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One saint among many

Fans of the The Sopranos will watch The Many Saints of Newark, the new movie prequel to the six-season TV series, expecting to hear some good stuff on the sound track. They won’t be disappointed by a selection that runs from the Marvelettes’ “Danger Heartbreak Ahead” to Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks”. (And don’t leave before the final song overlaying the closing credits: the exquisite “Calling All Angels” by Jane Siberry with k. d. lang.)

But there was one choice that surprised and even shocked me. I hadn’t read anything about film in advance, entirely on purpose, so I wasn’t aware of the key role played in the narrative by the four days of rioting in Newark, New Jersey during the long hot summer of 1967, when the city’s black population rose up in protest against the beating of a black cab driver by two white police officers.

The sequences depicting the uprising are brilliantly staged and powerfully affecting. They are also subtly accompanied by the strains of John Coltrane’s “Alabama”, the five-minute studio recording made on November 18, 1963 and included the following year on the album Live at Birdland. My spine tingled when I heard it, but it also made me uncomfortable.

The piece is believed to have been composed by Coltrane in response to the bombing by white racists of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 16, 1963, in which four black schoolgirls died as they were changing into choir robes in the church basement. (Say their names: Carole Denise McNair, aged 11, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, all 14.) It’s necessary only to mention Rosa Parks and the Freedom Riders to evoke Alabama’s previous role as a key location in the civil rights struggle, but it’s fair to assume that, given the eight-week gap between the church bombing and the recording, Coltrane had that particularly tragedy on his mind.

The result was a piece of music that occupies a special place in the saxophonist’s history. The starkest and most distilled example of what might be called his hymnal mode, it reached his public at a time when the spiritual content of his music was beginning to make itself apparent. A couple of years later A Love Supreme would leave no doubt about his intentions (and after his death, a group of followers in San Francisco would set up the Church of St John Coltrane).

But in addition to its aura of spirituality, “Alabama” had a specific meaning. Ben Ratliff, the author of an excellent Coltrane biography, called it “an accurate psychological portrait of a time, a complicated mood that nobody else could render so well.” If anyone wanted to understand how Coltrane could begin to inspire awe, Ratcliff added, they needed to look no further than this track.

So was it legitimate for Alan Taylor, the director of The Many Saints of Newark, to co-opt this much revered musical prayer, divorcing it from its original meaning in order to underscore the drama of a cinematically rendered scene from a riot three years later in a different city, exploiting the piece’s authentic emotional depth in what is, for all its layers, essentially a Mob movie?

Of course it’s nice to know that it will now be heard for the first time by many of those who go to see the film. Some of them may wonder about the musician behind those few seconds of sound, and might pursue their interest further. And of course you could say that since “Alabama” was inspired by an episode from the civil rights struggle, it has hardly been wrenched out of its context. If I can’t help feeling a little uneasy, then perhaps I’m wrong.

Barney and the Blue Note

Almost 30 years after collaborating with Miles Davis on the historic soundtrack to Louis Malle’s 1958 film Lift to the Scaffold, Barney Wilen had disappeared from view. Then he discovered that he’d become the subject of a popular strip cartoon in the French magazine À Suivre. Written by Philippe Paringaux, the editor in chief of Rock & Folk magazine, and drawn by Jacques de Loustal, the bande dessinée titled “Barney et la Note Bleue” told the story of a French tenor saxophonist — young, white, gifted, bespectacled — as he made his way through a jazz life, all the way to a fatal overdose.

To begin with, Wilen was upset. For a start, he told Paringaux and Loustal, he was still alive. But the episode turned out well. Encouraged by Paringaux (who confessed that the inclusion of a doomed love affair had been based on an incident from his own life), Wilen returned to the recording studio and made an album titled after the strip, following its narrative and using Loustal’s distinctive artwork for the cover. A season at a Paris jazz club drew a new young audience who had followed the fictionalised story in À Suivre. Released in 1987, the album won the French jazz album of the year award, the Grand Prix of the Académie Charles Cros.

After a decade bathed in the light cast by his second coming, and many more concerts and recordings, Wilen died of cancer in 1996, aged 59. Now the Note Bleue album has been reissued, in a version remastered by the original engineer, Hervé Le Guil, and with added outtakes plus a second disc devoted to a set from a Paris nightclub, Le Petit Opportun, in 1989.

Wilen is one of my favourite European jazz musicians of the post-war era, a beautifully balanced post-bop soloist with an inquiring mind that took him into adventurous engagements with free jazz, rock and African music before he found his way back to his original idiom. This celebrated album found him delivering concise versions of some of his favourite vehicles — Consuelo Velázquez’s “Besame Mucho”, Duke Pearson’s “No Problem”, Monk’s “Round Midnight”, a legato rephrasing of Benny Golson’s “Whisper Not” — plus several originals, Earle Hagen’s “Harlem Nocturne” and a gorgeous, near-definitive reading of Gordon Jenkins’s ballad “Good-Bye”, which he had never heard before it was suggested to him at the session. There’s also an amusing nod to the episode of the strip in which Barney plays a Twist number with a rock and roll band. The other members of his fine quintet are the guitarist Philippe Petit, the pianist Alain Jean-Marie, the bassist Riccardo Del Fra and the drummer Sangoma Everett. The outtakes include a spellbinding unaccompanied reprise of “Besame Mucho”.

The live session features most of the same tunes, performed in stretched-out versions with the brilliant pianist Jacky Terrasson, then 24 years old, Gilles Naturel (bass) and Peter Gritz (drums). The mood is looser, the playing more fiery. Wilen plays soprano on a couple of the tunes, and there are interesting interjections by the compère, Claude Carrière (in French, naturally).

With the two discs comes a booklet including many images captured during the original studio session by the Magnum photographer Guy Le Querrec and English texts from many of the original participants, including Paringaux, Loustal, Jean-Marie, Del Fra, Everett, Le Guil and Patrick Wilen, Barney’s son, who supervised the project with his wife, Satomi Wilen.

It’s great to have this wonderful record available again, enhanced by the improved sound and the inclusion of additional music that is not merely tacked on but feels wholly integral, expanding our understanding of the life and work of a great musician.

* Released on the Elemental label, Barney et la Note Bleue is available as a boxed set including a vinyl version of the original album and a paperback edition of the original strip, or as a set of two CDs. The illustration is taken from one of Jacques de Loustal’s preliminary sketches.

Songs of the earth

From left: James Mainwaring, Fergus Quill, Michael Bardon, Aby Vulliamy, Steve Hanley (photo: Andrew Benge)

In a quiet, almost sidelong way, the new album by the British saxophonist and composer James Mainwaring is a meditation on the damage inflicted by the Anthropocene epoch on the ecosystems of its host planet. Its title, Mycorrhiza, refers to the interaction between fungi and trees, a scientifically observed phenomenon that allows trees to communicate with each other in order to aid their individual and collective survival in the face of threats.

This might not be an obvious topic for a composer whose work is rooted in jazz, but it’s a good one. Charlie Haden and Carla Bley reflected similar environmental concerns on Time/Life, the last album they made with the Liberation Music Orchestra, but Mycorrhiza finds its own tone and trajectory, largely through the discreet use of field recordings and of the possibility of occasionally and subtly using the organic sounds of free jazz to evoke — but not imitate — the noises of the natural world.

Apart from Mainwaring, who doubles on flutes and keyboards and also sings briefly on several of tracks, the players are Aby Vulliamy (viola, voice), Michael Bardon (cello), Fergus Quill (double bass), Steve Hanley (drums) and, on four of the 13 tracks, Chris Sharkey on electronics.

Mycorrhiza is a programmatic piece with a message, but the narrative content never feels didactic or overbearing. The first section is not even a minute long: a mood-setting hustle of free bass and drums under held notes from saxophone and viola. There’s a sharp cut to the rustlings, scrapings and chirpings of post-SME improvisation, followed by a sort of chamber chorale for bowed strings and saxophone, like a gentle English pastoral version of the Sauter/Getz Focus suite. A piece called “Roots” uses harmonics to suggest organisms communicating and growing together. “Machines”, 28 seconds long, introduces staccato syncopations from strings and horn. “Statues” is full of melody before Mainwaring and Vulliamy intone a lyric — “Did you hear the latest news / Shaking hands in marble rooms…” — in bleached-out unison tones that would fit nicely on to Robert Wyatt record. Against the restrained, finely phrased urgency of Quill’s bass and Hanley’s drums, the composer takes the first real solo of the piece, a rhythm-hurdling saxophone improvisation carefully blended into the ensemble architecture.

That description gets us halfway through a set of pieces that continue through a further variety of dovetailed moods and approaches, gathering in intensity through the scrabbling of “Web”, the etherised tintinnabulation of”Our Lungs” (its lyric a haiku-like four lines) and the baleful agitation of “Globe” until it reaches the finale, “Woken by Dogs”, the longest track at six and a half minutes. After a lyrical piano opening, Mainwaring sings: “Woke up by dogs / Barking in my ears / And just as I feared / The men in black and white are here / Road full of signs / Warpaint ’round my eyes / As they cuffed my hands / Ripping the Superglue began…” Short, fast saxophone-led unison figures are undercut by jolting drums and slowly rising string glissandi until all sounds evaporates into silence.

The warning is not new, but such a creative restatement as Mainwaring achieves in Mycorrhiza is welcome and necessary. You could, I suppose, mentally switch off the message and just enjoy the sounds for their own sake. But since those sounds in this form are driven by a belief in the necessity of repairing the damage done by the human race during its time on earth, and thereby extending the lease a little longer, that would seem foolish.

* James Mainwaring’s Mycorrhiza is out now on the Discus Music label.

Bob, Peter and Joe

From left: Peter Tosh, Bob Marley and Joe Higgs in Los Angeles

When the Wailers visited the US for the first time in October 1973, they were already changing shape from the group that had made the beginnings of a breakthrough to the rock audience earlier in the year with Catch a Fire. Peter Tosh was still alongside Bob Marley, but Bunny Livingston had opted out of the tour in protest against the lure of Babylon. His replacement, for this short expedition only, was Joe Higgs, an older singer who had mentored the group in their earliest days. In fact it was said to have been in Higgs’s Trenchtown yard that Bob, Tosh and Bunny had first met.

Once they’d been relieved of their slot as support act to Sly and the Family Stone, they found themselves in Los Angeles, where the producer Denny Cordell persuaded his friend Chris Blackwell of Island Records, the Wailers’ producer, to allow him to film the group in the studios of Capitol Records on Hollywood and Vine, in front of a small invited audience. Forty-eight years later, the results have finally seen the light of day in a DVD and an album titled Bob Marley and the Wailers: The Capitol Session ’73.

It’s a fascinating document for a number of reasons. The 88-minute film shows what is really a semi-public rehearsal, with lots of stops and starts to make minor adjustments of tempos and feels. Amid clouds of ganja smoke, the grooves are allowed to settle and flourish, permitting a clear sight of the contribution of Earl Lindo on keys, Aston Barrett on bass guitar and Carlton Barrett on drums, with Tosh’s guitar fills spicing Marley’s steady ska-derived strumming. Higgs is a discreet presence in the front line, singing high and low harmonies and adding percussion touches on timbales, cowbell and hand-drum.

Marley, once a member of an equally balanced triumvirate, is clearly moving to centre-stage. Of the dozen songs they play, Tosh sings lead on only two, his own “Can’t Blame the Youth” and “Stop that Train”. The rest, apart from the co-written “Get Up, Stand Up”, are all Bob’s. For me the strongest groove is on “Rastaman Chant”, which drifts and surges like some piece of funk-sodden minimalism from Sly’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, with Tosh, Marley and Higgs all on Rastafarian hand drums, and there’s a stinging poignancy in hearing Bob singing “One bright morning, when my work is over, man will fly away home…”

With a year Tosh would have followed Bunny and the group would be billed as Bob Marley and the Wailers on the cover of Natty Dread. The following year’s Live at the Lyceum would establish once and for all Marley’s position as the sole focal point. The Wailers were now the rhythm section and the harmonies were supplied by three women, the I-Threes. Fans of their earliest music — the mid-’60s singles like “Put It On” and “Sunday Morning” — believed that something had been lost, but there can be no doubt that the emphasis on promoting the charismatic Marley gave reggae its push towards international recognition and success. Watch the DVD and you can see it starting to happen.

It was during the sessions for Catch A Fire in September 1972 that Joe Higgs took me to Trenchtown, at Chris Blackwell’s behest. With Dickie Jobson at the wheel of Blackwell’s Mini Moke, Higgs showed me the shacks for which families paid a government-controlled rent amounting to 60p a week, talked about the iniquities of the Jamaican music business and told me how he was having to work as a dental assistant to supplement his meagre earnings from music. As we stopped and talked, he was mildly berated by a passer-by for bringing a white man into the neighbourhood.

Born in Kingston in 1940, Higgs had made his first records as a teenager in a duo with Roy Wilson, known as Higgs and Wilson. He had spent a little time in the US and when I met him he had just released a fine single, “Let Us Do Something”, on his own Elevation label. As with the Wailers, Blackwell was paying for him to make an album, which eventually came out three years later, not on Island but on Adrian Sherwood’s Pressure Sounds label, which also released a follow-up, Unity Is Power, in 1979. Probably Blackwell felt he had enough on his hands with the Wailers and Burning Spear; maybe, too, he concluded that Higgs, already in his thirties, was unlikely to make a crossover to a wider audience.

Higgs gave me a copy of ‘Let Us Do Something”, which I’ve always cherished for its unusual out of tempo intro — acoustic guitar and bowed double bass — and his lead vocal, which sounds like Richie Havens transported from Washington Square to the government yard on First Street, infused by a characteristic sense of wisdom imparted without rhetorical flourishes. He died of cancer in Los Angeles in 1999, mentioned in all the histories of Marley and the Wailers but with his own work still mostly unrecognised. Apart from the film’s more obvious value as a historical document, it’s nice to have it as a memento of his significance.

* The Capitol Sessions ’73 is released on DVD, CD and vinyl by Universal Music.

The return of Abba

Abba’s decision to release an album of new songs and to prepare a new live show for London next spring led me straight into a row with an old friend who thinks the idea of turning themselves into “avatars” via motion-capture and de-ageing technology is pathetic. I disagree. While nothing would persuade me to attend a show featuring a hologram of a dead artist — Elvis, Amy, Roy Orbison, Michael Jackson — I’m fine with Abba doing it. That’s for two reasons. First, they’re still alive: the decision is entirely theirs. Second, I’m guessing that they’re not attracted by the idea of taking the stage 40 years after their last shows and doing versions of the routines they performed when they were in their twenties and thirties. They want to give us something that is both themselves and true to our memories of them.

This isn’t like Bob Dylan performing into his eighties, unafraid of showing his signs of age. Abba are a pop band, almost a cartoon of the genre, as the Monkees were 10 years before them. What made them different was the self-generated outpouring of great songs that captured a worldwide audience who responded not just to the glittery surface but to the real feelings inside “Knowing Me, Knowing You” and “The Name of the Game”. Perhaps I’m being too generous, but it seems to me that the avatar business is a way of respecting their audience’s vision of them. With career sales of 400 million records, it can’t be about the money.

I saw them at the Albert Hall in 1977, when they were, I suppose, in their prime. Afterwards I drove from Knightsbridge back to the office of The Times on Gray’s Inn Road to tap out a review that appeared in the next morning’s paper. I’m amused to see that I mentioned the influence of Phil Spector, many years before I discovered — via a biography of the band — that something their studio engineer had read in my 1972 book on Spector had influenced the way they made their records, right from the beginning. (If you think I’ve written about this before, you’re right. But I’m not going to let it go…)

Anyway, amid this morning’s lavish coverage of their announcement is a piece in The Times purporting to list their top 20 greatest singles. It excludes “The Day Before You Came”, which might just be their masterpiece. Honestly, I don’t know where they find them these days.

Marc Johnson by himself

It’s more than 50 years since Barre Phillips made what I think was the first purely solo album by a jazz bassist. Since then there has been not exactly a flood of emulators, but certainly a steady stream, including albums by Dave Holland, Gary Peacock, Henry Grimes and John Edwards. I can think of lots of other bass players I’d like to have heard from in an extended unaccompanied setting, principally Charles Mingus and Charlie Haden.

Mingus would probably have responded to the idea, but died before such a thing would have seemed like a serious proposition. Haden, however, must have had many opportunities, not least because he often recorded for ECM, whose founder and producer, Manfred Eicher, was himself a bass-player and is a sort of patron saint of solo bass albums. But I guess Charlie, who recorded many times in a duo setting, saw music essentially as a conversation.

I thought of him, and sometimes of Mingus, too, while listening Marc Johnson’s new solo album, Overpass. There’s a weight to these eight pieces, a thoughtful lyricism and a very human sound on the instrument that link him to those forebears, along with a similar disinclination to show that he can make his fingers race up and down that long fingerboard in order to create horn-like lines. For Johnson, the bass isn’t a trumpet or a saxophone. It’s a bass, with its own values, virtues and character.

Johnson came to prominence as the bassist in Bill Evans’s last trio and has since played and recorded prolifically, often with the guitarists John Abercrombie, Bill Frisell, John Scofield, Pat Martino, Wolfgang Muthspiel and Pat Metheny and the pianists Eliane Elias, who is his wife, John Lewis, Lyle Mays and Enrico Pierannunzi. Overpass, recorded in a São Paulo studio, is his fifth album for ECM, and his first solo effort.

Unusually for the genre, it doesn’t consist entirely of original compositions and/or free improvisations. Five of the pieces are by Johnson, but he kicks off with versions of Eddie Harris’s “Freedom Jazz Dance” and Miles Davis’s “Nardis” and also includes Alex North’s lovely “Love Theme from Spartacus“. These are all familiar themes, perhaps over-familiar (and two of them were staples of Evans’ repertoire), but in Johnson’s hands they’re transformed into pieces that sit perfectly within the whole 43-minute sequence.

His own compositions include “And Strike Each Tuneful String”, where he starts with deliberate low thrums which mutate into a fast-running river of notes influenced by Burundi rhythms, and “Whorled Whirled World”, where he shows how he build a phenomenal momentum over eight and a half minutes without showing off. Two pieces stretch the solo format by using overdubs: “Samurai Fly”, in which two arco lines run above pizzicato ground figures, and “Yin and Yang”, where the single plucked and bowed voices answer each other with a meditative gravity. “Life of Pai” illustrates the beauty and consistency of his tone and the ardour of his phasing, punctuated by passages of double stops moving against a ground note.

That’s the anatomy of it, roughly, but in this case the overall impression is what counts for more than the detail. Marc Johnson has made an album in which a single instrument acts as the filter for profound emotions, exploring a range of techniques and trajectories with a coherent voice. Solo bass albums probably aren’t for everybody, but this is one that comes as a friend.

* Marc Johnson’s Overpass is out now on the ECM label. The photograph of Johnson is by Roy Borghouts.

RIP Don Everly

After a decade of estrangement, the Everly Brothers chose the Royal Albert Hall in London as the venue for their historic reunion concert on September 22, 1983. It was an unforgettable evening, all tensions seemingly resolved as the harmonies soared once again on all those great hits of the ’50s and ’60s. Phil died in 2014, aged 74. Now Don has gone, too, at 84. Here’s how I reported the reunion concert in The Times, with a wonderful photograph by Nobby Clark.

Nick Lowe in Covent Garden

Nick Lowe liked the “mischief and mayhem” of the punk-rock era, into which he was drawn through his budding talents as a producer of things like the Damned, Wreckless Eric and Elvis Costello. But he also remembered a collateral phenomenon: there were musicians, he said last night, “who’d been playing Stephen Stills songs the week before and were suddenly pretending they couldn’t play.”

His dry wit was in evidence at an event organised to tie in with the paperback edition of Will Birch’s biography, Cruel to Be Kind: The Life and Music of Nick Lowe. A large audience had assembled at the Seven Dials Club in Covent Garden to hear the two of them in conversation — or perhaps I should say reassembled, since we looked very much like the people that would have turned up to hear his band at Dingwalls or the Hope & Anchor, now 40 years further down the line.

Talking about his career, he said he’d changed his approach to recording in the mid-’80s when he realised that his days as a pop star were over and a new direction was required. He wanted other people to cover his songs, and he figured that if he recorded his own versions like demos, other artists would hear them and conclude they could do better.

If they simply followed what he’d done, he said, he felt disappointed. What he really liked was when someone approached one of his songs in a complete different and surprising way. Asked for examples, he mentioned Johnny Cash’s “The Beast in Me”, from the first volume of the American Recordings series, produced by Rick Rubin. Cash, his former stepfather-in-law, had been the most charismatic man he’d ever met, rivalled only by Solomon Burke. Oh, and there was a version of “I Live on a Battlefield”, which he’d written with Paul Carrack, given the full treatment by Diana Ross — “Turn that kitchen sink up a little louder!”

He talked about moving to Nashville to write songs with people he’d never met. How they’d start a conversation by asking how you’d got there, which airline, which hotel you were at, whether you’d had a good first night’s sleep, and you’d say, well, the people in the next room seemed to be having a party all night, and they’d say, oh, what room were they in? And you’d say, um, 706, I think… and they’d start writing straight away and there was the song: “There’s party in room 706…”

My favourite moment came after he was asked whether he’d like to produce a record with Cliff Richard. No, he said. Maybe once. Not now. Then he mentioned one project that never came off. “I had the idea to take Peters and Lee,” he said, “and get them to do ‘At the Dark End of the Street’. Can you imagine that? It would be heartbreaking, wouldn’t it?”

Then he made everybody happy by picking up an acoustic guitar and singing “Cruel to Be Kind”, not just the title number from the biography of the same name but a truly great pop song.

* Will Birch’s Cruel to Be Kind: The Life and Work of Nick Lowe is published by Constable.

All things must be remixed

“When I make a record,” Phil Spector said, “I don’t want to tell musicians, ‘Well, eventually it’s going to sound like this — you’re going to be in more echo.’ No, put it on now. You can’t take the echo off ‘Be My Baby’. You can’t take the echo off ‘River Deep — Mountain High’. It’s on Tina Turner forever. That’s my art.”

Not, however, when it comes to George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. Just over 50 years after the release of the hugely successful solo triple album, which Spector co-produced with the former Beatle, a new version of the album has appeared, in which the tracks have been remixed by Dhani Harrison, George’s son, and an engineer, Paul Hicks. It’s a project intended, they claim, to bring out Harrison’s contribution by clarifying the sound. It seems to me that, a few months after Spector’s death, what they’ve really been attempting to do is diminish the impact of Spector’s contribution and thereby to reduce what might be seen, in the light of his conviction on a charge of murdering the actress Lana Clarkson in a shooting incident at his home in 2003, as a stain on the record’s reputation.

The excuse for this apparent exercise in detoxification seems to be that George once said he might have liked this group of songs to have been produced with a lighter touch. I don’t think that’s good enough. He and Spector worked together over a period of months on the recording and mixing at Abbey Road, Trident and Apple studios. If Harrison had wanted the stripped-down sound that Spector produced for John Lennon on the Plastic Ono Band album that same year, he had plenty of opportunity to ask for it. Very clearly he didn’t. And nor did he choose to do anything about it in the three decades between the release of the album and his own death in 2001.

I spent £17 on the basic two-CD edition of the new version, as many will have been persuaded to do, and to me all the remixing does, by altering many of the aural dimensions and perspectives that Spector brought to it, is to diminish the grandeur and the impact of the music, robbing it of its character. It’s no longer the sharply focused record he and Harrison mixed, mastered and passed for release. It’s more ordinary. And, of course, the two people primarily responsible for its conception and execution are no longer around to offer their opinion.

Once again, I’d say that if Harrison had wanted his guitar lines to be louder, or his voice to be closer to the foreground, he could have had those things at the time, on demand. And if he’d wanted people to pay $999.98 or £859.99 for an “uber de luxe edition” including eight vinyl LPs, five CDs, a Blu-Ray disc, two books, a bookmark made from a felled oak tree in George’s garden at Friar Park, 1/6th scale “replica figurines” of George and the garden gnomes from the album cover, and a set of prayer beads, all housed within “an artisan-designed wooden crate”, I guess he’d have asked for that, too.

Having read all the advance publicity material, I was curious enough to wander down to Duke of York’s Square on the King’s Road in Chelsea to have a look at a promotional stunt devised to tie in with the release. This is a physical interpretation of Barry Feinstein’s cover photograph from the album, installed close by the entrance to the Saatchi Gallery. It’s by “world renowned floral artist Ruth Davis”, and you can see the result in the photograph above.

The idea is that you can take George’s place on the stool — you’ll have to bring your own hat and gumboots — and get a friend to take your photograph, which you can then circulate on your preferred social-media platform. It’ll be gone by the weekend, but to me it looked like bits and bobs left over from that ludicrous and expensively misconceived “mountain” currently positioned next to Marble Arch, at the top of Park Lane. Marble Arch was better without it, just as All Things Must Pass sounds better without someone else’s second thoughts. Some things are best left alone.

Alone and palely strumming…

There they were, half a century ago, alone and palely loitering, with their long dark hair and their flares and their Martin guitars and their debut albums on Transatlantic, regulars at Les Cousins or the Troubadour, peering up from bottom of the bill at Implosion or next weekend’s rain-drenched festival, finding slots on Sounds of the ’70s and the Whistle Test, maybe even Top of the Pops if they struck lucky with the right song — a “Catch the Wind”, a “Baker Street”, a “Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)?”, a “Streets of London” or an “Alone Again (Naturally)”.

British male singer-songwriters mostly came out of the local folk scene, which seemed to imbue them with a leaning towards the wistfully romantic. Their American counterparts, springing from close exposure to the blues and bluegrass traditions, seemed more robust in temperament. The exception would be Paul Simon, who shared the British tendency to what it would be unkind to call feyness — but then he’d spent time playing the London folk clubs as part of his formative experience, soaking up the vibe.

There was more to them than that archetype, of course, and the whole genre is interestingly captured in Separate Paths Together, a new three-CD box subtitled “An Anthology of British Male Singer-Songwriters 1965-75”. Compiled and annotated by David Wells, it parades an extraordinary range of artists in solo guise. Most of the usual suspects are here: Al Stewart, Ralph McTell, John Martyn, Donovan. Others — Kevin Ayers, Peter Hammill, Richard Thompson, Jim Capaldi, Mike Heron, Gary Farr, Dave Cousins — had made their initial reputations as members of bands. Free-standing solo artists range from Pete Atkin, who came out of the Cambridge Footlights putting melodies to Clive James’s effortfully intricate lyrics (maybe the nearest thing ever devised to an English version of French chanson), to Peter Skellern, whose deceptively artless “Hold On To Love” still sounds like a great pop record,

Among my favourites are David McWilliams’s “Days of Pearly Spencer”, as enduringly perfect an evocation of 1967 and the days of pirate radio as could be imagined; Bert Jansch’s brief, unadorned “Tell Me What Is True Love”; Mike Cooper’s “Paper and Smoke”, with its fine horn arrangement; Andy Roberts’s warmly nostalgic “All Around My Grandfather’s Floor”, from a poem by his Liverpool Scene bandmate Mike Evans; and Murray Head’s “Say It Ain’t So, Joe” — a record that everyone at Island in 1975 expected to be a huge hit, but mystifyingly wasn’t.

The alone-and-palely-loitering archetype is particularly well represented by Keith Christmas’s diaphanous “The Fawn”, Dave Cartwright’s poised “Song to Susan” and Duncan Browne’s lovely “Journey”, which kicks off the whole collection and makes me regret a crudely dismissive review I gave him when he supported Lou Reed at the Sundown in Edmonton in 1972 (not the happiest of juxtapositions, it must be said, and I wasn’t much kinder to Lou). I’d offer an apology, but he died of cancer in 1993, aged 46.

The tracks I’ve mentioned are on the first two discs, where the genre is stretched to include something like the heavily arranged “Jesus Christ Junior” by Patrick Campbell-Lyons, a member of the original Nirvana. The third disc is largely devoted to also-rans (Bill Fay, Chris Baker, Paul Brett) and anomalies (Steve Gibbons, Jona Lewie, Crispian St Peters), including Mike Hart’s “Disbelief Blues”, a “Subterranean Homesick Blues” homage, and Al Jones’s extremely creepy “Jeffrey Don’t You Touch”, a clumsy portrayal of a sex abuser that wouldn’t get anywhere near the radio today.

The two most obvious omissions from the set’s 66 tracks represent the genre’s opposite poles: the introspection of Nick Drake and the extroversion of Elton John. I guess their absence is explained by permission issues. Cat Stevens isn’t represented, either. But you already know what they sound like.

* Separate Paths Together is out now on Cherry Red’s Grapefruit Records label. The photograph is of Duncan Browne; perhaps someone out there can tell me who took it.