Thursday, September 27, 2012

'Bright Phoebus' by Lal and Mike Waterson

Bright Phoebus is a classic folk-rock album, first released in 1972. It bombed, and has been almost impossible to obtain ever since (my copy is from ... mumble mumble, clears throat). Although it has never had a proper re-release, there was a CD issue at one point, based on what sounds like a very poor transfer from the vinyl. Here's hoping it gets a remastered digital upgrade.

Lal and Mike were siblings, and also sang (together with sister Norma and other relations and friends) as a group in The Watersons, who performed arrangements of traditonal music. Bright Phoebus was therefore a doubly unexpected release of all original material, coming as it did after a long hiatus from The Watersons. From the Wikipedia page for Lal:

Lal, Norma, and Mike Waterson were orphans and brought up by their grandmother who was of part gypsy descent. Always very close, they began singing together, with cousin John Harrison, in the 1950s, with Lal 'singing unexpected harmonies.' Having opened their own folk club in a pub in the fishing port of Hull where they grew up, by the mid 1960s they had developed their own unaccompanied style singing harmony style re-workings of traditional English songs. In 1968 they stopped touring and became geographically separate for the first time - Norma went to Montserrat, and Lal to Leeds where her husband George lived, while Mike stayed in Hull. Both Mike and Lal were writing songs and when Lal returned to Hull they began working together. When Martin Carthy heard Lal's songs he found them extraordinary. At this time Carthy was in the folk-rock band Steeleye Span and he told the bass player Ashley Hutchings about Lal and Mike's songs and together they arranged to have them recorded, not unaccompanied, but with a backing band that included Carthy, Hutchings and Richard Thompson. Bright Phoebus was released in 1972 and 'caused a quiet sensation'. Her songs sometimes echoed traditional material but also involved a variety of other influences - 'some veered towards jazz and ragtime, others like Winifer Odd had a quirky charm worthy of The Beatles, but with bleak lyrics added. Another favourite Fine Horseman, made use of unexpected chords and structures.' Lyrics were as important to her as the music. The writer she admired most was the 19th century French poet Arthur Rimbaud.

That summary perhaps undersells the contribution of Mike Waterson to Bright Phoebus, although it would be fair to say that his songwriting isn't as extraordinary as Lal's. The opening Rubber Band, written by Mike, is something of an embarrassment: the sort of song that people who hate English folk rock imagine it sounds like (it reminds me of Steeleye Span's similarly execrable All Around My Hat). Mike's other contributions are more effective. He wrote the album's title track, and also the concluding verse of The Scarecrow, the spinechilling second song, which immediately stakes the album's claim to greatness. He also sings this song. His voice is quavering and full of character - Lal's is similarly 'impure'. Both have very pronounced NE England accents, even while singing (no transatlantic drawl here).

There is a fantastic cover of The Scarecrow by June Tabor, which I had with me in Venice when I wrote the first chapters of Five Wounds (and the song's scenario is adapted for a dream sequence late in the book).

Another standout is the penultimate track, Red Wine and Promises (written by Lal, sung by Norma in a guest appearance), which is one of the best songs about being drunk I've ever heard.

Here's a short radio documentary (in two parts) about the recording of the album:

Over twenty years after Bright Phoebus, Lal released a new collection of original songs with her son, Oliver Knight, Once in a Blue Moon.:

Sadly Lal died a few years ago, very suddenly; and Mike also died recently. Bright Phoebus not only represents a singular achievement as a piece of recorded music; but the history of its creators is also an example of how to live a dignified and meaningful life in the face of commercial failure. When they recorded the album, Lal was a housewife and Mike was a painter / joiner. Shortly after it bombed, they reformed The Watersons and went back to singing traditional songs. Neither of them gave up on music; and those who heard the album didn't give up on them either.

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