Friday, 21 January 2011

Mellow Candle: 'not a folk band as such'

About five years ago I traded my perfect copy of Mellow Candle's magical Swaddling Songs for what seemed an embarrassment of other rare records (to be precise: Skip Bifferty, Fresh Maggots and Amaryllis by Bread Love & Dreams). I was confident I'd got the better of the deal, and that I would find another copy of Swaddling Songs soon enough. How wrong I was - I haven't encountered another since, and the few that have popped up on eBay have sold for as much as $2650. But enough self-pity. 

Mellow Candle came from Dublin, and centred on the talents of teenage friends Clodagh Simonds and Alison Williams (now O'Donnell). They actually made a 45 as a duo in 1968, issued on Simon Napier-Bell's short-lived SNB label, before returning to Ireland and regrouping as a band. They played a few gigs at home, and came to attention at the Wexford Festival, held in March 1971. John Peel was there, and praised the newly organised outfit in his Disc column in the 27th:

Disc, March 27th 1971

Andrew Means of Melody Maker was there too:

Melody Maker, April 3rd 1971
They signed to Decca that autumn, and their album was taped in London in the winter. It appeared on Deram in April 1972 (trailed by a 45 pairing 'Dan The Wing' and 'Silversong', issued on March 31st). Both sank like stones (to borrow an idiom from the album), and the band didn't last much longer. Part of the reason such records sell for so much today is that the mayfly-like acts that made them left behind so little (both in the way of music and press coverage), inadvertently creating considerable mystique in the process. Perhaps surprisingly, two different ads for Swaddling Songs appeared in the British music press at the time (both designed by David Anstey, also responsible for their memorable LP cover):

While putting Galactic Ramble together, I encountered only two reviews of the album. The first appeared in Sounds on May 27th, and states that review copies were sent out with a large green candle:

The second appeared in Disc on June 3rd. ‘The kind of group that suffers from being pigeon-holed into a loosely-based folk category, merely because there doesn’t seem to be anything more appropriate to class them in', it begins. 'Mellow Candle are not a folk band as such, although they have a similar enthusiasm and tone to Steeleye Span, and no traditional material, on this album at any rate. The band shares the writing, with pianist Clodagh Simonds carrying a lot of it. With the other lady vocalist, Alison Williams, the songs are sung mainly by the girls in harmony. Too stately in places to be rock, and too fast-moving in others to be folk, they rely a lot on the piano, to good effect.’ It's considerably more sympathetic and accurate than most such pieces of the time, but did nothing to help sales

The album and the 45 have been established as serious collectibles for decades, in which time the cult reputation of the band has grown and grown, to the extent that the members have been interviewed repeatedly. Seemingly little remained to be discovered about them, so it was pretty astonishing when a hitherto unknown picture sleeve popped up on eBay shortly before Christmas. Here it is (the full version of the image on the back can be seen at the top of this post):

It sold to a serious collector for nearly £400. The seller was clearly in good faith, but questions were soon being asked. Was it genuine? If so, why were no other copies known to have surfaced? And how had it eluded the attentions of vinyl bloodhounds for so long? Was it a mock-up, created by Decca's art department but never issued? That might explain its rather crude feel and anomalous typography compared to other Decca releases of the time - but why would they have bothered in the first place? Simonds and O'Donnell had no recollection of the sleeve, and nor had their manager or David Hitchcock (who produced the 45). All possible explanations for its provenance being genuine seemed unlikely, and the seller decently agreed to reverse the transaction. Has anyone reading this seen another copy? 

As a somewhat ironic postscript, Alison O'Donnell does in fact possess a genuine picture sleeve for the single (with the same design on both sides). She recalls little about its manufacture, but thinks it must have been made in tiny quantities by the band's management to house promo 45s in March 1972. Here it is:

UPDATE: in May 2011 a copy of this sold on eBay for £620. Here it is:

Finally, here's a brief interview I conducted with the delightful Clodagh a few years back:

What do you remember about the album sessions?
Very, very little! But I think David Hitchcock deserves a medal for getting such a cohesive album out of a bunch of spaced-out teenage hippies. The first sessions were pretty rough, but rather than just dump the project he suggested changes in the line-up and lots more rehearsals, staying patient, tactful, encouraging and calm until we finally got it finished. Buy that man a drink!

Why do you think Swaddling Songs failed to sell? 
At the time it sounded rough compared to Fairport and Steeleye Span, though I guess our passion and conviction make it engaging. Deram may well have been waiting for us to start gigging properly before promoting it, but we just couldn’t get live work. Agents felt we weren’t engaging to watch – a bit wooden and self-absorbed. Probably fair criticism! Also, Thin Lizzy were suddenly taking off, and our shared manager wasn't able to give us as much time and energy as before.

How do you account for its ongoing popularity?
I think it sounds good now because there’s been a return to lo-fi, slightly-rough-around-the-edges recordings. At the time our lack of polish went against us, so it’s wonderfully ironic that nowadays it works in our favour. I also feel there’s been a return to fundamental songwriting skills, maybe as a backlash against years of linear, sampled, techno-type music. I’m surprised and very flattered by the attention, especially Stephen Malkmus’s cover of ‘Poet & The Witch’. I was very chuffed about that! Mellow Candle was all about songs, really, and we had three good writers all in one band, which I suppose is fairly unusual, and meant there was real variety in the music.

Lily & Maria: search music

To me the very things most people criticise Lily Fiszman and Maria Neumann’s sole LP for  - earnestness / seriousness bordering on the precious / pretentious – are its strengths. It strikes me as a unique and powerful document of two intelligent and sensitive teenagers at a turbulent point in their lives, suffused with the liberal / experimental atmosphere of late 60s America. It may be overwrought, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing, especially when there’s so much passion in the grooves. I especially like the impossibly fragile, desolate ‘I Was’, which Maria told me was “about those heightened moments of experience when you feel most alive, but also sad because you’re aware it won’t last… In the lyrics I was referring to anyone who performs lowly tasks for others and experiences the satisfaction of making something beautiful, even if the result isn’t for them to enjoy.” I could also harp on about the catchy ‘Aftermath’, the delicate ‘Morning Glory Morning’, the sensual ‘Melt Me’ and thoughtful ‘Fourteen After One’, but ultimately I can only urge people who haven’t heard the record to do so. In the meantime, these are a few odds and ends relating to it. Firstly, two early publicity shots:

Maria wrote the bulk of the LP – here are a couple of slightly later pictures of her, in quintessential hippie goddess poses:

Here's the (slightly faded) press release issued by Columbia to promote the album, dated September 1968:

And here's a copy of the album, signed by the duo for engineer Stanley Tonkel (the dedications read 'To Tanley Stonkel, to a real trooper (at the age of 18 no less), lots of love and iced tea, Lily' and 'To Tanley Stonkel, good things are supposed to come in small packages - somebody goofed! Love you, Maria').

And here's the label to side one:

Critical response was mixed; on October 5th Billboard called them ‘two young girls with an exceptional talent. Their debut album proves an exciting showcase for that talent, as they vocally create a variety of moods’, and on October 11th the Los Angeles Herald Examiner said ‘this may be a great album. After three or four listenings I am almost persuaded that it is. If it is not, it is pretension of a very high quality.’ Less enthusiastic were Stereo Review (who described it in January 1969 as ‘an unremarkable effort by two young ladies whose talents are almost buried under complex arrangements, pretentious songs and over-production’) and the American Record Guide (who wrote in February that ‘mediocrity and pretentiousness rarely relieved by somewhat pleasant musical performances define the recording debut of two very breathy thrushes with a decided predilection for lyrical mundanity and off-key harmonies’).

 On October 26th this small advert appeared on the front of Billboard:

A 45 was extracted from the LP, coupling ‘Everybody Knows’ and ‘Morning Glory Morning’, but it was just as little circulated (and seems not to have made it beyond the mono promo stage):

This ad appeared in one or two music publications in the autumn of 1968:

In January 1969 Esquire ran this snippet, belatedly commemorating the duo’s signing to Columbia:

By that spring, however, the girls were moving in different directions, both personally and artistically (though they remain friends to this day), and made no further recordings. Columbia must have lost a lot of money on them, but in my view it was worth every cent.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Psyche Sounds '67

This WH Smith ad appeared in Disc & Music Echo in December 1967. It might be of mild interest to students of psychedelia for a couple of reasons: it suggests that the abbreviation 'psyche' was already in use, and gives an idea of which albums were thought to belong to the genre at this relatively early stage. Of course, not many LPs we now regard as UK psych classics had appeared by this time - 1968 and 1969 were the years in which the psychedelic album really came into its own - and the only obvious omissions here are Kaleidoscope's Tangerine Dream (released in November) and the Stones' Their Satanic Majesties Request (released in December, possibly after the ad appeared). Ho hum.

Monday, 10 January 2011

THE MONKS: beat in the toughest sense of the word

The story of The Monks is one of the strangest in rock history. Though they remained obscure for decades after their split in 1967, they are now regarded as clear precursors of punk and one of the pre-eminent cult bands of the 1960s. I won't rehash their story, which is readily available elsewhere, but I thought I'd share some rare odds and ends I have accumulated. First of all, here's the original press release sent out by Polydor International's German division  to announce their album and debut single in April 1966. I am most grateful to Wolfgang Voelkel for the translation printed beneath it. [Wolfgang also told me: "I saw The Monks at Beat Club in 1966. I was sitting there hoping to see The Hollies or someone like that, and then came The Monks. I was really shocked. They were so terribly different."]

A few things strike me about this. Firstly, in its early days the band was called Monks, not The Monks - nowhere on their first two singles, album or promo material were they called anything other than plain Monks. Secondly, Polydor was clearly aware that they were unusual, and exploited their freak appeal in marketing them. Thirdly, the album is referred to as just Monks here, though it was released as Black Monk Time shortly afterwards. Fourthly, it's interesting that they intended to play in America only if they sold records in Germany: I am sure they were correct in assuming that unless they had a track record of success elsewhere, no one in the US would have touched them at the time. Finally, perhaps part of their uniqueness can be attributed to the fact that each member came from a different part of the US (they were of course thrown together as GIs in Germany): Minnesota, Texas, Chicago, Washington and California. I can't think of any contemporaneous US band with members from such different corners of their homeland - almost all bands worldwide in early 1966 came from one place.

Here are the artwork & labels for their first two 45s and the Black Monk Time LP. As you can perhaps make out, the label to side one of my LP (which once belonged to a radio station) has 13/6/66 written on it:

Polydor also printed some promo postcards in the spring of 1966. The one I have is signed on both sides to one Brigitte, evidently from Cologne:

On the back of the card the inscriptions read:

For Brigitte! The nicest girl in Koln! Love ya! Gary
To Brigitte, best wishes and I hope you come to see us whenever you can, Roger
Brigitte, you have black on your lip, Eddie
Thanks for coming with Liz to see us, best wishes, David Day

Beneath the scribble, the German text reads: 'Gary Burger plays lead guitar and was born in Minnesota. Roger Johnston from Texas plays the drums. Chicago boy: that would be Larry Clark. Crazy fingers on the organ. His father is no gangster, but a priest. And Dave Day has more than one banjo, and more than one microphone built into each of his banjos. He says he was born in Washington. And Eddie Shaw from California does whatever he fancies with his bass guitar!'

The band played around Germany, appeared on radio and TV (check the amazing Beat Club footage on youtube) and had many adventures, as chronicled in Shaw's Black Monk Time book. Nonetheless, they didn't sell many records, and the age-old disagreements over musical direction led to their split in 1967 after the release of a final (and far less confrontational) 45 that April. Below is the picture sleeve (which is identical on both sides) and the relevant label from a Polydor radio promo LP of the time, also showcasing hot releases by Bert Kaempfert and others:

I assume that articles and reviews appeared in the German music press at the time, but I have never seen any. If anyone has any, please get in touch!

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Ron Cornelius: Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and me

Ron Cornelius is one of those intriguing Zelig-like figures that pepper rock music; a fixture of the San Francisco scene long before psychedelia hit, he formed the neglected West, and went on to play as a sideman to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen (with whom he has had a long association). His only solo album, Tin Luck, has long been cherished by a few, but remains largely unknown. This is starting to change, however, as word of its melancholy charm spreads. Here are a few bits and bobs relating to it. 

First up is an interview from issue #20 of the great UK rock periodical ZigZag, published in June 1971 and conducted as Cornelius finalised the album's mix in London's Trident Studios:

The album was issued in the US as Polydor PD 5011 in September 1971. Here's the press release the label sent out with promo copies (with respectful acknowledgements to Jack Fleischer at

It also appeared in Germany and in Britain (though the only such copy I know of has UK vinyl and a German sleeve). In November 1971 Circus ran a brief piece about Cornelius, stating that Tin Luck contains a somewhat melancholy mood, more bluesy than down, really, and the songs are drawn from personal experience, a commodity Cornelius has much of.’ Here it is:

Tin Luck has never been reissued, but that's a situation I hope will soon be remedied. In the meantime, anyone wanting to learn more about it should follow this link: