Thursday, 26 March 2015
John Renbourn Tribute Special
John Renbourn Obituary 1944-2015
This afternoon I had a rare break from writing and after several weeks of barely being able to leave the house finally made it onto a bus. Given that these journeys are a hazard at the best of times (especially the dodgy elderly busses they have round my neck of the woods) even without m.e. attacks I thought I'd ease the burden by digging out one of my original mp3 players - one I haven't used for a long time given that I've spent most of the past year listening intently to whichever AAA artists I happen to be writing about. I haven't got round to Pentangle yet (I'm currently on the letter 'H' so have a bit to go before reaching 'P') so haven't heard them for a good month or so - and wasn't intending to hear them today, IU'd just hit the 'shuffle' button of 2000-odd songs. 'Excellent' I thought as I heard the first one which happened to be 'Train Song' (and yet whose squeaking cello noises on the fade sound a lot more like my bus), mentally noting for about the fiftieth time that I must dig out some of the Bert Jansch and John Renbourn solo and joint albums now that I have all of Pentangle's wares. And then they kept coming, one after another - there must have been eight across my short journey of half an hour there and half an hour back, each one sounding particularly resonant: the weep of sorrow that is 'Cold Rain and Snow', the gorgeous sitar-guitar duet that was 'Once I Had A Sweetheart', the gorgeous paean of 'Will The Circle Be Unbroken?', the jazzy upbeat strut of 'Light Flight', the merry poverty folktale jig of 'House Carpenter', the unusual loping gait of 'I Saw An Angel' and last but best of all dear John putting the world to rights on 'So Clear'. The rest of the evening I had Pentangle ringing in my ears, decided to dig out both 'Reflection' and 'Basket Of Light' for my inevitable post-journey afternoon nap and dreamt Pentangle thoughts, marvelling at my mp3 player's (Phillips The I he is - I'm currently up to Phillips The VII , which is odd 'cause the Spanish Kings only went up to the Vth) ability to always match my mood. And then I woke up to the news that John had died - our second great AAA loss in just four months after Ian McLagan back in December - and suddenly it all made sense. I was in fact saying goodbye to a dear friend - I just didn't know it yet. The fact that I learnt the news from David Crosby's twitter feed - thus demonstrating once again the inter-connected holisticness of writing this website - makes it all the more poignant.
Just as with Bert, who died in 2011, you sense that John would have been rather pleased to have slipped under the radar without a big fuss and that this folk historian with a gift for updating the exploits of the Middle Ages would have been overshadowed by the final burial of the rediscovered King Richard III, located underneath a Leicester County Counciul car park the other year. Renbourn's passing may have gone un-noticed to most of the world, who'd grown up in a world where Pentangle had been absent from the airwaves for most of the past four decades and who shied away from becoming the household name he could have been. To the minority of us though, the fans the guitarists and even the students of Renbourn's many great classes on guitar technique, we have lost another giant - one of the great unsung guitarists of the folk community and whose sound with and without Pentangle was instantly recognisable and always true to the emotional heart of what he was singing and playing. Whether recounting Arthurian legends lost in the mists of time, updating ancient English folk songs from centuries' past and making them sound immediate, writing new songs with the authenticity of a Medieval scholar or breaking boundaries an epic guitar duel mixing and matching styles from folk, blues, jazz, rock and psychedelia, Renbourn was a real star of music, whether he wanted to be or not.
Renbourn was the 'junior' member of Pentangle, a full year younger than most of the band and born into a highly musical family who all played one instrument or another. His father had died in World War Two when John was less than a year old - the family piano was their 'bomb shelter' under which they slept during raids, music keeping them safe even back then. However John only ever loved the guitar, taking a classical guitar course at school and he became especially enamored of the earliest songs the teachers played him - the ancient folk songs that dated back so far their authorship was unknown, the Renaissance era Madrigals, the secular songs from mankind's earliest days of writing things down. Even then it may well have struck him how close to our present day these tales of great woe, impending doom or sudden delight were, how brightly coloured their emotions (which said everything that a modern soap opera could without anything like the same artifice) and how close to modern tales these studies in love and war were. Outside school, though, Renbourn also developed a love for first skiffle and then for blues singers, all three major strands of the future Pentangle sound. After leaving school John hooked up with folk singer-guitarist Mac McLeod and set off for two tours of English folk clubs between 1961 and 1963. The trip was only partly successful - while the audiences who stayed largely raved at the way the two guitarists (heavily influenced by Davy Graham) approached their source material, most of the audience were too traditional to accept any guitarwork at all and preferred their folk sung with just 'voices'. After returning to his London home, Renbourn then enrolled at Kingston Art College, although by his own admission Renbourn was more interested in the R and B band he formed with his art college colleagues. When that band fell apart, Renbourn started playing with a local folksinger Dorris Hendersen, making his first recordings as her 'guitarist' in the early 1960s.
Renbourn found a 'home' for his style of music at a club in Soho named Les Cousins, which was where he met his soul-mate and lifelong buddy Bert Jansch. With a shared love of all sorts of styles folk musicians aren't traditionally meant to like, they found that together they had a unique style they labelled 'folk baroque'. The pair made their first professional recordings as a duo, with the under-rated 'Bert and John' LP from 1966 which features some truly sublime guitar parts. However as neither of them was a natural vocalist (though both had fascinating voices - John's lovely quiet baritone especially) they looked around for other musicians to play with. It was John who 'discovered' Pentangle vocalist Jacqui McShee, during a session for one of his mid-1960s solo albums (he released three before forming Pentangle - 'John Renbourn' 'Another Monday' and his most well known record 'Sir John A Lot', a late 1960s style 'concept' album using material written in the middle ages that naturally segues into more modern recordings like Rodgers and Hammerstein, George Gershwin and even a burst of The Rolling Stones' 'Satisfaction'!) On one of the sessions for this last LP, John had cast around for a suitable flute player and discovered Terry Cox, who was better known for being a drummer. With the addition of double bass player Danny Thompson, Pentangle was complete.
From the start Pentangle was more than 'just' a folk band. Though all the five-star players in the five-star band had folk roots, they all came with their own unique backgrounds and influences. Renbourn brought the blues element to the band, making the songs sound darker and sadder than most folk revival bands were playing at the time, whilst remaining the most natural source for the band's older material thanks to his years of classical study and his love of early music. He and Bert were also adept at jazz, which has a major influence o the first album in particular and some of the guitar duets and contests on that record remain some of his finest playing. Many fans, some of them burgeoning guitarists themselves, raved at John's unique style, which involved using three fingers round the strings and his thumb bent round the body of the guitar, with bits of shaved ping-pong balls on his fingertips as 'artificial nails' - long after the age when he could have afforded a whole Royal Festival Hall-load of plectrums! On one memorable occasion they all fell off as he was in the middle of a solo, but he gamely carried on and reached out for the superglue he kept handy in case of emergencies. Unfortunately the tube was old and a bit rusty so he bit the top to make sure the glue was working - and accidentally glued his mouth shut for the rest of the performance!
Pentangle made such a name for themselves with their live performances that they were already headlining at the Royal Festival Hall before they'd recorded a note. Several record labels were interested but it was Transatlantic who signed a deal with the band. 'The Pentangle' appeared in 1968 with several group compositions, many of them featuring John and Bert's incredible musical telepathy. A second album, 'Sweet Child' mixed a return appearance at the Royal Festival Hall with a studio album, most of it built up from traditional folk songs that Renbourn urged the band to record (such as 'Three Dances', one of the oldest tracks Pentangle ever played and dating back to the Renaissance in part) as well as his and Bert's jazzy instrumental 'No Exit'. The all-conquering 'Basket Of Light' came next, featuring lots of lovely Renbourn acoustic work and most memorably a sitar part that John played on the traditional songs 'House Carpenter' and the sublime 'Once I Had A Sweetheart', a first in folk circles that's one of the richest in that album's glorious tapestry of sounds. John also began singing for the first time (other than backing vocals), swapping leads with Jacqui on the 'modern' folk song standard 'Sally Go Round The Roses' and the moody 'Lyke Wake Dirge', another early song that Renbourn especially excelled at.
Though Pentangle's (five) star began to wane, the final Pentangle records feature ever more excellent work by Renbourn: 1970's much-maligned (only some of it fairly) 'Cruel Sister' features a truly lovely ballad 'Lord Franklin' about the sad fate of an explorer whose crew were discovered frozen in the arctic sea although Renbourn sings the song with all the peace and tranquility of a sailor swinging in his hammock!; 1971's 'Reflection' features the lovely surreal folk original 'So Clear' that even on an album full of sparse yet beautiful acoustic songs is truly delightful. The collage front cover also offers a rare glimpse of him at home, playing his acoustic next to a stream in the grounds of his home in Petersfield; finally, the last Pentangle record - 1972's 'Solomon's Seal' - features the joint composition 'People On The Highway', one of the loveliest goodbyes on record. The band split didn't just come through falling record sales - the band were split over whether their career should stay traditional or embrace more popular sounds, the band were tired after constant touring and the fuss of changing over to a new record label (Reprise) although in the end they only recorded one new album for the label and generally feeling unhappy at how things had turned out. All of the band quit at some time during the making of that last ill-fated album with Renbourn's drinking becoming something of a concern, with the band generally recording in twos or three with whoever happened to turn up rather than with the 'full' line-up. When the end came in 1973, it was with something of a relief, although at least Renbourn took home a souvenir: for years 'Solomon's Seal' was the most sought after Pentangle LP, unseen since it sold only a fraction of their earlier LPs; though fans longed for it to be released on CD it was reported that the mastertapes had been lost. In 2003 though the album suddenly appeared, a sheepish Renbourn admitting that he'd only just found the tapes in his music studio as he was preparing to move house: he'd found them propping up a leg of his harmonium! Amazingly the recordings were still in a good condition and after a bit of re-mastering is actually amongst the best sounding Pentangle albums on CD!
Like Bert, John had continued his own solo career on the side in parallel to the band's , although this only received a fraction of the interest of either Jansch's or Pentangle's. My favourite of John's solo albums is 'The Lady and The Unicorn', released in 1970 alongside 'Cruel Sister' and like that album is the most traditional and uncompromising of Renbourn's solo albums, traditional throughout and bouncing from one source to another with aplomb (there's an eleven minute medley, for instance, that runs from 'My Johnny Was A Shoemaker'; to 'Western Fayre' to 'Scarborough Fair', all traditional English folk songs about particular towns but from very different periods and telling very different stories. Other albums continued in the 1970s: 'Faro Annie', 'So Clear' (named after a re-recording of that 'Reflection' song), 'Heads and Tails' 'The Guitar Of John Renbourn' 'The Hermit' 'A Maid In Bedlam'...in total John released a staggering 23 solo albums as well as a run of four late 1970s collaborations with fellow folk guitarist Stefan Grossman. Many of these albums reflect life living on a barge which John had been using as 'home' ever since 1971 - hardly the move of your typical top 40-hit guitarist but also very Renbourn! John also formed his own band, The John Renbourn Group, who released an additional five albums across the 1980s with a bigger, more electric sound. He also joined the all-too-brief folk super-group Ship Of Fools in 1988, who met up after years of correspondence and tape and sheet music swapping but only lasted one album.
Whilst Bert and Jacqui reformed Pentangle in the mid-1980s, John - often referred to as 'the catalyst' - chose not to join. Instead he went in a quite different route, returning to college to study composition at Darlington Arts College. This must surely have reminded him of his early days studying the classical guitar and his work began to shed a lot of its modern-day trappings in this period, going back to the 'purer' traditionally medieval sound. Indeed, some of the solo and band albums from the second half of the 1980s in my collection are so traditional in outlook they really do sound like being transported back to the Middle Ages - and it seems very wrong owning them on something as 'modern' as a CD! John also became interested in scoring music for films, again with a folky feel, starting with 'Scream For Help', a project John was invited to write for by his Petersfield neighbour John Paul Jones (of the rather un-Pentangle like Led Zeppelin). With British audiences beginning to dry up after so long out of the public eye, Renbourn turned to playing tours in Japan where he built up a whole new following during the 1990s and 2000s. In 2006 he was tempted back to Britain for the Welsh Green Man folk festival where he guested on a set by Jacqui McShee - the first time he'd appeared with another member of Pentangle since their split in 1973. This and other collaborations between the original five members led to a long awaited Pentangle reunion in 2008, sadly not lasting long enough for a record but resulting in a highly successful British tour and returns to both The Green Man Festival and The Royal Festival Hall and a few TV appearances. This was sadly the last time the band were back together again before Bert's untimely death in 2011 and now sadly John's as well. Renbourn continued to release solo albums too, right up until 2011 with what will sadly now be his last album 'Palermo Snow', which is a typically indefinable mix of folk, jazz, blues and classical guitar, a cornucopia of styles only John could play with such ease. However it may well be as a teacher that John is remembered rather than a performer or writer after all. A big believer in the importance of teaching guitar and other instruments to those who appreciated music, he spent most of his post-Pentangle career teaching at workshops, guesting at guitar conventions and making typically Pentangle style-use of keeping ancient music alive via modern technology with a successful classical guitar class on Youtube.
Typically, John was due to be performing the day he died, much as he'd spent most of the last half century of his life, at a club named The Ferry in Glasgow. Despite Pentangle's reputation as a ragged and un-organised band, Renbourn had never missed a day or been late for a solo gig and his manager and band grew increasingly worried as Renbourn failed to turn up. They sent a policeman round to his house in Hawick (the Scottish borders) to check up on him and when there was no answer broke into the house and found that he had died in his sleep. At the time of writing the cause is still unknown although reports are coming through that it was a heart attack. John had just turned 70 last August. Though to some extent forgotten by the music press in general and overshadowed by the more influential work of his colleague Bert in their solo careers, John still had a large and very vocal following of fans who considered him one of the greatest musicians of his generation. As a sign of the wide appeal of his following, tributes have already come in not from his fellow band-mates yet but from Catatonia vocalist and DJ Cerys Matthews and author Ian Rankin, whose few words of tribute says it all: 'Ach, now John has gone. What a guitarist...'
What a guitarist indeed. Pentangle may have recorded their last album some forty-two years ago and his solo albums may be hard to find even for a passionate collector like me (let's hope there's a re-issue or at least a compilation of them in tribute to John sometime soon), but Renbourn played a huge role in making folk music popular again, adding another century's worth of life at least to some ancient standards and wrote more than a few of his own to live alongside them. He will be very sorely missed everywhere but up in heaven, where old pal Bert is no doubt greeting him with the words 'where've you been?' and a natter about all the folk songs the pair always planned to record some day, together with a typically gorgeous and near-impossible guitar duet, Bert and John together again where they belong once more. A better world awaiting, in the sky.
Top five John Renbourn moments:
As ever with our tribute specials, here is a top five guide to our much-missed friends' greatest record moments. As with all of these specials, it could easily have been so much longer - Pentangle rarely put a foot wrong whatever they did - but it might at least curious newcomers navigate the cream of a very golden crop.
5) Jack O'Rion ('Cruel Sister' 1970)
A stunning side-long tour de force, Bert and John had been impressing audiences at folk clubs with this number long before the Pentangle days (a shorter version also appears on the 'Bert and John' album). Though Bert and Jacqui trade the vocals, it's the interplay between the two guitarists that really stands out, pinging this way and that between a whole range of styles that each one hits dead-on without any apparent editing or mistakes between the two. Dancing a merry dance between folk, blues, jazz and rock the song weaves the sorry tale of a servant who 'cons' a princess who has never seen him that he is in fact a prince and is condemned to death for his crime.
4) Lyke Wake Dirge ('Basket Of Light' 1969)
A gorgeous Christian hymn whose original tune actually pre-dates Christianity, the arrangement for this track is credited to the whole band but surely has John's fingerprints all over it. John, Terry and Jacqui sing together, making for an unusual sound that sadly pentangle never mine again, as impressively solemn and austere and yet so overwhelmingly musical as Pentangle ever got, imploring Christ to 'receive thy soul'.
3) Once I Had A Sweetheart ('Basket Of Light' 1969)
My favourite Pentangle recording of them all - no other band would dare to record a song that sounded so 1967 whilst remaining utterly faithful to the vision of circa 1767! As Jacqui pines for her lost love 'left me in sorrow to mourn' John embarks on one of the greatest solos in musical history, not on his usual guitar but on a sitar that tilts the whole piece from a private mourning inton a piece uniting the grief of West and East. The solo carries on and on, rising from the deepest darkest blackest despair at the start to a courageous cacophony of chiming high notes as John tries to weave his way this way and that around his ever-present grief. The sitar's drone that continues throughout the next verse, hanging like a black dog of depression stalking Jacqui as she tries to get on with her life, is a touch of genius.
2) Lord Franklin ('Cruel Sister' 1970)
A rare Renbourn lead vocal on a typically inventive piece of contrasts. 'Lord Franklin' was adapted from a poem better known as 'Lady Franklin', about the missing-presumed-long-dead explorer calling out to his wife late at night in her family home - one at rest, full of comforts and peaceful, so different to his icy tomb. She wonders what to do but she feels helpless and so heads back to sleep, John's sensitive vocal reflecting both sides of this sorry tale with an eerie calmness. He should have sung a whole lot more.
1) So Clear ('Reflection' 1971)
'So Clear' is the closest John ever came to a 'solo' song whilst in Pentangle, writing singing and playing lead guitar on a fascinating, quirky little song about his life and the band in general in 1971 as Pentangle was winding down to a close. Renbourn is at a station, wondering where his next destination will be, identifying with a 'Toulose Circus Rider' trying to stay afloat and perform while about to trip over (a sight that happened to come on telly in the background when John was writing the song). Throughout the song the narrator passes notes back and forth between his hurried scrawl on scraps of paper and his wife's posh writing paper carefully pressed for him before being stuffed in his pocket: the two are clearly leading different lives but neither quite know what to say or do. In the end the narrator sighs that only 'the song' is at all clear and vows to keep on playing even though or perhaps because the rest of his life is so confusing. With a solo incorporating all of the band's influences, from folk to blues and jazz and beyond, it's deservedly become something of a fan favourite - and we fans are very glad John took his own advice and kept playing, on album after album of exquisite music.