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.