Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Electric Eden

Currently ploughing through Rob Young's Electric Eden, a history of British 'visionary' music. It basically traces the history of British 'folk' music, especially its transformation into so-called 'folk-rock' in the period 1967-72, with an emphasis on individuals and groups interested in the folkloric, mythical, supernatural, visionary and occult areas of British art and culture. There are some fascinating connections and details and many discoveries for me: Ewen McColl was having his phone tapped by the security services, Sir Reginald Blomfield of Regent Street redesign fame designed the first electricity pylon in 1928, Celia Hammond nee Humphris from the group Trees provides the voice that announces 'Mind the gap' on the Northern line; Carole Pegg from Mr Fox worked on songs with Graham Bond in a spooky sounding house shortly before his suicide at Finsbury Park (he didn't 'mind the gap') - the subject matter of the Mr Fox songs seems to chime uncannily with that of the early Fall, was MES listening to them in the early 70s?; the antiquarian lp cover work of Marcus Keef.

Most of the time the writing rises to its subject, such as this extract: 'For all the academic sweat expended in the ensuing decades to prove that the folk idea is a wilderness of mirrors, the music survives where otherwise there would be none. Like the Green Knight, the force of nature who lays down the challenge to the pentangle-festooned Sir Gawain, you can swing your axe and decapitate it, but it will simply pick its head up, repeat its challenge and ride off into the night.' I've been soundtracking the reading with music from my own collection but a book of this type always encourages you to seek out records you have never heard before, which I shall indeed be doing. Despite the fact that there is a companion cd to the book - I haven't bought it - one of the best compilations I know of is Gather in the Mushrooms, which Bob Stanley compiled a few years ago - the box set Anthems in Eden is also worth having.

So far some of the most interesting music for me is by Spirogyra (not the later jazz-lite group) featuring Barbara Gaskin who would eventually score a number one with a cover of 'It's my party and I'll cry if I want to' with the much underrated Dave Stewart (not that one) from Egg and Hatfield and the North (she also sang backing vocals with both groups); Comus of course are also outstanding; Robin Scott, later of M and that great single 'Pop Music' enjoyed an earlier incarnation as a psychedelic troubador.

The book comes bang up to date with mentions for Ghost Box and David Tibet (another eccentric resident of Hastings) and even English Heretic. For me the surprising omissions or people barely mentioned are Nic Jones (his Penguin Eggs lp), June Tabor, Spiers and Boden and Chris Wood, although perhaps they are not 'visionary' enough. Also very strange is the complete lack of reference to XTC, who have made use of many folk song tropes and images - one of their lps was called Mummer after all and much of their work explores the notion of Englishness; I also thought that Jethro Tull's lps Songs from the Wood and Heavy Horses might have received more notice as they came out in the years 1977 and 1978 when they couldn't have been less fashionable - I find the former a very listenable and atmospheric record.

Many of the reproductions of lp covers are frustratingly small and you can't see the details that Young writes about. Throughout the book he seems to still subscribe to the 'cultural evolution' theory of folklore, which has been discredited by most folklorists, some of the quotes from folk musicians also undermine his arguments, but factually, as far as I can tell, the book is refreshingly free of major gaffs and errors - I should point out, however, that there is no evidence that Bram Stoker was a member of the Golden Dawn. This is what I wrote about Stoker's alleged membership in my book 'Decadent London':

'According to R A Gilbert, historian of the Golden Dawn, Bram Stoker was an outside observer with a number of close friends who were members. Scottish author J W Brodie-Innes, founder of the society’s Edinburgh offshoot, Alpha et Omega, dedicated his 1915 occult novel The Devil’s Mistress – somewhat ambiguously – “To the memory of my dear friend the author of ‘Dracula’ to whose help and encouragement I owe more than I am at present at liberty to state.”'

In conclusion, dare I say that a reading of Electric Eden could be complemented by a perusal of my own The Folklore of London and sections of Decadent London.

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