Electric EdenUnearthing Britain's Visionary Music
Faber & FaberCopyright © 2011 Rob Young
All right reserved.ISBN: 9780865478565
The battered Austin, its fifty years clearly legible in rust and mud flecks, slowed to a halt, the motor spluttering on its empty fuel tank. The doors spread their wings and two of its three occupants emerged onto the country road, taking stock of their position among the hedgerows before rolling up their sleeves to push the vehicle, while the third, a slight female, took hold of the wheel in the driver’s seat. As the tyres bit against the rough tarmac and the car began to move off, one of them, Robert, caught sight of something glinting behind the thorny hedgerow. He called to his friend John to stop pushing for a moment, and to his girlfriend Vashti to apply the handbrake. She climbed out of the car and together they vaulted the gate.
It was a Gypsy caravan, or more accurately, an old baker’s delivery cart, constructed from tin sheets covered with fading brown paint. A curved roof crowned it, and its wheels, which looked as if they had been taken off a vintage motor car, were mounted on a buckling chassis. How many miles had this unroadworthy jalopy already travelled? The three friends could not tell, but they set off down the short path in search of its owner. He was soon found: a Gypsy, or as he himself styled it, a Romany, sitting with his pots and pans and keeping his horse, Bess, company.
His wandering life appealed to Robert Lewis and Vashti Bunyan at just that moment in their lives. Until their friend John James’s car had run out of petrol, they had been fleeing from their last home, a camp in a clearing in some Kentish woods, where they had been living for several months among piles of home-made wooden stools and tables, log fires, bivouacs and hammocks. The clearing was decorated with Lewis’s giant sheet paintings, part of the art diploma he was enrolled in at Ravensbourne College of Art, near Chislehurst on the fringes of south-east London. The land was just at the back of the college, and in 1967, with a few weeks to go before his time was up, Lewis strung up a bivouac under a giant rhododendron, hung more sections of canvas between trees and bushes, and began executing a series of paintings in the outdoors. In the late spring, his girlfriend Vashti resigned her post as an assistant in a veterinary practice in Hammersmith, picked up a blanket, a pillow, her guitar and her dog Blue, and boarded a bus bound for Chislehurst. Was he pleased to see her or did he fear that the introduction of a live-in partner in his woodland idyll would jeopardise his diploma prospects? Whatever his initial feelings, the pair made a little haven of their forest home, constructing rude furniture from felled branches and logs and singing Vashti’s simple songs around the campfire in a small and picturesque clearing. As Lewis daubed his canvases, Bunyan sat on his mildewed mattress with her feet on a patch of threadbare carpet and sewed curtains for their rudimentary bush dwelling by the light of an oil lamp. ‘We made a little heaven in the wood,’ she said many years later.
Pilgrims’ progress: Vashti Bunyan, her dog Blue, horse Bess and Robert Lewis on the road to Skye, 1969.
Vashti Bunyan’s drawing of herself and Robert Lewis camping in woods near Ravensbourne College, 1967. Note approaching bailiffs.
But the spell in the sylvan paradise did not last more than a few weeks. A banishing god appeared in the form of a suited Bank of England official, representing the true owners of the land, flanked by two policemen to enforce the eviction. They clutched a summons Robert Lewis had previously received – for taking a pillion passenger on his motorbike without a licence – and the wonk from the bank added an admonishing lecture about the breakdown of civil order if everybody suddenly decided to go and live in their wood. Frogmarched to the edge of the forest, they telephoned John James with news of their plight, and after some minutes his Austin came rattling around to pick them up.
Her name – and it’s her real one – is almost too perfect. Vashti comes from the Old Testament’s Book of Esther: a Persian queen banished for refusing to dance in front of her husband’s guests. The Bunyan family have never proved any lineage to the seventeenth-century author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, but the name is richly evocative of quests in search of paradise. Bunyan herself was no stranger to the milieu of the music business. On a trip to New York when she was eighteen, she found a copy of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and became hooked on the singer’s music, and quickly developed an intense desire to become a successful pop singer. She won a place at the Ruskin School of Drawing in Oxford, but spent a whole term skiving off her lectures, instead teaching herself to play the guitar, writing songs and becoming lost in a world of music. When she tried to pass off this non-attendance as a different and valid form of art, her supervisors were not amused and in 1964 she was slung out.
The following year, she met Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham through an actress friend of her mother’s. The svengali was practically the same age and soon developed a crush on Vashti, but could not bring himself to declare it.1 He signed her up to fill the gap left by Marianne Faithfull, who had just left his stable, giving her a song written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, ‘Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind’, as her first single on the Decca label. ‘I wanted to be a pop singer,’ she admitted later. ‘There was no way Andrew Oldham took this innocent folk singer and tried to mould her into a pop singer, that wasn’t what happened at all. I was ready and willing…’ She was a female singer with her own songbook, which, she recalls, was unusual. ‘There weren’t many female singers who wrote their own songs. Whenever I knocked on doors, they were looking for people in sequins and ballgowns, not a skinny art student with an old jumper with holes in it and a guitar slung over her shoulder.’ Vashti, however, fought against the standard practice of women singers singing other (men’s) songs, and the B-side of that first single contained a composition of her own, ‘I Want to Be Alone’.
Perhaps that song expressed a sentiment that made her unfit for massive pop stardom. In 1966, apparently shaking her head one day and looking at the predominantly sad tenor of the songs she was writing (or stung by the comments of others), she and her friend Jenny Lewis came up with a throwaway tune called ‘Seventeen Pink Sugar Elephants’. A Canadian producer, Peter Snell, surfaced out of nowhere and bought her out of her contract with Oldham’s Immediate label, hoping to sprinkle his own stardust on her. The poet Alasdair Clayre had begun sending lyrics for her to set to music, and her ‘Pink Sugar Elephants’ tune fitted the words of a piece of his called ‘Train Song’. When this found its way onto a single, it received almost no airplay and failed to puncture the charts. Some months later, Immediate co-founder Tony Calder managed to sweet-talk Vashti back to the studio, which proved to be a waste of time, commercially speaking. ‘Winter Is Blue’, despite its recording session being filmed by Peter Whitehead for his hip documentary Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London, and eventually re-recorded by Oldham himself, never came out; neither did ‘Coldest Night of the Year’, sung by Vashti with the boy duo Twice As Much; nor her own ‘I’d Like to Walk Around Inside Your Mind’, which Oldham complained needed a string section and more dramatic production, only no one could be bothered. That was Vashti’s Summer of Love; the following year, 1968, she dropped into a spiral of depression during which she walked away from the metropolitan music business. ‘That was the nosedive time, when I realised that I had to get out of London.’
She had encountered Robert Lewis in 1965 when, driving through the Suffolk countryside in the middle of the night, she picked him up as he was hitch-hiking. They kept in touch but it wasn’t until two years later that she discovered he was camping in the woods in the grounds of his art college.
Which is how they found themselves marooned halfway home with a broken-down car, with an open future, staring transfixed at this house on wheels, their minds whirring with new possibilities. Two weeks later they came up with the money to buy the cart and the horse from its Romany owner down there in the field. The cash was lent to them by Donovan Leitch, whose reputation as the Grand Vizier of the British hippy folk scene was at its height. One of Robert’s college friends knew Donovan, and they began hanging out with the singer and his circle. Once the cart was purchased, they repaired to the singer’s small cottage in Essex to make it roadworthy.
Donovan’s success after the Dylan-influenced singles such as ‘Catch the Wind’, ‘Colours’ and ‘Universal Soldier’ was in part due to some steerage by his new producer/svengali Mickie Most, who had urged the young artist to trick out his acoustic folkiness with generous helpings from the new palette of psychedelic colours creeping into pop production in the wake of such records as The Beatles’ Revolver and The Kinks’ Face to Face. In 1965 he was still immersed in the Woody Guthrie/Dylan knock-off protest folk of his first LP, What’s Bin Did and What’s Bin Hid, while on his second, Fairytale, he began to inch towards a more bucolic mode with the inclusion of ‘Jersey Thursday’ and ‘Summer Day Reflection Song’. At the time Bunyan got to hang out with him, Donovan was rich on the proceeds of his third LP, Sunshine Superman, a UK compilation culled from the US releases Sunshine Superman and Mellow Yellow. From a landowner named Donald MacDonald, he had just purchased three remote Scottish islands, Isay, Mingay and Clett, near Skye’s north-west Vaternish peninsula, where he and his friend/‘manager’ Gypsy Dave intended to set up a ‘Renaissance community’ of artists, musicians and poets in a row of tumbledown shepherds’ cottages. In tandem with this dreamy project, he released the double album A Gift from a Flower to a Garden in 1967, which included a languid slice of Highlands picturesque, ‘Isle of Islay’ (another song, ‘And Clett Makes Three’, dates from the same period, but was never officially released). A Gift comprised two LPs clasped in a box: one with electric pop songs, the other a series of acoustic fairy tales. These benignly stoned odes fondly and naively imagined a long-lost, bucolic Avalon where like minds of a forever-young Flower Generation might gather in peace, singing, dancing, smoking, making love and contemplating the universe in a guilt-free environment. Its sleeve included a photo of Donovan in Rishikesh, India, where he had just been staying with The Beatles and other celebrity truth-seekers on a high-profile creative retreat under the tutelage of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
And Clett makes three: Donovan surveys his newly purchased Isle of Skye fiefdom, 1968.
He flew back high as a magic carpet with a pipe-load of Eastern mysticism and a newly piqued interest in Celtic medievalism and Victoriana, manifested in songs such as ‘Guinevere’, ‘Legend of a Child Girl Linda’ and ‘Season of the Witch’. As well as odes to the grooviness of his London pop set – ‘Sunny Goodge Street’, ‘Hampstead Incident’, ‘Sunny South Kensington’ – the LP waved a rallying freak-flag for British hippies with its laidback anthems such as ‘Epistle to Dippy’ and ‘Preachin’ Love’. Now, with his purchase of a faraway island kingdom, Donovan was planning to use his status as counter-cultural guru to convert this pipe dream into a living experiment.
His international fame was at its zenith. He had just featured on the cover of the inaugural issue of Rolling Stone, and this Glasgowborn youth was styling himself ‘the last of the English minstrels’2 in interviews. He had attempted to escape the mounting legal wranglings over his music by fleeing to a Greek island, but the exile had not worked, and now he declared he was seeking ‘a place where the twentieth century had never existed’.3
His latest music, though, was nothing if not supremely cosmopolitan, eclectic and outward-looking. He had employed a wide variety of musicians from mingled disciplines: Phil Seamen’s jazz drumming, Jack Bruce’s hard-rock bass, etc., and a trailer-load of unusual ethnic instruments, including the obligatory-for-the-age Indian sitars and tablas. Scorned by ‘serious’ folk fans and viewed uneasily by the likes of his one-time mentor Bob Dylan, Donovan seemed to want to wish all the attention away just at the moment he had reached his artistic and financial peak.
This, then, was the artist who bought his own stab at Wonderland, the pied piper whose master plan was to sail off to his private fiefdom singing Lewis Carroll’s line ‘Won’t you join the dance?’, and who put up the money for potential acolytes like Vashti Bunyan and Robert Lewis to make the pilgrimage. But Vashti and Robert planned to make it as much about the journey as the destination.
The USA, its entire coast-to-coast extent traversed and mapped in the space of two centuries, is the place where the wide open road has taken on a vibrant cultural currency. Trail songs of the nineteenth century gave way to a host of ‘freight train’ songs in the blues/Depression era; while rock ’n’ roll’s thrusting, insistent beat, arriving in Jack Kerouac’s dust clouds, has proved the perfect medium for evoking the sensation of freewheeling travel down the horizon-seeking highways of the American interior. Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to Be Wild’, the soundtrack of Easy Rider and later songs such as Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Freebird’ are perfect for slamming on the car stereo and putting foot to the floor, or better still, setting the cruise control for the heart of the sun and kicking back with a jazz Woodbine. The exhilaration of driving itself complements the pulse and throb of rock. On the European mainland, Kraftwerk bequeathed a small tradition of ‘transport music’ in ‘Autobahn’, ‘Trans-Europe Express’ and ‘Tour de France’: time-and-motion music celebrating efficiency and tamed technological energy. Neu!, another German group formed in the early 1970s, refined a motorik groove and drone-guitar riff cocktail that conveyed a vivid sense of eating up the kilometres.
But the land mass of the British Isles is not large enough to have generated a culture of the open road. Leaving aside such one-off terrace chants as Tom Robinson’s ‘2-4-6-8 Motorway’, the culture of British travel is more commonly linked to the sense of a quest, a journey undertaken for purposes of knowledge or self-restoration. In that sense, the British road is a road to the interior, of the imagination rather than a physical coverage of distance. Its poetic energy is supplied by lanes, forest spurs and hillside tracks, not motorways and slip roads. A large proportion of its highways, from its smallest bridleways to the main road arteries, have been in place for centuries: Roman roads, such as the A10 that begins at Liverpool Street in the heart of the City of London and leads directly north for eighty miles, connecting Cambridge and King’s Lynn, have been in use for two millennia. Thus, they have accumulated all the fear that would have accompanied long-distance travel in the Dark and Middle Ages, when roads cut through ancient forests, when there were many fewer towns and sheltering posts along the route. Yet still the British traveller seeks out the unfamiliar. Take a look at the shelves of any bookshop section on British travel: you will find very few devoted to exploring its A-roads and motorways. All rambling efforts are focused on byways, lanes, hidden walks, undiscovered villages, forgotten churches, ruined walls and weathered stones: the buried treasures of the British landscape. To wander there, solitary and unchecked, is an experience increasingly difficult to find, but it is the dream of most of those who walk on Britain’s soil – Vashti Bunyan included. There is the sense that one wants the landscape, and the history it contains, all to oneself.
The antiquarian impulse in British travel can be identified almost as far back in history as you care to look: from the Tudor chronicler John Leland, entrusted with a mission from Henry VIII to delve into as many ancient libraries as he could find around the land in order to unearth unknown facts about England (published as The Laborious Journey and Search for England’s Antiquities), to the epic cross-country trek made by the poet John Clare in 1841.4 Enlightenment antiquarian William Stukeley’s Itinerarium Curiosum (Curious Journey), including his pioneering 1724 survey of the Avebury stone circle, found its echo in the twentieth century with Alfred Watkins’s The Old Straight Track, published in 1925. Watkins claimed to have discovered a complex system of ‘leys’ criss-crossing the English landscape, aligned through focal points such as churches, wells, prehistoric mounds and long barrows. As the much later mystic geographer John Michell commented in his introduction to a 1970s edition of Watkins’s book, ‘for many…The Old Straight Track awoke as it were the memory of a half familiar truth’.5
Crucially, Watkins’s book points out how easy it is for the reader to take part in the survey of ley lines, simply by taking a map and ruler and rambling out into almost any part of the British countryside: antiquarianism for weekend rovers. ‘The clear, modest style…invoke[s] the same genius terrae britannicae from the red Herefordshire earth that inspired [his] mystic predecessors, Traherne and Henry Vaughan,’ Michell continues. ‘There would be no poetry without heretics.’
‘Land Art’ technically originated in the 1960s/early 70s work of Americans such as Robert Smithson, Walter de Maria and James Turrell: an abandonment of the gallery system to embrace large-scale work that might involve a journey. Among the first to pick up on the Land Art movement in Britain were the London psychedelic-lightshow projector Mark Boyle and the Bristol-based artist Richard Long, who began exhibiting in 1968 – the year of Vashti Bunyan’s walk – with pieces such as A Line Made by Walking. Long’s forays into the landscape, first in Britain, then overseas, sometimes involved fashioning small marker sculptures of grass, sticks or stones. His forensic interest in nature appears drawn away from the city by the same magnetism that attracted the late-1960s counter-culture.
Journeys through inter-war England: Alfred Watkins, The Old Straight Track (1925); H. V. Morton, In Search of England (1927).
Britain’s literature brims with accounts of journeys in which movement combines with the unlocking of memory to create a sensation of inward/vertical rather than forward/lateral travel. H. V. Morton’s In Search of England (1927) and J. B. Priestley’s English Journey (1934) are just two examples of inter-war surveys of the sociocultural landscape. More recently, Iain Sinclair has made a career of the seer-like ability to view ‘the past inside the present’, identifying the friction points where the tectonic plates of history and the present moment rub up against each other, whether in the East End of London or around the perimeter of the capital in his masterly survey of the M25 motorway, London Orbital. Michael Hulse’s lyrical translation of W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (1995), a novel which describes a meditative journey through the rural county of Suffolk, captures the peculiarly English facility for letting modern cladding fall out of sight and zoning in on the surviving traces of antiquity (all the more remarkable since Sebald, though a long-time English resident, was German). Both these authors are adept at springing out the hermetic and esoteric histories lying latent in the landscape.
In 1998 the rock musician Julian Cope completed an eight-year ‘pre-millennial odyssey’, visiting and cataloguing more than 300 prehistoric sites in the British Isles. The Modern Antiquarian acted as the first ‘Gazetteer’ to collect and analyse so many in a single publication and with such doggedness. In the early 1990s, following a run of five solo albums for Island Records, Cope was kicked off his label for delivering the career-shifting Jehovahkill, which featured images of the Callanish stone circle on its cover and inflammatory sleeve notes that called for a pagan revolution of the mind to combat the ‘straight-lined’ Roman thinking of the imperialist authorities. At the same time, Cope relocated from south London to a remote farm on the Marlborough Downs, where he spent the 1990s setting up an autonomous self-publishing base from which he could disseminate his music and writing, both of which continued prolifically, as if uncorked by his rural liberation. Simultaneously embodying rock’s righteous conscience and furious rites, Cope’s redrawing of Albion fuses the passion of the antiquarian with the experimental spirit of rock, couched in a powerful advocacy for the primacy of land and freedom. He is merely a recent example of a desire to reconnect with the wilderness that has periodically transported composers and musicians in Britain since the late nineteenth century.
While Donovan and Gypsy Dave shuttled back and forth in a Land Rover, Bunyan and Lewis planned a grand tour of Britain: to walk its length from Kent in the south, along the roads and lanes of England and over the Scottish Highlands, singing their merry songs on village greens and attracting new young idealists to join their roving band. After slapping a coat of green paint onto the metal sides of the cart and making other repairs to deem it roadworthy, they shoed up the black horse Bess and set out in July 1968.
The couple were on the road for the next two summers, spending winter 1968–9 holed up in the Lake District. They didn’t reach their final destination on Skye until almost a year and a half after they had begun. It was not entirely a rural ride: they stuck to the main road, the A6, which led from London via the Midlands up to the north-west (this was before the age of the motorway). ‘We learned our lesson in Derby,’ says Vashti, ‘because we thought we’d go round the edge, the ring road, and it took us ages. The horse was getting tired, it was very industrial and we couldn’t find any green to put her on. In the end we had to stop on a rubbish dump behind the Rolls Royce factory. And there was a traveller family there who looked after us, brought us fish and chips – this sort of thing would happen all the time.’
The pilgrimage was not entirely as they had imagined it. The handful of extra friends who set out with them soon dropped out when the colder weather set in – and their hopes of singing on the village greens turned out to be naive, as they were usually moved along by local police any time they started tuning up in public. As self-elected nomads in a land of castle-dwellers, they found they needed constantly to negotiate and plead for their own presence. Suspicion and hostility greeted them from town to town. Children might run out to watch their strange procession, even jump on for a ride, but terrified parents would snatch them back, evidently assuming their offspring would be kidnapped. This was still an England of relative rural immobility; fear and mistrust of travellers was the norm. ‘Someone would phone up the village ahead and say, “Lock up your chickens,”’ she recalls. ‘We went through this little village, and a whole lot of kids got really excited, running along by the side of the wagon and asking us what we were doing. And this one little kid said, “Can you give me a ride?” So he got up onto the front of the wagon. And we went through the middle of the village and by the time we got to the other end this absolutely terrified parent came to pick his child up off the wagon – he really did think we were stealing his child. And I realised from then on we had to be really careful. If that had happened to me I would have been terrified as well, but it never occurred to me, we were just giving this little boy a ride along the street.’
Just as she had found doors closing to her as a prospective singer in London, so she was finding a similar attitude prevailing on the roads of late-1960s Britain. But in spite of the difficulties, Bunyan and Lewis pressed on doggedly, and she found the muse again. While Lewis kept his diary, Vashti’s songs were mysteriously being written – often frail wisps of things, or autobiographical road songs like ‘Jog Along Bess’ that were little more than extensions of their exhortations to the horse. With a flavour of nursery rhymes, Beatrix Potter’s animal tales and Donovan’s benign self-mythology, Bunyan’s songs most of all resembled lullabies, charms to ward off danger and dread in the midst of adversity. ‘I think the most jiggedy-joggedy songs were written in the worst bits of industrial England,’ she says, ‘where it was really horrible to be going through. Like the outskirts of Manchester, where there were a whole lot of children in the street without shoes.’
The harshest winter months were spent in the Lake District. There they met a couple from the Netherlands with musical connections who heard Vashti singing some of her travelling songs and offered to arrange some concerts in Holland for her around Christmas.
So the walk was broken off over Christmas, with the wagon parked in the Lake District while Vashti and Robert took the boat to the Netherlands. Any hopes she may have entertained that this tour might help reactivate her career were dashed, though, as the venues were really a succession of tiny pubs and bars. Loud conversations drowned out the fragility of Vashti’s music, which required the dead stillness of an attentive audience. In one bar in Ghent she broke down in tears and fled.
Later that evening, though, she discovered that an acquaintance, Derroll Adams, coincidentally lived in an apartment above that very bar. Adams was a banjo player from Portland, Oregon, who had come over to Europe along with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, exerting a powerful influence on the emerging folk-blues scene of the late 1950s and early 1960s in London by injecting a little Americana into the predominant mix of medieval balladry and workers’ songs. Adams had not made as much of a name for himself as Elliott, and had recently suffered a heart attack, from which he was convalescing. But there was one English pop figure whom he had made a kind of protégé in the mid-1960s: none other than Donovan, and Vashti and Robert had met him while they were repairing their wagon. Suddenly it seemed to Vashti that this Dutch trip was no longer a red herring but a continuation of the journey she had begun months before with Donovan’s own encouragement and cash. They went upstairs to pay their respects, and were greeted by a man who had not picked up his banjo for weeks. When Lewis asked him to play something for them, he agreed only if they would reciprocate, so he was treated to one of Vashti’s songs. She remembers it: ‘He said, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m not doing anything.” He said, “You have to let people hear these songs, you mustn’t hide your light.”’
She abandoned the tour then and there, and sped home across the English Channel. The song ‘Diamond Day’ came to her on the train from Dover to London. A friend urged her to take her music to the producer, manager and entrepreneur Joe Boyd, who was intrigued enough to offer to record an album once she had reached her Scottish destination.
‘He gave me a five-pound note and a copy of The Incredible String Band’s Wee Tam and The Big Huge – which I never played because I didn’t have a record player – and we had dinner with The String Band that night.’ The group, managed at the time by Boyd, were in the full exotic flush of their success. ‘I’d always wanted to dress like my idea of the Romany Gypsy – the long stuff and the coins and the jangly beads and scarves and silks – and of course I could only approximate with what I could find,’ remembers Vashti. ‘But that night we walked in and there were these people dressed in these clothes that I would have killed for! They were bedecked with the most beautiful clothes from India, and from all the places they’d been to, and they were just like gods – not from the idea that they were stars, but just from the way they were dressed – they were from another planet. I didn’t say a word all night.’ The pilgrimage had suddenly acquired a new focus.
By the end of the 1960s The Incredible String Band had become something of a cult among fans and critics – one broadsheet writer even squealed that the group ‘now rival the Beatles in being the most important influence in song-writing’.6 Robin Williamson and Mike Heron’s otherworldly sense of naif, pixie-esque abandon had been developed as a result of a hermetic lifestyle lived out since late 1966 at Temple Cottage, Balmore, a tiny settlement just north of Glasgow. An indication of The String Band’s self-image at the time can be gleaned from their spoken introduction at their first London gig, in November 1966 at the Royal Albert Hall. ‘We’re songwriters and players,’ announced Williamson, ‘and prophets from the North, and also Seers Extraordinary by appointment to the Wonder of the Universe.’ Their visionary mystique, already in place months before the galvanising events that brought the psychedelic counter-culture onto the world stage – the release of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the Monterey Pop Festival – was borne out by the fertile mulch of their music: riddling, pagan poetry, multi-instrumental sorcery and complex song structures extending and intertwining with the organic logic of root and twig.
The Incredible String Band at Glen Row cottages, Peeblesshire, 1971. Left to right: Robin Williamson, Malcolm Le Maistre, Mike Heron, Licorice McKechnie.
Shortly afterwards, the whole roadshow was transplanted to a farmhouse deep in West Wales. Lying near a hamlet called Velindre, within striking distance of Newport Bay on the Pembrokeshire coast and the imposing prehistoric cromlech of Pentre Ifan, Penwern farm had lain empty since the 1930s. Over the course of summer 1968, the house was first occupied by members of Stone Monkey, a performance/dance troupe previously notorious for their shows accompanying the likes of Pink Floyd and Soft Machine at that psychedelic Mecca, London’s UFO Club; then Williamson and his girlfriend Licorice. The String Band were at critical and commercial boiling point, yet still chose to dwell amid this maze of tiny country lanes rather than hold court in the rock ’n’ roll palace of the capital. The residence at Penwern lasted for a year and a half, punctuated by the group’s frequent touring during 1969 (which included a damp squib of a performance at Woodstock). It marked the point at which their music began to lose the spontaneous vibrancy and visionary lyricism of their first period – the next album to follow was 1969’s lacklustre Changing Horses – but their one achievement at the farmhouse was the filming of the short movie The Pirate and the Crystal Ball. This was a series of costumed tableaux which the company pitched into, making outfits and sets and lighting, and enlisting the cooperation of a BBC TV crew who had arrived to make a straight documentary. Shot at Penwern itself, the local coastline and the mysterious Pentre Ifan stones, the romp has the gleeful naivety of a school pantomime, and was eventually incorporated into the overexposed, grainy colour film Be Glad for the Song Has No Ending, which ended up as part chronicle of the group and their hangers-on, part wyrd hallucinatory fable.
‘Always looking for a Paradise Island,’ Robin Williamson sings on ‘Ducks on a Pond’, from Wee Tam, ‘Help me find it everywhere.’ After the eighteen-month interlude at Penwern, the String Band brood went in search of a new nest. In the summer of 1969, the incumbent Lord Glenconner (aka the Hon. Colin Tennant) advertised the vacancy of a row of former labourers’ cottages on his sprawling Scottish estate, making them available for use by artists. Mike Heron saw the advert and applied for residency for the group and the Stone Monkey dancers. Collectively, these mummers, troubadours, freakish hangers-on, dogs and a clutch of lost souls arrived in October of that year and planned to develop a musical ‘pantomime’ entitled U, which they had been invited to premiere at the Fillmore East in New York in 1970. Living in a row of eight semi-detached artesan houses in the shadow of the laird’s baronial ‘mock-Gothic Dracula castle’, they rehearsed in a ‘freezing back room behind a barn-yard’, according to the Guardian’s Robin Denselow, who visited to research an article in 1970.7 Surrounded by thousands of acres of rolling countryside, forest and a loch, the group and their entourage were free to live a bohemian, unconventional lifestyle. ‘A wispy girl dressed scantily as a mermaid sits eating oatcakes; a farmer rounding up his sheep ignores her,’8 observed the bemused journalist. The cottages were customised by each inhabitant, often with little respect for the antique character of the place – Williamson’s pad was painted midnight blue; the phrase ‘The thousand mile journey begins with one step’ was inscribed above a doorway. Mike Heron decked out his cottage in psychedelic orange, yellow and purple hues. Malcolm Le Maistre’s living-room ceiling was painted entirely in Humbrol model-aeroplane gold paint. When they weren’t lounging like mughals in their cramped palaces, strumming their ouds and tapping their tablas, these self-appointed lairds of the manor strode around the glen, practising archery, scything the grass, collecting firewood and rambling with pantheistic bent.
This was the group introduced to Vashti Bunyan by Joe Boyd at the end of 1968, while she was still halfway through her own pilgrimage. The rigours of the road ensured she remained isolated from the growing folk-rock scene Boyd was helping to nurture in London. ‘If I’d thought any more of my musical career, which I didn’t,’ she says, ‘I would have investigated what kind of music he was producing; I would have listened to The String Band; I would have found out who Fairport Convention were; I would have found out what Nick Drake was doing; but I knew nothing of any of them.’ She headed back to Cumbria, from where, in early March 1969, she and Robert resumed the wagon walk from where they had left off. Increasingly, they realised they were witnessing a rural Britain that was teetering on the brink of extinction in the ‘white heat of technology’ promised by Harold Wilson in his famous 1963 speech. The itinerant couple existed in a pauper’s economy that sounds like something out of a fairy tale: working-class children in Manchester with no shoes; generous, mysterious Gypsies who would supply them with food and advise their brethren up the road of the couple’s approach. ‘We had no money at all, we knocked on doors and did odd jobs and dug gardens,’ recalls Vashti. ‘We had a sack of brown rice that we started off with. People would give us stuff, a dozen eggs here, a bunch of apples there, and we kept going on incredibly little. The main expense was shoes for the horse, and we’d have to find blacksmiths along the way – but we always did. We painted farms, collected scrap metal and weighed it in at the next yard, and that was it.’ Their northward meander through Scotland was driven by an idealistic and, as she now admits, naive dream of a perfect life at the other end. ‘Travelling towards a Hebridean sun/To build a white tower in our heads begun,’ wrote Robert in verses which eventually appeared in Vashti’s ‘Hebridean Sun’. The travellers passed by several of the country’s scenic landmarks. ‘The best time, there was a big long hill going up towards Glen Coe, a long moor, and it was constantly just slightly uphill, mile after mile, day after day, and then suddenly getting to the top of Glen Coe and seeing the road going away in front of us, and we just rode on the wagon all the way down – no cars in the way, nothing! The horse really loved to trot, and go as fast as she could, like she was trying to get away from something herself. But when she was going uphill or when it was flat then we would walk. And then going downhill we would get up on the front of the wagon and fly with her.’ At the south-western end of Loch Ness, a speeding car ran into the rear of the wagon. The damage was repairable, but they managed to secure a substantial insurance payout from a loss adjuster who recognised the value of the 1908 Morris wheels attached to the cart.
By that time the end of their journey was in sight. Pressing eastwards now to Skye, they arrived at Donovan’s island encampments one day in late summer to find that the Sunshine Superman had already flown his rainy nest. Up, up and away to the more controllable climate of Los Angeles. Of those devotees that remained, ‘Everyone had either established themselves and taken what houses were available, or gone away,’ Vashti remembers. Local talk extolled the virtues of the tiny Hebridean island of Berneray, pincered between the larger islands of Harris and North Uist. With Bess in tow, they boarded the ferry from Uig to Lochmaddy on Uist, and walked the few miles of bleak, flat road to where it runs out on a spit of land above Port Nan Long. From there, a cramped ferry supplied the only connection with Berneray. It was a short crossing – shepherds often rowed over, with their sheep swimming at their side.
Berneray is an island of only a few square kilometres, with a single road connecting its three settlements, and at that time it had no trees. The only vertical lines, in fact, were the newly installed rows of electricity and telegraph poles, which were conduits for social changes in that remote spot. Televisions replaced homemade entertainment and brought metropolitan idioms into these crofters’ cottages; electric heat, light and stoves replaced domestic tasks that had previously taken up a large part of most islanders’ days. These comforts were embraced by the inhabitants, an end to age-old hardships. As Vashti and Robert reached the end of the road, the sky tipped down the first of the late September rains. They sheltered in the doorway of a turf-roofed ‘black house’, a stone dwelling hewn in the style typical of the area. This was Ferry Cottage, and it became their home until the following spring. It was sold to them by a family for £150 – the money they had gained from their insurance claim. The karma seemed right – they initially misheard the name as ‘Fairy Cottage’, and a neighbour told them it had once belonged to the MacAskills, a famous Scottish musical family. One week later, they discovered they hadn’t quite got what they thought they had paid for. The ancient laws of the crofting community can have the wiliest lawyers wrenching their hair out; on Berneray, property ‘ownership’ was limited to the (turf) roof over their heads, not the stone walls, or the floor, nor the draughts through same. Meanwhile, their troubles were compounded by the fact that they had been forced to leave Bess back on Uist, across the water. Each crofter was allotted grazing rights for a total of two cows, and, they were informed, not only did one horse equal two cows, but no boats would be large enough to bring the horse across in any case. Bess was stabled by a sympathetic family just across the strait, but they were forced to keep shuttling back and forth in order to feed and groom her.
Bess was not the only problem looming over their new life. Small, unspoken signs indicated that the other island dwellers did not consider them welcome. No drivers stopped their vehicles to give them lifts, even when they were visibly struggling with sacks of potatoes. Conversations switched rapidly from English to Gaelic whenever they entered shops. Vashti and Robert’s idealistic project to live a life of rustic simplicity was at odds with the modernising trend on Berneray. ‘Screening out modernity is exactly what we were doing,’ Vashti confirms. ‘Even the food I bought, I would try to buy in plain paper packages rather than the packet – I got quite obsessive about rejecting the modern world in the end. Even bits of old horse harness that you could start to put the pieces together and get a real idea of what it had been like…It was before the upsurge of little antique shops – finding something like an old smoothing iron and finding out how things used to be done. Even quite late on, doing stupid things like putting an old kitchen range in the farmhouse we eventually ended up getting…most people would be pulling things out and putting in something modern. We took out the modern and put in an old, smoky black range. So yes, we got completely fixated on old versus new. And the Hebrides people just couldn’t understand it. They were throwing things out, anything that remotely reminded them of the bad old days – and that’s what we were looking for.’
Finally, her neighbour, an eighty-three-year-old widow called Wally Dix, made efforts to befriend the couple, and the community began to unfreeze. Another woman who lived nearby introduced Vashti to the joys of potato harvesting. ‘Everybody would have a little patch, and this lovely woman had me help her hook out the potatoes with this…it looked like a little sickle, but it was just a round piece of pointed wire on the end. You’re on your hands and knees with a big canvas apron, crawling along putting them into a sack, and talking and singing and having a lovely time. Although some people the other end of the island had a tractor, there were still a whole lot of people doing it as it had been done for centuries. I knew that over the next three or four years that was going to disappear, so I felt very lucky to get to do that.’ Wally Dix and her tiny circle of friends were the only islanders who showed them any sympathy, their company, their songs and stories a necessary comfort in the face of the spartan lifestyle they had chosen. ‘I think the dream was so strong that it kept me going, really,’ confesses Vashti. ‘And compared to the journey, living in an old thatched house with the roof falling in – cobwebs falling in your porridge from sooty rafters – was wonderful. To have a roof at all was fantastic.’
Donovan was not the only rock star to have invested in tumbledown property in a distant corner of Scotland. In January 1966 Paul McCartney purchased High Park Farm, a large, remote estate on the Kintyre peninsula. This tax break came with the added benefit of providing a much-needed hideaway from the worst excesses of Beatlemania. The land lay in a desperately calm Scottish wilderness, the three dilapidated farm buildings high on a slope yet almost invisible from the road, and came complete with its own loch and easy access to the pale sands of Machrihanish Bay to the west.
The nearest settlement, Campbeltown, lies a little way to the east, and the stunning vista of the Mull, made famous by the Wings song of 1977 – at the time the biggest-selling pop single in British history – is around fourteen miles south of the site. When McCartney first brought his new girlfriend Linda Eastman to the farm in November 1968, the Manhattan heiress’s daughter was nonplussed by the condition of the living quarters. Apart from buying some used furniture and a primitive stove in Campbeltown, McCartney had neglected the interior decoration and was sleeping on a bed crudely fashioned from old potato boxes. But its very wildness helped dissuade any journalists or photographers from camping out in hopes of cornering the couple, especially in the winter months. A gentle evocation of their long drives, inspired by their first stay in Scotland, was the song ‘Two of Us’, recorded in January 1969, which opened The Beatles’ Let It Be. The best line, about memories being longer than the road that stretches ahead, already suggests a shared secret existence developing in parallel with McCartney’s high-profile rock career. And the ballad ‘The Long and Winding Road’, on the same LP, is the B842 from Kintyre to Campbeltown rendered in treacle. At this character-building hideaway, McCartney and Linda (now his wife, following their marriage in March 1969) regrouped in April 1970, shortly after McCartney had made his first public statement that he would be leaving The Beatles. One week later, his first solo LP, McCartney, came out, much of it written and recorded at home in London the previous year. Its sleeve featured many grainy shots of the Beatle and his family living an outdoors life, with McCartney reinvented as a proto-‘New Man’: cradling his young family; arm-deep in sheep muck; petting a donkey. For the first time in public, Paul sported a straggly beard, displaying a new ruggedness that was a direct result of his isolation on the farm, and in one image he’s shown as quite the handyman, standing in a window of the farmhouse and taking a hammer and chisel to the frame. The McCartneys saw out much of the remainder of 1970 well away from the public and media gaze at High Park Farm, and the adjoining Low Ranadran Farm, which he purchased in January. ‘I’d had a little four-track studio put in there,’ McCartney said, ‘so I was able to demo and experiment and make bits and pieces of music.’9
Here they co-wrote a large chunk of the material that eventually appeared on Ram (1971), whose sleeve shows a black-and-white photo of McCartney in a short-sleeved shirt, seizing the horns of a sheep in a wooden pen. He was, at the same time, wresting control of his life and career again after a period of post-Beatles depression that had caused him to exist for a while as a near alcoholic. For Linda McCartney, recalling it for a documentary film some years later, the farm was a place for ‘Getting back to natural life – we have horses and sheep and we plant our own vegetables, and it’s the only place we can go that is very natural, in this unnatural world…It really is a matter of getting back into life again.’10 At this point, their simple life was partly forced upon them: Paul’s assets were largely frozen while Apple was in receivership and The Beatles’ acrimonious break-up was being processed through the courts. But Linda still characterised it as a kind of willed Eden: ‘[Paul said], Let’s get away and go back to the beginning.’11 The Scottish interlude also provided opportunities for self-education. Linda introduced Paul to vegetarianism and the exhilarations of horse riding. Cannabis was cultivated in pots. (In March 1973 the couple were fined £100 for marijuana possession by the local Campbeltown court, Paul quipping to reporters shortly after emerging, ‘We got a load of seeds in the post, and five of them came up illegal.’)
That summer of 1971, husband and wife hatched their group Wings, inviting Denny Laine and Denny Seiwell to the farm to write new material. The sleeve of Wild Life, released at the climax of that summer, shows the Wings foursome in bucolic, relaxed mood, dangling their toes into a stream from their perch on an overhanging tree branch.
High Park Farm has remained in McCartney’s possession, a fact not lost on the local tourist industry to this day. In the immediate aftermath of The Beatles’ glittering career, the impact of this countryside retreat upon one of the most famous rock artists in the world effectively allowed him to make the transition to the next phase of his career. But although he was almost alone up in his farmhouse, he was not the only musician deriving inspiration from a retreat. And of all these musical nature-seekers, none were as unnoticed as Vashti Bunyan.
Back on Berneray, Vashti Bunyan’s neighbour Wally Dix turned out to be a living repository of ancient song. Entertaining them in her cottage, she would sing to them in Gaelic, and Vashti would respond with selections from the book of songs she had now begun to fill with her own handwritten verses. Now that the journey was done and a handful of songs written, she kept her date with Joe Boyd. Recording sessions were booked at Sound Techniques, the southwest London recording studio Boyd used for all his Witchseason artists, and in November Vashti’s friend Christopher Sykes arrived in his Morris Minor to pick up her and Robert. The trip did not start auspiciously: he managed to reverse over and ruin her guitar, so she had to borrow another one in London. But by this time she had bigger things on her mind: she had just discovered that she was pregnant. The fourteen songs she recorded over a six-week period in late 1969 are intimate chamber pieces. Tentatively sung in a tremulous, whispering voice, they have the soothing quality of lullabies and take a fresh delight in natural scenery and the waxing and waning of the seasons. ‘I was pregnant while I was recording the songs,’ she explains, ‘and I desperately wanted babies, children…But I think the lullaby part of it was probably my way of comforting myself. They are quite “rocky”: it’s partly walking pace, but it is partly harking back to the comfortingness of childhood songs. That’s the only explanation I have for it.’ ‘Glow Worms’ is sung as if by someone huddling close to a single candle in the darkness, trying to ward off harm and blot out the cold and wet. ‘The happier songs were written in the more dire places,’ she says, ‘as a way to keep the dream alive really, to make myself keep believing I was doing the right thing.’ ‘Rose Hip November’ is full of anticipation for her unborn son Leif: ‘Gold landing at our door,/Catch one Leif and fortune will surround you.’ And Vashti adapted one of the songs she had learnt from her Berneray neighbours, which became ‘Iris’s Song for Us’.12 With its English/Gaelic verses and Gaelic-style fiddle by The Incredible String Band’s Robin Williamson, it provided appropriate closure to the album. Boyd brought Williamson in, along with violinist Dave Swarbrick and guitarist Simon Nicol from Fairport Convention, while Robert Kirby, the former undergraduate friend of Nick Drake who had just embroidered the superb string fantasias on Drake’s Five Leaves Left LP, touched his arranger’s wand to ‘Diamond Day’, ‘Swallow Song’ and ‘Rainbow River’. ‘I hated the “Gaelic song”,’ she laughs, ‘because I had another version of it…It was my own fault, because we’d been living in the Hebrides for three months and made a very good friend of our neighbour, the most wonderful character. She had translated these words into Gaelic for me, and found a Gaelic tune that would fit. I just knew that if I didn’t use it she would be so upset, and we were going to be her neighbours for the future. She was a fierce old woman, but an absolute sweet hen, and I adored her, but I didn’t like that tune, and I didn’t like singing in Gaelic, and I felt that my accent was terrible.’
Painfully aware of their precarious situation in Scotland, she was wary of grafting ‘folksy’ elements onto the music as a fashionable gesture without a deeper understanding of the form. ‘When we got into the studio and Robin Williamson came along with a fiddle and played over “Jog Along Bess”, it wasn’t what I had in mind. Although I’d come down from the Hebrides and was very keen on fiddle playing, I didn’t particularly see it having a place on the album. What Robert Kirby did was more what I had in mind, more a sort of classical association rather than folk. If I’d known what kind of a band Fairport Convention were, if I’d known what kind of a player Robin was, or Dave Swarbrick, if it had been up to me to choose or plan this thing…but I just went in and sang, and I didn’t have any great ambition any more. This was something I was doing because the opportunity was there. I’d just found out I was pregnant; I was about to go to the Hebrides and make my life up there; we were still fighting to get the horse over to the island…we had other considerations at that time.’ Her friends John James and Christopher Sykes added piano and dulcichord to the record, and James’s painting for the sleeve – a bevy of cows, dogs and a horse converging on a colour photo of Vashti in an apron and headscarf, greeting the dawn in the doorway of their thatched croft – created a memorably rustic image. By mid-December 1969 Just Another Diamond Day was finished. But the bad omens continued as soon as they returned to Berneray that winter. Vashti was not the only one carrying a baby: Bess had given birth to a foal, which promptly caught pneumonia and died the following day.
Vashti Bunyan, Just Another Diamond Day (1970).
Vashti and Robert were seized with guilt: all those weeks exhausting Bess as she pulled them and their wagon up and down the steep Highlands, not knowing she was pregnant. In addition, letters they had sent to a local lawyer in the hope of resolving the issue of their cottage freehold remained unanswered. They began to realise there were too many invisible forces ranged against them, and that their dream of a permanent life on the island might not be achievable after all. Finally, Boyd licensed Just Another Diamond Day to Philips Records, who took a whole year to manufacture and distribute the album. It eventually trickled into shops at the tail end of 1970. ‘I didn’t get the [test] acetate until probably August or September,’ Vashti recalls, ‘and by that time I had my baby, and the world goes away.’
Inevitably, album sales were hope-crushingly small – in the low hundreds. Boyd did his best to give her the right connections. During 1970 he tried to turn her and his even more reclusive and diffident artist, Nick Drake, into a songwriting team. (‘It wasn’t a very productive afternoon,’ she says of her attempts to goad the unworldly, cripplingly shy Drake into action.) She was commissioned to write a song for American folk star Judy Collins, but just couldn’t come up with a closing line. As they said farewell to Berneray in April 1970 – abandoning their trusty wagon to be used as a chicken shed on North Uist – Bunyan, Lewis and baby returned to the nomadic life, this time in an ancient, unlicensed Volkswagen with a pram strapped to the roof. Eventually they wound up back in London living off the charity of friends. The demands of her newborn effectively barred her from going on tour to promote the album. Boyd offered her a choice: stay in the capital and attempt a last fling at promoting the album with some gigs, or go back to Scotland and live in the bosom of The Incredible String Band in a house that had become vacant at Glen Row, with Boyd picking up half the tab. It didn’t take long for them to make up their minds, and within a few days their Volkswagen was crunching down the driveway of the Glen Estate. They stayed for around five months, until the lure of potentially cheap property in Ireland – at Kinvara in Galway – took them away, followed later by a Glen Row resident called Lizzie McDougall, who was engaged to bring Bess after them.
At that point Vashti Bunyan dropped off the radar, lost to musical history for the next three decades, chasing and never quite finding the perfect place to settle her family. ‘We kept travelling by horse and wagon, which was entirely stupid. By the time we got there, of course, the price would go up beyond our reach. That kept happening. We walked across Ireland. We stayed there a year, with a bigger wagon that did have a stove in it. From then on I couldn’t play my guitar or listen to the sound of my own voice, because it reminded me of Diamond Day, which had been so roundly ignored. And although it was partly my fault, it was also that the world didn’t want to hear what I had to say at all.’
That was not quite true. Only a few hundred copies of Just Another Diamond Day even existed, but during the 1980s and 90s it became a much-treasured rarity among record collectors. Inevitably, bootleg copies began turning up on pirate CDs. In the mid-1990s Vashti had moved to Edinburgh after bearing two more children and parting company with Robert Lewis. The slow process of reconnecting with the buried musician inside her began when she Googled herself and discovered that Diamond Day had become an expensive collector’s item. Correspondence with her record company resulted in her coming in contact with Paul Lambden, a folk enthusiast overseeing Boyd’s Warlock Publishing catalogue, which owned the rights to Vashti’s music. After several years, Lambden eventually located the master tapes in a London warehouse and set up his own small reissue imprint, Spinney, to release it in 2000. Vashti, who hadn’t even kept a copy of the original LP, was reunited with her music at the CD remastering. ‘I’d only heard it on ropey old record players or tapes that had been taped from tapes of tapes, so to hear the master tapes through big speakers, that was when I realised, “Ah! This is what Joe did,” because I’d never been able to hear what a wonderful job he made of it and how beautifully he’d produced it. It had taken that long for the penny to drop.’
Now that Diamond Day had officially returned to the public domain, it reached new ears, further afield than it ever could have in 1970. In 2003 Vashti received a letter and hand-drawn artwork from Devendra Banhart, a young singer-songwriter based in San Francisco. The letter professed undying admiration for the record, but Banhart himself claimed to be unsure of the worth of his own music and asked Vashti directly for advice on whether he should carry on. She sent an encouraging note back, and Banhart ended up persuading his friend Gary Held to license a US release for Diamond Day on his label DiChristina, while Vashti contributed vocals to Banhart’s 2004 album Rejoicing in the Hands. The poignancy of Vashti’s story and the gentle but determined nature worship audible in her songs struck a deep chord with Banhart and his West Coast circle, which included artists such as Joanna Newsom, Currituck Co., Vetiver and Brightblack Morning Light, all mostly younger than Vashti’s own children. Twisted psychedelia and folk-rock roots curled deep under the surface of their musics, but these merely fed an approach that was distinctly contemporary rather than aping the past. In quick succession her appearance with Banhart was followed by invitations to collaborate with British artists Glen Johnson of Piano Magic, former Cocteau Twins bassist Simon Raymonde, electronic musician Kieran Hebden of Four Tet, and Animal Collective. The latter were signed to Brighton independent label FatCat, which coaxed a new record out of her by putting her in touch with Max Richter, a producer and composer in Edinburgh. Lookaftering, clad in a painting of a vigilant hare by her daughter Whyn, was unveiled in the autumn of 2005; her new batch of songs could almost have been an addendum to the Diamond Day sessions of thirty years before – only the lyrics were occasionally tempered by sorrow and regret, the patina of greater experience. Joanna Newsom, Devendra Banhart, Adem and others contributed to the recording, and a circle was closed when Robert Kirby agreed to play trumpet and trombone on one track. Vashti embarked on a world tour the following year and even appeared on stage with Donovan at a BBC concert in 2006. ‘Diamond Day’ soundtracked a cinema advertisement for a mobile-phone company. Her music, practically inaudible when originally written, was rehabilitated to the extent that she had now become a central totem in the latest of many revivals and reinventions of ‘folk’ culture in Britain and beyond. In a very different musical economy from the 1960s, she had picked up the pilgrim trail once again and found the niche success she had sought as a teenage songwriter.
In hindsight, Vashti Bunyan’s still, small voice of calm, and her bold improvised trek over Britain from ankle to head, serves as a powerful symbol of the wider panorama of non-mainstream rock and folk in that snapshot period of English music, 1969–71. It’s a snapshot that reveals many of the contradictory impulses that shape the British artistic imagination: craving the freedom and peace of a countryside that is always already shaped and manicured; nostalgia for a golden, bucolic, pre-technological age, yet ‘improving’ tradition with new instruments, exotic flavours and electricity; needing to explore and incorporate a historical dimension while simultaneously ‘writing over’ the past. Most importantly, this musical energy existed not in the traditional geographic locations of the British rock scene – London, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Glasgow. Instead, it flowed from zones far more remote: the dual landscape/dreamscape of Britain’s interior.
Viewed as a camera obscura snapshot, British music at the dawn of the 1970s looks like an inward exodus, with musicians in pursuit of rural tranquillity. The McCartneys on Kintyre. Donovan on Skye. The Incredibles practising archery at Glen Row. Fairport Convention in the sepia tint of the endless Sunday afternoon at Farley Chamberlayne. Caravan, Soft Machine and Kevin Ayers hothousing their organic jazz rock tendrils in Canterbury. Pink Floyd basking in the lysergic sun over Grantchester Meadows. Traffic lynching John Barleycorn in Berkshire bliss at Aston Tirrold. Heron a few miles down the road, setting up mics in the meadows of Appleford. Tim Hart and Maddy Prior celebrating summer solstice in St Albans, then birthing Steeleye Span with Ashley Hutchings in Winterbourne Stoke. Bert Jansch getting quietly drunk at his Ticehurst cottage. Danny Thompson lording over his Suffolk manor house. John and Beverley Martyn settling into Hastings Old Town. Dave Cousins of The Strawbs musing on Branscombe’s sparklebright beach. Shelagh McDonald in Bristol, about to fall into a life of mysterious vagrancy in the Scottish Highlands. The doomed Nick Drake, abandoning north London for the safety of his parents’ idyllic Tanworth-in-Arden. Albion’s underground tribes, following the leys to the ancient power centres of Glastonbury and Stonehenge. Vashti Bunyan’s wagon, rusting in the salt spray of North Uist.
Where does it begin, this internal exodus into the green? We will return to these people, their times and their dreams. But first, we must follow the Thames’s silver chain back through time to where the song is sprung.
ELECTRIC EDEN Copyright © 2010 by Rob Young