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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 sounded 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.

16 Comments Post a comment
  1. simon surtees #

    Fascinating! Have fond memories of most of these. Comments on Pearly Spencer took me right back to my bedroom listening to R1 and feeling trendy because I liked it!

    August 18, 2021
  2. Tim Adkin #

    Nice post and, having just looked at the track listing, an interesting compilation. Not sure if I’d call Bill Fay an ‘also ran’ mind nor Mike Hart whose ‘Almost Liverpool 8’ from ‘Mike Hart Bleeds’ is a minor classic (as were his Liverpool Scene contributions).

    Lovely to see a mention of ‘Journey’, ‘Say It Ain’t Say Joe’ (you’re right it had hit written all over it) and the Peter Skellern (OK did you sign him to Island and, if so, was it on the strength of that?). Mick Softley too.

    I saw Steve Tilston at The Acorn in Penzance early last year and he’s still got it.

    I saw Keith Christmas supporting King Crimson in ’71 and Harvey Andrews supporting Focus (of all people) in early ’73 that was how those guys plied their trade back then. The only guys missing (now doubt due to rights issues) appear to be Denny Gerrard (whose album had him backed by High Tide), Robin Scott (later better known as ‘M’) and Gordon Jackson.

    Keep up the good work.

    August 18, 2021
  3. Paul Flatt #

    Ah, lists, lists! I think I would have made room for Nic Jones, & (eyesight? ) I didn’t spot either Jansch or Graham, and yet David MacWilliam is there. He of course was plugged to death on Caroline, to the point I couldn’t bear to try and listen to owt else of his. And I keep looking on all sorts of lists but I never spot The Oldham Tinkers, did they really exist?

    August 18, 2021
  4. Tony F #

    Thanks for bringing this extensive and fascinating-looking compilation to wider attention, Richard. I’m not sure how I’d have come to know of it otherwise!

    August 18, 2021
  5. Sedat Nemli #

    Great compilation. Why no Ian Matthews, though?

    August 19, 2021
  6. Chris Walsh #

    I’d suggest that a more obvious (and, to me, inexplicable) omission is Roy Harper!

    August 19, 2021
  7. Andrew C Bence #

    Nice piece, though the omission of Roy Harper and Michael Chapman here and on the compilation is, of course, unforgivable. Harper for his voice, exquisitely English lyricism, and – for a supposed folkie – coolness. Chapman, for the ineffable authenticity of his folk-blues, matched only (among white contemporaries) by JJ Cale across the pond. And then there’s Davy Graham… Boomers have a lot to answer for, but in this domain they stand supreme.

    August 19, 2021
  8. Chris morris #

    Great to see the unfairly neglected and largely forgotten Mike Hart getting a mention. There was nothing whimsical about the best of his numbers. “Aberfan” on his first solo album was particularly hard hitting. Before that he’d recorded some great stuff with the Liverpool Scene, particularly the solo “Gliders and Parks.”

    August 19, 2021

    Rod Stewart also an omission? Not such a prolific songwriter, perhaps, but worth a shout just on the strength of being the author of ‘Mandolin Wind’ from ‘Every Picture Tells A Story’. By the way, some nice mandolin on Bryn Haworth’s ‘Miss Swiss’; great to see his ‘Let the Days Go By’ album represented on this collection by this lovely track.

    August 19, 2021
  10. roberto salafia #

    Interesting recollection of English singers of the period, most of which I don’t know.
    But I found very cultural the connection to the wounderful John Keats 1819 poem, “La belle dame sans merci”, I suppose intentional:

    O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
    Alone and palely loitering?
    The sedge has withered from the lake,
    And no birds sing! ………..

    Thank you Richard

    August 19, 2021
  11. daveheasman #

    Competing in the “chanson” stakes might be poor old Jake Thackray.

    August 20, 2021
    • I’d agree about Jake Thackray. For the witty stuff he’s just as much fun as Pete Atkin/Clive James, and his songs about his own patch like “Old Molly Metcalfe” pack a real emotional punch. And he’s a very under-rated guitar-player, subtle and precise, but powerfully rhythmic when he wants. (Labi Siffre is the only other songwriter I can think of who regularly used the nylon-strung guitar.) Maybe we can squeeze him into the pantheon of Great Yorkshire Guitarists along with John McLaughlin and Allan Holdsworth… Thanks for this post, Richard!

      August 20, 2021
      • Mick Steels #

        Great Yorkshire Guitarists would have to include Derek Bailey!

        August 20, 2021
      • George Burt #


        August 20, 2021
  12. donjwatson #

    Anyone else think there’s a case for Brian Protheroe? His one-off hit ‘Pinball’, which contains the classic couplet ‘So I walk over Soho/ And I think about Monroe’, was one of the great pale English wimp cuts of the Seventies.

    August 20, 2021
  13. Sounds like an an interesting collection.

    Two broad-brush characterizations I’ve made from wide listening/reading on the mid-century scene on each side of the Atlantic:

    As you note: “The Blues” and it’s attitude toward trouble and misfortune came more naturally to the writers on the American side of the ocean. That “Let me tell you what bad stuff I’ve seen, but I know the score, and I’m still here” vs. the British air of melancholy and some beautiful resignation probably is inherited. I see it there in the poetry in both sides of the pond too.

    What’s odd is that when it comes to musicians, particularly in electric bands, the UK helped teach a lot of white American electric bands about their own Afro-American Blues. Weird.

    The other generalization and subject to exceptions difference is implied in this collections title: in North American women singer-songwriters and performers were much more in evidence, electric or acoustic music both. I have no theory why that was so. Any ideas?

    August 24, 2021

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