Folk music of the mid 1960s to the early 1970s sounds best in autumn and winter, except Donovan, who’s made for spring and summer. The nights have drawn in; it’s raining and it’s cold, which means that I’ve started listening to The Pentangle again. Which, around our house, means that Mrs Middlerabbit has no truck with any of that shit so it’s just me and the cat in the back room with the record player. I’m not suggesting that the cat’s into Acid Folk, although I suppose he might be: he just prefers it where it’s quiet and calm, and because it’s a bit less hectic around me than it is with Mrs Middlerabbit or Middlerabbit jr, probably, he and I tend to hang out together quite a lot. Even if I’ve got records on.
Anyway, we’re pair of hep cats, literally and metaphorically respectively, and we like it quiet. Rawk albums of the early 1970s sometimes had instructions on the sleeve, and those instructions were like Conservative Party election slogans from the future – short and easy for morons to understand. Things like Play Loud, mainly. You didn’t get any of that “Do this, do that. Sit down, stand up” bossiness on The Pentangle’s albums, and good on them for it. I’m into David Bowie, but it doesn’t follow that I’m going to start doing what he told me to do any more than I’m going to start doing what The Man tells me to. What’s the point of that? The Pentangle weren’t the hammers of The Gods or sexy Glam Rock Aliens with band members from Mars, or even Hull, and they didn’t need to pummel anyone with volume because theirs was a quiet revolution: not just folk or jazz. Although they were mainly those things, they weren’t as well. And the cats in our back room like it like that.
All bands that last more than an album or two have different phases and The Pentangle – as I like to call them, with the definitive article present and correct – did too.
It’d be easy to split The Pentangle’s phases into the first part, from 1967-1973, and then off and on again from 1981 until, I suppose now. But also not really because, what with Bert Jansch and John Renbourne both being dead, and the line up that’s been bumbling along for the past few years only having Jacqui McShee from the original line up, I don’t really count whatever passes as Pentangle these days as being The Pentangle. Good on Jacqui – I don’t begrudge her making a living off the name, she might as well, but it’s nothing I’m very interested in because The Pentangle were very much about the original line up and how they played off each other and seemed to know where and when and how to leave space for the rest of them to take their places in the spotlight, and that’s something that doesn’t really work when you start replacing people with someone else.
I’ve no intention of writing a potted history of The Pentangle, though if you’re interested, there’s a fair bit in Dazzling Stranger, the biography of Bert Jansch by Colin Harper, an Irish writer whose life’s work, really, is chronicling the British folk revival, whereas my life’s work consists mainly of just fannying about, really. I’m not anyone’s idea of driven.
Regular readers of this blog/website/whatever it is will be well aware by now that I have no interest at all in regurgitating received wisdom about anything. I might mention what the received wisdom is in passing because it’s not that I don’t know what it is, it’s just that I don’t necessarily buy into it. Sometimes I do, but I like to work things out for myself – even though what that means is that I take longer than everybody else to work simple, basic things out, and I’m often wrong about a lot of things for an inordinate period of time. Oh, and it’s waffle, of course: I don’t really edit anything I write either. Again, I do sometimes, like when I belatedly work something out that everybody else already knew about probably, but even then I might not bother. So, no, if you’re looking for the right stories and the right opinions and the facts about The Pentangle, I’d stop now if I were you because you’re not getting that here.
What you are getting is a waffling, lengthy load of chunter that is likely to take in quite a lot of digressions about things that might seem totally unrelated as far as you’re concerned, but it all makes sense to me. In a manner of speaking.
Last week, Mrs Middlerabbit and I were talking about something or other and she just came out with, “I’ve never met anybody who thinks remotely like you do.” She didn’t come straight out and ask, “What’s wrong with you?” But that’s what she means. I’m not doing a Donald Trump and saying, “People say I’m marvellous,” or anything, because they don’t. I mean, I think I’m probably a bit brain damaged, to be honest. I’ve not cultivated a peculiar or esoteric take on anything, it’s just how my brain works. I was born with my umbilical cord around my neck and I was blue when I came out. The doctors said there was a high chance that I’d be brain damaged as a result of the oxygen deprivation, which I won’t go into here because I’ve already mentioned that here. Anyway, the older I get, I have recognised that I’m a bit odd, and even that what I assumed was quite a good impersonation of normality is actually pretty flakey. I also took quite a lot of psychedelic drugs when I was younger, and maybe that has something to do with it as well. I don’t know. I’m waffling again. What I mean is: this is just what it’s like, being me. I’m not saying I think my way is better than anyone else’s because I don’t. Well, I do a bit, or I wouldn’t do it in public. What I actually mean is, I don’t think anybody else should stop thinking like they do and start thinking how I think instead, but maybe seeing how a dickhead like me thinks about fairly ephemeral crap like Folk Music from the late 1960s- early 1970s might be entertaining for some people. It must be. Plenty of people read these things, to my continuing surprise. Thanks and everything to those of you who do though, I appreciate it.
Anyhow, I was talking about how The Pentangle have – as far as I’m concerned – distinct phases, that I place on them fairly arbitrarily, but it makes sense to me.
The point is, The Beatles, for instance: I’d put them down as a Beat Music Combo from 1962 to about 1964, when they started to turn into a sort of Folk Rock Quartet until about 1966, when they turned into a psychedelic pop hippy band until about 1969, when they aimed to be a Beat Combo again, but couldn’t really do it, and turned into just what pop music sounded like until about 1978.
That’s oversimplifying things a bit because The Beatles aren’t that straightforward and there was always more going on than just being one thing at a time for the Fabs.
And it’s exactly the same thing for The Pentangle, except they covered less ground and their development was more gradual. I mean, the classic thing to say is that it was only four years between Love Me Do and Strawberry Fields Forever, and wow, yeah – fair dos. The Pentangle didn’t develop anything like that, but that’s because they started off being a lot more musically accomplished than most of The Beatles ever became, so they couldn’t show progression like The Beatles did. And, to be fair to the Fabs, what they were doing in 1962 might sound a bit trite now in the 21st century, but it sure as hell didn’t then. In the early 80s, you’d still hear early Beatles records, but not the later stuff. since the late 80s, it’s been the opposite. Both ends of the 80s are right and wrong, because all Beatles eras are great. Still, I’m not here to talk about The Beatles.
However, for the discerning – or possibly brain damaged/drug addled – mind, I think there’s a definite change in how they sounded, even though they were always, basically, Two folk/blues guitarists, a Flaxen Haired Lamenting Woman, a Jazz drummer and a double bass player – who were – all of them – absolutely shit hot, individually but especially together.
They got together in 1967 in London – Summer of Love, remember. Peace and Love, Hippies, Psychedelic Happenings, Jimi Hendrix, Sgt Pepper, Pink Floyd, UFO Club, LSD and mind expanding, extended live versions of songs that stretched out for long periods of psychedelic jamming at high volume, with oil wheels vomiting groovy patterns over the bands at the Roundhouse and what have you. Then they put records out that encouraged you to free your minds and do whatever you felt like doing with instructions that read, Play At Maximum Volume at the same time.
You could look at that in one of two ways.
1. The Pentangle didn’t fit in because they were a folk band who played a lot of Traditional Folk songs.
2. The Pentangle fitted right in because they were a bit of a jazz combo to whom spreading out and playing half hour versions of songs with extended, not especially conventional sections, scattered liberally throughout. Even though they did it a lot quieter than most bands did.
I mean, take your pick. A bit of both, probably. They were never going to be the biggest thing in the world, because folk and jazz combos just aren’t going to appeal to that many people, even when they’re on acid. Maybe especially when they’re on acid. They’re always going to be a bit niche, The Pentangle. Nick Drake sold far fewer records than they did in the 60s and 70s, but maybe it wasn’t really that surprising to hear Pink Moon eventually turn up on a car advert in the early 2000s because it’s beautiful, straightforward and moving, even though not many people noticed before then. I can’t imagine The Pentangle turning up on many adverts ever, because their thing’s sort of Marmite, isn’t it? Not that I consider Marmite to be especially Marmite – meaning you either love it or hate it – I can take it or leave it. But I do like The Pentangle a lot, even if people like Mrs Middlerabbit can’t be doing with them at all.
Still, 1967. Bert Jansch was already a relatively big deal in the small world of Folk music. He was recognised, along with Dav(e)y Graham as being one of the great folk/blues acoustic guitar players of the time. John Renbourne wasn’t far behind those two, and had played with Jansch before on a nice, shortish long player of instrumentals. They’d start out and split up into bits and pieces onstage – starting off with Bert doing some solo stuff, then John’d join him, then Bert’d go off and Jacqui’d come on and they’d do a couple of songs, then they’d all get onstage, and so on – pretty much everyone could do something totally solo – even Jacqui, who just sang, but a lot of Folk singers sang unaccompanied anyway, so it wasn’t that unusual.
I love this picture of The Pentangle, I’ve used it before, although it was the black and white image. This is fairly early on. They’re reasonably straight at this point – they could have been the house band for Play School on BBC in 1968 looking like this – with a few signs of becoming the slightly further out wild boys and girl of Folk Music: the sideburns are coming on and the hair’s getting longer. Check out those fresh faces. The clothes and hair became wilder, in a groovy geography teacher kind of way, but mostly the look in their eyes went from eager and enthusiastic to tired and distant in less than five years. And no wonder, there’s a video of them playing live on a television show from the early 70s, and the shifting quantities of wine in the glasses on their amps suggests they were shitfaced most of the time. Fair dos, at least it wasn’t real ale they were quaffing, and there’re no proper beards here, even though some of the facial hair is beginning to look potentially problematic to a fussy arse like me.
The Pentangle – First Album
Their first record, The Pentangle, looks great. It’s of its time, of course – but that’s one of the things I like about it. Black and white cover, sleeve notes by John Peel in his hippy phase, there’re a few traditional folk songs, a Bert song, and some extended, relatively free form things, notably Pentangling.
Let No Man Steal Your Thyme
This is the first track on the first album and, in a lot of ways, it lays out pretty much everything that The Pentangle were at that point. It’s acoustic, but it’s modern in a jazzy sort of way. It’s also a bit medieval, being a traditional song, but it’s also pertinent for the time – you know, 1967. Homosexuality finally decriminalised, abortion legal, the contraceptive pill available. A lot of freedom from responsibilities that almost every young person would have had to deal with up to that point in history.
And, being gritty and northern, as I like to pretend I am, I was raised to believe that there’s a downside to everything. And there was – things became less complicated in one way – you could have sex with whoever you wanted – provided they wanted to too – and not have to worry about babies or going to prison for it – but things also became more complicated because, previously, if you were a girl and you were having sex, and if you got pregnant, it was a big deal outside of marriage, and backstreet abortions were dangerous, naturally. So, basically, women would have previously had to be careful about not getting pregnant and left holding a baby, but now, they could have sex, and not have to have a baby whether they wanted one or not. And that’s what LNMSYT‘s about, more or less. Don’t let that man leave you up the duff, kid.
Of course, you’d get puritanical people like Mary Whitehouse decrying the lapsed moral fibre of the nation, which we all laughed about when I was a kid. She’s dead now, of course but it’s still alright because now we’ve decided to listen to what adolescents think is best, and what that means is they just take the Whitehouse role because there is no demographic of people more sanctimonious, hypocritical and pious than adolescents. Except MPs, naturally. They get over it, of course – adolescents, I mean, not MPs – most of them. I mean, I did, and I wasn’t pious about sex or drugs, but I was about The Beatles and films and books, so I’m no better, just dafter, really.
Anyhow, Let No Man Steal Your Thyme‘s very much of the era because it’s a warning to young women not to give it up too easily, basically. And it’s quite clever, lyrically anyway. There are a lot of English folk songs about this sort of thing – not least The Seeds of Love (not the Tears For Fears pastiche of I Am The Walrus, although, let’s face it, it takes a certain amount of inspiration from the old folk song, but I’m never going to to write about them) – you know, garden based metaphors about having sex, or not having sex, using various plants to symbolise virginity and regret, and sadness, and all the other human characteristics. And it’s great. Nobody sounded like The Pentangle before, even though plenty of bands tried to later, none of them really could. They could copy the basic idea – Trad Arr. folk songs stretched out a bit with a full band – but The Pentangle’s first line up was so fucking great in comparison to the bands that followed in their wake, especially the rhythm section, that they ended up sounding a bit samey.
Diversion – Fairport Convention
I’ve been putting off writing about The Pentangle because I knew I was going to have to mention Fairport Convention if I did. You know, if The Pentangle were The Folk Beatles, then Fairport Convention were The Folk Rolling Stones, or something. I don’t even believe that, myself. They’d be the Folk Searchers or something. Not even that really because a few of their records are fantastic, but they’re very much the odd ones out in their catalogue, as far as I’m concerned. Which isn’t the received wisdom as far as Fairport Convention goes. Folk aficionados think they’re great. This is one of those conventional wisdom things that I understand is the case, but also don’t actually understand why.
The thing about Fairport Convention was that, while they were doing the same sort of thing as Thr Pentangle – as I’ve said – they were more like the Folk Jefferson Airplane, really. Which is also a bit freeform, extended noodling solos, and all that. A boy and a girl singer, electric guitar, maybe psychedelically treated with fuzz or reverb. Richard Thompson, the guitar player – the lead – was great. Really tasteful, played a blinder on a lot of things, but the rhythm section was adequate, unlike The Pentangle’s.
And, in a way, that’s quite unfair of me to say that because, with a lot of Folk Music, because of the nature of the music, it’s really easy to sound plodding and Hey Nonny Folk music square dance shit. And, as far as I’m concerned, Fairport Convention mainly slipped into that plodding shit that puts me off. That and the fiddle playing, for fuck’s sake.
Not always though, they’ve got three or four songs that I think are great, and I’ll probably stick them in this series when I clear up the bits and pieces. The bands who have one or two songs I really like but otherwise can’t be arsed with.
It’s English Folk Rock, Fairport Convention, and what I’ve belatedly realised is that I don’t like English Folk Rock very much. American? I love The Byrds, Love, The First Crosby, Stills & Nash album – which I’ve got a post half written about, it turned into something else about Hippies, you know what I’m like – but the English version? I mean, The Byrds are great, but the drumming has the same issue as Fairport have – it can plod if you don’t keep your eye on it – Love had a good drummer who was also a bit Jazz after their first album, and are a lot better for it. CSN? Not that much drumming at all on the folky tracks, and I suspect that’s why – folk rock drumming isn’t something anyone says anything good about, is it? Jazz drumming? Yes. Funky drumming? Of course. A touch of swing? Naturally. Folk Rock drumming? Nah.
It’s worth noting though, however bad Fairport Convention got – and they got pretty fucking bad – they were almost never as bad as Steeleye Span who, you’ll be unsurprised to learn, were an offshoot of Fairport Convention. I’m not having Steeleye Span at all, even though I like Martin Carthy to an extent. Another one who I like a couple of things by.
End of Diversion.
Anyway, that’s what I mean about Let No Man Steal Your Thyme – it’s sort of both things at the same time – liberated and reserved, excited at the new world of the late 20th century despite its filth, whilst firmly keeping one foot planted in the 18th century, despite playing and singing melodies in a way that you’d imagine a peasant band from the medieval period would recognise.
Left: Medieval woodland, as I imagine it to look. Right: Leeds City Centre in 1973. I consider The Pentangle to be simultaneously evocative of both these environments. Cheers.
The double bass scapes like it’s carving wisdom into Rapunzel’s mother’s garden wall before John comes in with with a churning acoustic guitar wagging a warning finger and Jacqui sings without any hint that the New World has even been discovered, let alone having sent back an American accent to sing with. It’s like Kraftwerk, sort of. There’s nothing in any Kraftwerk records that sounds like it needed America to have existed. No blues chord progressions, no American accents, no electric guitars. In fairness, The Pentangle’s jazz rhythm section does have its roots in America, but neither Terry Cox nor Danny Thompson are the heavy handed sort of players who couldn’t be sympathetic. Bert adds flourishes and Terry skitters in a way that seems obvious, but without reason. And it works beautifully. A couple of times round the verse and chorus and then it’s an instrumental impression of someone stumbling through a knotted forest, looking for magic goats at midnight or something before coming back for a final run through a verse and chorus and that’s that.
What they do well – and it’s difficult to be too explicit about it because they do everything really well – is create a feeling, as Keith Richards might call it. Even though they’re all proficient players, they manage to occupy the space that all the best live bands do – from The Rolling Stones to The Stone Roses, from Teenage Fanclub to Sly & The Family Stone, from The Stairs to the Jimi Hendrix Experience – and that space is known as tight but loose. Too tight is too slick. It means no mojo, doesn’t it? Without the impression that everything could collapse at any moment, there’s no excitement in music. No grit in the oyster: no pearl. On the other hand a handful of grit and no oyster is even worse. Too loose is ramshackle and, while that can be entertaining for a while, when the wheels do come off and everything grinds to a halt, that’s as bad as it gets onstage, really. Beyond someone getting electrocuted or shot or something. Which is why the golden rule of playing live is, whatever happens, whatever you do, you don’t stop playing. If people are ballsing up, the rest of you keep it going and your lost players need to join in when they find their feet. The upshot is that most bands tend to over rehearse in order to avoid collapsing and embarrassing themselves onstage, which leads to stifled, overcooked, stilted bands. I’ve been there. I’ve been to the other place too. Neither are great.
The Pentangle are so good, they can create any feel they want – provided it’s sort of jazzy and folky – and there’s more than one way to do that. Let No Man Steal Your Thyme is a sinister way of doing that sort of thing, which The Pentangle were really good at. In contrast, something like Sweet Child doesn’t sound sinister so much as welcoming and sleepy, except for the odd line that’s got a touch of steel in it – I’ll be going into that one a bit further on. They’ve got a sound, but it’s not one dimensional. They don’t just have a fast one and a slow one, it’s not about tempo so much as mood. And their tight looseness, or loose tightness perhaps, allows them to do all manner of things relatively spontaneously.
What The Pentangle understood was that you don’t rehearse your set too much, because what you do instead is practise playing generally. You need to be good at playing, not just playing the set. So, you don’t over rehearse the material, but you do need to be up to speed so that you can do it when the time comes.
And that’s what I’m saying about The Pentangle – they’re named after the five pointed design on Sir Gawain’s shield because there are five of them, and also they wanted to invoke that sort of Arthurian maids and slightly sinister folk horror tales of the British Isles, mainly – yeah, five, but actually, it’s more like two is the magic number for them because they deal in duality. They’re tight but loose, they’re folk but they’re jazz, they’re modern but they’re ancient, they’re Dalby Forest in the Dark Ages but they’re Leeds City Centre in 1972.
But you can’t be all things to all people all the time because you need to stick your neck out, and while The Pentangle stuck their necks out, they also didn’t. And that’s what I mean. You can’t have everything, and The Pentangle’s duality was, like most things, both their strength and their weakness – trying to cover opposite bases, but ending up being both and neither at the same time.
Elsewhere, the first album’s got a good sound, and it suits them. It turns out that this – more or less totally acoustic – sound wasn’t the first one they tried, because early versions of some of the album tracks came out on a box set years later and they’d tried being a beat combo first: all electric – or almost all electric. I’ll write about Poison later, which doesn’t have the same sound as anything else they ever did – almost nothing actually – but it still feels the same. I don’t mean the mood – although the stinging electric guitar suits Poison, and the very 60s clicking electric bass does no harm, they’d be just another group if they’d done that. A couple of great singles, maybe, then out again as fashions changed. The acoustic sound had legs, and the beat groups didn’t, really.
As it happened, fashions did change – from 1967 to 1973 – but it was organic, it was evolution rather than revolution, even though 1968 was revolution and not evolution. Apart from that, The Pentangle changed their sound as they went along, but they were very much in step with the mood of the early 1970s, which isn’t timeless, but I’m not necessarily looking for that a lot of the time because I’m looking for a feeling a lot of the time.
The first album though – it’s about being acoustic, but it’s also a little bit undercooked in a way. Or brave, maybe, depending on your perspective. Having a song that’s basically an excuse for a drum solo on your first album? That’s either a lack of material – which wasn’t the case as they had very broad repertoire very early on and put out a double album only five months after this one, so I suspect it’s not so much brave as intentional – Terry Cox was great, they were a bit jazz. Jazz albums had songs with long drum solos, and this is only a few minutes long, but that is a long time if you’re not too excited by drum solos, which I’m not. Terry Cox is great, but as part of a band. Drum solos are always crap.
I like Pentangling a lot. It’s one of the things that The Pentangle are for – the longest track on the album, seven and a bit minutes, different sections that they’ve obviously sort of worked out where they start and where they go into this bit and that bit, and who’s going to shut up and when, but the bits in between sound improvised to a large extent, and it takes in several moods, seamlessly woven because, like I keep saying, they’re all great players.
But, as is often the case with great players who are also sympathetically great arrangers too, it doesn’t necessarily follow that any of them are going to be great writers.
Pentangling suffers in the way that a lot of The Pentangle’s self-written material suffers, which is, inevitably, lyrically. They get away with it because – I know – they’re such good players, and the mood and feel are so enticing and attention grabbing, but also because they have long instrumental sections – including drum solos, for fuck’s sake – and a lot of their material is Traditional anyway, meaning that, lyrically, it’s all done for them. Because where The Pentangle fall down, if they do, is that lyrically, they tend to string together lines that scan and sound good, with interestingly delivered melodies, but together, they often don’t really hang together very well. A bit of a patchwork when they should be a tapestry. A tapestry hanging in a big, groovily decorated house in Leeds in 1972.
What a lot of people want from a song is a story and a chorus to join in with. And The Pentangle’s non-hanging together lyrics mean that the lyric doesn’t really go anywhere that makes much sense. They don’t have big, obvious choruses and the stories often end up not making much sense, apart from the Traditional Folk Songs they do. And Pentangling‘s a fair example of that choruslessness and lack of narrative cohesion.
And maybe that was intentional too. Jazz, by its nature, can be more impressionistic than figurative or narrative. And maybe lyrics of things like Poison and Pentangling, to name but two, are intentionally more about creating a mood than depicting events. The problem is that they do describe events, but without resolution. Again, maybe that’s the point. I don’t know. I suppose you could make the argument, but I’m inclined to think they probably tossed the words together and, if it sounded good, then people could read what they wanted into it – the Stanley Kubrick method, if you like – and I’m happy with that, on balance. It’s nice when a song means something in particular – like Let No Man Steal Your Thyme – and it’s got consistent metaphors, a spot of light symbolism, and a narrative that has a beginning, middle and end that relates consistently to itself, but it doesn’t necessarily have to if everything else is great – and it is – but it’s a mark off in my book. I’m hard to please: what can I tell you? I’m northern and gritty. No laughing at the back, thank you.
Again, a live version, for the threads, shapes and colours, man. Cheers.
I mentioned this earlier in terms of still being jazzy, folky blues but with a different mood to the slightly sinister, witchier debut album’s songs – and it is. It’s homely. Partly the reason for that is because, for once, lyrically, it’s been tightened up and it paints a picture of mutual domestic support: man and woman looking out for one another and looking at things from the others’ perspective. It’s a duet. A duet from the band that’s all about duality, except this is about working together. Except it isn’t as well.
The music’s more straightforwardly bluesy, although completely acoustic. It’s America, whereas the debut was mainly resolutely British – apart from the Staples’ Singers cover – and structurally, it’s more straightforward. There’s a touch of grit in the lines describing how this picture of mutually beneficial domesticity isn’t going to last, because one of them won’t be there for very long – probably relating to going on tour – and even if they weren’t going away on tour, they’re getting pissed. Harmony and discord, innit?
And that’s clever writing: the music shifts ever so briefly back into the sinister gear used on LNMSYT on the lines that foreshadow the inevitable collapse of the good intentions of both voices.
As usual, everything’s right about the mood: the feel, the music, and even the lyrics this time. It’s more simple than what went before, in every way, except for John’s sort of wailing-to-the-extent-that-an-acoustic-guitar-can high up on the dusty end of the neck. Bending and sliding away, as if to illustrate the forthcoming ructions that both parties know are coming, even as they both vainly try their best to focus on the positive elements of their relationship.
Half of Sweet Child, the double album, is a live album, featuring some of the material from the first album, and an entire album of studio recordings too, of which Sweet Child is the opening track. I’m not much of a fan of live albums, and Sweet Child is no exception. I dig it, but I prefer the studio stuff, unless I can see them doing it too.
On the original album, Moon Dog is sung solo, over a drum backing by Terry Cox, and it’s sort of alright – about a homeless bloke with soul that most people don’t notice because they’re all bread heads and shit. A relatively common theme in 1967-68 hippy pop music, from George Harrison’s cringeworthily more-cosmic-than-you’ll-ever-be moan that is Within You, Without You, to Joni Mitchell’s onstage rant at the Isle of Wight Festival about Weekend Hippies and Tourists, even though I have slightly more sympathy for Joni because the stage was chock full of dickheads dicking around at the Isle of Wight.
Moondog, as a vocal and drum duet, breaks up the formula for a while and it works as an amuse orielles, to get even poncier than I normally manage. But on a recentish re-release, there was a different version of it, which is what I’ve put up there. I don’t like just drums – I like harmony and melody, and this has Jacqui singing with the full band, and she’s got a beautiful voice. Terry does just fine, and it works in a live setting, but this one’s miles better, even though it’s a bit ropier than a lot of their full band material. It’s of its time – as all The Pentangle’s records are, very much so – but that’s part of the attraction. Sgt Pepper’s is the most 1967 album in the world, and it’s no worse for being that. Except for Within You, Without You, which is rubbish, and I don’t mean the Indian instrumentation, thanks, I mean the bloody awful, totally lacking in self awarenessess of the lyrics. Something has to be the sound of the times, doesn’t it?
Diversion – The Boy Looked At Johnny (Marr)
Like a lot of things, I got into The Pentangle because Johnny Marr told me to, and I pretty much always did what Johnny Marr told me, often to my detriment. It wasn’t his fault; he wouldn’t have realised that in my manic scramble to work out what the hell was going on, I tended to just look to people who seemed like they were having a nice time and who looked cool doing it, and do what they said. And nobody looked like they were enjoying themselves in a cool way as much as Johnny Marr did in the early/mid 1980s. And he was in The Smiths.
And Johnny Marr is cool, and always was, really. He’s cool anyway, but he gets an automatic boost in that area because everybody’s always going to associate him with Morrissey, and he’s a dickhead. I didn’t always think he was a dick; during the time of The Smiths, I thought he was great. I could understand why the people who couldn’t stand him felt like that, but I put that down to his somewhat smug mannerisms, which I was prepared to overlook because he was quite funny, and I liked a lot of the same films and books as he did. Not to mention how much I liked his contributions in The Smiths.
People tend to talk about decades as having particular fashions, and they do – or at least they did, it seems to have changed a bit now, but maybe I’m too old and past it to understand what’s going on with the youth these days. I’ve got an idea, but it’s not going to be written about here.
Anyway, when people think about pop culture in the 1980s, they tend to think about New Romantics, Electro-pop, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Hair Metal, Indie Kids, Stock, Aitken & Waterman, the Golden Age of hip hop – things like that. Ghostbusters, Beverley Hills Cop, John Hughes’ Teen Dramas, Slasher Horror films, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, those sorts of things. Flashy, shiny, lots of metallic surfaces and red stripes, big shoulder pads, big permed hair, and yuppies with big mobile phones. And the newer American programmes were often like that – Dallas and Dynasty – too.
All of those things are really 1980s, but they don’t really reflect what life was like during the 1980s for most people in England. Well, the big hair and shoulder pads and rolled up shiny sleeve jackets were, in terms of what a lot of people looked like, to be fair. And people listened to those acts, and watched those films, but they also watched a lot of telly. Even though there were only three or four channels on telly in the 80s, and two of those regularly did have anything on but a testcard. There were also still an awful lot of repeats from the 50s, 60s and 70s: films and television series, and they were watched by everybody. New films didn’t come on telly for years, and you expected to see things like Zulu and Where Eagles Dare on telly maybe a couple of times a year, some years.
Plus, all the Kitchen Sink Dramas of the early 1960s, which I’ve written about before so won’t go into here again.
The town centres hadn’t changed much since the 50s either in most cases, the homogenised shopping centres that all have the same shops selling the same things everywhere didn’t really come in until the 90s in the North, at least.
What I’m getting at is that what people mean when they reminisce about the 1980s, are the things that came in, in the 1980s, existing in a world of train carriages, smoking in offices, and people doing exactly the same jobs, in the same market that they’d been doing since the end of World War II. And that’s how it stayed until the internet and mobile phones came in – late 90s, early 2000s, when everything changed very quickly.
Anyway, the point is that from the early 80s until the mid 80s, there was a big late 50s-early 60s revival. Levis 501s were the casual trouser de jour, the early Beatles would occasionally be heard, even if the later stuff wasn’t. There were covers of Dusty Springfield, and Sandie Shaw songs by modern bands. James Dean imagery was popular – you could get East of Eden t shirts in Debenhams in the 80s – I had one. Quiffs were in. Ready, Steady, Go! was repeated in the mid 80s, and that pretty much stops by the time colour telly was coming in, by what? 1966? Thereabouts.
Which is the era in which The Smiths came into. Johnny Marr’s quiffs and Brian Jones bowl cuts weren’t that unusual because so much British popular culture was always being recycled all the time, that he just looked like he’d been introduced by Cathy McGowan, except he had a touch of the 80s about him: the jumper tied round the waist that was a thing in about 1985, the shitty tassled moccasins of the era – just enough of the modern world to make it clear that it was 1985 and not 1959. It sounded enormously 1980s – it didn’t sound 1960s at all, despite the chiming guitars – which didn’t even sound like jangling guitars in the 1960s. They looked like they were from the late 50s, though admittedly through a 1980s filter. In short, the early to mid 80s looked more like the 1950s than adverts of the time, or most TV series set in that era suggest.
Anyway, I’m not here to write about The Smiths, except to say that Johnny Marr mentioned in an interview that Billy Duffy (from The Cult, who I’m also not interested in) played him Train Song by The Pentangle when he was a bit dubious about Folk Music, and he was blown away by it.
That was enough for me. As I said: no internet, no mobile phone, no parents or friends with the sort of cool records that Johnny Marr was telling me to listen to – it was the second hand record shops that were groaning under the weight of all the discarded 60s and 70s records that everybody had sold to replace with compact discs. Which meant that I could afford records, whereas I couldn’t afford compact discs – and there were a lot of second hand records shops.
I took myself off to Joey Boy Records, and found about 20 copies of Basket Of Light, the album with Train Song on it, and paid £4 for an original first pressing of it in immaculate condition. Those were the days, eh?
Vaguely understanding that anticipation was often the best bit, I didn’t drop the needle on Train Song first, because this was proper grown up music. Because Folk music was for grown ups: kids didn’t listen to Folk Music. Not kids I knew anyway. I’d not heard any records by The Pentangle at all, I’m fairly confident, but that’s because I first became aware of pop music really in the late 70s, after Punk. Punk often takes the credit for killing off Prog Rock, but it didn’t. Prog Rock remained a big thing long after Punk burned itself out. What Punk did get rid of was Folk Music. Punk’s the opposite of Folk music in a lot of ways. Folk’s about ancient wisdom, fingerpicking and acoustic instruments, and Punk is about youthful sanctimony, strumming and electricity. I had witnessed a lot of folk in my early childhood because I watched television, and kids programmes were fundamentally visual representations of the Arts & Crafts movement, featuring lots and lots of Folk Musicians and songs. It was on telly, it was in the Music and Movement class that I quite enjoyed at school, even though I pretended I didn’t at the time, even though that was a bizarre sort of electronic BBC Radiophonic Workshop realisation of British Folkiness – which is what The Radiophonic Workshop was, to me. Ubiquitous too.
Anyway, first track of Basket of Light, side 1.
End of Diversion
This is a live version of Light Flight. There are a lot of YouTube videos that suggest that they’re playing live, and I’m not convinced about most of them. They look like they’re at least partially mimed to me. This one isn’t though and, while it’s a bit shonky in places – there are a couple of flubbed chords and it starts off a little bit tentatively, they get into it and it’s great. Most of it’s focused on Jacqui, and it’s in black and white, which is a drag, but I like it a lot. Mrs Middlerabbit calls Jacqui a “Flaxen haired, lamenting bitch“, which is harsh, but funny in a cruel sort of way. Mrs Middlerabbit has a cruel sense of humour sometimes, and I enjoy it. Middlerabbit jr has inherited that, and Mrs Middlerabbit finds it a lot less amusing when it’s directed at her, which I also enjoy.
(Relatively) famously, the theme song to Take Three Girls, which was in colour on BBC.
There are a couple of episodes of Take Three Girls on YouTube, and they’re interesting because of how slow and quiet telly used to be. Lots of pauses with no music and nobody saying anything. Things were a lot slower, and that gets forgotten too. From the left on the still above, there’s Barra Grant, an American actress who wasn’t in much else I ever saw, Susan Jameson, who was in When The Boat Comes In for years – which was the worst thing in the world because it was on on Sunday nights, and the theme tune meant it was my bedtime. She’s married to James Bolam, who was also in that, but was a mainstay on British telly in the 70s and 80s anyway due to endless repeats of Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads and, in terms of early 60s Kitchen Sink Dramas, The Loneliness of The Long Distance runner and A Kind of Loving, as well as in modern (for the 80s) programmes like The Beiderbecke Affair/Tapes/Connection, all of which I was a big fan of. On the right is Liza Goddard, similarly all over telly in the 80s due to Give Us A Clue – televised third division celebrity charades and Bergerac – Channel Islands Detective Drama with a hint of melancholy and something for motor enthusiasts at the same time. I wasn’t a fan of that, really. Liza Goddard was a bit stage school, a bit Cliff Richard. Anyway, this has a slightly different version to the album track too, and bits of it are used as incidental music. When people think of the late 1960s, I bet they don’t think of this, which was designed to cash in on the Dolly Birds on Carnaby Street, Swinging London thing that was now a bit of a tourist spot, more than the happening place it had been three years previously. This is enormously of its time, including the bad acting, the slow pace and the lack of fast cuts. I can’t imagine many people under the age of about 50 who would be able to tolerate this in its entirety, and not many of those in their 50s either, and no wonder.
Still, Light Flight was a hit in the proper charts and everything. well nearly – number 43. But the television series was quite a big deal for the time, being BBC’s first colour drama series.
Bert Jansch was already a big deal in the Folk revival world, which wasn’t necessarily that big a deal in the pop world, and The Pentangle were, to all intents and purposes, a sort of Folk Music Supergroup. John Renbourne was known – a bit – for playing with Bert Jansch. Jacqui McShee wasn’t famous, but Danny Thompson and Terry Cox, the double bass and drummer, respectively, were session players – not famous as such, but probably known, at least by people who paid attention to things like “Play Loud!” written on the inner sleeves of records. They were Jazz, basically. Terry Cox played the drums on Space Oddity, Thompson played with everyone – Rod Stewart, Alison Moyet, John Martin, Talk Talk, you name them, he’s played with them. They might not have been big, big names, but they were really good players and arrangers.
Realistically, if The Pentangle have a greatest hit, it’s Light Flight. And it’s a clever record, inasmuch as it’s a bit like a lot of The Beatles’ records of the mid-late 60s, in that it’s a few bits of songs, stuck together – like A Day In The Life, or Happiness Is A Warm Gun.
If The Pentangle had a go to formula, it was basically this: Bert Jansch plays a repetitive acoustic finger picking turnaround, John Renbourn played either counterpoint or did a spot of jazzy noodling over it, sometimes on an acoustic guitar, sometimes on an electric guitar, sometimes on a sitar. Terry Cox played jazz drums, or if there were no drums, tuned percussion, like a xylophone or something. Terry Cox played jazz double bass, sometimes with a bow, and Jacqui McShee sang high and sweet over bits of it, sometimes in a duet with Bert Jansch. Terry Cox might sing backing occasionally. There was more to them than this formula, but basically, you got a variation on those things when you listened to The Pentangle. Maybe not all of them at once, maybe only a couple of those elements through the entire track, but that was what there was.
And, credit where it’s due, it sounds great, doesn’t it? It’s Hey Nonny alright, but the jazzy rhythm section and Bert Jansch’s snappily attacked, percussive acoustic guitar stops it from sounding like most folk groups have a tendency to, and as I’ve said – plodding – even on fast songs.
As I also said, everyone in The Pentangle’s a great player – and that meant that they could play their original material and traditional folk music, and they’d make it something different to everyone else because of the jazz bass and drums, but without sounding bolted on, because they also all knew when to shut up, which is unusual for great players.
This little series of posts is collected under the heading of Tolerable Folk Music, and it’s the truth – for me. Steeleye Span aren’t tolerable, and they’re not a million miles away from The Pentangle. But there’s a hell of a lot of finger in the ear, plodding, nunty bollocks. The Pentangle are tolerable – more than that – because they swing, where Folk Music, more often than not, drags.
Light Flight, like the title suggests, doesn’t plod or drag because it’s light, and it takes flight. And it does. It’s practically a 7 inch Prog Rock single. Shifting time signatures and all. The inside of the gatefold sleeve informs us that, “The Time signature varies between 5/8 and 7/8 and 6/4 in the middle.” I don’t know what that means, to be honest, but you can tell when it shifts. I don’t know why it’s called Light Flight either, which might say more about me than them.
But it’s also Folk music, with its story of leaving the hustle and bustle of the city for the tranquil “waters” and “curling mists” of the countryside. “Let’s get away, you say, find a better place, miles and miles away from the city’s race,” it suggests. And, if you bothered to watch the episode of Take Three Girls I put up there, you’d have to wonder what people were thinking of, suggesting that what we witnessed there was in any way hustling or bustling in comparison to modern life. It’s a funny mix anyway: the three titular girls all head away from the suburbs and countryside to the city – the total opposite of what The Pentangle sing about. I’ve not heard anyone point out the incongruity of that, but when your hot takes relate to singles from fifty years ago that reached number 43 in the charts, that were the theme song to a programme that didn’t get repeated and isn’t likely to ever be, maybe that’s not all that surprising. Niche? Welcome to my world. If I had anyone to talk to about the things I like, I wouldn’t have bother writing things like this, would I? I don’t even have any mates who like The Smiths, let alone The fucking Pentangle. I like my mates, but they’re basically pretty straight laced in terms of what sort of art they like.
Given half a chance, I like to link to a live version, ideally with moving images. This is only audio, but I’ve put it up because it’s such a good version of a song that sounds very easy to make a balls up of live, and they don’t. It’s really tight. I wish there was footage of it, but you can’t have everything. There’s quite a lot of live Pentangle television performances on YouTube, and I recommend you check them out if you dig this sort of thing. They don’t move much, they’re mainly sitting down, but I like that. It’s the look of the era that appeals to me. That late 60s, early 70s colour thing. It’s one of my favourite things and, I believe, a significant part of what people enjoyed about The Beatles’ Get Back documentary. Which was quite a modern film, in a lot of ways – not least pacing and cutting speed. Contrast with Take Three Girls, a programme filmed and edited in 1969, as opposed to Get Back, a documentary filmed in 1969 but edited in 2020. Worlds apart, really.
This is the sort of thing that I shouldn’t really like for all sorts of reasons, but I do. I don’t have any friends who are into folk music, but while I might play some of them something not very folky occasionally, I wouldn’t dream of playing them this. It is a dirge, for starters. And it’s a bit Christian, but neither of those things bother me, particularly.
This is a song that’s probably most famous – if it is famous – for the version by The Young Tradition, which is a bit college scarf, finger in the ear I-Was-A-Coal-Miner-In-New-castle-Fa-Lah-Lah-Diddle-Iddle-Idle-Eye-Oh for my liking, maybe it’s the bowed double bass in this that gives it its medieval feeling, even if it’s a bit painful.
I don’t know, I can’t see that many people would just listen to this on a record, but they wouldn’t be bothered by it if it was on Britannia, the television series set around the time of the druids that’s intermittently awful and fantastic. It creates an atmosphere, I suppose, even if that atmosphere is of people who live in caves in forests, eating magic mushrooms and not being overly bothered about personal hygiene.
Like a lot of Folk songs of the British Isles, it sounds like it’s ancient, but probably isn’t really. More medieval Pentangle for you, I suppose. Not too much Leeds in 1972 here.
Actually live again, for the whole vibe again. I like the music all by itself, but it’s the whole thing that really grabs me. This is what telly was like when I was a kid. I wasn’t born at this point, but I wasn’t far off and things didn’t really change that much until about the late 1970s. The lights, the clothes, the haircuts, the whole lot. I’m nostalgic alright, but there are worse things to be. That’s what I keep telling myself, anyway.
This was what I’d been waiting for, and I was more than capable of convincing myself that I liked things that I didn’t actually like at that point in my life, so I’d have persuaded my eventually. The last thing I persuaded myself that I liked, that I didn’t actually like at all was The Stone Roses’ Second Coming, which I managed to convince myself was great for nearly four days before I gave in and accepted that I didn’t actually like it and it was crap – which isn’t always the case: I now accept that I’m not necessarily looking for quality, and some quality things I don’t like, and some low quality things, I do like. Anyway, whilst there was an initial period of wondering if I did actually like it, or if I was just going along with what Johnny Marr said in order to be cool, I realised that I genuinely think this is fantastic.
In a lot of ways, it’s quite similar to Light Flight, in that it’s a bit groggy in the shifting gears of it, and in terms of the bolted together bits of songs that works because the lyrics work, and also – and mainly – because it actually sound like a train. The bit that sounds least like a train is John Renbourne’s noodling introduction, which I can sort of tell myself it’s an old locomotive creaking into motion, but it’s a stretch. The rest of it, though, once it’s moved into its cruising speed, sounds very much like an Ivor The Engine style choo-choo train. The music of Ivor The Engine is also fantastic and, while it’s not folk, it’s similarly evocative of the era. Anyhow, the other sections all sound like trains slowing down and eventually stopping.
I keep saying it, but it’s important – for me at least because I don’t usually worry about whether or not musicians in bands are any good or not because most really good players are either too slick, never shut up, and/or don’t listen to the other players in the band – The Pentangle were a terrific band and Train Song lets them show how good they are. They do listen to each other and they understand dynamics – loud and quiet bits – they’re sympathetic players too. They’re not showing off, like Jimmy Page did on his acoustic solo spots in Led Zeppelin concerts – I’ve seen a couple of Led Zeppelin concerts on dvd, and I can see the power and all that, but it’s just bombastic wank for adolescents as far as I’m concerned. There’s a place for that – I don’t think they’re crap, I think they’re a powerful band, but it’s a bit like the pantomime for me – a bit obvious, a bit basic – and I don’t like the pantomime – Pentangle played like a band, and the focus switches from player to player, they all get their moment in the spotlight, and it rarely seems like they’re on a rota in which everyone gets a solo whether it helps the song or concert – it feels natural and not formulaic. I know, John Bonham used to get Moby Dick in which to do his fancy arsed drum solo – and I’m not a connoisseur of Led Zeppelin, maybe John Paul Jones got a recorder solo here and there, and maybe Robert Plant did a spot of light a cappella now and then but, let’s face it, Led Zeppelin concerts look to me like they were an excuse for the Jimmy Page guitar wankathon. For about three hours, so far as I can gather. People lap that shit up, don’t they? As I say, I like Jimmy Page as an interviewee – I really enjoyed his enthusiasm for Link Wray’s Rumble on It Might Get Loud, and I like that, he really digs the guitar: he means it, man. And even though I’m a bit overly sensitive about people meaning it a bit too much, I like him talking about it, even if I don’t really like his playing.
Danny Thompson, living the dream. This photograph could only realistically have been taken at some point between 1968 and 1972, and that’s just from the collar and hair/sideburns combination. Look how much he means it. I don’t know whether I like this picture or I don’t. I suppose I must do to an extent, but I don’t know why.
Because most of it’s on acoustic instruments, there aren’t any howling electric guitars noodling around, and I appreciate that. Bert Jansch never really seemed to get along with electric guitars, and that’s alright. I like him sticking to the acoustic because he’s such a violent player. Renbourne’s more restrained and precise, but they meld together like the branches of two different trees growing over a path. I don’t know if they discussed what they were doing before they did it – I suspect Renbourne discussed it and Jansch just got on with it. I have no evidence to support that supposition.
Other than that, I quite like the rest of Basket of Light – which takes its title from Train Song: the oven part that train drivers used to shovel coal into is the basket of light, I suppose. I quite like that, too. It’s the biggest album by The Pentangle, their most famous one, and I can see why – Light Flight is their Greatest Hit, and the rest of it hangs together in the way that, say The Pentangle and Sweet Child don’t really.
At the risk of over egging the duality inherent in The Pentangle, Basket of Light is the point at which their delicate balance between the old and the new is judged best. It’s mainly British sounding, although, inevitably, there’s an American song on it: Sally Go Round The Roses, which sounds like it should be an old English folk song but isn’t, being a cover of the original by The Jaynettes.
I like 1960s soul music – Motown over Stax, to be honest, but there’s plenty of smaller labels who brought out great singles, like this one of Tuff Records. Produced by Abner Spector in 1963 – I don’t know if he’s any relation to Phil, but this is no wall of sound. The piano, electric bass and harmonies make it an obviously different thing to The Pentangle’s version, but I prefer The Jaynettes’ version. The singing’s sassy, even though, in a way, it’s a sad song about being cheated on but, like quite a lot of The Pentangle’s records, there’s a creeping sense of unease about it – not all the way through, but slipping through the cracks here and there. Maybe that’s what drew them to it.
The Jaynette’s record sounds sinister because it was recorded on the cheap, and the degradation of the tape gives it a slightly spectral ambience in places, as opposed to any clever harmonic faffing by the musicians. But there’s more to it than that because it shows – sort of – and it doesn’t tell. It’s mysterious because it only hints at what’s going on. The part about being cheated on is relatively explicit: Sally’s friends tell her not to go “downtown” because she’ll witness the “saddest thing in the whole wide world, see your baby with another girl”, but what about the parts about how the titular “roses won’t tell (Sally’s) secrets”? We don’t get to find out. Various critics have suggested that she’s secretly gay, or pregnant, or mad, or on drugs. Maybe it’s about all of those things at the same time, I wouldn’t know.
This is where writers’ suggesting of things, and readers’ inferences meet, isn’t it? I dig it. If you’re writing something creative, you don’t want to give the listener or reader everything on a plate – you need to drop ideas here and there and have them actively think about it – it’s how writers engage their readers, isn’t it? Or one of the ways. And this does that. However, the temptation for the active reader/listener is to ignore the line between inferring and guessing. The writers played a blinder by dropping the line about the secrets in there, but we’re never going to find out precisely what they are. That’s the point, really, isn’t it? Keep people interested. Let no man steal your time/thyme. Yeah, you heard.
The Pentangle’s version is largely straight, although the double bass leaps out as being the most radically different sounding part. It’s otherwise a relatively straight cover, except with a jazzy rhythm section, as opposed to a pop soul one, and acoustic guitars instead of a piano. It’s good, but it lack The Jaynette’s sense of the sinister, oddly enough, for a band who did sinister better than pretty much anyone else. John Renbourne’s singing is always a bit weak, and he’s on this quite a bit, which doesn’t help.
Phase 1 Ends, Phase 2 Begins
To my way of thinking, those first three albums are all leading towards Basket of Light’s balance between everything they were always trying to balance. Sort of. There’s no extended grooving around track – it’s as close to a pop album as they get, which means that it’s reasonably accessible to non folk aficionados. Like me, to a certain extent, let’s be honest.
Even though nobody left, there’s a definite change in Pentangle after that. And that’s fairly typical in bands: they take a while to get going, then they peak, then they either keep ploughing the same furrow forever, or they do something different and it’s not as good.
In fairness, The Pentangle evolved rather than revolting, and Cruel Sister, from 1969 isn’t objectively bad, but I can’t really be doing with it, and it’s diminishing returns thereafter, for me at least.
1969 means rock music. Woodstock and all that. Taking yourself quite seriously. The Pentangle already took themselves quite seriously, and they were good at it. The problem is more likely to be mine than theirs.
In a lot of ways, The Pentangle continued with their duality on this – if there’s a change, it’s the electric guitar, which starts to be a more dominant presence – it’s always John Renbourne playing the electric – and he’s great, but I don’t know if it really works for me. Jack Orion, the longest song on the album – 18 minutes long, all of side B – is competent, as you’d expect. It goes to lots of different places, and uses lots of different techniques and instrumentation, but I can’t be arsed with it. For starters, Bert had already done a ten minute version of it in 1966 with John, and I don’t think this really justifies its vast length.
The change is that, in parts, this is Acid Rock, due to the massively distorted guitar playing blues licks – for fuck’s sake – and it tries to be too many things at the same time. Duality’s one thing, but Jack Orion tries to be about 25 different things at the same time, and ends up not covering any of the bases especially well. Jack Orion of all trades, I suppose.
It’s another Trad Arr. From the old song Glasgerion, about a harp player who’s a King’s son, who meets another King’s daughter, and they arrange to get together, but Jack’s servant sexually assaults the girl, she kills herself, Jack gets the blame, and he kills the servant and then himself. Except in this version, he’s a fiddle player – and I hate everything about “fiddles”, so maybe I’m just prejudiced.
The song Cruel Sister itself goes down the Fa-la-la-la route, which is another of the things that I hate about folk music, as detailed in the first post in this little series.
So, basically, up to Basket of Light they might not have been perfect, but at least they weren’t sticking their fingers in their ears, playing fiddles and saying fa-la-la-la-deedle-eye-dum, and now, all of a sudden, they were.
Like I said as the start, I’m not pretending that my whims are right, or even widely accepted. I’m sure some people say that Cruel Sister is the best album by The Pentangle. I mean, I like Lord Franklin as a song full stop, and this album’s version’s pretty good, even though John Renbourne sings it.
Cruel Sister is alright, but it signals a definite shift in The Pentangle’s development. They’ve peaked, and everything’s mainly downhill from hereon in.
But that’s not to suggest that nothing they did afterwards is worth ignoring, because Reflection is, to my ears, a reaction against the misstep that was Cruel Sister. It’s from 1970, and it’s the most 1970 album in the world in a lot of ways. The sixties are over. Colours are changing. The shade of blue around the border of the sleeve is 1970 blue. I daresay you do get blue that shade in the 21st Century, but not around an album sleeve. The typeface is 1970s. It looks more like Leeds in 1972 than anything else that has ever existed, including Leeds in 1972. The layout, photo collage and the text. It’s industrial in a strange sort of way.
And the album itself reflects the coming of a new decade. There’s another long track on it – Reflection – a bit more focus on American songs, but the main difference is ion the sound of the whole thing. Even though Cruel Sister was mainly acoustic, the electric guitar on it was a bit out there and didn’t really work.
Reflection has plenty of acoustic guitars on it, but there are also banjos, sitars and various other mildly exotic things like that. The drums are – as always – great, but they sound different on this album. They’re practically funky on a lot of the songs here: Wedding Dress, which is bordering on a chant. Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Rain & Snow and Reflection are fairly funky too. When I say “funky”, I don’t mean it’s a bit like James Brown or Funkadelic, I mean there’s a laidback groove. It’s not really dancing music, but it sure as hell isn’t Fairport Convention, either. No Terry Cox, no Pentangle if you ask me.
What else there is, speaking of funk, is quite a bit of wah-wah guitar, and I’m a sucker for wah-wah guitars. Here, it’s not wakka-wakka Shaft wah-wah, it’s typical 1970 wah-wah – by which I mean, a bit like George Harrison was doing non-stop for the first week at Twickenham in Get Back. Mellow, round sounding.
And that’s as good a definition of Reflection as I can manage: the late 60s Pentangle sound was often a touch sinister, maybe spiky in places. Uneasy. Not too mellow, maaan. And Reflection is one mellow album. I think of the early 1970s as having rounded edges and using colours that also aren’t too sharp: browns and oranges. Sitting down and being mellow music. And this is that – predominantly, The Pentangle were almost never just one thing – this is a new mood for a new decade, and they’re wearing cheesecloth shirts, having big sideburns and bald patches. Massive flares. Sandals.
From left to right: Terry Cox, sporting a grown out Prince Valiant haircut and Pierre Cardin-esque tween jacket; Bert Jansch looking like he’s tossing a coin to decide whether to sleep in a tree or go back to the bush he looks like he currently lives in; Jacqui McShee in a daring Persian rug inspired jumpsuit; John Renbourne, who looks like he wishes he had access to a tree and bushes like Bert Jansch had, and Danny Thompson, thinking about the three day week and bin collections. Probably. Mainly, they’ve lost the wide-eyed look of enthusiasm that they had a few years previously.
Maybe that’s it. If the first Pentangle album was Chelsea Boots and drainpipes, and Sweet Child was desert boots with gently flared brown cords, then Basket of Light was a balance between those two things, but really well done. Cruel Sister is rustling waterproof trousers and Wellington Boots with steel toecaps that dig into your feet, and Reflection is Jesus sandals with socks, paired with massively flared bri nylon slacks. That sounds awful – I wouldn’t want to be it, but if that’s the look you’re going for, you need those things. And if you’re going for that in 1970, all the more so.
So, yes, I really like Reflection as an album. I like the mellow moods of The Pentangle, and this is what that is. It’s funky and calm, which you don’t see every day, do you? Even Terry Cox’s Helping Hand’s the most 1970 plea for grooviness to your fellow man in the world. With wah-wah guitars, naturally.
Anyway, there’s a live version of Reflection, the song. I like the crappy early 70s psychedelic effects of wobbling mirrors – it’s like the album as a whole. You wouldn’t play it to someone if you wanted to get them into The Pentangle – you’d play Train Song – but for a Sunday afternoon in February when it’s raining, and if you’ve got some nice biscuits in and you can be arsed to make teapot tea, this is the one.
The album sleeve of this, the final album before they split up for the next ten years or so, goes straight back to Cruel Sister in terms of looking ancient, as opposed to a modern (for 1970) groovy furniture shop in Leeds city centre, which is what Reflection makes me think of – but the music’s largely the same deal as Reflection’s was. Still fairly mellow and groovy, in a sort of down-with-the-kids-geography-teacher-in-a-sunken-orange-painted-staffroom-with-a-psychedelic-swirling-mural-on-the-wall (still in Leeds in 1972) kind of way, but it’s gone too far with the mellow mood because it’s bordering on can’t-be-arsed-at-all.
The majority of the songs are Trad Arr. And we’ve heard them all before on other albums of the era – Sally Free and Easy – I like it a lot, but who hadn’t done it by 1972? Same thing for The Cherry Tree Carol – which I discussed in the Anne Briggs Hey Nonny post – The Snows, High Germany, Willy O Winsbury (again, discussed on the Anne Briggs post).
It was, realistically, all over by this point. The folk revival had eaten itself. All the good songs had been done to death, and The Pentangle’s musicians sound like they feel very much the same. Laid back, mellow and groovy are fine. Here, they sound bored. And that’s what’s wrong with Solomon’s Seal – it’s boring.
Jump Baby Jump would have fitted on Reflection, but it wouldn’t have added anything. Other than that, it’s a no from me. I do like the sleeve though.
And, at that point, I gave up on The Pentangle. If they can’t be arsed, I sure as hell can’t be either. However, there are a couple of other, non-album songs that I really like…
The Best Part Of You
This video is just the opening credits of Tam Lin, but I like that too.
It’s clearly Jacqui McShee singing, but I’m not convinced that any of the rest of the band play on this at all. Maybe it’s Terry Cox on drums, but it doesn’t sound like Danny Thompson on bass – it’s electric and basic, if fast, which I’m dare say he could do, but I’d be surprised. The electric guitar sounds very much acid freak out and of its time which, again, I suppose John Renbourne could probably manage, but also, again, I’d be surprised. There’s a brass section parting away in that inimitable late 1960s groovy cabaret way that, yet again, I do have a soft spot for.
It’s on the soundtrack of the Roddy McDowell – Cornelius of the original Planet of The Apes fame – terribly groovy English film version of the old folk story Tam Lin, starring Ava Gardner as a witch with an entourage of good looking late 60s hippy weirdos, including Bruce Robinson (Benvolio in the 60s Romeo and Juliet, and the writer and director of Withnail & I) and Ian McShane, who runs off with Stephanie Beacham – a locally based travelling puppy saleswoman, apparently – much to the witch’s displeasure. It’s not the best thing in the world, but it’s not really anything in particular. It’s too much of horror film to be a groovy sixties hep cat flick, and it’s too groovy sixties hep cat to be a horror film. I like it, even though I don’t know why. I do know why, of course – it’s because I like the era – like I’ve said. I even like the film stock of the time, that might be a fairly big part of it, to be honest. A bit saturated and unrealistic, but not quite to the extent that the stuff in the 1950s was.
What The Best Part of You isn’t, is folk music. Not in the slightest. It’s more like Everlasting Love by The Love Affair, with its strident horns and vibrant click bass, than it is anything else that The Pentangle ever did. Like I say, I’m not even convinced it is them. I can’t imagine many folk purists were terribly impressed, but I like the sound of the era, and it sounds like a middle aged person’s idea of what it is to be young and bold, which sort of relates to the film, which is a bit like The Pentangle themselves, in that it tries to be lots of things at the same time – but without the skill and dexterity of the players in that band, it doesn’t really manage to make a very good job of any of them. It doesn’t matter though, it does some things well, but it doesn’t really hang together. It’s still worth watching though, if you’re a connoisseur of films of that era, which I am.
Poison – Demo
You’ll have to watch this on YouTube as it won’t let me embed it here. It’s not the Bert Jansch solo version, it’s the one on the box set with electric guitars.
The Pentangle, as I’ve said, mainly played acoustic instruments but here, before they got going and stuck with that, they tried out playing electric guitars and bass for recording, which they decided weren’t what they were looking for. And they were right because their acoustic records are perfect for them, but I’m still glad that this came out eventually. It’s like beat folk. It’s from 1967, but sounds more like The Animals in 1966 – incidentally, Inside, Looking Out is by far their best record. I might write about that one day too, although probably not at the same time as the Ivor The Engine soundtrack – raw and ragged. Bert Jansch often sounds a bit unhinged, which suits him, and his acoustic guitar playing is the same, which suits his singing when he’s of a mind to do that sort of thing – he can sing and play gently too, but it’s his attacking playing that grabs me – and this is excellent. I don’t think they’d have done as well as they did had they pursued this sort of clanging sound, but they pull it off, like a garage band – a very good garage band – might have.
Bert Jansch – who wrote this, and it’s alright, I like it even though lyrically, it doesn’t really hang together for me – eventually put out a version of this on his Birthday Blues album, and I quite like that one too, there’s a good distorted harmonica on it, and it has some of The Pentangle playing on it too, but it’s calmer and more relaxed, and I don’t think that suits what Poison’s about – even though it’s lyrically a bit all over the place. It’s not a calm lyric, it’s bitter and a bit like William Blake’s A Poison Tree, inasmuch as it’s not necessarily literally about poison, so much as getting on with people and what happens if you don’t. And then it starts slagging someone’s God off, and you think, eh? Maybe I’ve got it wrong, but even if I haven’t, and it jumps about a bit – like Light Flight doesn’t really represent what it’s accompanying – the incongruity doesn’t bother me really.
So, that’s The Pentangle. Are they cool? Like I’d know. Maybe. I suppose Bert Jansch is cool, if you’re that way inclined. Maybe not the rest of them, but that’s a shame, because, at their best, they’re all about being a sympathetic group who could play together better than most bands, as opposed to being a supergroup, which they were in a way. And they had the same problem that all supergroups have – there’s a lot of things they could do, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they should. And, credit where it’s due, to start with, they didn’t. They ran out of ideas fairly quickly, but they stopped at the right time too. I don’t mind them carrying on for whatever reasons, but I’ve never even listened to the reformed versions.
There’s a lot going on in the music of The Pentangle, too much at times, and not enough at others. They’re a group of simultaneous contradictions, and that’s what made them interesting.
Duality, innit? Tolerable though. At least.
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