ALBUM RESCUE SERIES: PETE SHELLEY ‘HOMOSAPIEN’

I was born in 1962 in the city of Hull, or to give it its full name, Kingston upon Hull, which is located in East Yorkshire in the north east of the UK. The city of Hull sits on a vast flat barren clay wilderness called the Plain of Holderness. This Plain was one huge marsh up until 1240 when the Dominican monks established a Friary in the market town of Beverley. From across the North Sea, these Dominican monks brought in the Dutch to drain this large swathe of land to make it habitable and suitable for farming. To this day you can still see the ditches and dykes built by the Dutch to drain this great plain. Easily sourced fresh and clean water filtered through the chalk of the Yorkshire Wolds also made this area desirable for habitation. I can’t prove my theory but it’s my contention that something was added to this water during the late 1970s and 1980s. The result was a noticeable, unprecedented outbreak of artistic and musical creativity in Hull during this period the likes of which have not be seen since. Whatever was in the water during this period was obviously good stuff and did the trick.

From the mid 1970s through to the late 1980s, Hull, and in particular the Polar Bear pub, seemed to attract artists and musicians from all corners of the UK. The Polar Bear pub was on a road called Spring Bank so called because this road followed the course of the original conduit which brought fresh water from the Yorkshire Wolds’ springs into the city. One person I casually befriended during 1981/2 was art student Philip Diggle from Manchester, who was studying fine art at Hull College of Art and Design. At the time, Philip was a poor starving eccentric artist (he still is) who told me one night, after way too many beers in the Polar Bear pub, “I’m drawn to action painting and I’m going to make it my vocation”.

Back then this Victorian pub had a long public bar, a lounge and a very strange liminal space referred to as “the café bar”. This was a small wood paneled room that held approximately 20 odd people and was wedged between the bar and lounge. This was the city’s only arty bohemian safe spot and every night of the week it was filled with poor starving artists and musicians such as Roland Gift, Eric Golden aka Wreckless Eric, Lili-Marlene Premilovich who would later morph into Lene Lovich, her lover and musical partner Les Chappell and just about every other local indie band, would be record producer, fine artist, architect and other assorted creative wannabes. It was here that I made the connection that Philip Diggle was in fact the younger brother of Buzzcocks rock God guitarist Steve Diggle.

A few years earlier, I’d seen the Buzzcocks play a couple of times at the Wellington ‘Welly’ Club in Hull. Most punk bands at the time hailed from down south, specifically London. Buzzcocks were different as they came from Manchester, located a couple of hours away along the M62. Most southern punks bands that I saw live, more often than not at The ‘Welly’ club, were like peacocks e.g. lots of expensive bondage trousers, leather jackets with studs and other flamboyant touches. Bands from the north, and especially Manchester, dressed down; it was more second hand thrift shop punk as opposed to the highly stylized Vivian Westwood/Malcolm McLaren look. The northern look was much more accessible. An Oxfam or second hand thrift stores allowed the poor working class of Hull to emulate this dressed down punk look.

With their dressed down punk look, the Buzzcocks had the musical chops to match. Pete Shelley, the band’s lead singer, looked like the weedy kids at my school, the ones that got bullied and never got picked for the football team. His vocal style was quiet, limp, whiney, camp and often out of tune. It wasn’t the classic punk rock loud, proud, macho and shooty vocals you associate with this genre. Shelley was unique and he was certainly not a lead man in the classic punk rock mold like Johnny Rotten, Joe Strummer or Dave Vanian. Northerners like myself loved the Buzzcocks and Pete Shelley; we identified with them and claimed them as our own.

Their 1977 Spiral Scratch EP was the first ever self-release punk record. It sounded fantastic and was 100% Punk Rock. Track one, side two; Boredom was a call to arms. For me it was this record, not The Sex Pistols’ Anarchy In The UK, that signalled Punk Rock had arrived. This EP announced punk’s rebellion against the status quo whilst also providing the strident musical minimalism template (the Steve Diggle guitar ‘solo’ consisting of only two notes but repeated 66 times!) that all future punk records would measure themselves against. Martin ‘Zero’ Hannett quickly recorded and mixed the music in a single day and it was perfectly insistently repetitive and energetic. Jon Savage states in England Dreaming (2001: 298) that this record was instrumental in helping establish the small record labels and scenes in both Manchester and Liverpool. Following on from this EP, the Buzzcocks released three fantastic albums; Another Music In A Different Kitchen in 1978, the superb Love Bites also in 1978 and A Different Kind of Tension in 1979. Martin Rushent expertly produced all three albums, none of which need rescuing here.

For the traditional Buzzcock fans, Homosapien was a super-sad and disappointing event upon its release in 1981. French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre maintained that the concepts of authenticity and individuality have to be earned but not learned. We need to experience “death consciousness” so as to wake up ourselves as to what is really important; the authentic in our lives which is life experience, not knowledge. As he wrote in Being And Nothingness (1943: 246), “We can act without being determined by our past which is always separated from us“. Many artists reach this point in their careers; this is the moment when Pablo Picasso swaps expressionism for abstract cubism. Sartre would probably concur that Pete Shelley experienced his ‘death consciousness’ moment when he recorded this album. Homosapien is the moment Shelley and Rushent swap electric guitars for synthesisers; they are both acting without being determined by their collective and individual Buzzcock pasts.

Much of the material contained on this album were songs originally intended for the Buzzcock’s fourth album. Some of the material on Homosapien even pre-dates the Buzzcocks and had been cryogenically stored for a number of years. This wasn’t Shelley’s first solo album as he had recorded, but not released, an album called Sky Yen way back in 1974. Some of this material was re-worked on Homosapien. The Buzzcocks had fully committed to recording a fourth album. It’s pure conjecture, but this album was probably set up to continue their intriguing, strange and powerful direction they had taken on their third 1979 album A Different Kind of Tension. Rehearsals for the fourth album were underway in Manchester when the record company (EMI/Fame) refused to advance the money needed to make the record. Tensions were running high, so producer Martin Rushent called a halt to rehearsals and returned to his newly built barn studio, Genetic, on his property near Reading in Berkshire.

Shelley followed Rushent down to Berkshire and the two settled into Genetic studios with the intent of working on Buzzcock demos. This was no ‘home’ studio; technologically it was cutting edge and years ahead of its time. Rushent had predicted the future of record production, investing a considerable sum of money on audio equipment such as a Linn LM-1 Drum Computer, Roland MC-8 Microcomposer and a Roland Jupiter 8 keyboard with the intent of teaching himself the new art of music programming. Once Rushent had confirmed that ‘sequencing’ was the future of record production, he equipped his Genetic Studio with the very best and most expensive audio equipment. This included a MCI console, one of the first Mitsubishi Digital multi-track records, at an eye popping £75,000 ($153,000), a Synclavier and a Fairlight digital synthesiser, where most people would buy one or the other.

Very quickly Shelley and Rushent fell in love with the sound of the ‘Linn Drum’ demos at the exact moment where mainstream electro-synth pop was just taking hold. Rushent used his studio as a research and development laboratory, perfecting his new way of producing records. Homosapien is the sound of one musician (Shelley), one record producer (Rushent) and lots of early, expensive computer technology. Visionary Island Records’ A&R Executive, Andrew Lauder, heard the early demos and instantly offered Shelley a solo deal. Tired of the Buzzcock’s near bankrupt financial state, Shelley abruptly disbanded the band via an insensitive lawyers’ letter mailed to his band-mates.

Virgin Records’ A&R Executive, Simon Draper, listened to the finished Homosapien album; he’d heard the future. Martin Rushent was instantly hired to produce the Human League’s 1981 hugely popular masterpiece album Dare. By the time Rushent set to work on Dare, he had perfected a new way of sequencing and programming synthesiser-based music. In this process, he had pioneered the technique of ‘sampling’, skills he first practiced on Homosapien. This, said Shelley, marked a departure from the baroque flourishes of the outdated progressive rock era: “Martin wasn’t content that synthesisers produced weird noises; he did his best to use them to convey musical ideas. These days when you listen to music you don’t even hear the synthesisers. That is due to Martin, who was at the vanguard of making electronics work for the music“.[1]

The Buzzcock fans’ shock had barley dissipated from the unexpected news of the break up when Homosapien was released. A great number of Buzzcock fans were disappointed and disenchanted by what they perceived as Shelley jumping on to the Gary Numan synth-pop bandwagon. Shelley’s lyrics remained just as cold, disjointed and disgruntled as they ever were on a Buzzcocks’ album, only now they’re placed much more in the forefront of the soundstage instead of being just an afterthought. The album confirms that Shelley’s wry, witty, lovelorn pop songwriting ability was still perfectly intact. As you would deduce from the album’s title, this work is as narcissistic as anything that David Bowie could ever write, “Homosuperior in my interior“; it doesn’t get any more narcissistic than that.

Despite the new method of computer-sequenced production Rushent manages to retain the tight compressed, hard vocals of Shelley’s band work. The ten tracks on this album are magnificent, modernist abstract electronic works of art. The opening track and first single, Homosapien, was rejected by British radio due to the song’s apparent homosexual overtones, even though taken at face value, its controversial nature seems less evident. Regardless, it was a worldwide club hit, especially in gay clubs, and was the blueprint for many synth-pop dance tracks that followed. Tracks like the fabulous experimental I Generate A Feeling and the relentless I Don’t Know What It Is are confirmation of this testament. If this album was a painting it could easily be one of Philip Diggle’s modernist pieces of abstract expressionism. The similarity between this album and Diggle’s paintings are very similar i.e. Diggle’s paintings are complex 3-D abstractions, they go beyond texture, and some of them are inches thick as is Shelley’s music on this album.

With the lack of mainstream radio play, and poor reviews, this album was largely unloved upon its release. The NME said that “Homosapien is the first chance to examine the solo Shelley over the full range of interests and emotions but it is a disjointed album… the problem is the bulk of the raw material is too ineffectual, often embarrassing and half realised, to give the songs a focal point which binds, injects or drives them with the necessary conviction or resolution… It lacks energy, urgency and desperation, something to grab on to: the power to wake you or make you or shake you up. A shame because Shelley still has a lot to give”.[2]

When Homosapien was originally released, it pushed the technological envelop on all fronts. As a cassette, there were ten tracks on one side, while the other side was a computer code that could be loaded onto your Sinclair ZX Spectrum home computer. I often wonder how many people played the wrong side of the cassette on their HiFi system and heard the garbled cacophony of computer code, thinking this was the album? I bought the cassette version upon its release in January 1981, but could never get the computer graphics to work properly. My cassette version was quickly replaced by the sonically much superior CD version, which came out a few months later in June 1981.

I would also suggest that this album suffered from some unwarranted homophobia. Pete Shelley was punk’s version of heavy metal band Judas Priest’s lead singer Rob Halford. When both artists came out, the press had a field day resulting in many fans deserting both artists; not that it made one iota of difference to the music. Judas Priest was still a kick-ass heavy metal band no matter the lead singer’s sexual preference. The one positive of Shelley’s ‘coming out’ was the attention Homosapien received by a totally new demographic that never heard of the Buzzcocks. As a stupendous club dance track, the single Homosapien, was a huge success in gay clubs around the world even if it didn’t generate high retail sales.

In recent times, the genius of Philip Diggle’s modernist action paintings have been recognised by the American corporate business world who are buying his work as part of their investment portfolios. Diggle’s works can now be found hanging in the Rockefeller Centre and corporate headquarters of the Chase Manhattan Bank; both located in New York City. In many ways the Shelley/Rushent album Homosapien is similar to one of Diggle’s artworks. It can take thirty years or more for cutting edge works of art to be fully assimilated and accepted into the cultural landscape. This album was the work of two visionary artists who created a substantial work of art as opposed to an ephemeral standardised pop record. This album is evidence of Darwin’s evolutionary theory at work. The name of the studio, ‘Genetic’ and the name of the album ‘Homosapien’ are all not so coded semiotic clues as to how this album evolved from the punk rock of the Buzzcocks. Homosapien will forever be associated with the sexually charged gay scene, the smell of Amyl Nitrite and thumping bass of gay club dance floors. Too many homophobes made this album taboo and off limits. My suggestion is to get hold of the Homosapien CD, play it loud and just enjoy the fabulous music.

[1] The Telegraph 2/7/14 (Rocks Back Pages accessed 24/6/15)

[2] NME 22/8/81 (Rocks Back Pages accessed 24/6/15).

Homosapien2

The Album Rescue Series (ARS) book will be launched on November 16th 2015 during Melbourne Music Week. The ARS book will feature 35 albums that the press and general public considered to be far from exemplary of a particular artist. This book rights those wrongs. The ARS book is a contributive piece of work by music academics and scholars, each of whom take a unique approach to rescuing an album.

Getting Started in the Music Business

As 50% of Dalton Koss HQ (DKHQ), I spend much of my time speaking to young people who want to work in the music industry. Most are aware that there are no regular, standard jobs in the music industry. There probably aren’t even any long term careers. More likely it’s a lifestyle of freelancing and projects. As such, it’s highly unlikely that there will ever be an advertisement in the jobs section of a mainstream newspaper for a high paid, permanent job in the music industry. But do creatives actually want bog standard ‘jobs’? I think not. I’ve always maintained that clever, creative and entrepreneurial people will always be in high demand, this is probably more so in the music and creative industries then any other sector.

When I mention the word entrepreneur people’s eyes begin to glaze over as they think of Richard Branson, Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs. I once worked at a creative arts educational institution with a remit of educating the new wave of performers, audio professionals and music industry free thinkers. I embraced this remit and provided creative solutions through, what I thought, was inspirational leadership. My job was to provide leadership, facilitate creative solutions while enabling and building a knowledge economy for the next wave of creative entrepreneurs, the radical free thinkers that the music industry desperately needs. I saw opportunity and value in students playing guitars and singing in the reception area, watching and editing audio/film on their smartphones and interacting via social media. I actively encouraged students to be creative at every opportunity regardless of physical location. The Dean of this institution stopped staff and students interacting and being creative in these unconventional learning spaces, as he believed learning could only effectively take place in a classroom. Apparently the ‘correct’ way to teach creative entrepreneurship is the schooling of students in Boston Consulting Group (BCG) quadrant charts, etc. He even went as far as buying a job-lot of white boards and marker pens with the direct instruction to do “the traditional stuff”. Another can of beige paint added to an already vast ocean of beige. I was out of that place as quick as you could say, “asymmetrical repurposed collaborative content with frictionless deliverables ”.

Sitting around and waiting for things to happen is not a good strategy in the creative arts and music business. In Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book Outliners: The Story Of Success he repeatedly mentions the “10,000-Hour Rule“, claiming that the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours. Interestingly Malcom Gladwell’s theory can also be applied to professional sport and in particular cycle racing. Going back to music, lets look at the 1960’s popular Liverpool beat combo The Beatles. Prior to leaving for Hamburg, The Beatles were arguably a second rate cover band who were not very musically proficient. Fast forward to Hamburg and as John Lennon noted “we had to play for eight hours solid a day, every day”, this was the inspiration for the single Eight Days A Week. This postwar model of an artist’s progress was a type of professional development. Artists didn’t burst from obscurity to celebrity with a single astonishing piece of work. They slowly climbed the ranks. They accumulated credentials and amassed a creditable résumé. Artists learnt their trade and craft, that’s how The Beatles became really, really good at what they did.

One of the most conspicuous things about today’s young creators is their tendency to construct a multiplicity of artistic identities simultaneously. You can be a musician and a photographer and a poet a storyteller and a dancer and a designer, a multiplatform artist. This means you haven’t got the time for your 10,000 hours in any of your chosen media. But technique or expertise is not the point. The point is versatility. Like any good business, you try to diversify. This is why I like the current buzz term “creative entrepreneurship”, or as academic Jeremy Tunstall calls them “media workers”, to describe the artists, artisans and collaborators of today. Creative types are no longer interested in putting in their 10,000 hours. We are sold the dream that today’s music business is about instant gratification. You appear on a Saturday night TV talent show and boom you instantly become a star. Sing a really crap song about going to school on Friday on YouTube and have millions of ‘hits’. Today’s creative entrepreneurs mostly shun the 10,000 hour theory believing that 10,000 social media contacts is much more important. I believe that there are three core elements to success in the music industry and creative arts: –

  1. Creativity – generating new ideas, evaluating them effectively and critically, and taking action to turn them into new products and/or services.
  2. Collaboration – connecting and working with partners, clients, stakeholders and other significant players in your network, which will probably be scattered across the globe and contain more ‘virtual’ relationships than face-to-face ones.
  3. Entrepreneurship – identifying opportunities in the marketplace and using business skills to monetize ideas into products and/or services.

These three core facets are best taught in a real world simulator or even better in the actual real world. They do not lend themselves to the strict beige classroom environment, flip carts and marker pens. Ask any young band out on the road, playing gigs, selling shirts, communicating with their audience via social media and sharing their music via on-line platforms exactly what it is that they are doing and I guess they won’t reply with “being entrepreneurs”. In actual fact that’s exactly what they are.

On my visits to various educational institutions around the world I regularly give master classes and lectures on careers in the music and creative industries. Over the years I’ve earned a living as a live sound engineer, tour manager, studio engineer, record producer, artist manager, A&R consultant, rehearsal studio owner and record label executive. Discussions with early career professionals nearly always focus on how I got started on my 34-year career in the music industry. What was my personal journey?

Space, place and time are extremely complex mediums and trying to make any sense of these independently, let alone in combination, can be infuriatingly difficult. As I stare at the picture below of a much younger version of myself, it is difficult to unravel the truth from the myth. If memory serves me correctly, this picture was taken in 1983 when I was just 20 years old. I had left school in the heat wave summer of 1979 and went straight to work in the local music scene. Initially, this was with a rag-tag and bobtail collection of ex-school mates and bands where my brother, Nick, played drums.

This PA system comprised of:- Two 1x15
This PA system comprised of:-
Two 1×15″ scoop bins, loaded with HH speakers.
Two 2×12″ mid cabinets, loaded with Celestion speakers.
Two 1″ RCF compression drivers loaded onto some fibreglass flares.
18meters of 12 way multicore with three return lines (left, right & holdback).
Foldback amp was a McGregor 120 watt power amp with 6 band graphic EQ.
Main PA was powered via a Traynor x3000 bi-amp amplifier. This was supposed to give two channels of 300 watts for the lows and two channels of 150 watts for the mids/highs. Originally the system was powered by two HiFi amplifiers in a home built, fan cooled plywood box, the ‘Rabbit hutch’. This died on the second or third gig, so I invested the first few hire fees into the purchase of the Trainer amplifier; money well spent.

Back in the early 1980’s, music industry/audio university and college courses did not exist, so entry into a career in these fields took a more ad-hoc and self-driven approach. Originally I played rhythm/2nd guitar in long forgotten ska-punk outfit before getting ‘promoted’ (due to musical differences) to roadie. This opportunity in disguise led me into a still continuing 34-year career in the music industry. At the start of this journey there was no business plan of what I was going to do or what the various career options were going to be, I just did it.

Very quickly it became clear that I had a particular interest in the audio side of playing live. All of my early work took place in the city in which I was born, Hull located in East Yorkshire within the UK’s northeast. In the 1980’s, Hull had the most fantastic underground music scene, partly due to the high unemployment rate and its geographical isolation. Prior to this period, Hull’s only claim to rock ‘n’ roll fame was that David Bowies’ backing band The Spiders From Mars featuring the world’s 64th greatest ever guitarist (Rolling Stone Magazine 2003) the late great Mick Ronson, came from Hull. This was set to change in the early 1980’s with the onset of the ‘Humber Sound’ and a flurry of band formations. Bands like the Akrylyk Vyktymz, Red Guitars, International Rescue, House Martins, Pink Noise, Everything But The Girl, King Maker and Les Zeiga Fleurs, all of which I worked with, made some type of impression on the UK music scene.

A reoccurring problem that I faced during this period was the PA system, or rather the lack of one. Either the system was of dubious quality and/or were ridiculously expensive to hire. That was because there was no local PA company based in Hull. All PA systems had to be brought into the city increasing costs for the live music scene and a logistical nightmare. Adversity often drives people into unconventional behaviour patterns and this is probably what happened here. Unable to source a good quality but reasonably priced PA systems for the bands that I was mixing, I took the massive jump to build my own system. The logic here being that I would learn about PA systems from the ground up, I’d get exactly what I wanted and upon completion I could hire it out allowing me to build more equipment. In late spring 1983, I had saved enough money, though not enough, and I went in search of a bank loan. Luckily a local bank decided that I was one of Mrs. Thatcher’s new breed of entrepreneurs. At the time I didn’t think so, but in retrospect maybe I was? Armed with an £800 ($1,540 AUS) bank loan, to be paid back over the next three years, and lots of magazine articles and books on PA cabinets, speakers and amplifiers, I set to work in my dad’s garage. A ‘Fab Lab’ long before they became trendy and ubiquitous.

Building monitor wedge speakers in my Dad's 'Fab Lab'. Each comprised of 1x12
Building monitor wedge speakers in my Dad’s ‘Fab Lab’. Each comprised of 1×12″ Celestion woofer and a 2″x5″ 200 watt piezo tweeter horn.

I arranged for a local timber company to deliver numerous sheets of plywood, lots of lengths of 2”x1”, wood glue and several large boxes of No. 6 screws. The only power tool my Dad owned was a very old, knackered Black & Decker electric drill, which I managed to spectacularly break in a hail of orange sparks after a few days. All the cutting of timber, screwing, filling, sanding and painting was done by hand; only the first few days of drilling were electric. After a few days of 10 hours shifts my PA was complete as was my new company Blind Entertainments. So named because I was doing this entirely blind, metaphorically, and it was also fairly entertaining.

Once I had built this PA a massive oversight came to the fore, how was I going to transport it? Maybe a flip chart and some marker pens would have helped me overcome this oversight? A PA system that couldn’t move from my Dad’s garage wasn’t going to generate much income. Luckily a very tired, ex-supermarket delivery Ford Transit van was sourced, re-sprayed plain white and I was in business. The PA fitted in the van perfectly, almost as if it had being designed for it (it hadn’t of course). The gigs came thick and fast, not because the PA was particularly good, more that I was young and was very enthusiastic about the bands I worked with. I totally embraced the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, I put the hours in and it felt good. I also found that owning a van provided a sideline income e.g. I got to drive bands all over the UK and mix them, a sort of start to my live sound and tour managing career. The PA system and Blind Entertainments grew in size and eventually led to the formation/evolution of my production company Total Concert Solutions (that’s a different story). It goes to show that a rag-tag, no experience and unconventional but enthusiastic school leaver can become a successful entrepreneur by doing what you love.

Album Rescue Series: Mike & Lal Waterson ‘Bright Phoebus’

My hometown of Hull, or more correctly Kingston upon Hull, is set become the UK’s City of Culture in 2017. Let the jokes and underhand jibes fly, but this is not as daft as it first seems. Phil Larkin famously described Hull as “a city that is in the world yet sufficiently on the edge of it to have a different resonance”. I adore liminal places, places on the edge, places that survive in the in-between spaces. Creativity has a knack of finding a foothold in these crevices. These unusual places, often deprived of the usual mainstream cultural influences, produce some of the most creative pieces of work. More often than not these pieces of great art go un-noticed, un-appreciated, un-loved and often sink without a trace. Hull is one of those places. If you can make it in Hull you can make it anywhere.

I left Hull many years ago to pursue a backstage career in rock ‘n’ roll music, that took me around the world a number of times. But don’t mistake this for an act of hatred of the city and its surroundings, its not. Growing up in Hull during the 1970’s and 80’s was a unique and fantastic experience and I would not have swapped the location for anywhere else on the planet. I grew up in a creative, left wing bohemian household in the northern suburbs of Hull. My parents frequented Hull’s folk clubs on their bicycles on a weekly basis, mainly the ones held at city center pubs such as The Rugby and The Blue Bell. My earliest memories are a home filled with strange but beautiful sounds of music. While my school friends argued their case for bands like Mud, Showaddywaddy, David Essex and Alvin Stardust I was left contemplating Bob Dylan, The Albion Band, Martin Carthy, Bob Davenport and The Watersons. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I am now eternally thankful to my parents for this offbeat, off-kilter musical education.

A stand out from this era is the Hull band The Watersons, comprising of siblings Mike, Lal, Norma and their cousin John Harrison. Their stark, unaccompanied closely woven traditional harmonies of their first album Frost and Fire (1965) could be heard regularly playing in the Dalton’s Strathmore Avenue household. Their greatness was recognized when the Melody Maker awarded it their Album of the Year, a rarity for a debut ‘folk’ album. A year later they followed this debut up with their second release A Yorkshire Garland, an album that contains the wonderful song Willy Went To Westerdale. I remember a cycling holiday in the North Yorkshire Moors, staying at a Youth Hostel in Westerdale and singing this song during the whole trip. On the back of these two records The Watersons toured the UK folk club circuit. In 1968, The Watersons split up, when Norma went to work as a disc jockey for a radio station on Montserrat.

My exposure to The Watersons went further than records. My parents were friends, drinking buddies and sometimes employers of the band, not as musicians but as trade’s people. Despite their critical success The Watersons, and Mike in particular, had to carry on working their ‘day jobs’. Mike was a painter, decorator and builder by trade, a true ragged trousered philanthropist. I once came home from school to find Mike Waterson and my father inserting a 2nd hand re-claimed wooden beam into the rear of the house to form an opening where a kitchen wall had once been.

According to Mike, on a BBC Radio 4 interview, he was painting the inside of a bay window of a very large Victoria house in the ‘Avenues’ area of west Hull when the sunlight suddenly streamed though the windows “like a bright Phoebus”. This record isn’t a Watersons’ record, its Mike and Lal with a stella cast of musicians including Martin Carthy (guitar and vocals), Richard Thompson (guitar), Ashley ‘Tiger’ Hutchens (bass), Dave Mattacks (drums), Maddy Prior (vocals), Tim Heart (vocals and tambourine), Bob Davenport (vocals) and Norma Waterson (vocals). The inactivity of The Watersons allowed Mike and Lal the freedom to think outside of the box and break free of the Stalinist confines of traditional folk music. At the time this record was dismissed by folk’s staunch traditionalist rearguard, which saw the record as going against the very ethos of the traditional folk scene.

The album’s opening Beatlesque track (Rubber Band) shows that it’s not all serious here. Mike’s silly side is brought out, as experienced in one of the corniest lines ever written: “Just like margarine our fame is spreading“. But don’t be fooled, this isn’t some throwaway number; it’s as musically strong as any other composition on this record. Winifer Odd (track four) tells the tale of an unlucky soul who is ultimately saved when she expects death to be imminent. It’s a song that really highlights Lal’s songwriting ability: “Winifer Odd Was born on one cold May morning in June, In her grandmother’s bedroom, And they waited all that day for last May to come back again, But it never came“.

Track two, The Scarecrow, is one of the greatest compositions of modern times. Its only because the subject matter is so dark and scary that 100s of artists haven’t covered this song. This song tells the tale of the poor neglected East Yorkshire scarecrow, who witnesses the changing seasons. The song has always been renowned for its references to the dark rituals of old days, namely a child being sacrificed in return for a heavy crop yield: “As I rode out one fine spring day, I saw twelve jolly dons dressed out in the blue and the gold so gay; And to a stake they tied a child newborn, And the songs were sung, the bells was rung, and they sowed their corn“. It’s possible that inspiration was taken from the beautiful Yorkshire Wolds fields and their long forgotten ghoulish secrets.

At the end of the Napoleonic Wars many bushels of bones were landed at the Hull docks from the battlefields of Dresden and Waterloo. The bone mills of Hull converted these phosphate rich human remains into fertilizer, which was then spread over the Yorkshire Wold’s green and pleasant fields. In 1822, The Observer noted that: “It is now ascertained beyond a doubt, by actual experiment on an extensive scale, that a dead soldier is a most valuable article of commerce; and, for aught known to the contrary, the good farmers of Yorkshire are, in a great measure, indebted to the bones of their children for their daily bread.”

Not only did Mike and Lal push the boundaries with their writing, arrangements and performance of their material but also in its recording. During the late 1960’s the UK had the most advanced recording studios in the world with some of the best producers and engineers available. For some unknown reason Bright Phoebus was recorded at Cecil Sharp House, the home of the English Folk Dance & Song Society, in a make shift studio with producer and record label owner Bill Leader. Strange that such a groundbreaking record would be recorded at an institution founded in strict historical tradition. This may be a groundbreaking record but it certainly did not make use of groundbreaking audio technology.

The completed album is nothing short of a masterpiece, on a par with Sargent Peppers, Pet Sounds or Three Feet High and Rising. It nips in and out of styles, country, rock & roll, blues, jazz, folk, pop and even has its psychedelic moments on the wry Magical Man. It’s a record of many standouts, from the shear tortured beauty of Child Among the Weeds to the rock & roll blues of Danny Rose and the haunting Fine Horseman. There’s a fabulous country twang to Shady Lady, a song that features the vocals of all three Waterson siblings plus the sublime intertwined guitar work of Richard Thopmson and Martin Carthy. The sad story of a drunken Lal falling down in the rain is recalled in the beautiful Red Wine Promises, which features the warm vocals of their sister Norma. This is an absolutely awesome, gob-smacker of a record.

It’s hard to imagine why this record received such a poor reception upon its release back in September 1972. Mike and Lal, and all involved in the album, believed that this record would be a huge success, the album they’d all one day be remembered for. However, due to the record’s poor reception in the media the album would end up failing to break even. Only 1,000 copies wherever pressed and a good number of these where pressed off center making these copies ‘warble’. Due to the tightness of finances the off center records made it into the record shops and are now a much prized collectors item. In fact, due to the particulars of the contract, none of the artists on the album made any money from this venture and pretty soon the album slipped into obscurity. But things were to get worse. Mainstream interest in folk music dropped off in the mid 1970s and with Trailer Record’s owner Bill Leader struggling to make ends meet he was forced to sell the rights to Bright Phoebus, as well as those of other records on his label. The rights were eventually sold on again, where they ended up in the hands of the record’s original distributor Dave Bulmer.

In an age of postmodern revisionism why hasn’t this record received the update it so rightly deserves? An inferior CD version was re-issued in 2000, but this was cut from a vinyl album recording complete with crackle and pop. This record is similar to a Dutch master painting by Pieter Bruegel, albeit a long forgotten badly damaged one in an obscure gallery covered in soot and grime. Maybe Hull, the 2017 UK City of Culture, will rescue this record and restore it to its rightful place? Late in life Mike Waterson gave clues that he knew where the master tape to Bright Phoebus was, and that he would like to see a re-mastered version made available. Just in case I’ve not made myself 100% clear, this record is a masterpiece that is in dire need of some audio surgery to return it to its original sonic condition. This is probably one of the greatest records you’ve never heard and it comes from my hometown of Hull.