Saturday, 8 October 2011
Bert Jansch Obituary (News, Views and Music Issue 117)
Bert Jansch Obituary 1943-2011
On a rare appearance to the UK in 2008, a group of reporters eagerly asked AAA star Neil Young to name his favourite guitarist of all time. The troupe of media present expected the great one to name Jimi Hendrix, perhaps Eric Clapton, certainly Robert Page – maybe even old partner Stephen Stills. Instead the guitar legend plumped without hesitation for Bert Jansch, leaving all but the most musically-knowledged reporters to scratch their heads and make a note to look up this obvious superstar of gargantuan talent weird-sounding name as soon as they got back to their desks (bear in mind too that Neil added Bert was the one guitarist he’d be afraid to play on stage with because he’d be ‘blown off it’). That anecdote would have tickled Bert, who died of cancer in the early hours of Wednesday, October 5th, aged 67, and remained to the end one of the shyest, humblest, least likely looking musical legends of our times, a musician in the truest sense, more content playing to a handful of people down his local than playing stadiums and doing Top Of The Pops. A hero to anyone who’d ever heard his distinctive expressive playing and a nobody to anyone who isn’t deeply into the folk scene of the 1960s and 70s, you sense that was the way Bert liked it, content to give his all – whether solo, with close friend and asscoiate John Renbourn or together with Pentangle –to whoever was listening to his art, without the distractions of sales, publicity or TV appearances getting in his way. In his time Bert re-shaped the way we thought about music, adding a dose of tradition and rememberance to an exploding 60s scene that was exciting and brand-spankingly new as well as breaking more rules in a single solo that most guitarists know how to flaunt in a lifetime and becoming a founding member of a group who fused more musical styles together than anyone before or since. You might not be able to find his records in your local CD hypermarket but keep an eye out for the hopeful collector rummaging through the ‘P’ or ‘J’ sections of the ‘folk’ racks of our disappearing second hand shops, the one with misty eyes and hopeful grin still searching in the hope that he’s found some long lost Jansch rarity – because Bert was very good at creating rarities. And fans so dedicated to his music that they only lived from one purchase to the next. Bert would have hated to have been remembered with a lot of fuss, but to his many fans how coulkd we possibly remember our hero with anything less?
Glaswegian Bert was arguably the biggest star of five when he formed Pentangle with a group of close friends he’d met playing London’s folk groups, an assorted bunch who recognised Jansch’s talent and experience, playing clubs likeEdinburgh'’s ‘Howff’ from the moment he left school at 16. Bert wasn’t actually there as a guitarist – he snuck his way in by signing up to the pub as ‘caretaker’, borrowing guitars off friends to play between concerts because he couldn’t afford one himself and often spent the night sleeping on the club’s floor without anywhere else to go. That fascination with the guitar had gone right back to the start of Bert’s stint at Ainslie Park Secondary school and even Bert’s oldest friends nearly all have their memories filled of Bert practising, polishing or playing his guitar or one he just happened to have ‘borrowed’ from a friend. His interest accelerated when the teenage Jansch met local singer Archie Fisher at the Howff, who agreed to teach the self-taught Bert a few extra tips.
Desperate to broaden his horizons, Jansch set off on a half-organised, half-slumming it trip across Europe, successfully building up a name for himself before a trip to Tangiers went badly wrong and Bert fell ill with dysentry. Sent back to London to recuperate, the musical dream seemed to have gone wrong – but like The Beatles deported from Hamburg, out of troubled times came a lucky escape. A producer named Bill Leader came across Jansch, recognised his obvious talents and persuaded him to record his live set of the day onto a rented tape recorder – even lending his living room to the guitarist for the day. Leader hawked the tape around record company offices fgor a while before getting an interest from Transatlantic Records, Bert’s musical home with and without Pentangle for the next eight years or so. The record was eventually released asa ‘Bert Jansch’ in 1965, when the guitarist was 21, and quickly became alegendary album around Briaton’s folk circuit.
None of Bert’s solo records had set the charts alight, but then they weren’t meant to – what they did succeed in doing was convincing many of the leading guitarists of the day that what this simple, humble man was playing on guitar just was not possible. There was even a rumour at the time that Bert and already close friend and comrade in arms John Renbourn just weren’t human that there was no way any guitarist, let alone unknowns, should be able to bend the rules and create sounds like they did. Thankfully someone had the sense to sit the two men down in front of a microphone, both together and apart, and the results somehow manage to sound like one of the most fruitful and rounded listening experiences you can have, despite having just one or two voices and one or two guitars as accompaniment. Already Bert’s setting out his fashion – or rather non-fashion statements, appearing in a worn and faded jacket Columbo would have rejected and sporting unkempt yet unfashionably short hair for the time; Bert cared more for his music than his appearance throughout this career, something that helped with the ‘honesty’ and integrity of his records, refusing to play the pop or folk star game even this early on in his career.
Most of Bert’s early run of albums are hard to find nowadays – even with a second re-issue on CD for most of them a couple of years ago – but all are worth seeking out for lovers of the acoustic guitar and epic folk tunes. Thankfully enough word of mouth has trickled down for albums like Bert’s debut, ‘Bert Jansch’ (1965), ‘It Don’t Bother Me’ (1965) and ‘Jack Orion’ (1966) to become celebrated classics. Compare against anything the folk scene in Britain had to offer in the mid 60s – Peter Paul and Mary, The Seekers, even Dylan – and the sound is tougher and harsher than anything else around and far more original to boot. Pentangle will go on to become most famous for revitalising traditional music for a far more contemporary setting, making current music sound old and old sound contemprary as we put it in our review for ‘Basket Of Light’, although it’s Bert’s early originals that are probably the most famous from these albums, whose highlights include the endearing ‘The Gardener’, the chilling ‘Blackwater Slide’ (a forgotten traditiobnal folk song later covered by Led Zeppelin – Jimmy Page was another huge Jansch fan), an early cover that helped to popularise the Davy Graham hit ‘Anji’ (Paul Simon learnt his version from the Jansch recording) and the first attempt at ‘Jack Orion’, here a three minute folk wonder but later transformed by Pentangle into a 20 minute jazz-blues-folk-pop-rock-psychedelic epic! The most famous songs, though, were the Dylanesque protest of ‘Do You Hear Me Now?’, which became a #1 hit in a much watered-down cover version from Donovan (today, many fans still think the hippied one wrote it) and the first real anti-drugs folk song ever written ‘Needle Of Death’, about a friend who died of a drugs overdose. Both remain among the most chilling songs written by anyone of the time, while like Dylan Jansch’s work was to get considerably lighter the older he got.
Personally, however, my favourite Bert Jansch albums are the ones he made during ‘time off’ from Pentangle, during an impressive work shcedule that saw the guitarist release three albums with or without the group for much of the late 60s and early 70s. ‘Birthday Blues’ (1969), released when Bert turned 25, almost never gets talked about in the same breath as the earlier LPs but it’s the missing link between folk and flower power, with the song for Bert’s second wife ‘Miss Heather Rosemary Sewell’ and the poignant ‘I Am Lonely’ two of Bert’s long lost classics. The two albums recorded either side of ‘Birthday Blues’ aren’t bad either – ‘Nicola’ (1967), Bert’s last album before founding Pentangle is more traditional and similar to his work with the band whilst 1971’s ‘Rosemary Lane’ takes Bert’s work to its next logical step, adding a touch of early 70s singer-songwriter appeal as was the vogue at the time.
It’s for Pentangle, however, that Bert will always be best remembered. The first real hint of the band comes in the ‘Bert and John’ album of 1966, one that cements the two founding members’ distinctive but complementary styles, weaving together a familiar musical tapestry although there’s no double-bass, drums or singers to go other the top. Alas this album too is rarer than a decent Spice Girl single and in desperate need of a re-issue sometime soon (a tribute one would be nice!) The band really took off in 1969, however, when Bert and John got together with singer Jacqui McShee, double-bassist Danny Thompson and drummer Terry Cox, all five of them pioneers on their respective instruments and willing to take the oldest material they could find and re-invent it with the fire and fizzle that only the 1960s could bring.
In retrospect ‘Pentangle’ is a perfect name for a group made up of five distinctive ‘stars’, all well regarded in their chosen fields, coming together to celebrate Britain’s heritage with a hint of ‘magic’ and ‘mystery’ that made even the biggest folk standard sound new and enticing. In fact so new and enticing that it took a while for any record label to touch the band: a well received gig at the Royal Festival Hall in 1967 helped Pentangle’s stock among their peer group, but it took a further year shaping their act for the band to sign with Transatlantic Records. The choice of producer for the first few albums was a strange choice though: Shel Talmy, a man most famous in AAA circles for being fired by The Kinks and The Who in quick succession in the mid-60s, was better known for his best-selling pop records than folk albums and yet the partnership was a successful one, with Talmy approving of an act who seemed much more ‘professional’ and together with most he’d work with – and Pentangle approving of a producer who understood them enough to let them get their live act down on tape without too many changes.
The first record to use the band name is ‘The Pentangle’ (1968), a widely admired fusion of folk and jazz which is quite unique in their canon because of it’s wild, daring, furious improvising, the long running time of much of the contents and the amount of instrumentals used. Whilst folk was always the band’s biggest influence (and the genre they’re most often filed under in record shops these days), ‘Pentangle’ is their jazziest album, one that stretches songs as far – and sometimes further – than they will go. Bert’s darting acoustic guitar, sometimes in partnershiop and sometimes in competition with John Renbourn’s, drives much of this album forward and charts yet more unchartered territory for acoutsic guitar players. The follow-up, the half-live half-studio album ‘Sweet Child’ (1968) was more subdued and less risky, but still features some terribly daring instrumentals which feature Bert taking the band out on a limb further than most rock or folk albums dare to go.
Third album ‘Basket Of Light’ (1969, see review no 31) is where it all came together for most fans, a classic of its genre – whichever one of its many genres you choose to put it in – and the band’s best-selling album by some margin, with a toned down instrumental battle and much more emphasis on Jacqui McShee singing folk songs from the past. It’s often Bert’s earthy drawl that catches the ear, though, and this album starts a fine trend of vocal cameos from the guitarist that sound like they’re coming from a darker, deeper place than Jacqui’s naïve innocent narrator and give Pentangle a much more sinister edge. You can’t hear that edge on the band’s most famous moment, though, when the band scored the first of only two charting singles with ‘Light Flight’, a charming pop rocker driven by Bert’s almost paranoid flashes on guitar and appeared as the theme to well-regarded 70s sitcom ‘Take Three Girls’.
Most of the band’s new fans and critics expected the band to follow up their highly successful record with more of the same – but the band weren’t yet finished developing their style. ‘Cruel Sister’ (1970) is seen by most fans as an experiemnt too far, including an acapella track sung by McShee alone and ending with that epic version of ‘Jack Orion’ first purloined By Bert for his solo stage set in 1966. Here this new version, with Bert very much in control, shows how much the band have developed – all group members have the space to show off their skills and instead of fusing hundreds of styles into one instead we get a new style with nearly every verse. Some fans actively dislike this record and especially ‘Orion’, but the sudden switch from tin-whistle folk to no-holds-barred rock is one of the most exciting in Pentangle’s canon, driven by Bert’s voice and restless guitar.
From hereon in most fans seemed to give up on Pentangle, whose sales were slow from here to their end in 1973 but that’s a shame because their final two albums, ‘Reflection’ (1971) and ‘Solomon’s Seal’ (1973) contain some of their best loved material. Transatlantic passed on the band for the last album – but if the band thought Warners were going to take more interest they were sadly mistaken when the label actually ‘lost’ their master tape copy of the ‘Seal’ album, making it one of the rarest AAA albums of all until John Renbourn found a copy of it propping up an organ in his home studio and it finally appeared on CD for the first time in 2003. Unsurprisingly, the prolific Jansch is reponsible for much of these final album’s best material, including the title track of the former LP, another multi-layered epic based on an early unreleased Jansch guitar piece ‘Joint Control’ that the others added parts and lyrics too. The best loved Jansch Pentangle tracks though are ‘When I Get Home’ and the fond band farewell ‘People On The Highway’ (see our top five below), the perfect summation of five very different people going their separate ways almost against their will.
Pentangle were too gentlemanly to break up the way most bands do, sniping in the press and vowing never to work together again – instead their split was more the result of a slow and growing divide between the band that saw them become progressively less and less interested in recording together. Fractious recordings in a barely built studio for ‘Reflections’ didn’t help matters much (bassist Danny Thompson had to listen to playbacks with his ear to the floor in order to hear whether he’d played his parts correctly or not, the speakers were so bad) and the band disagreed about what time of day to record, meaning few of the band were ever together in the same place for long enough to play together live (Bert was often the last to amble in, often at night, ‘depending how much alcohol he’d had the night before’ according to onlookers). Matters weren’t helped too by the fact that Bert’s - and John’s - solo releases had sold less than even the last Pentangle albums and yet were being held up as masterpieces by a musica press who for some reason wanted to see the band fail. The band were also becoming reluctant to tour, especially Jansch, who was losing heart at trying to play to larger crowds who weren’t as ‘into’ the music as on the band’s early club dates.
Perhaps the final reason for the band’s split was that the band just weren’t good enough at playing the political games needed to stay strong sellers in the charts – and without the publicity and with a mix of epic and adventurous songs they just didn’t have a regular enough audience to keep buying their records. That’s a shame because few other bands had the breadth of past, present and future that Pentangle had at their peak, that ability to show how timeless certain themes and subjects are across time and how important it is to us in the present to know where we’ve been before, to avoid making the same mistakes all over again.At their best Pentangle proved how amazing the human race can and has been – at their worst they proved to be as human as the rest of us.
After the split in 1973 Bert moved to Wales, taking some time off to re-charge his batteries before returning to making solo records, occasionally with other members of Pentangle guesting. His first post-band release ‘L A Turnaround’ is generally reckoned to his biggest crowning glory of all, but even this record is hard to find nowadays (so here is yet another plea to see Bert’s solo albums put back into the shops on CD!) A softening approach to touring and a need for money after a split with his second wife saw Jansch back on the road for most of the 70s, with his first recording for some years being a collaboration with Martin Jenkins on ‘Avocet’ (1979), which is a loose concept album about birds (of the ornithology kind!)
Perhaps surprisingly, Bert was one of only two original members to be involved with Pentangle again in the 1980s. Along with Jacqui, Bert continued to add his distinctive acoustic playing and gruff vocals to a series of albums including the under-rated ‘Open The Door’ (1982) which may well be Jacqui McShee’s finest hour, ‘In The Round’ (1988), ‘So Early In The Spring’ (1989), featuring Lindisfarne’s Rod Clements on bass, ‘Think Of Tomorrow’ (1991) and finally ‘One More Road’ (1993). While there’s little on these albums to compare with the glory days and they do take the slightly safer road of stright folk without Pentangle’s many other influences, it would be unfair to write them all off and (less surprisingly) Bert’s contributions are often among the best they have to offer.
Bert also continued his solo career on the side, including a warmly received collaboration with Lindisfarne’s Rod Clements ‘Leather Laundrette’ (1988). Unfortunately, it was while working on this album that Bert first became seriously ill, to the point where doctors told the 45-year-old guitarist he was likely to die unless he agreed to give up alcohol straight away, to ‘give it up or give up’ as he himself recounted the advice later. It’s to Bert’s credit that he managed to give up what had become something of an almost life-long prop, despite suffering a further setback with heart trouble that saw him have a serious operation in the late 1980s. Most fans generally regard Jansch’s first albums (solo and Pentangle) following this decision in the late 80s and 90s as the best of Bert’s output in many years and a timely CD re-issue for Bert’s first few solo albums helped encourage younger guitarists to check out his music.As a result, for the first time since 1969, Bert Jansch was ‘hip’ again. A ‘comeback’ album, ‘When The Circus Comes To Town’ (1995) was his biggest seller in ages and features a moving song dedicated to the surgeon who saved his life – a 1992 TV documentary ‘Acoustic Routes’ also did much to further the legend.
The last we heard of Bert solo was a record called ‘Black Swan’ in 2005 that again turned out to be one of the best selling and best received of his career, thanks to collaborations with Pete Docherty (then still in the Babyshambles) and Beth Orton and a final tour playing as warm-up act to none other than Neil Young on the memorably-titled ‘Twisted Road’ tour. Jansch was also one of the better award winners of the Radio 2 Folk Awards in recent years, taking the prize in 2001.
Jacqui McShee reformed Pentangle yet again – without Bert or indeed any other original members – performing as McShee’s Pentangle from 1995 onwards. However the whole band did get together for what turned out to be their final performances with the original line-up in 2009, for a handful of well received gigs that brought the band full circle – and even had them appearing on BBC Radio Sessions for the first time in nearly 40 years! They might well have done more, finaly ending with a ‘follow-up’ show at the Royal Albert Hall earlier this year some 42 years after their last gig there, featured on the cover of ‘Basket Of Light’ - but Bert had to have another heart operation in 2005 and spent the last two years of his life fighting throat cancer, pulling out of some tours for the first time in his career and saddneing other fans by having to stop frequently mid-song in those nhe did perform, due to the pain in his throat. Bert never stopped, though, right to the end and his death at the age of 67, still with plans for recordings and tours in mind before fibnallky succumbing to his illness in a London Hospice last week. The world has lost a trouper, a hero, a superman, a leading light and a legend – but Bert himself was too humble to think himself any of these things, shrugging off media attention and fan praise throughout his prolific career. Only we fans know what a masterful musician this humble man was and how much the music scene will miss him and his regular, always reliable output which did so much to change the worlds of folk, jazz, blues, pop, rock and all sorts of genres in-between that Bert probably invented somnewhere along the line!
Five Classic Bert Jansch Songs/Arrangements For Pentangle:
5) Jack Orion (‘Cruel Sister’ 1970): This side-long traditional song – re-discovered and first recorded by Bert in 1965 – is a good example of just what a range of styles and talents Bert had at his disposal. It starts as pure whimsical folk with one of Bert’s career best vocals, clear and airy, on a tale of a fiddler player who ends up in a duel over a lady. There’s a bit of everything in this piece, as first Terry’s support vocal, then his drums, then Danny’s bass, then John’s electric guitar and finally Jacqui arrive to flesh out a tune that builds verse by verse and minute by minute. Evwerything is thrown into this melting pot and I swear there’s even a bit of psychedelia at the start of the second half when John’s electric guitar clashes with the double bass head on. Few folk bands ever played it as dangerous and as bravely as Pentangle do on this track – and even if ‘Jack Orion’ isn’t a track you want to hear too often too masny times in a row, you have to applaud it for its audacity, it’s daring and its belief that the band can keep the audience interested to the bitter end. Chosen and masterminded by Bert, it’s a typical Jansch mix of the old and the new, all mangled together to sound like nothing else ever made.
4) O’er The Lonely Mountain (‘Think Of Tomorrow’ 1991): Not many of the Pentangle reunion songs were up to old standards and those that were were often old traditional; folk songs starring Jacqui’s undimmed magical voice. But this group-written opening track to Bert’s last album with the band uses the old Pentangle trick of juxtaposing Jacqui’s innocence against Bert’s gruffness on one of the better ecological songs around, with an urgency and emotion missing from many of these later tracks. The song is based around a classy acoustic riff from Jansch that sets the scene for a world that could be so bright – but mankind keeps getting in the way, with Bert’s vocal pitched just right between curt dimissal and angry emotion. Peter Kirkley’s electric guitar, much underused on the reunion albums, soars over the top for an anguished outpouring of grief and anger that somehow manages to sound old and then-contemporary all at the same time, in true Pentangle style. A wonderful, forgotten song in the Pentangle back catalogue.
3) Train Song (‘Basket Of Light’ 1969): Bert doesn’t have much to do on ‘Basket Of Light’, Pentangle’s best-selling and arguably most consistent album.His one shining moment of glory comes at the end of side one, with a noisy lament to the loss of the steam train during Dr Beeching’s cuts to the rail network. The opening 30 seconds alone features some of the most extraordinary acoutsic guitar playing on record, with Jansch improvising his way round a slower inverted version of the song’s main riff before jumping off a musical cliff and entering a pounding, angular song quite different to anything else on this largely traditional album. The next section of the song sounds like a train running off the rails, pushing its luck with how fast it can go, before a lovely litling reflective and wordless middle section sounds almost hymnal. The link between this and a repeat of the first section, with Jansch and Renbourn pushing each other to the limits, is one of the utter highlights of the Pentangle canon, caught somewhere between misery and celebration. An eerie overdub ofThompson's double bass, that sounds awfully like a train screeching off the rails, sets the icing on the cake on a song that sounds quite unlike anything else ever made by anybody.
2) When I Get Home (‘Reflections’ 1971): Like the next song on our list, this is a troubled song about needing a rest, dreaming of all the things to do when the narrator finally gets off tour and wondering what his wife will say when he finally arrives back home. For the most part this is a laidback lovely song with plenty of space for the band to stretch out and a typically Pentangle mix of restful verses and energetic choruses. The chorus finds the narrator trying to talk himself out of a prior meeting because he needs to be ready early the next morning – but oh how enticing the offer sounds! Home wins out over all, though, despite a fiery duel guitar battle between Jansch and Renbourn that’s the pair’s last great sparking moment in Pentangle before the split. An impressive song and one quite different to the band’s usual tradition or folk influences, this is an impressive rumination on what it means to have a ‘home’ – especially given that the narrator spends most of his life living in hotel rooms in separate cities.
1) People On The Highway (‘Solomon’s Seal’ 1973): Pentangle’s final album before their split is very much Bert’s album with the band – he gets five lead vocals and shares a sixth with everyobne else – despite it being Bert’s bordem with touring that effectively nailed the lid in Pentangle’s coffin. Much of the album is upbeat, with traditional folk figures finding happiness in love or realising that they can overcome obstacles, but this most personal song on the record is a teary farewell to the band that’s among the most moving autobiographical songs you can hear. The first verse is a grumpy reaction to the many hangers-on trying to get a piece of the band and the narrator desperate to escape even if it reluctantly means losing the band, searching for somewhere to ‘rest my uneasy mind’. The second puts the history of the band in context, how ‘its better to be going, better to be moving than clinging to your past’ and that the whole band badly needs a rest after six uncomfortable rollercoaster years together, needing ‘dreams’ and challenges to face to go along with the ‘resting’ from pure tiredness. A third verse deals with Bert’s mariage troubles of the time, with a wife who never sees him because he’s always on the road and who is no longer impressed by what he’s achieved with recordings or touring. A fourth verse looks hopefully towards a ‘new task, one that I understand’ because the Pentangle dream has been so filled with hangers-on, managers and agents and publicity agents and ‘friends’ so, movingly, ‘my life won’t be in vain’ and Bert the songwriter can get himself out of a rut and back to following his muse. A fifth verse deals with bittersweet status of the band, with Bert ‘mixed up inside’, both proud of the achievements and fed-up with the restrictions of the band where ‘every day brings rain’ and the narrator ends everyday ‘alone’. A sixth and final verse pondering his next move, how to tell the rest of the band when ‘sunny days roll by’ and ‘time ceases to run’, caught wondering what life would be like without the band as a millstone around his neck. As moving a song as you can come across, the whole band loved and identified with this song, turning in the last great group performance of Pentangle’s career and waving Jansch goodbye with piognancy and subtelty. If only all band split-ups were this concerned with what the others are thinking and could end in ways this beautiful.