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.