Thursday, 11 August 2011
Jack The Lad "The Old Straight Track" (1974) (News, Views and Music 109)
Jack The Lad “The Old Straight Track” (1974)
Oakey Strike Evictions/Jolly Beggar/The Third Millennium/Fingal The Giant/Weary Whaling Grounds/The King’s Favourite-The Marquis Of Tullybardine//Peggy (Overseas With A Soldier)/Buy Broom Buzzems/De Havilland’s Mistake/The Old Straight Track/The Wurm
'I've taken out insurance in the form of being poor'
Well who'd have thought it. I'd geared myself up to receive irate messages over something I wrote that didn't chime with the public mood, but I'd always assumed it would be with the supposedly perfect AAA albums that nobody dares speak out against (even when they creak with age) - The ‘Pet Sounds’, ‘Sgt Pepper's and ‘Exile In Main Streets’ of this world. The obscure second album spin-off from a band most people have forgotten anyway though, I assumed wouldn't even create a ripple - I mean I've never even seen a copy of it except for the CD I bought on mail order and I've never met another living soul whose heard of the band, never mind the album. Against all odds the AAA review that's caused more fuss, name-calling and heartbreak than a good 518 of the other reviews we’ve ever printed is – believe it or not - 'The Old Straight Track', the second album by Lindisfarne spin-off band Jack The Lad. It’s so obscure and sold so few copies (missing on CD completely until as late as 2006) that I'm amazed there's that many people out there to have an argument with to be honest (in case you're wondering Wings' 'Red Rose Speedway' is a close second for some reason - and no I don't know why, these both look like my 'normal' reviews to me). The controversy? I still only like part of it, not all of it – and apparently you have to like it all to be a ‘fan’ (heck when an album is this obscure you’re enough of a fan by owning the thing I say). Also I don’t buy into the largely fan-made idea that this is some sort of cosmic folk concept album about a giant’s walking holiday all over the world – if that were true he would also need to have been working as a whaler, an evicted miner and a gentlemen soldier (how would he fit in the uniform?), while only one song on the album actually deals with a giant (if there was a theme you’d think there’d be a hint on the cover too). I’m still getting comments about this album now on my site six years after writing it though and how I’ve ‘missed the point’ but is there a point to be missed? There is, admittedly, a bit epic story going on in ‘The Wurm’ that suggests the band were thinking big but that’s about all – and even that feels like a self-contained universe to me. Nope, sorry Jack The Lad fans, this sounds like an album to me – and is none the worse for that, plus I’m starting to think that ‘The Wurm’ and co are really just clickbait for ‘The Trolls’. Or maybe my readers just didn’t like all the Spice Girls jokes in the original version?!
After all, even passionate Lindisfanatics circa 1974 didn't exactly buy this record in droves, even though a mere two years before the band were selling more records than any other British artists alive and there certainly weren’t interviewers falling over themselves to hear what Jack The Lad had to say about making it. This second album finds the band even further on the road to kingdom come - with the band less sure of finding their way to success than ever but ploughing on regardless - and picks up where 'It's Jack The Lad' left off, with silver linings coming unstitched, opportunities being closed off and the golden cow having been milked dry. Rod has moved on, mainly to session work and helping out old friends like Ralph McTell and Bert Jansch, leaving Billy and Si as the album's chief writers although even more than the other Jack albums there's an emphasis on tradition and history here, with many a folk legend re-told in a sound that manages to be at once as traditionally folk as the band ever get. Not that this album is as ‘pure’ as it sometimes sounds either and in many ways is their 'meatiest' for rock fans too, with Cowe's jagged guitar turning these usually laidback folk pieces into their true status as macabre horror tales, a warning of just how 'orrible life can be. Even the presence of two folk traditionalists to replace Rod's darker songwriting in Ian 'Walter' Fairburn and Phil Murray can't disguise the weight pressing down on this album from beginning to end.
In a way it does make some kind of a sense that this of all albums should have got my readers' blood pumping so vicariously as it is in truth rather a violent album, with the gorgeous weary resignation of 'It's Jack The Lad' replaced by a sense of desperation and danger, as if things have been pushed too far. The narrators on this album, much like the remaining members of the band, have been through one hell of a lot that's shaped them seemingly forever - and apparently for nothing. The album starts with a hanging, moves on to a rape and ends up with a tale of a fair maiden accidentally turning back into a toad after she’s been saved by her loved one, via songs about whalers cursing their lot, medieval peasants thinking the world is about to end and giants who couldn’t be seen by people who didn’t believe in them. The whalers have risked certain death for 'three pounds ten', 'Oakey Strike Evictions' covers a nasty incident involving police and a miner's strike, 'Peggy' discovers the realities of being in love with a soldier when he brings his violence home and 'The Wurm' is really about a dragon - quite a nice dragon as it turns out, perhaps related to the Alan Hul 'Dragon Of Dreamland' - but you don't know that till the end .. All too often, this album sweeps the rug out from under our feet, both via it’s eccentric subject matter and the range of instruments which can switch these songs from pure folk to all out rock and roll and everything in between in the blink of an eye. Life has never sounded so exciting as it does here – or unpredictable – despite sounding as traditional as any other album around. Even a couple of traditional folk romps (that sound like an Elizabethan Monkees dressed in ruffs should be running round to them causing merriment and amusement) and a daft song about buying brooms can't disguise the fact that this is a mad and often dangerous world Almost every character on this record is being caught in a trap and made to jump through hoops, to the musical accompaniment of a slashing electric guitar and a sawing fiddle that both sound like a medieval ship's doctor amputating limbs.
Which is odd because the other thing you take away from this record is the sheer playfulness. Alongside the weary whalers, the teasing tramps and the military menace are a cast of giants, hermits, kings, witches, prophets and dragons (or indeed is this all told by the 'same person' - as that's what seems to have been one of the main sticking points with some readers; is the monk that Fingal The Giant meets the same one as on 'The Old Straight Track'? I'm not buying it meself - it's not as if they're together as a medley or anything and as far as I'm concerned the last song features a hermit rather than a monk anyway - but rather than suffer another load of abuse I'll leave it up to you, dear reader, to decide...) If 'Game Of Thrones' ever starts looking for a new soundtrack to all that blood and gore then they could do worse than borrow this album, which is from the blood and guts side of dungeons and dragons. Yes, despite Jack The Lad going all 'adult' after the coming of age song 'Lying On The Water' at the end of the debut album this manages to stay an 'adult' album despite the storybook characters - this is more of a traditional 'Grimm's fairytale' you could say rather than a Disneyfied version of one which at times is truly nasty. Fingal becomes just another human at the end of his song, the narrator of the Nostradamus-fearing 'Third Millennium' writes the last verse from Heaven after discovering the world was ending after all and 'The Wurm' follows a five year journey and revenge and plotting that's all for nothing when a girl finds her witch of a step-mother has been turned into a toad before she could get to her. It's a world where not everyone can be heroes, even if they have the best of intentions and this chimes well with a world where real people get hurt for taking a stand - where the poor are evicted for standing up to the Governments closing down their heritage and whalers go through hell for less than the minimum wage.
As so often happens with Lindisfarne, this seems to be a particularly localised affair and is perhaps the most 'Northern' record in their output, with 'The Old Straight TRack' surely located somewhere in the region of Newcastle. Lindisfarne were always proud of their Newcastle heritage but here, on their second album, spin-off band Jack The Lad positively embrace it. When it comes to folklore, Newcastle often gets short shrift despite having some of the best traditional songs of all and luckily Jack The Lad found plenty of good ones, all delivered in their unique sturdy rock-folk hybrid arrangements and a bunch more group original that sound as if they date back at least as far. Geordie folk? Well, if it’s good as it sounds on this album, why not, even if it all sounds a bit different to what you might be expecting at times across this album? (Last time I went to visit that area I don’t remember seeing any of the giants, fortune-seekers, whalers, giants, dragons, witches and, erm, brush salesmen but hey I never saw the black panther that was meant to live in Staffordshire or the pixies that are meant to exist in Lancashire either - although I've got a feeling that the little scamp is the one who keeps swiping my CDs when I'm not looking...)Part of that must be from Jack The Lad’s careful forward planning – a trip to the English Dance and Song Society at Cecil Sharp House resulted in no less than six traditional songs and inspiration for a further five originals that all sound as if they could have been written hundreds of years earlier. Frankly, I wish more bands had shown the same desired to research their past and it’s one of the reasons why this forgotten, poor-selling, laughed at album has such a place in my heart – and my record collection (it's very like a Pentangle album once again, with old songs dressed up to sound contemporary and contemporary songs given the clothes of history so that the lines between the two are blurred - well as I know this album I'm rather shocked to find that the charming if rather po-faced instrumental 'De Haviland's Mistake' is not in fact an Elizabethan two-step but a Si Cowe original!)
Now, I know many of you reading this will think ‘hmm folk...’ ‘boring’ or ‘blimey’ or ‘how can songs from the 17th century possibly affect my life?’, but those of you who have come to this review straight from one of our Pentangle discussions will know that good songs are timeless – it doesn’t matter if songs are about things that no longer exist or are no longer believed in such as highway robbers, dragons and witches – we still understand this album’s characters and their humanity or lack of very well (for the above, try substituting tax collectors, politicians and The Spice Girls). It’s all applicable to nowadays too- and our present time even more so what with worldwide recessions and yet more 'we're-all-in-this-together-but-some-of-you-a-hell-of-a-lot-more-than-others' philosophy. I mean, just look at that cover – the band gathered round a kitchen table with some very 70s wallpaper and their washing hanging on the line – this is the sound of the working man, of the lower classes, of the pulse of Britain (or at least the North of it) throughout the ages (that really is their rehearsal room ‘Pike House’ by the way – a building with ‘no water, no electricity – but loads of beer!’ as Billy Mitchell puts it, which is a sentence that sums Jack The Lad up quite well). With a dragon and a giant thrown in.
All this folky earnestness, of course, is hideously out of fashion for 1974, the period of fake glam rockers and over-blown prog rockers, when only Marc Bolan’s songs about pixies shares anything like the same DNA as the songs on this album (and let's face it the two come from very different places - those T Rex records are mad, and not usually in a good way; amazingly this isn't the original comment that got my review so much grief by the way though this re-print probably will). Record label Charisma, already slightly disconcerted by sales of the first Jack The Lad album, declared they couldn’t find a ‘hit single’ on the album and decided to bury it, despite an inventive promotional video that caught Jack The Lad’s schizophrenia well with portraits of the band as a street gang, peasants at a Medieval banquet and Geordie footballers! To some fans at the time, this second album was brave, out of step and yet right in touch with the scene of the time – but to plenty more it was foolish. After all, who needs to listen to songs that are hard to hear, written in an ancient folk idiom that’s hard to understand and features instruments last heard on a mainstream record in the early 60s when you can listen to hour-long guitar solos and nonsense lyrics about getting it on and banging a gong on a white swan? Well, me actually, perhaps because of this album’s careful research or perhaps because of its pioneering folk-rock hybrid blend (unlike The Byrds et al, this is folk played as rock not rock played as folk) or perhaps just because Glam Rock was as shallow and poorly thought out as it sounds. Whatever your thoughts, like the other two Jack The Lad records for charisma ‘The Old Straight Track’ is an album that’s aged better than almost anything else from the period, with a heritage and background to match the contemporary sound that Sweet, Slade, Mud etc, can’t hope to match. Perhaps if I’d have been around in 1974 I’d have thought differently – but sitting here in 2011 its ‘Jack The Lad’ that sounds like the future, not 'Tiger Feet' or 'Cum On Feel The Noize As We Spel Fings Reli Baddly'.
Few people truthfully know about this album – even most Lindisfarne fans don’t want to know about these Jack The Lad records – but the few that do usually complain that this album is ‘too folky’ or there ‘isn’t enough excitement’. Sometimes I despair over my fellow reviewers – sure the folk influences are probably the strongest of all four Jack records and there’s a couple of tracks here that go on too long without anything happening, but in my eyes there’s still oodles of excitement on this record, from swirling guitar solos to an epic swift-moving folk tale in four parts to one of the best rock bass riffs on record. After all, Jack The Lad was all about ‘twists’: instruments you didn’t expect, lyrical resolutions that come out of nowhere, subject matters that no one else was expecting and fancy jigs added to the end of ballads and vice versa and none of their records sums this up better than ‘The Old Straight Track’, a traditional-sounding title that sounds as ironic as it is serious. This second record has a sound all of its own – a metallic charge, interplay from various styles, makes and variations on guitars, banjos, mandolins, bouzoukis, etc, set against authentic ‘folk’ singing.
Much of that comes from the presence of two players who get seriously overlooked by music historians and both of whom were drafted in to fill Rod’s ample shoes. Ian Fairburn (known to the band as ‘Walter’) does all the multi-instrumental parts Rod could, playing violins, guitars, mandolin and a whistle. Many of the solos across the album are his and are all the better for featuring a combination of instruments you don’t often get to hear on record. Bassist Phil Murray, once of Hedgehog Pie for those among you who really know your folk bands, is also a key player on this album – although interestingly his style is all about rocky, pounding bass lines (similar to John Entwistle’s in The Who) despite his background in pure folk. The other three are the same as before: Billy Mitchell is a terrific frontman who never seemed to have the right luck joining bands at the right time (originally he was going to be drafted into replace Alan Hull after the Lindisfarne split in 1972, before Jacka left with him and took the band name with them), with an ability to match catchy pop tunes with meaningful lyrics. Drummer Ray Laidlaw is the focus the band badly needed, pulling this disparate group of players together with a loose style equally at home on folk and rock (not an easy task to manage, it has to be said). And finally Simon Cowe adds the eccentric humour and flashy guitar solos, contributing both his most out-there and his most traditional Jack The Lad songs for this record and again revealing what an under-rated talent he was, finally blossoming after years of being kept silent in Lindisfarne. In all, this is a far jokier line-up of the band than the one that had worked on the first Jack The Lad record and its even further away from the earnest Lindisfarne sticking-up-for-our-rights sound that Alan Hull in particular made all his own – but in its own way ‘The Old Straight Track’ is as tough and uncompromising as any other record from the 1970s.
What is disappointing about Jack The Lad in this period is that few of their concerts seem to have been recorded. This line-up of the band were responsible for more mayhem than pretty much any touring 70s band, with a live show consisting of cardboard-cut out Geordies, mimed statues of Adam and Eve being sculpted by God to various sizes and proportions (!) and Phil Murray’s solo segment where the rest of the band simply left the stage and went to the bar, egging him on so they didn’t have to return for hours. Poor Ralph McTell, who took the band on as a support act, often ended with a crowd far too livelier and merry to listen to what he was trying to sing! No wonder Jack The Lad were well loved by festival attendants where their mix of genuine love of for the music they were playing and boozy nonchalance won many people over – but, alas the only recording that does seem to exist is a gig from Plymouth in 1976, right at the end of the band’s life with Ray Jackson becoming the fourth member of Lindisfarne to join the band and that’s pretty ropey it has to be said. No matter, as long as sites like this one keep talking about them, I reckon we can get both Lindisfarne and Jack The Lad back at the very top of reminiscences about music of the period and finally put both bands in amongst the highest musical brethren as they deserve.
Now, 'The Old Straight Track' isn't perfect and in truth it's a bit of a climb down from the highly consistent debut album. It is a shade too far down the folk path for my taste at times, although for every semi-mistake like 'King's Favourites' there's a charming silly song like 'Buy Broom Buzzems' or 'The Third Millennium' and the sound of 'Weary Whaling Grounds', one of the toughest grittiest rockers any of the Lindisfarne tribe ever recorded. 'The Wurm' also goes on a bit you have to say, taking up a whole eight and a half minutes (well, it does cover a five-year sea voyage I suppose). The end result is a little mixed - and again it's frustrating to think how great this album might have been had the two halves of Lindisfarne stayed together (the period 'Mark II' album is similarly patchy but often powerful and undeniably pretty) and strong as some of the traditional material is the band's original songs are definitely their stronger hand at this stage in their career (they really feel the loss of a third writer in Rod, even if the title track is in many ways a 'tribute' to him and his passion for metaphors of roads as metaphors for life. However the thing you carry away most from this album is how brave it is, how deeply out of times the songs and production are and how daring it was to release an album with these songs, that title and that cover in 1974 at the height of glitz and glamour. Jack The Lad, never did anything by halves and despite the title they took the back road to success with this album, taking on the wilderness in their quest for rootsier music rather than the old straight track. It's a path that more fans deserved the chance to walk on and for all its faults a welcome album to have on CD at last (the first release in the digital era coming as late as 2005).
The album begins with ‘Oakey Strike Evictions’, the first of the songs to be given a traditional writing credit although it’s actually one of the more modern songs here, written by folk historian Tommy Armstrong. Sung by almost the whole band – in order Mitch, Phil, Si, Walter, Mitch – it’s a rousing, rocking song, folk in spirit and lyric but rock in vibe and melody with the first of many lyrics about downtrodden masses taking a stand for themselves. On this track it’s a miner’s strike that goes wrong, with a rich hangman looking forward to the day’s execution until he realises just how many of his charges would have died from starvation anyway without his help and that the uprising is a last ditch attempt. The track is based loosely on truth: a strike in County Durham that involved coal owners hiring cheap labour and evicting the old from their long-term jobs thanks to hiring local thugs and 'Candymen', though to be local scrap merchants buying all of the miner's possessions at a pittance in an effort to force them to leave that bit quicker. The song is held together by a rousing chorus, a little like Lindisfarne’s ‘We Can Swing Together’, which is sung either straight or sarcastically depending on the events of the verses. The miner’s ‘laughable thoughts’ about equality and freedom is soon replaced by grisly details like the ropes being hung around the men’s necks and the rich looking on ‘wishing them to hell’. As if that wasn’t scary enough the actual hanging is summed up at the end in musical terms but a breathless, high-wire act of counterpointed riffs from two guitarists and a bass, sounding like chaos as each of the men struggle to break their bonds and Phil’s bass in particular keeps dropping away suddenly from the sound as if mimicking the bodies hanging. Despite being sung mainly from the hangman’s point of view it’s clear whose side the band are on, with the strikers painted as innocent martyrs in our minds whatever charges are brought against them and the victims of social class gone mad. All in all, this is an impressive opening track and one of the better rock-folk hybrids Jack The Lad ever performed.
‘Jolly Beggar’ keeps up the break-neck pace but slows down the tempo to a menacing crawl. Mitch, singing at about twice the speed of the rest of the band, must have hard time getting this song’s tricky timing and quick-snapping rhymes to sound natural but he does a fine job on another of the album’s highlights. This time it’s the tale of a beggar who spurns the charity a rich household gives him and instead takes to raping the lady of the household because he might as well – he feels he has nothing to live for. What could easily have been a very jokey song, with its funny rhymes and limerick-style stanzas, instead sounds quite threatening here, with the song sounding as if it’s being played back at a slower speed. The biggest trouble is that, unlike ‘Oakey Strike Convictions’, there’s no real resolution to this song – it ends with the beggar meeting the king’s guards with the cheeky cry ‘I never had such lodgings as I did last night!’ and a jokey jig that adds little to the song and sounds as if it’s arrived by another means entirely. The playing, though, is great – with Walter’s burbling optimistic guitar-work off-set by a moody rhythm section and the neat touch of Simon Cowe’s sinister laugh being heard in the background just at the point where the beggar is meant to cry out.
‘The Third Millennium’ is Cowe’s song and is one of his funniest and best. Aping the traditional songs the bands have been busy studying, he comes up with a Medieval-sounding tale about a group of peasants fearing their own demise as allegedly told in Nostrodamus – until the second verse and chorus tells us that it’s our generation Cowe is writing about, approaching the ‘third millennium’ (ie 2000). As it happens, Nostradamus clearly states in his quatrains that his visions go right up till the year 3947 – and that the Earth may well last longer than that as despite the many wars, famines and nasty things he sees coming humanity is never wiped out in one go. The idea of the world ending in the year 2000 is in fact a biblical one, based on the date God is meant to have created the Earth. There is a Bible link here too, with a third verse about the narrator’s annoyance at the way his friends who have made lots of money look down on him and that with ‘their pockets full of money they could not get through my door’ that could have been taken straight from the Bible quote about it being ‘easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man getting into heaven’. The best line of the song though is Cowe’s straight-faced comment that, as a result, he’s ‘taken out insurance in the form of being poor’, as if the state of the narrator’s finances is a deliberate policy rather than the result of bad luck (no wonder the 7:84 Group approached Cowe after he left the band – their political theories about equality and the spread of wealth are in full accord with this song!) The idea of modern man still as a bunch of superstitious peasants is a good one for a song (if you’re not easily insulted!) and despite the sound of things there’s actually nothing anachronistic about this song (planting beans, hunting of the whale, etc), with a backing track that veers from pure folk to pure pop to pure rock attack along the way. Cowe’s vegetarianism comes to the fore on his second verse about the world’s famers being ‘butcherers with no redeeming grace’, undoing centuries of human progress rearing cattle along the way and indeed this whole song is about seeing the course of humanity in a new way all round. After all, it’s actually quite a modern (Victorian I think) view of the world to suppose that mankind is getting more and more civilised with each passing generation, rather than going round in circles and learning nothing as is the argument proposed here. Still, however deep this song is meant to be its best treated as a comedy song, complete with the memorable if confusing chorus ‘wake up you lazy bum – for if you don’t slow down you’ll never get to see the third millennium’. One of the best tracks on the album, although at just 1 minute and 55 seconds long it does sell itself a bit short and could have been a lot longer.
‘Fingal The Giant’ is another Cowe song, more traditional than the last track despite its even weirder tale of a land of giants who live alongside a world of humans that lose the power to see them. Fingal lives in Fingal’s Cave, a large cavern made from natural erosion in Scotland that could easily be imagined to be the living room of some giant and where the giants live peacefully until mankind penetrates his home. Interestingly, Mitch’s lead vocal is both the narrator and the giant – its composer Cowe who takes the vocal of the human and as a result it’s the humans who sound ‘alien’ and ‘foreign’ to us, as if the narrator we trust and the giant are on the same side. In this song ‘magic’ is ‘real’, the way that we used to live in our distant past before scientists came along, although religion comes along to replace it, causing much suffering between the two sides in the process. As a result, this is a song all about trust, with two clans very different and wary of each other both believing ‘their’ way is right and that the other should fall to them – in the end the humans win, with the two harmless giants cast back to ‘human size’ and bell-tolling monks chanting that God will be pleased. However, the song doesn’t sound as if its ending on a happy note, simply drifting away without any real conclusion, as if the whole story is going to raise its head yet again in two millennia when science takes over from religion and goodness knows what’s going happen in another 2000 years!) Overall, this is another good song on paper but it’s less immediate than the other recordings here and perhaps a little too folky for most tastes, with a song that has less twists and turns than the other songs on this album.
The highlight of the album for me is ‘Weary Whaling Grounds’, another traditional tune learnt from the Song and Dance Society given a truly modern twist with an all-out rock attack. Lyrically, this is simply a whaler moaning about the wayward life he has to lead and has some clever half-rhymes with an unusual AABAAB rhyming structure that works really well. It’s the backing, though, that makes this piece so memorable, with Cowe’s wild shrieking guitar in particular tailor made for this song, summing up the rage of the sea, although it’s Phil Murray’s bouncing bass riff that catches the ear, with a driving beat that’s as unruly as the wild waves on the sound effects tape, lurching from side to side and trying to throw the rest of the band off its scent. The tension going into the first solo is mesmerising, as the narrator and crew sight the whale at once, with the whale representing both the means to make a livelihood and the wider mankind-nature battle that’s been raging for centuries (or have I been reading too much Moby Dick?) The ending is better still – after all that emotion and angst the boat returns to shore ‘three pounds down’ on when they set off, with a moody ending with half-heard ghostly chanting (‘It’s a weary life for a whaling man, years at sea for £3.10’) that sounds like the sea gloating at mankind’s attempts to control it. The end result is a fascinating song that works just as well as a traditional song and as a 1970s rock workout and Jack The Lad as a band have never sounded better.
The traditional folk medley of ‘The King’s Favourite’ and ‘The Marquis of Tullybardine’, however, sounds like a failed Pentangle instrumental With no words to go on, the first piece is simply a rather tuneless bit of instrumental guitar picking that doesn’t really go anywhere. I’m not sure which King had this anonymous piece down as a favourite but, well, Royal families are well known for having poor taste and this is another example of that. The Marquis of Tullybardine sounds like a much more lively chap, with the song crashing into the last piece with the entrance of a drunken uncle, with the electric side of Jack The Lad gearing up into a riotous jig. Goodness knows where Tullybardine is by the way - Scotland possibly, given the style of the music – although it may well be a name made up by an unknown Medieval writer trying to impress a client with a made up name. Either way, the second half is a fun run through some chord changes that sound almost rock and roll despite the mandolin playing in the foreground, but ultimately like many instrumentals this is pure filler and not up to the other pieces on the album.
‘Peggy (Overseas With A Soldier)’ is another traditional tune with the familiar Jack The Lad snappy half-rhymes and cautionary lyrics about a love triangle where nobody seems to be happy and everyone seems to be with the wrong person. A series of musical chairs-type scenarios moves the characters along to places they would never normally go, finding love at last on a song that, unusually for this record, ends happily, with Peggy sent overseas ‘with a soldier’ rather than suffering at the hands of her abusive husband. Again, there’s a bit of social commentary here as its the poor soldier who has nothing who can offer Peggy the love and happiness she needs – not the rich but spoilt lord of the house. There’s a nice flurry of flutes at the start of this song, unusual sounds for a Jack The Lad record, along with the usual rasping bass which seems to be giving its own caustic commentary about the situation and Mitch at his most vocally folky yet. Musically speaking, this is similar to what we’ve heard already on the album but is still expertly played a band that’s very tight, playing the ‘holes’ in the song’s rhythm as neatly as the on-beats. There’s also an unusual a capella section that shows off Jack The Lad’s ‘sweet and sour’ harmonies off well – although you have to ask why they chose to sing what is only really a straight repeat of the previous verse in this fashion. In all, less original but nevertheless impressive, with a staccato-driven arrangement that must have been a nightmare to play.
You can just picture Jack The Lad busy studying old manuscripts at the English Dance and Song Society records and killing themselves with laughter at discovering this one. On first listen ‘Buy Broom Buzzems’ sounds like a euphemism for something else as the band used to suggest on stage (it's about buying brooms, honest - and it's got absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with tits!'), but it’s actually a 100% genuine Geordie song about brushes and all the great things they can clean around the house. In typical Jack The Lads style, then, we don’t get what we think we’re getting but a rather earnest song about the narrator dreaming of making his house perfect, though in the end he rejects the promises of a cleaner kitchen because as long as his wife is happy ‘that’s good enough for me’. The joke is that the band play it straight, with Mitch especially strong on the vocals and really getting into the character of the salesman. By and large this is one of the more traditional folky songs on the album, although the band add an inventive middle section where folky fiddles and mandolins meet electric guitar and bass head on, dancing a waltz together. However, like many of the songs on this album, ‘Buy Broom Buzzems’ is over before it’s begun, even with a lengthy instrumental coda, and could have been so much more with an extra verse or two.
‘De Havilland’s Mistake’ is the most traditional sounding song on the album, another chirpy instrumental played on mandolin (and not unlike Cowe’s Lindisfarne instrumental ‘Plankton’s Lament’). In actual fact, it’s a new piece by Jack The Lad’s guitarist and possibly named after the inventor Sir Geoffrey De Havilland, who designed many aeroplanes including what’s considered to be the first to use a jet engine. Aeroplanes were, of course, a long way off in the future from the Medieval period this music conjures up – but that all sounds like part of the joke, with even the name ‘De Havilland’ conjuring up a period from long ago (a friend of the Marquis of Tullybardine, perhaps?) on the one hand and aeroplanes in flight on the other. Stately but inconsequential, this instrumental sounds more like a straight Pentangle cover than a song written in 1974 and is probably one of the least interesting songs here. The identity of the person at the beginning and end of the track quoting ‘£441 and 27 pence’ and apologising for making a mistake is unknown, as is the reason this ghostly voice is on the track at all – is this how much aeroplanes cost to make back then? One of the more perplexing moments on the album.
‘The Old Straight Track’ is Cowe’s fourth song on the record (the most in his whole career, with Lindisfarne or Jack The Lad) and it’s another surprisingly traditional number about the founder of a town laying down its foundations on the ‘old straight track’. There’s no real twist to this lilting folk ballad at all, which is highly unusual, which follows a 'thinker' who lays the foundations of a town after four weeks of wandering and a shrine to some bigger presence that offers him 'clues' of where to go. It all sounds suspiciously like the fabled creations of cities from our past (particularly Rome, supposedly founded by Romulus and Remus when they weren't hnaging round with wolves). To be honest the verses don’t really catch the ear much and like many a traditional folk song there are way more words than you're average song (not that I can really complain about that too much I suppose given the length of these reviews, but I'm not singing this – trust me you'd have left after the opening line if I was), it’s just the lovely flowing chorus with its combination of religious and magic ceremonies that stands out.
The album closes with ‘The Wurm’, the only Billy Mitchell song on the album, although in truth it’s a suite of songs stuck together. The story is of the King of Banbara, who takes up with a new wife who turns out to be witch who either expels the sweet, innocent and beautiful princess or riles her so much that she ups and leaves by herself (meaning the Queen is only a heir's breath away from losing her rightful place anyway...) By the time of the third section the song has switched from an impersonal narrator to the voice of a knight who swears to kill the dragon - before discovering that she's the princess (no I didn't see that plot twist either - in fact I'm still not entirely sure I understand this song, which switches gears more time than Keith Moon on a motorbike). The first section of the song is menacing, with Ray Laidlaw playing marching rhythms that make the song sound like a fairy tale, before a storming second section finds Mitchell unleashing his anger on what could be considered the ‘rock; section of this mini-opera. The third section is the best, with some terrific violin playing from Ian Fairburn and perhaps the best melody of the entire album, switching from major to minor keys as if mirroring the uncertain future of the kingdom and the struggles of the warrior, with Mitchell excelling himself with his dramatic delivery. A quick guitar solo from Cowe leads us into the song’s twist and final section: the guard dragon is no evil beast but a figure far more human than the warrior set on violence and the song ends on a peaceful, lilting section where the princess is saved, the dragon is invited to live on in the kingdom and the nation is saved. However, a last burst of electric power kicks into the song and it becomes clear that the princess is too late - the witch is already a toad (she can still be prosecuted though can't she? Turning into a toad wouldn't be enough of an excuse for the Conservatives to stop harassing benefit claimants after all...) There can’t be many albums that end with the phrase ‘but she is turned into a toad, never to be found’ – but then there probably haven’t been many songs like ‘The Wurm’, an album so far into the fantasy world Hollywood are probably planning to use it for the next Lord Of the Rings film (incidentally what background scenery do I have in my heard when I hear this song? New Zealand – the long and boring Tolkien films are practically a travelogue with a few goblins thrown in!) Ironically, a worm is about the only animal who doesn’t appear in this epic, which is half nursery rhyme and half prog rock epic, although there is of course a big dragon who turns out to be the bewitched princess after all. The most ambitious song Jack The Lad ever did, this experiment is only partly successful, with one too many sections and ideas to fit neatly into a song and the band might have done better expanding the urgent third section into a song in its own right. Still, coming at the end of the second half of the album which has been taking things easy somewhat, it’s a welcome attempt at something different. Listen out too for some confusing piano bar improvisation and a bit of audience applause tacked onto the end of the song for no apparent reason - are we meant to be back in the folk-clubs? Or can the toad play the piano now?
So, in all, ‘The Old Straight Track’ is probably too inconsistent to be considered a classic album, right up there with Lindisfarne’s best, but it is nevertheless a forgotten gem that needs dusting off again because there are some fabulous moments. Few other albums are as ambitious as this one, with its tales of giants, wizards, whalers and hanged miners, and even if there are too many filler instrumentals this album is nevertheless a very satisfying and pioneering mix of the old and the then-contemporary. Of all the groups we cover on this site, Lindisfarne seems to be the one that’s been forgotten most and they really shouldn’t be. As all good Lindisfans know, that band only ever made three ‘proper’ albums (ie those recorded before the reunion in 1978 and even the biggest followers tend to give the stuff recorded from the late 70s onwards short shrift; I kind of agree, but with the exception of the under-rated ‘Sleepless Nights’) and might have been truly huge had they not self-destructed so suddenly and with so much of their best work before them. Whilst I’d never willingly swap these first three albums for the four by Jack The Lad it would be a shame if fans pass by everything that came after them: the Lindisfarne Mark II albums, Alan Hull solo sets and Jack The Lad albums, because all three show real worth and at times are the equal and perhaps the better of the more highly regarded ‘Nicely Out Of Tune’ and ‘Fog On The Tyne’. My softest spot will always be for ‘Jack The Lad’, though, the band managed to mix some of the most serious and poignant songs of everybody on this list with a motto that read ‘Jack The Lad is Geordie for conviviality – or in English, having a bloody good time’.