Monday, 11 April 2011

Sweet Slag: guerilla jazz rock

I've never seen anything on the web about this bizarre band, so thought I'd post what little I've gleaned about them here. Consisting of of Mick Kerensky (aka Mick Wright, guitar, violin), Paul Jolly (sax), Jack O'Neill (bass) and the late Al Chambers (drums), they formed in Luton in 1969. Their disquieting music set despondent lyrics ("every day is a drag" claims the frantic opener to their sole LP) to heavy, jazzy rock that Kerensky describes on the back cover as 'stock rock', owing to his admiration for Stockhausen. Their weird name, incidentally, was drawn from a term for a carbonate of magnesia that occurs in China. They were decent players, but their music contains lots of dissonance and bum notes, as well as aggressively tuneless singing. They clearly didn't much care about record sales, which is just as well.

The first reference I've found to them comes in the August 1969 issue of ZigZag (number four), which announces that the quartet are on the bill for a 'bread-raising dance' on the magazine's behalf:

A whole year passes before the next press reference that I've encountered - Tracking With Close-Ups was trailed for release on the ever-unpredictable President label in September 1970 (see small ad at the top of this post), but eventually appeared in January 1971, in an ugly sleeve that showed garbage piled high in a tenement's back alley. Here's the press release that accompanied it (which contains the surprising revelation that Kerensky had been a member of Joe Cocker's Grease Band):

Both the small ad and the press release mention a projected single, but that never happened. In my research for Galactic Ramble, I encountered only two reviews of Tracking With Close-Ups. On February 13th Melody Maker described it as ‘Harshly contemporary, jagged, raw and essentially joyless. The playing is solid and straight-ahead, there’s a lot of convoluted improvisation, and they’re obviously a worthy band who deserve to be taken seriously.’ A week later, Disc & Music Echo wrote that ‘This album is notable for an awe-inspiring sleevenote, but the music doesn’t stand the build-up – lyrics lost in the noise, and a general confusion of sound that means you have to take the group’s talent on trust. They’re heavy, of course.’

Sales were minuscule, but they kept gigging. Here are some dates they played:

This small ad appeared in Melody Maker of December 19th 1970:

and soon afterwards Music Now ran this review of a bizarre-sounding charity show they played with fellow underground rockers Ghost, supporting hitmakers The Equals:

Music Now, January 30th 1971
By October they'd become a quintet (with the replacement of O'Neill with John Catlin, and the arrival of Keith Arnold on second guitar), and - perhaps deciding Sweet Slag was too commercial a name - had become plain Slag:

Sadly, global superstardom continued to elude them, and they apparently split soon afterwards.I don't exactly like their album, but it's pretty weird and challenging. As the great Aaron Milenski puts it in Galactic Ramble: 'It's unlike anything else you have ever heard, and recommended to everyone out there who thinks the world is nothing but a piece of shit.'

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Meic Stevens: Welsh wizard at work

Meic Stevens is usually described as ‘the Welsh Bob Dylan’, or as some sort of acid folk troubadour (on account of his 1970 Outlander LP), but in truth his unwieldy catalogue spans more genres than that – straight folk, strange folk, pop, blues-rock, TV soundtracks, spoken poetry and so on. He was an anomaly in the late 60s because he recorded in both English and Welsh (and for labels in both places), which makes   the prospect of delving into his music a little daunting - so here’s a cut-out-n'keep guide to the man and his music… 

Born in Solva, Pembrokeshire in March 1942, Meic honed his writing and playing skills as an art student in Cardiff, before busking around Europe. He was talent-spotted by eccentric DJ Jimmy Savile at Manchester University's folk club in late 1964, and was promptly signed up by Savile's secretary, Richard Reese-Edwards. His debut release was this rare folk 45, which appeared in June 1965. The string arrangement on the A-side was by John Paul Jones, who is in fact thought to have produced the disc too. Sung in English, it's very much in the early Donovan / Dylan style, and seems to have sold very poorly. Certainly no follow-up was released. Here's the promo postcard Decca sent out with advance copies:

And here are a couple of promo shots:

A small amount of press appeared to support the 45, which was bizarrely marketed as by 'The MANly Mike Stevens':

Record Mirror, June 12th 1965
Record Mirror, June 26th 1965

The next 3 years saw Meic scratching a living as a folkie, writing prolifically and hanging out with any number of interesting folks in London - Syd Barrett, the Blossom Toes, Joe Harriott, Captain Beefheart, Shawn Phillips and many others ("most of us lived on clouds of Nepalese hash in those days," as he puts it). Eventually the unhealthy lifestyle took its toll, and - after a projected deal with Apple fell through - he retreated to the Welsh countryside of his childhood. This self-titled EP appeared on the tiny Wren label in May 1968, and its back cover describes Meic's ambition as 'to create a new modern music in Wales'. In fact, the four songs are charming but crudely recorded ballads, enlivened by some sprightly clarinet and sax. Recorded in the same small Swansea studio in which Dylan Thomas had made some of his famous poetry recordings, its standout is perhaps the angry Tryweryn, concerning the recent flooding of an inhabited valley to create a reservoir.

The local success of the Mike Stevens EP led to plentiful Welsh radio and TV exposure, on which Wren was eager to capitalise. The magical Rhif 2 ('Number 2') therefore appeared in November 1968, having been recorded at the BBC's primitive Llandaff studio. Accompanied by his brother Irving on rhythm guitar, its four songs are among the most starkly beautiful Meic ever recorded. Cân Walter ('Walter's Song') is a touching tribute to his late uncle and Hwiangerdd Mihangel ('Michael's Lullaby') is a pretty instrumental, but the classics here are on side 2 - the spine-tingling Glaw yn y Dail ('Rain In The Leaves') and simple, moving Lan a Lawr (Up And Down'). This is a terrific record, and I suspect these songs would be standards if they were sung in English. As the back cover states: 'In his cottage in Solva, he endeavours to create new Welsh music.'

Meic spent much of 1969 shuttling between Wales and London, where he still had hopes of landing a major record deal. He contributed guitar to Gary Farr's Take Something With You LP, and performed with him at that summer's Isle Of Wight festival. Back home Meic had formed the light-hearted trio Y Bara Menyn ('Bread & Butter') with singer Heather Jones and poet Geraint Jarman, making two EPs under that name, as well as maing regular solo appearances on local TV. That summer Meic and Geraint were commissioned by Harlech TV to compose a pop opera, and they settled on the theme of a steelworker's flight from the drudgery of the factory to the calm of the countryside. Mwg (pronounced 'moog', meaning 'Smoke') was duly televised on St. David's Day (March 1st) 1970. The film's soundtrack was orchestrated, but Wren put out this EP of Meic's solo renditions of four songs from it the preceding November. It's stark and less melodic than his previous work, but has a compelling intensity, especially on the Eastern-influenced Myfi yw’r Dechreuad ('I Am The Beginning').

Meic's patience paid off at the start of the new decade, when he signed to Warner Bros. for a large advance, as a result of a chance meeting with the label's head of A&R (Ian Samwell) in the offices of music publisher Bryan Morrison. At the same time he was in the throes of setting up a label back in Wales, together with folk-singers / activists Dafydd Iwan and Huw Jones (with assistance from businessman Brian Morgan Edwards). Named Sain - pronounced 'sign' and meaning 'sound' - the label thrives to this day, and is a vital part of Welsh culture. This EP appeared in the spring of 1970, but had been taped in London the previous autumn, with backing from members of pop-soul band Ferris Wheel. The catchy title track (meaning 'The Great Houdini') became hugely popular in Wales, and was used as the theme tune to the local pop TV show Disc A Dawn, while Rhyddid Ffug ('False Freedom') was another track from the Mwg TV project.

Meic spent the spring of 1970 in London, recording his debut album, Outlander. It was released (with a lyric insert) to mixed reviews in May. Music Now felt 'Meic's voice is superb, swooping and soaring, savouring the melodies and lyrics alike. The accompaniments are excellent and feature some really intriguing sounds... The songs could not have been better, and I have no doubt whatsoever that Meic is poised to emerge as an important figure on the music scene', while Melody Maker sniffed that 'The album sounds in the main like early Bob Dylan... there’s very little originality about his songwriting at all. Most of the material sounds dated – the kind of stuff that was being performed in folk clubs three or four years ago.’ Sales were minuscule, and following a drunken fiasco at a showcase gig for the label's US executives, Meic was soon out on his ear. Little promo seems to have been done for the LP, though Meic played at a mini-festival called Extravaganza 70 at London Olympia in June:

By the end of the summer Meic’s involvement with Warner Bros. was over. The time he’d spent with them had seen him constantly shuttling between London and Wales, to the detriment of his fragile home life, so he returned to Wales with the intention of focusing of work there. The August 1970 issue of Beat Instrumental told its readers that ‘his main concern now is with Wales and with the Welsh culture, and within that country’s borders he is certainly the leading musical talent’. He added: “I want to put something back into Wales, where artists like Mary Hopkin and Tom Jones don’t do anything. The Welsh are fighting to retrieve the rags of their culture. It’s sad.” He had returned from London with a fistful of recordings, which steadily appeared over the next 18 months. This 45 (whose A-side translates as 'No Glass Windows') contained yet further demos of tracks from the Mwg TV opera, with a decidedly lo-fi sound. The B-side Rhywbeth Gwell i Ddod ('Something Better To Come') had also appeared on Y Bara Menyn’s debut EP, released in February 1969. 

Beat Instrumental, August 1970
The release of the Nid Oes Un Gwydyr Ffenestr 45 coincided with the National Eisteddfodd at Ammanford in August 1970. Meic commemorated this important event in Welsh culture by pressing another disc at his own expense, which he handed out free to audience members at his performance. Billed as a 'mini-LP', the five tracks on it were recorded in Welsh during the Outlander sessions, and showcased a more psychedelic sensibility than on his previous EPs, from the frantic electric rocker Mynd i Bala ar y Cwch Banana ('Going To Bala On The Banana Boat') to the lovely Dim Ond Heddiw Ddoe ac Fory ('Only Today, Yesterday & Tomorrow'), which sounds like an outtake from Tim Buckley's Blue Afternoon. All of Meic's Welsh EPs are rare, but this is easily the rarest, with only a handful known to exist. The only other release on Newyddion Da ('good news'), incidentally, was a simultaneously-produced and similarly-rare giveaway disc by Heather Jones.

Throughout 1970 Meic was a regular performer on Disc A Dawn ('Disc & Talent'), the rudimentary weekly Welsh pop TV show (actually made by the BBC). Most of its guests were amateur singers crooning mainstream ballads or hits translated into Welsh, but it offered Meic useful exposure. At some point in 1970 an LP was released by the Beeb, showcasing some of its more popular guests. Two songs by Meic are included - the touching ballad Nid Y Fl Yw’r Un I Ofyn Pam ('Not For Me To Ask The Reason Why'), which also appeared in a different version on his Meic Stevens EP, and Dwyn Y Lein ('Down The Line'), a light-hearted, jazzy pop number co-written with Dyfed Glyn Jones, head of children’s programmes at BBC Wales. The liner notes describe Meic as ‘the only way-out figure on the scene. His experiments with form, arrangement and lyrics, coupled with his considerable composing gifts and his brilliance as a guitarist, could soon rocket him to international fame.’ 
South Wales Echo, May 5th 1972
Meic's return to Wales had been complicated by his affections being torn between Tessa, the mother of his small daughters Isabel and Bethan (all pictured on the left), and a Texan hippie named Carol-Ann Maw, whom he’d met at Ian Samwell’s London flat in late 1969, and with whom he shared an interest in mysticism. The difficulties this situation created - coupled with Tessa’s schizophrenia and the fact that Carol-Ann had several bin-bags full of the Grateful Dead’s LSD, which she urgently needed to dispose of - conspired to prevent Meic from recording for almost a year. The basic, bluesy Byw yn y Wlad ('Living In The Country') EP was taped with backing from two local musicians at Monmouthshire’s Rockfield Studio, and appeared in July 1971. Founded by eccentric brothers Kingsley and Charles Ward, Rockfield was Wales’s first proper recording facility, sweeping away forever the primitive standards Meic had suffered in the past, and representing another major shift in contemporary Welsh music. 

By the summer of 1971, work and family circumstances had obliged Meic to abandon his idyllic rural existence in his childhood village of Solva for Cardiff, where he continued to work regularly for the BBC, and participate in its riotous drinking culture. As well as contributing a topical song each week to HTV’s current affairs programme John Morgan At 10:30, he was commissioned by Harlech TV to write and perform The Dewsland Rake, an epic elegiac poem for his uncle, and had also started to act, winning acclaim for his turn as Punchinello in the Welsh Theatre Company’s production of Molière’s Hypochondriac (for which he also oversaw the music), and appearing in the hit historical TV drama Arthur Of The Britons and Roman Polanski’s Macbeth (for which he also acted as horse wrangler). Amidst these activities he recorded his final EP, Diolch yn Fawr ('Thanks A Lot'), also at Rockfield. Eclectic as ever, on it Meic draws from his past repertoire - Bryn Unigrwydd ('Lonely Hill') shares a tune with Did I Dream?, the A-side of his Decca debut 45, while Pe Cawn Dy Gwymni Di ('If I Had Your Company') had first been recorded with producer Tony Pike in London in September 1965, and the title track was part of a commission Meic had to write songs to help infants learn to speak Welsh. 

By the middle of 1972 Meic had amassed enough new songs to make another album - this time on his own terms. He still had access to Warner's demo studio in Denmark Street, so went there to tape the songs in the summer. Some were new, some had been written for Welsh TV shows (from topical to children's to religious), while others were older (like the flippant, infectious Carangarw, or 'Kangaroo', which Meic recalls '"was written in a London taxicab while stoned with Gary Farr and Reggie King"). Recorded in a single day after a night's rehearsal with a pair of musicians he'd met in a Soho pub (Paul Martinez and Graham Smith), and sung entirely in Welsh, the result was less mystical and more pop-orientated than Outlander, with a bouncy, uptempo feel (other than the obvious exception of the eerie ‘Galarnad’ - a setting of a passage from the Book of Jeremiah). Meic decided to call it Gwymon (‘seaweed’), and it appeared in September 1972 in an edition of 2500 vinyl copies.

Rarer still is the cassette version of Gywymon, which appeared in 1973:

Shortly after its appearance, Meic wrote the following letter to the Welsh Nation newspaper, which casts some light on the project:

The Welsh Nation, October 19th 1972
Following the appearance of Gwymon, Meic was drinking too much, the TV and live work was drying up, he was broke and his personal life was in chaos.  His response to an approach from a French-based agent in the summer 1973 was to sell all his possessions and hop on a ferry, as this article from The Western Mail explains:

Around this time a couple of tracks from Gwymon appeared on a French-only 45  (see left; the titles translate as 'King Of The Night' and 'Hello? Hello?'), though a projected French release of Gwymon never materialised. Over the next few years Meic hung out with artists in Brittany and elsewhere, drinking copiously and playing at innumerable bars and at festivals, where the Breton folk revival was in full swing. He gave an interview to a local newspaper in 1974, in which he claimed: "I adore Solva, my home village, but Wales has completely changed. Everything I loved when I was a child no longer exists. It's all been Anglicised." Here it is: 

Nonetheless, Meic returned to Wales in 1976, ready to record a collection of new songs. The resulting set, Gôg (meaning 'cuckoo'), has rather a sinister sleeve and appeared in 1977. His time in France is celebrated on sunny opener Rue St. Michel, while elsewhere there are dreamy ballads such as Gwenllian (addressed to his lover of the time) and Cwm Y Pren Helyg ('Willow Valley'), spacey pop numbers like the phased Cwm Llwm ('The Poor Valley'), bouncy pop reminiscent of Gwymon such as Menyn y Ffenestr ('The Woman In The Window') and Douarnenez (the name of the street he lived in), as well as some edgy psych with heavy guitar in the shape of Y Crwydryn a Mi ('The Traveller & Me') and Dim Ond Cysgodion ('Only Shadows'). It's a fine, varied album, but – like Gwymon – the fact that it’s sung entirely in Welsh has doomed it to a smaller audience than it deserves, and it has yet to appear on CD.

Meic rounded off the 1970s by re-recordings eight of the songs that had appeared on his earlier EPs, along with two tracks from Gwymon (Merch o’r Ffatri Wlan and Gwely Gwag - 'The Girl From The Wool Factory' and 'Empty Bed'). He named the resulting album Caneuon Cynnar ('Early Songs'), and it appeared in 1979 on another tiny label of his own, Tic-Toc, complete with two pages of photocopies notes in Welsh by Geraint Jarman. Some of the arrangements are less sparse than in their original forms, but the songs remain simple, catchy and affecting, and it stands up as one of his best sets. Unfortunately, it too has yet to see the light of day on CD.

It may be missing the point, but in reviewing Meic's work of this period, it’s hard not to conclude how different things might have been for him had he also recorded his fine compositions in English. All the material on his EPs (together with some rare unreleased recordings) and Gwymon can be bought at

[With thanks to the great Gari Melville at The Welsh Rock & Pop Archive.]

Friday, 1 April 2011

ENDLESS TRIP in Ptolemaic Terrascope

Endless Trip has just been generously reviewed in Ptolemaic Terrascope, with Jeff Penczak naming it 'my early candidate for music book of the year'. He goes on to write: ‘You’ll laugh, cry and gnash your teeth over the opinions of Richard Morton Jack’s co-writers, whether they’re trashing one of your most cherished albums or praising that worthless piece of shit you sold every time it found its way back into your record collection.’ He concludes that ‘It’s a fascinating, exceptionally well-researched project that will please musicologists and the casual fan alike.’ 

Mary-Anne Paterson: not one of your hairy weirdos

After all the brouhaha surrounding ‘acid folk’ in recent years, it surprises me that Mary-Anne Paterson’s sole album remains so obscure. Me slipped out on President’s budget Joy subsidiary in the spring of 1970, and sank without trace. The only review that I’ve ever seen appeared in Gramophone that September, and simply reads: ‘A Scottish folk singer with a soft vocal style and a good selection of songs, including Coulter’s Candy, The Gentleman Soldier, Come All Ye Fair And Tender Maidens and The Water Is Wide.’ This hardly does her justice – in my opinion Me is the best true acid folk album made in the UK during the genre’s heyday. (And I’m using the term strictly – most artists that get called 'acid folk' are simply weird pop bands who played acoustically: Comus, Mellow Candle, Spirogyra and the like. My interpretation is music rooted in traditional folk, but which adds spacey and freaky flourishes to the ancient songs and melodies.)

But I digress. Mary-Anne was born and raised in Edinburgh, where she was surrounded by artists, writers and musicians. Like many of the city's teens, she hung out at the Grail bookshop in the mid-60s, and tentatively began to perform at the Traverse Theatre and the annual Festival, as well as training to become a drama teacher. A friend of hers had a music publishing contact in London, and suggested that her lovely voice might be suitable for recording. In the autumn of 1969 Mary-Anne dubiously travelled to London to make a demo, and was signed by President soon afterwards. President was owned by Eddie Kastner and made most of its money out of publishing classic rock and roll songs, though its label had considerable success with The Equals and a handful of others. Mary-Anne had a strong interest in mystical religion at the time, and the deal's appeal for her lay largely in the name of the publishing company she signed with: Pan Musik.

Mary-Anne recalls the album being recorded in Denmark Street's Pan Sound Studios around New Year of 1970, overseen by producer Mike Cooper (not the singer-songwriter), whom she remembers as "a lovely, kind and meticulous man who made a great fuss over me and worked terribly hard on the arrangements. Really, he's the one who has to be thanked for the way the music turned out." Backing her was a bunch of buskers who went uncredited on the original back cover. After reissuing Me on Sunbeam, I was contacted by the renowned Canterbury scenester Geoff Leigh, who wrote: "I recently bought Mary-Anne's CD from you, mainly to check out the 'mystery buskers' who played on it. I can confirm that they were yours truly on flute (I recognised my playing straight away!), Alan Moller on guitar and John Doherty on percussion. We used to busk a lot in those days - she no doubt saw us in Tottenham Court Road tube station, just around the corner from Tin Pan Alley. However, in true 60s style, I have no recollection at all about the session!"

The album combines beautiful takes on standards like The Water Is Wide and The Jute Mill Song with two lovely self-penned ballads (Love Is Gone and Reverie For Roslyn, which bookend the set), and a truly deranged freak-out (on Black Girl). Paterson’s voice is gloriously pure throughout, and the record benefits from a cool, spacey sound and mix. For me the only missteps are The Gentleman Soldier and Candyman, whose jaunty tone jars somewhat - but all in all, it's a folk classic. Bizarrely, President chose a horribly dull cover shot for the LP, though clearly the relevant shoot had yielded far better pictures (see the top of this post). It's almost as if they were willing people not to buy it... They arranged no publicity whatsoever either, though my copy had a faded newspaper clipping inside - it's undated, and I have no idea what publication it comes from, but it's the only piece of press relating to Me I've ever seen:

Following its instant obscurity, Mary-Anne returned to Edinburgh and never heard from the label again. She continued singing, but made no further recordings, and eventually began working as an arts therapist, helping asylum seekers and refugees, as well as patients in hospitals. As she told me at the time it appeared on Sunbeam: "It absolutely amazes me that anyone's interested in this obscure little record I made all those years ago, especially as I never aspired to a career as a singer. But it's very flattering, and if it helps draw attention to my other work, I'll be even more thrilled."