a 1970 cut ‘Father Forgive Them’, a track with religious overtones that seems a little trite, but is rescued by a great vocal and even better arrangement, augmented with soft jazz guitar and a superb bassline throughout. [An ever reliable and often under-appreciated artist, check out Ralph’s 1969 single ‘Summer Come Along’, as featured on Grapefruit’s three disc set ‘Try A Little Sunshine. It’s one of the best tracks you’ve (probably) never heard.]

Andy Roberts favours something slightly spikier on his ‘Queen of the Moonlight World’. He takes typical folk melodies and finger-picked guitar and off-sets the more obvious sounds with a jarring mellotron drone, almost as a forerunner for the folk-prog sound Ant Phillips would make his own years later, before throwing in a bigger hook that isn’t so far removed from Buffalo Springfield. It’s another semi-grand work that has weathered the passing decades well enough, while Robin Scott’s brilliant song ‘The Sailor’ moves further towards pop-rock with a piano based arrangement that’s got more than a pinch of influence from Al Stewart. Genre-wise, it’s probably a marginal pick for a folk box, but that doesn’t stop it being one of the stand out tracks. The appallingly named Oo Bang Jiggly Jang do a more than passable impersonation of Fairport, but it’s easy to see why they’re fairly forgotten, since although ‘The Hanging Tree’ is pleasant enough, it doesn’t provide enough of a deviation from at least a half-dozen bands churning out similar material in ’71. Decades later, the band’s biggest claim to fame is that guitarist Peter Bramall (aka Bram Tchaikovsky) eventually became a member of The Motors, those hit makers whom are best remembered for a really downbeat song about an airport (1978’s ‘Airport’, funnily enough) and ‘Forget About You’, a lesser remembered hit that shamelessly ripped off the tune from the BBC’s Grandstand. Career directions can be unpredictable things.

Introduced to some listeners on Grapefruit Records’ ‘Come Join My Orchestra’ – a curious anthology of baroque and orchestral pop – in 2018, Al Jones makes a very welcome return here with ‘Sarah In The Isle of Wight’, a deep cut from his under-purchased 1969 LP. Al isn’t always the best singer, but he’s able to make up for that with a pleasingly restless arrangement featuring noodling electric guitar, juxtaposed with busy acoustics and a chorus that although brief adds a few sixties pop sounds all tied together with a Beatle-esque drum part. It takes a few plays before its magic is really obvious, but it’s a nice addition to this set and it’s good that Jones is given more love. Best remembered for their a cappella cover of Neil Young’s ‘After The Goldrush’ (a UK top 30 hit in 1974), Prelude’s ‘Carry Me’ is a lavish pop-rock number with folk overtones. It might veer close to easy listening at times with its fondness for close harmony singing, but in terms of both chart friendly qualities for the early-mid 70s and a gift for a strong melody, it’s a fantastic and timely reminder of an often forgotten band. Their inclusion here might just be enough for a few people to check out other things from their back-catalogue.

A man who started out as an R&B recording arttst, Gary Farr gravitated towards folk-rock in the late 60s and his ‘Don’t Know Why You Bother Child’ includes music that’s a dead ringer for early Traffic, which doesn’t always sit well against his choice of a richer and more soulful vocal. Despite the contrast of styles, it’s a great track that’s very heavy on the sixties vibes, helped no end by occasional melodies that veer very close to The Hollies’ ‘Jennifer Eccles’ and a couple of Donovan tunes. Another highlight, and one offering something much closer to traditional British folk, Dando Shaft’s ‘Riverboat’ conjures countryside imagery, sunnier days and a happy malaise on a tune with a soaring fiddle and a siren-esque vocal that never hurries. Polly Bolton’s vocals have a real presence – not so far from the shrill approach adopted by Maddy Prior – but it’s the music that’s of the greatest interest, since this number mixes the trad with a very eastern flair, heavy on the tabla. In terms of folk-rock experimentation it’s a must hear, especially for Pentangle fans.

Obviously, anthologies such as this will always include a few tracks you’ll never listen to for pleasure – Incredible String Band and their ilk are always best left in the past – but ‘Strangers In The Room’ is definitely a set where the good far outweighs the bad. Perhaps the biggest negative of all is the time-frame itself: the 1973 cut-off point means this doesn’t explore any of Steeleye’s finest work, include any of Richard & Linda Thompson’s amazing album cuts or have time to introduce new listeners to the many delights of Albion Band’s ‘Rise Up Like The Sun’. There’s still more than enough great material on offer, though, and with a few bits designed to pull in the more committed fan but without alienating the folk-rock novice, this box has something for most folkies to enjoy. It’s the folk-rock novice who’ll have the most to gain of course, as this set will certainly educate as well as entertain – but, be warned, it will lead to other purchases!

[Also of potential interest:  Come Join My Orchestra – The British Baroque Pop Sound 1967-73.]

March 2019