Friday, 2 October 2015
Just when it looked as if the AAA was actually going to manage a whole year without having to write an obituary for one of our beloved AAA brethren comes the sad news that Lindisfarne and Jack The Lad guitarist Si Cowe died in his sleep on Wednesday, September 30th at the age of 67. Cowe hadn't played with the band he'd co-founded in a quarter of a century (except once for a one-off memorial gig for fellow member Alan Hull in 2005, which turned out to be his last public appearance) and he'd established a totally new way of life a million miles (literally!) from his old life of rock and roll crazies, running a brewery in Canada. Si remained though a legend to those who knew him and appreciated his off-beat songs, his crystal clear guitar playing, his gorgeously sweet 'n' sour harmonies and the twinkle in the eyes that meant he was about to get up to some form of mischief, all key and under-rated assets in Lindisfarne's success. Having just recently sat through as many Lindisfarne concert and studio bootlegs as I can while writing the first draft of the AAA Lindisfarne book, one of the things that struck me was how good or bad the band played depending on what 'mood' their chief guitarist was in. Si may have been overshadowed by the creative powerhouse that was Alan Hull and the powerful lead vocals of Ray 'Jacka' Jackson', but he had the power to make or break the band's sound at different gigs and was a member of one of folk-rock's greatest front-lines for several good reasons.
Though Si, who always hated the limelight, would have been the first to ask the world not to make a fuss of him, it seems a shame that so far his death seems to have gone largely un-noticed except by the really big Lindisfans. He was after all a founding member of a band who were once the best-selling rock band of 1972 and who released some of the most important singles of the 1970s, playing key roles on all of them. That's Simon's lovely ringing baroque guitar on 'Lady Eleanor', his voice providing the Beatley licks to 'Meet Me On The Corner', his tonsils adding note-perfect backing harmonies to 'Run For Home' and he even gets to sing the whole third verse of 'Fog On The Tyne' solo, with his characteristic mix of wide-eyed innocence and half-smirk. Though Si's writing contributions for Lindisfarne are less well known than those by Alan Hull and Rod Clements and the guitarist was never as prolific a songwriter, he also proved himself to be a valuable third songwriter, providing 'Fog On The Tyne' and 'Dingly Dell' with three fan favourites and Si grew into one of the best songwriters in the band once Lindisfarne splintered and three-fifths of them became the tragically under-rated Jack The Lad, with Si trading best-song-of-the-album awards with Billy Mitchell, each outdoing each other for who could write the most emotionally quirky songs! Though Alan, Jacka and even Billy got most of the press attention, neither band would have sounded quite the same without Si there and for many Lindisfarnatics the group never sounded the same after he left the band in 1993 to pursue that over perennial Lindisfarne past-time: booze!
Si was, after all, a part of Lindisfarne from the first. He knew bassist Rod from his days in short trousers, with both boys attending King's School in Tynemouth, though the pair weren't close friends until their teens. Si had also met drummer Ray Laidlaw after his family moved into the house next door to a young lad named Giles Bavidge who in turn suggested he might fancy joining their band. Si officially joined the pair's skiffle band at the tender age of ten and in fact got his first guitar for his tenth birthday, setting him up nicely for a busy stardom. Trading on their beyond-their-years abilities and fresh-faced charm, the band were all set for stardom thanks to Si (whose mother had appeared on local network variety programme 'The One O'Clock Show' and had 'raved' about her son's band so much the producers agreed to take a look) but the understandably naive youngsters hadn't realised that they needed to pay musician's union fees to appear and couldn't stump up the money in time, a cruel lesson in the downsides of a career in music. The band gradually drifted apart and though Si quickly formed another one with Ray named 'The Aritsokrats' the writing seemed to be on the wall as the pair hit secondary school.
Si found to his horror that his parents had decided to send him to a posh public school named Fettes in Edinburgh away from his new mates. The school looked down on his new musical obsession and tried to talk him out of it, but by now the guitarist was too consumed by the bug of making music for a living - even building his own guitar during his woodwork lessons under the pretence of doing his coursework! Si also put together a new un-named band with some similarly music-minded friends who gave a mini-gig at a performance night which even received praise from an unlikely form in the shape of his elderly headmaster ('Very loud - but very good!') Si remained, however, in need of a guitar - his wooden one having busted during his school days. More to please his dad and have a bit of spare pocket money for records than in search of a career he signed up as a labourer at a local building site - and discovered he was something of a walking disaster area. Si lasted only a week before becoming involved in a nasty accident when he accidentally caught a bucket full of bitumen on the roof of the building he was meant to be building, pouring the scalding metal over his hand. Instinctively he put the other hand on top to shield it - and got stuck. Taken to hospital, Si discovered the silver lining in this bitumen cloud: he'd paid his first ever insurance stamp the previous Friday and that was enough to see him fully paid up and liable for full funds, which he spent on a new guitar once his hands had healed. The six months off from work gave him time to practice and work out his priorities: though unsupportive of his son's desire to play music for a living, Cowe senior was more relaxed about it than he had been before the accident and figured the bug would soon wear off anyway.
His hands now healed, Si found another job as a photographic assistant at the Newcastle branch of Turner's, a much more interesting job that related to another growing obsession with cameras. Si did however have to cut his already impressively long locks to get the job - an event he turned into publicity for his music when he and some friends invited the local press along to the local hairdressers where they improvised a slow blues song while Cowe's hair was cut (his first time in the papers!) Si was still playing at home at this time and had temporarily given up with bands when a chance meeting with his old pal Ray happened when he was eighteen. Offering Ray a lift, Si asked if he was still playing music and Ray was very pleased to say that the local band he was in named 'The Downtown Faction' were actually doing rather well. Ray offered to show off the band by bringing his old pal backstage to a gig - as well as commissioning some promotional photographs from Si. The guitarist found himself reunited with the bassist he'd remembered from many years before and soon became an 'extra' member of the band, staying in regular contact and even filling in on bass for Rod when Clements' parents decided to retire and move away (meaning some weekends Rod was too busy seeing them to play) When Clements returned, Si was by now a permanent fixture and moved to the spare rhythm guitar space instead. He was also building up his music collection too - an early Lindisfarne press release names his favourite single as Jimi Hendrix's 'Voodoo Chile', his favourite songwriter as Leonard Cohen and his favourite musician as Frank Zappa - a very varied taste with Si finding his style will incorporate a little of all these across the next few years!
Si was also busy writing his first songs in this period: 'Positive Earth' (demoed by Downtown Faction in this period) and 'Uncle Sam', which was Si's first released song on the second Lindisfarne album 'Fog On The Tyne'. Though Si had left most of the singing to other members of the band in the early years if the Downtown Faction, he discovered a special blend with 'Jacka' when he joined the band in 1968 and they re-named themselves 'The Brethren' - and an even better three-part harmony when Alan Hull arrived in 1969. Hull had crossed paths with the band before - he was Newcastle's 'next big songwriter' so it seemed natural he should pair up with the town's 'next big band'. Hull had again met the band through Ray Laidlaw (who knew practically everyone in Newcastle back then - and probably even now!) and the pair had stayed in contact, with The Brethren a natural choice of band when Hull found himself lumbered into co-organising 'The Rex Folk Club' where any local bands could come hang out and play. With typical forthrightness, Hull told the band their songs were rubbish but they could play great and as he was looking for a good band of his own sometime over the course of 1969 the two halves became one. Lindisfarne finally got their 'real' name thanks to their first producer John Anthony, when the band found out that they'd been beaten to the name 'Brethren' by an American group and who told them they ought to choose 'something local' ('Lindisfarne' being a 'holy island' off the coast of Northumberland - the monk community that had first lived there were a 'brethren' of sorts anyway!) Si's guitar and vocals were by now a major part of the band's attraction and his brilliantly shaggy appearance (hipsters of today had nothing on Si Cowe's great look back then - he even had his haircut for charity on stage at a Christmas 1976 reunion gig!) soon made him one of the focal points for the band. He loved fans but hated stardom, eagerly signing autographs - but never with his own name! (He loved making names up to confuse his followers!)
The year 1970 was a building one for Lindisfarne, highlighted by the release of 'Lady Eleanor' with 1971 the year when the band could do no wrong (with hits in 'Meet Me On The Corner'; and 'Fog On The Tyne') with the band now touring all over the world and talked about as 'the new Beatles'. Though the low budget debut album 'Nicely Out Of Tune' is the fan favourite and received great reviews, it was the sequel 'Fog On The Tyne' that captured the mood of a nation caught between laughter and heartbreak thanks to some strong Hull and Clements songs - and Si's first published composition, the Vietnam protest song 'Uncle Sam'. By contrast with all this sudden success 1972 was the year a tired band, playing at the bottom of the bill on a tiring American tour none of them wanted to be on, could do no right. Resentment about the band's direction, the record company and the 'cardboard' sleeve for 'Dingly Dell' (greeted as 'pretentious' by a music press who'd been waiting for an excuse to slag the young darlings of the day off) had been building for months, but what triggered it was an almighty falling out between Alan and Si. Always keen on tuning his instrument until it was perfect as he could make it, even at the cost of delaying and disrupting the show, Si spent too long tuning one night and simply caused Hull to explode to him. Ironically this was at just the point when Cowe's position in the band had never been stronger - he'd written the clever instrumental 'Plankton's Lament' for the 'Dingly Dell' LP which neatly slotted into place between two of Hully's most potent political numbers 'All Fall Down' and 'Bring Down The Government!' and the charming 'Go Back' which mixed folk, music hall and colliery bands to strong effect. Alan, who had been chuntering the whole tour about how things were going wrong, wanted to form a new band without Si in it - the others felt that Hull's behaviour had gone too far and called his bluff, siding with the guitarist who hadn't even realised what he'd done wrong. The split was, to some extent, inevitable - the laidback Cowe with his natural predilection for upsetting authority and (by Newcastle standards) a slightly posh background had little in common with the pumped-up council estate kid Hull, who was always driven on to do new things. Fame and lengthy months on a tour bus can do funny things to the most solid of bands - and the pair had only known each other for three years (whereas Si, Rod and Ray had known each other for some fifteen-twenty years by now).
The band Rod, Ray and Si formed together with their old pal from the pre-Lindisfarne days Billy Mitchell, Jack The Lad, never came anywhere close to being as popular as the 'old' band. However there's a strong core of followers who consider this band at least the equal of the old band, with a predilection for country as well as folk and rock. In many ways it was the best thing that ever happened to Si - who'd never enjoyed the trappings of fame much anyway - and he was free to be as eccentric and creative as he liked without worrying about record sales or how his songs slotted in against the Hull and Clements material. After releasing a mere two songs with Lindisfarne on their three albums, Si set off on a writing spree that resulted in nine songs on the first three Jack The Lad albums including many of their best songs, covering all subjects from giants to monks to smokers and in every genre from the band's usual straight folk to dark comedy to a wonderful roaring twenties style pastiche. Si also had more room to add his signature guitar sound, adding the crunch and power that gave Jack The Lad's sound a rock and roll rebellious feel that made the band stand out against other folk and country bands of the era (his playing on 'Wheary Waling Grounds' for instance, is the equal of any other rock guitar flash solo-ing - even if it is on a sea shanty!) Si would no doubt have stayed with the band indefinitely after finding a band and a whole new audience receptive to the quirkier side of his writing, but for unfortunate circumstances beyond his control. His first wife had been secretly seeing Jack The Lad's roadie behind his back and he seemed distracted during the rehearsal sessions for fourth record 'Jackpot' and not his usual self, while the band - staying in a cottage to rehearse -were kept up at night by endless violent rows. Reluctantly Mitch told him the band couldn't afford to keep him if he wasn't paying full attention and if ever a band needed a good night's sleep after a week of partying it was Jack The Lad. Si, his heart on other things, sadly agreed.
His next job was to hook up with Rod and an old hero - Pentangle's Bert Jansch. However Jansch was always picky about his guitarists (he didn't really work with anyone outside his sparring partner John Renbourn) and the collaboration came to another sticky end. At a loss of what to do, Si retreated home to his London flat and started hanging around the local music clubs waiting to see what the bands there were up to. Nothing much seemed to be the answer, but Si was intrigued with a poster he saw asking for a guitarist by a Theatre Group named 7:84. Ringing them up to ask for more details, Si was told that the organisation was a left-wing radical theatre group who, unusual at it may seem, had Government funding from the Arts Council to put on shows cheaply or for free. It was a group that Alan Hull would surely have approved of, named after the shocking statistic that 7% of Britain owned 84% of the country's wealth back in the mid-1970s (the figure would be even higher today!) and a good place for a socialist writer like Cowe who'd already kicked out at conscription on his songs. Though hired purely as a guitarist, Si quickly became involved in the writing and organisational stakes and in between meetings and theatre plays began to write songs again, including two that were to appear when Lindisfarne got back together again in 1978. While Si welcomed the Lindisfarne reunion greatly for the safe income it brought and the band became good friends again - with far greater understanding of each other's strengths and weaknesses than they'd had in their hot-headed youth - Si never again had quite the same opportunity to either write songs or to be 'himself' on stage. In fact past the B-side 'Stick Together' (which became one of the most widely known Lindisfarne B-sides, appearing as it did on the flipside of 'Run For Home') and the anti-music journalist song 'Dedicated Hound', he'd never write a song for the band again. The lack of Si's songs on the seven album run of Lindisfarne releases between 1978 and 1993 is a real shame for those who'd enjoyed Si's work with Jack The Lad and while the guitarist still gave his all on stage he was being treated more and more like a spare part.
By the 1990s Si had met his second wife and was longing to take a rest from touring, so he gave the band warning that he would leave in 1993 after one last tour and album 'Elvis Lives On The Moon'. It was an exhausting task - officially Si had moved, but he still faithfully came back to play every last gig, leaving his old Lindisfarne instruments with his family so he could avoid the expensive flight costs. With Jacka having already left in 1990 and Hully falling prey to a fatal heart attack at the age of just fifty in 1995, this was a real turning point in Lindisfarne's sound and history. Since the early 1990s Si had been making a quiet living running his own brewery in Canada and passed all the training needed to qualify as a teacher and help people come up with their concoctions of ales (which means that you could be taught how to make a brew to sip while listening to your Lindisfarne records by a founding member of Lindisfarne - how Lindisfarne is that?!) Si also won an award for brewing the best beer in Canada, before joining forces with Magnotta, the third largest winery in Canada, to market his product. Si only returned to the stage once in his twenty-three years away from the stage, to play at a moving memorial at Newcastle City Hall on the tenth anniversary of Hull's death in 2005.
Simon sadly died of natural causes in a hospital near to his Canadian home in Toronto after a long illness at the age of just 67, survived by his three children Jesse, Dylan and Bernadette. Though Si hadn't been in Lindisfarne for a quarter of a century, he was a special and important part of that special blend and is dearly missed by all the fans who realised just what an important role Si played in both Lindisfarne and in Jack The Lad. A guitarist whose clear ringing stabbing guitar solos gave the two bands much of their rockier edges, a songwriter whose quirky songs said much about the human condition (and, on one occasion, the conditions of a millennium-old giant!) and a singer whose gloriously wrong-yet-so-right harmonies cheered up every song they ever appeared on, Si was a real talent and a one-off who never comprised his ideals or did things the easy way. He helped shape Lindisfarne into a real musical force to be reckoned with and played a major part in their success and will be so very dearly missed.
Many of his old bandmates have paid tribute. Here's Jacka's fitting eulogy: 'Simon - the special relationship formed by the five of us in our two periods together, totalling 20 years, cannot be underestimated or replicated. We toured the world, had hits and misses, recorded with some of the greats and formed a unique bond. Si - you never signed your autograph the same way twice and never took the obvious path, both in music and in life. Rest in peace.' Here's what Rod had to say on Twitter: Very sad to hear of death of my old bandmate Si Cowe yesterday. A gentleman and a truly unique character. And here's an extract from an interview with Ray via Newcastle Local Radio: 'His contribution was immense, Simon was an exquisite musician, very off-the-wall, he didn't do the predictable stuff. Those who knew the band certainly in the early days a lot of the quirkiness came from Lindisfarne: those guitar tunings, the sweet and sour harmonies - he was the one behind that., lots of strange instrumentation and arranging. It was a large part of what made the band different and special'. Have fun with Hully, old friend, may you have a pint or two together and enjoy doing your thing. The clear white light once again shines so bright.
Before we leave, here's a rundown of five of the very best Si Cowe moments from the Lindisfarne and Jack The Lad song catalogues:
5) Mr Bassman (Lindisfarne, 'C'mon Everybody' 1987) - Sorry this song is missing from the playlist!
Si didn't tend to get that many lead vocal with Lindisfarne, especially during their reunion years, but it was all hands on deck when the band were invited to record a 'party!' double album full of old rock and roll hits in a hurry. Though not the band's finest moment by any means, the record was a great chance to hear the band doing material they wouldn't normally do and was a fascinating insight into their favourite songs. Si steals the show with a typically exuberant cover of Johnny Cymbal's quirky 1963 novelty song. While Jacka 'boom booms' along as the talented pro, Si is perfectly cast as the squeaky-voiced fan who wants to know how he sings 'a-yi-yi-yiy!' showing off a delightful falsetto we should have heard more of. If the rest of the album had been more like this I'd have worn it out by now, instead of leaving it to sulk at the back of my collection, rarely played.
4) Uncle Sam (Lindisfarne, 'Fog On The Tyne' 1971)
Written long before Hull or even Jacka was in the band and before Rod had started writing properly, it seems fair to say that 'Uncle Sam' is at least a candidate for the earliest song Lindisfarne ever went on to record. Jacka sings lead on a pithy commentary about the stupidity of the draft written while Si was waiting for a girlfriend outside a club after reading news reports of American street protests. Though the land of the States still seemed a world away when the song was written, Si's empathy is on full display as he imagines what he would do in their situation (chiefly run away!) and - for the times - daringly comments about an imaginary friend 'I can't picture you in uniform, your heart is much too frail -0 you're better off in jail!')
3) The Third Millennium (Jack The Lad, 'The Old Straight Track' 1974)
A delightful two minute novelty song that in typical Cowe style is quite unlike anything else ever written and which packs in an awful lot of action for something so short. This is a very adult fairy tale that mixes giant beanstalks, future apocalyptic annihilation and Nostradamus, containing some of Si's cleverest rhymes and is a warning - of sorts - about the millennium bug a quarter century early. The first verse has him 'planting out me beans' when the sky takes 'the queerest shade of green'. 'I asked my next door neighbour am I going off me head - he said, oh no it's just like Nostradamus said!' A weary people secretly wish for the doomsday to come and get it over with, while people leap on the predictions of doom and disaster for their own ends (in Cowe's eyes 'a butcher is a murderer with no redeeming grace', however fancy his words). Figuring that the rich won't get into heaven, the nonchalant narrator simply remarks that that's ok by him, 'I've taken out insurance in the form of being poor!' A clever, silly-yet-serious song with a catchy chorus, this is a charming track that's been overlooked for too long.
2) Go Back (Lindisfarne, 'Dingly Dell' 1972)
In a rare display of unity on their third album, Si tries to count everyone in on a delightful introduction thankfully left intact. 'Are you sitting comfortably Alan? Well then, get comfy!' Si jokes before the song slowly explodes into life, with Jacka rocking the leads with Si in support and those gorgeous sweet 'n' sour three-part harmonies rarely sounded better than on this song's chorus. A possible comment on the impending split, it's all cleverly subverted into a childish game ('You took me for a fool, you took me for a ride, but this is where I get off 'cause I'm going inside!') and treated with such a fun sunny melody and strong band performance that Lindisfarne have ironically rarely sounded like more of a team. The chorus, with the narrator waking up in a blood-stained field, suggests that this may be another anti-war crusade to go with 'Uncle Sam', making the point of how short life is and how it should be lived to the full. Cowe will no doubt have wanted to 'go back' to before these days many times in the years ahead, but in this studio on this day Lindisfarne sound like they're having a party!
1) Song Without A Band (Jack The Lad, 'It's Jack The Lad' 1973)
For me, though, the Si moment that stands out most is one that isn't meant to protest anything or make you laugh, but a magical moment from the first Jack The Lad album. In keeping with most of the record (especially Rod's songs), Si is debating on what went wrong with Lindisfarne and realises he no longer has a band to write songs for. Using it as an extended metaphor for his loneliness, he writes a desperate song of confusion that describes his 'mind a whir' and a vocal that pits him in duet with first a guesting Maddy Prior and then with Billy, leaping between the two as he ums and ahs between leaving the music world behind ('to pack your bag is a drag - on the stage is a cage, it's no wonder I'm so down!') and leaping back into the tour bus. A gloriously jazzy eccentric keyboard part takes the song in a quite unexpected direction before Si's own quicksilver guitar runs speak to each other and carry the debate on. Despite the final cry of 'I wanna go home!' it's clear that Si is destined for a life in music and belongs on that bus spreading his music round the world. A glorious song, with a wonderfully rounded melody, even songwriters with the gift of Rod or Hully would have been proud of this one.
Monday, 28 September 2015
The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of CSNY 'Change Partners' is available now in ebook form by clicking here!
Graham Nash "Earth & Sky" (1980)
Earth & Sky/Love Has Come/Out On The Island/Skychild/Helicopter Song//Barrel Of Pain (Half-Life)/T.V. Guide/It's All Right/Magical Child/In The 80's
"Love will find you - you've just got to be there"
Dear readers, we haven't had a chat for a whole have we? How are you? How have you all been? How on earth did we get to the website's 414th review already?!? (Those eight-and-a-bit years have flown by). Though things have been a struggle here as of late, a mixture of health relapses and illegal jobcentre villainy, the writing goes on: though you've only got as far as the Janis Joplin 'extra' posts in 'your' timeline we're up to the Monkees in mine, with a seventeenth AAA book nearly done and dusted and a mere thirteen to go. Alan's Album Archives may yet be completed while I am a) alive b) vaguely compost mentis and c) before Google buys us out the way they have every other vaguely promising industry out there. Anyway, you needed to know that despite the clouds still very much hanging around the air the future is all Earth and Sky, with the gateway to the next promised world of books and music and freedom and the pleasant hum of a project finally completed a mere last few twists and turns of the long and winding road away.
That is not, however, why I chose Graham Nash's third solo LP to review this week. Now that we're a fair few books into the AAA run and that the books are getting perhaps 9/10ths of their way to being filled I've begun to notice patterns and links throughout these books, despite the fact that the bands involved came from different eras, often different countries and more often than not contradicted rather than complemented each other. As usual I'm probably seeing links that aren't really there (my mind's eye needs a check-up at the opticians again) but I've been struck by how key the reviews that happen to fall into the 'middle' of the books seem to be, a crossroads full of changes in direction and a sense of developing purpose (I am particularly interested in the middle of each one at the moment because I'm playing around with adding an 'extra' career overview in the 'middle' of each book, to go with the introductions and conclusions already in each). For instance, this is how some of the AAA books so far are shaping up: The Beach Boys have reached 'L A Light Album' (1979), a post-Brian Wilson breakdown album that's trying to inject some of the old creative spirit back into the band after the dire 'MIU' the year before; The Byrds have just split up after 'Farther Along' but haven't yet regrouped for their misguided reunion record; The Grateful Dead are in the middle of their mid-70s eighteen month hiatus; Allan Clarke has just rejoined The Hollies in 1974; The Kinks are trying to work out how to 'give the people what they want' in 1981 and Paul McCartney has just abandoned 'Return To Pepperland' and is about to bounce back with 'Flowers In The Dirt' in 1989 (while, less spectacularly but more predictably, Davy Jones has just fallen in love with yet another princess and has been betrothed to another: there are pages of this stuff coming soon in our Monkees TV section folks!) My interest was piqued now (it doesn't take much, after all) so I had a look at where the middling-page axe might fall in their story? Because CSN's biography isn't like that of most bands, full of a rollercoaster ride of splits, reunions and a sea of changing partners who might or might not be talking to each other. It turns out that the CSN book is the one volume where I haven't written the 'middle' review yet and it's an apt choice...'They Call Us The Au-Gogo Singers' (no only teasing - it really is 'Earth and Sky'). I've often wondered if Graham called his album and song 'Earth and Sky' because of the feeling the album has of being caught up in the 'middle' of everything, a brief period of respite sandwiched between the good and bad life-changing events of that period for Graham personally, CSN generally and the world in particular.
The trio were in one of their periodic splits in this period as it happens: 'Earth and Sky' had in fact started off life as the much-delayed fourth Crosby-Nash record before the pair had yet another falling out, though over something rather darker and sadder than usual in David Crosby's increasing dependency on drugs. This was the big unspoken elephant in the room between CSN in the second half of the 1970s, for both Crosby and Stills (who was beginning to have less publicised side-effects of his own) but the trio had so far got through it thanks to long periods of not speaking to each other/sudden moments of inspiration/deep-rooted friendship. But now even Graham (no stranger to drug-taking himself) felt things were getting over control and was shocked at how badly his old friend had deteriorated in the twelve months since they had last shared a studio together (Crosby was better at hiding his dependency during social calls and business meetings - not that CSN were ever the sort of band likely to hold business meetings; they were, more typically, taking it turns to show up late or not at all to business meetings held on their behalf). The major split had come when a cooking band jam session was taking place between the duo and their regular backing band The Section and Crosby had left his free-basing pipe on a nearby piano to join in; the jam had got more and more intense the way that only CSNY-related jam sessions do, and the pipe inevitably rolled off the side and smashed on the floor, literally due to the 'bad vibrations'. Crosby was distraught: the pipe was the only thing separating him from terrible withdrawal symptoms before he could get his next fix and he had to put it back together as best he could. Crosby ended the jam session there and then as for the first time his 'act' slipped in front of his friends and he revealed just how incapable he was without some form of heavy-strength high; ever astute, Graham realised from his friend's re-action that the mask he saw really was a mask and that things had got too bad; his decision to halt the record, while surely a good decision in not putting Crosby under stress or forcing him to co-make a record he wasn't capable of handling, may also have been tinged with a sense of hurt that Crosby hadn't confided in him sooner. But then Crosby was already long past the point of asking for help: the solo record he attempted to make in this troubled period (which eventually came out as 'Oh Yes I Can' in 1989) was abandoned two-thirds of the way in due to a combination of drug-addiction writer's block and fading stamina, tinged with record company uncertainty.
The CSN family is clearly in trouble, with clouds dotting their familiarly stormy clouds. And yet, as so always happens with this band, their bond was too strong to break completely. Though Crosby-Nash had never got as far as making a single useable recording before the sessions broke up, Crosby's fingerprints are all over this record - his last pre-jail sentence recordings until the three-way 'Daylight Again' in 1982, which as we've seen wasn't really a three-way recording at all. Crosby pops up singing vocals on 'Love Has Come', plays acoustic guitar on 'Out On The Island' and sings again on 'Helicopter Song'. Even Stills, who hardly ever appeared on Crosby or Nash's solo records, pops up on 'Helicopter Song' to provide the R and B grit Nash knew only two people could provide for him (and Neil, coming out of a crossroads of his own in 1979, wasn't likely to take his call). In other words CSN fans weren't quite fearing the worst just yet: rumours of another album being abandoned just reminded them of the desperate years of 1974 and 1976 before the trio had finally got things together in 1977 with a great return to form. CSN wasn't necessarily dead (rock stars can get addictions fixed, right?) just put on hold.
Emotionally Graham is in an interesting place too. Certain songs on this album seem to hark back to the bad old days of Joni Mitchell ('Skychild') and Amy Gossage, whose murder around the time of 'Wild Times' (I won't go through it all again, but the AAA postbag is full of comments suggesting the murder came after the album - even though Graham himself has talked about this album being made as a 'memorial' for her): there's a real sense of danger and sadness across this record, again a feeling of clouds skudding across Graham's normal 'clear blue skies' which rears its head just enough to make its presence known. Graham is still haunted by the people he feels should have been with him longer on life's great journey and 'Skychild' is surely Graham's last love song for Joni, a full eight years after their official parting.
However, since his last recordings, there have also been several positive life changes for Graham all of which have also inspired this album- and none of which CSN fans would likely have guessed since his last recordings back in mid-1977. Graham had argued back in the late 1960s that he would never be married again after his first marriage to Rose Eccles was abandoned with the Hollies in 1968. A combination of a painful break-up, a move to the freer values of the Laurel Canyon and having the free-wheeling David Crosby as your new best friend is liable to do that to you after all. However Graham has always been the most 'stable' CSNY bandmate and the whole family 'trip' appealed to him in a way that his three colleagues were slightly less sure about embracing (although, heck, even Stills turned a responsible family man over night in 1975 so anything was possible). Graham had been convinced that Amy had been the one and he was doomed to spend the rest of his life alone - but that was before meeting Susan Sennett. Like many of Neil's wives and girlfriends, Susan had been an actress, though her films and TV appearances tended to be on the racier side of things: films like 'The Candy Snatchers' and 'Big Bad Mama' that still raise eyebrows (and often receive censorship cuts) even in today's times. However, while Susan had a dangerous and wild streak (much like Graham) she was also stable and reliable and sensible (much like Graham too). The pair quickly had children: Jackson (named for Jackson Browne) in 1978, Will (named after his grandfather William Nash and Graham's Hollies-era nickname 'Willie') in 1979 and a daughter Nile will be born in 1982. Graham must have wondered if the moment would ever actually happen for him: he'd been around rock-stars siring children for most of his adult life, officially or unofficially, and had countless relationships which were all meant to have lasted and yet here he was, at a rockstar-level elderly thirty-six, finally making good on the promise to 'Teach your children'. 'Magical Child' isn't just the expected love song for a child that you'd expect someone with Graham's big heart to write - it's also a song of awe that so many years of longing and waiting have finally paid off (it's one of the sweetest moments in his back catalogue on fact: 'I really wonder why I waited for so long to bring another life to this place'). There are, naturally, the first brace of many many love songs written for Susan down the years ('Love Has Come' is one of the most neglected, but also one of the most charming) - though interestingly 'Earth and Sky' is still very audibly less of a 'love' album than 'Songs For Beginners' or 'Wild Tales' had been; those clouds in the sky just pull too close for comfort.
With the pick of the United States to choose from, the Nash family decided to settle down off the coast of San Francisco on the Farallon Islands (a smaller, less dysfunctional and most definitely warmer version of Britain). The absolute opposite of the 'Cold Rain' of Manchester Nash had so recently been singing about on the 'CSN' album of 1977, it must have seemed a dream come true. And then the Government moved in. I've never understood why nuclear facilities always seem to be placed in the most naturally lovely and beautiful spots on the planet. It happens time and time again (Sellafield in the Lake District, Britain's prettiest if rainiest spot; land near Bordeaux in France; even Fukushima is close to a delightful Japanese coastline): it's as if somebody somewhere is laughing at us by reminding us of mankind's ugliest moments in the middle of nature's prettiest. The same is true of the Farallon Islands, which is where the American Government decided to dump a lot of the nuclear waste produced by their own re-actors. It won't surprise most of you to learn that much of this dumping was hap-hazard and undocumented, so that to this day we're not quite sure what's down there - only that it isn't good. Actually radioactive dumping had been going on since 1940 though the Government had done their best to keep things quiet - most notably in 1951 when the USS Independence, loaded with giant barrels of radioactive materials, was scuttled off shore. Worse yet, America' track record with nuclear power had been getting patchy lately: in 1979 a nuclear meltdown in Pennsylvania ('The Three Mile Island Incident') caused nuclear fallout in the area which was officially still being cleaned up as late as 2003. When Graham, now a local, found out what was happening he was livid; he now had concerns for his family as well as a general outrage over the latest mess mankind were doing to themselves and it inevitably showed in his music. 'Earth and Sky' was recorded shortly after a massive benefit concert which was officially organised by MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy) but became better known as the 'No Nukes!' shows. Five shows were held at Madison Square Gardens, with a rally attended by 200,000 protestors shortly after, organised by Nash at his most militant and with a whole host of big names appearing: friends like Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne and (though this was the first time Nash met him) the similarly political Bruce Springsteen whose presence turned the event from a popular cause into a media circus, finally turning nuclear power into a talking point (amongst rock fans anyway). CSN also attended, despite Nash's doubts about Crosby (he regretted asking later as it 'proved' to Crosby that he was still capable, even when he wasn't) and for the longest of times - until the 'Live Aid' performance in 1985 when Crosby was on parole - feared to be the last show CSN would ever do. 'Barrel Of Pain' is, perhaps surprisingly, the only song Nash has written directly on the subject so far but then it already picks up the rallying cry of a movement quite beautifully, full of the mixture of pain and anger and hurt and outrage and hope that makes up the rest of the album, together with a stop-start bass riff that once set off wonders round in all directions, no one quite able to find out a way to turn it off. It remains the last great CSN political statement of 'their' generation, even if only Nash is on it (we'll leave the CSNY 'Living With War' tour out of the equation for the moment, given that it's very much Young's baby, whilst 'After The Dolphin' is an anti-war song set in 1915 and much of 'After The Storm' and 'Looking Forward' are about troubled parents worrying what the world has in store for their children/grandchildren).
Other songs from 'Earth and Sky' turn a more general but similarly damning eye over modern culture. 'Helicopter Song' is the album's rough and raucous rocker, apparently about a helicopter trip but as is usual with CSN about so much more. It's a song about trust - trust that the pilot (who is a stranger) won't mess up, that the waiting family will be there back on earth and can see Graham waving to them, that the beautiful world below will stay beautiful despite the marks of man along the surface. It's a choppy song about a chopper, which might well be 'about' the most famous helicopter trip of CSNY's lifetime, in and out of the Woodstock festival seeing 'their' people from up above. 'TV Guide', the earliest of a handful of CSN collaborations with drummer Joe Vitale, is even more cryptic: Orwell was right and actually a few years late because if '1980' is as scary as this what will '1984' look like? It's a song of spying, of technology meant to be used for good actually used for bad, with the world getting more divided instead of connected as we're mass fed with what's on TV and spied on for anything that might upset the status quo. You wonder whether, having founded the 'No Nukes' concerts, Graham felt he had himself been spied on or if his committee had been infiltrated: whatever the inspiration the tenth anniversary of classic CSNY single 'Ohio' is not a cause for celebration - the Government still don't like being challenged. Another cloud suddenly scurries into view.
However it's alright, alright. Graham has revived a pretty song first played on the 1974 tour (and presumably written for Amy) about how life is going to be better which ne now at least feels settled enough to sing. Love has come, the island he lives on is full of 'diamonds' so much more precious than rare precious jewels, one magical child is here and another is on the way (credited on the album credits as 'the little one in waiting') - with another to follow soon after that. And a new decade, as so often happens for AAA bands, brings new hope. 'In the 80s' is far from the best song on the album but it's the closer the album needs: a bouncy singalong message of hope that serves both as confidence boost and a between-the-lines message of a last warning that mankind cannot afford to ignore. We'll be lucky if we survive, we're thousands of people playing their games - but the future has yet to be written and the response to the 'No Nukes' shows has given Graham new hope. The 1960s' generation are now becoming parents and parents have a new incentive to stop messing the world up. We might be alright after all...(I haven't the heart to tell February 1980-Graham the year will end with John Lennon's murder adding a full-stop to the hippie ideals still yearned for by his semi-colon, or that the Republicans will get back into power for the first time since old foe Richard Nixon in January the following year or that that nice Mrs Thatcher whose just got into power in his old British homeland and given a boost to feminism will turn out to be a monster; no instead I will tell him that against all the odds MUSE is still going and still does so much good (there was a great 30th anniversary broadcast in 2009) and that slowly, little bit by little bit, the 1960s way of thinking is infiltrating its way into power with mankind slowing, if not exactly stopping, his hold on greed). Graham's 'final warning' may have come and gone but surely here in 2015 a final final warning is being heeded little bit by little bit? Surely in the 2020s we will come alive? Won't we?
The most powerful image I have of this period doesn't come from the album itself but from the 'No Nukes' shows: Graham has just uttered a devastating speech about the impact of nuclear power on the world around him - but is interrupted by the arrival of his new-born son for a quick rehearsal duet of 'Our House' around the piano, with CSN preparing to join him for their first team-up in two years. The universal meets the professional meets the universal: it's kind of 'Earth & Sky' in a nutshell, especially the oh so fitting album cover (murky grey skies on the front - the hint of a rainbow coming after stormy weather on the back). As with 'Beginners' and 'Wild Tales' Graham faces the camera full-on and has even returned to the 'self-portrait' style of 'Beginners', only this time it's a then-very modern '80s' box camera that enthusiast Graham is using, posed before 'Earth and Sky'.
So, is Graham's third album any good? It's certainly better than reputation always suggests, hidden away in the 'middle' of Graham's discography and coming after so many louder, fuller albums. At a measly thirty-five minutes in the immediately-pre CD age it can come across as lightweight, heavy on the ballads and with a touch of the extra treacle and schmaltz Graham's critics often accuse him of pouring on thick. Not everything here is first-class: 'It's Alright' was left off the past four studio records Graham has made since writing it in 1974 for a reason, while 'In The 80s' is a sadly lacklustre finale. However there's a lot of heart to this record, with a lot of conflicting feelings that work well on these songs and offer than a similarly multi-layered feel to 'Beginners' and the better songs from 'Wild Tales'. Fans who've been through the mill with Graham for so many years will love the chance to hear Graham at what must surely be his happiest ('Magical Child' is one of the best help-I've-just-become-a-prent-and-how=do-these-things-work-again? AAA songs). At the same time, though, this isn't 'just' a pretty album full of ballads: there's a recklessness about 'Helicopter Song' that makes this too one of his most overlooked works, a more tightly controlled anger on 'Barrel Of Pain', the fascinating eliptical mystery of 'Out On The Island' (but with friend or foe?) and the restrained injustice of 'TV Guide'. Perhaps a couple of classic songs away from being a great album rather than a merely good one, and with production values that for the first time have slipped over the line from 'perky' to 'glossy' (although this album has nothing on successor 'Innocent Eyes' in that regard...), 'Earth & Sky' is nevertheless a highly recommended way to spend a spare half hour or so (you can skip the last track), a pretty much spot-on summation of a life, career and a world caught halfway between pure joy and scary threat, waiting to see if the skies of all three will turn into heart-breaking thunder or yet turn into glorious optimistic sunshine. Caught halfway, in fact, between Earth and Sky.
'Earth and Sky' is a stately and sombre start, with Graham pondering a dream he's just had about flying over the world 'Snowman' style and going back in time to see the dinosaurs. The whole song is already flushed through with the slightly hazy, surreal sound that will become this album's trademark, although here combined with the lyrics about a literal 'trip' into the imagination it sounds like a belated Nash drug song (his last until the anaesthetic from an operation awakens all these demons again on 'Liar's Nightmare' in 2002). As with so many similar songs Graham awakes and finds himself 'safe in my room', but suddenly 'this' reality doesn't seem like the 'right' one either but just another layer of consciousness to be peeled back. We leave the song as Graham tries to piece his mind back together again, watching his 'fading dreams take a bow' and as with 'Cathedral' he equates what he sees in his drug-state with religion, wondering if its 'God' speaking to him in his thoughts, as he 'bends before the future, now holier than thou'. Interestingly this thought reflects what he sees in the first verse, when he spies humans of simpler times as earthbound humans look up at the skies and wish to soar but know they can't; even with mankind's greater technology in the years when he has tamed the skies that were once the prerogative of nature he still can't know what life is really about, a 'mere' human still left dreaming of what it might be all about. The melody starts off pompous and predictable, as if its been earth-bound for too long and is still a little shaky at losing its roots, before taking off on a lovely chorus that suddenly soars high in the sky, with Graham joined by the lovely multi-dubbed vocals of Cece Bullard. It's a memorable opening song, though performed with more detachment than is usual for Graham and even the fiery and rather Stillsy sounding blues guitar of Joe Walsh sounds as if its hidden behind a 'wall' of something.
'Love Has Come' sounds like a generic love song from the late 1970s/early 1980s and again played with a slightly detached air as if Graham is trying to be another period crooner. However even though the arrangement and production rather get in the way this is one of Nash's finest and certainly most 'real' love songs. Now very much an item with Susan, Graham can't wait to go through all the highs and lows of love again, despite being thrice bitten by Rose, Joni and Amy. Graham still sounds shocked in fact - he wasn't expecting to feel so loved up afresh at this stage in his life, and his vocal line rushes headlong into the song: 'I've got so much to find out, so much to give out, so much to take in and pass on again'. Once again this seems like a strangely religious feeling: Nash feels that part of his 'soul' was always waiting in Susan waiting to be discovered, like a magnet attracting the two across countries and time and vice versa; it's interesting that 'love' and 'drugs' both lead to roughly the same place across this album. However the backing doesn't quite share Nash's feelings of joy - once again it's all rather pompous and earthbound, as if reflecting Nash's previous disbelieving self. Once again, though, the song puts things 'right' with a lovely middle eight which is here to cheer up anyone caught in the same position of resigned drifting that Nash has so recently been caught up in: 'Love will find you' he urges, 'you've got to be there and someone will care'. An amazing five guitarists play on this track although it's hard to hear most of them, with Nash and his old CSN friend Joel Bernstein on acoustic guitars, Danny Kortchmar and John Brennan on rhythm guitars and an electric solo by Steve Lukather which again sounds very Stillsy, bluesy and howling and gloriously improvised while wondering around the main 'key'. Crosby pops up on the massed backing vocals too although this time he's rather drowned out by Jackson Browne, Nicolette Larson and Armado Hurley. The end result has some great inspired moments within it but as presented here sounds strangely unmoving for the first 'proper' love song between Graham and Susan, a key source of inspiration over the years whose still inspiring some of his best songs now.
'Out On The Island' is perhaps my favourite song on the album if only for going in such an unusual and unexpected direction. This is one of Nash's 'dramatic' songs, full of atmosphere and cryptical lyrics that are either stupidly simple or deeply profound. The song is surely inspired by the Nash family's recent move to the Farallon Islands ('Such a beautiful island - there is only one place to be') but it's more than just a 'moving house' monologue. The smoky, surreal backdrop full of twinkling glistening synths and a slowly unfolding melody with sudden bursts of adrenalin makes for one of Nash's creepiest sounding songs. The lyrics too are fascinatingly opaque: Nash's narrator stands outside while 'diamonds' hang in the sky with some of them 'falling' (is this a shooting star? A descriptive idea of rainfall? A nuclear radioactive barrel being dumped? Another reference back to drugs via The Beatles' 'Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds'?! Or all four?!?!?) At the same time Nash can hear voices in the distance calling him 'on' - again leading him directly to 'you' (and in context 'you' sounds very much like Susan again). The last verse has the wind blowing into this vision and knocking the 'moonlight' away and we leave the song poised for what's coming next - will this vision come true in the 'sunlight' or simply be a surreal prediction that won't come true? It seems from these lyrics as if Nash is again suggesting that he was 'called' to be with Susan by something deeper than his understanding and was similarly 'called' to the Farallon Islands. Just concrete enough to be interesting and vague enough to go somewhere new, it's fascinating to hear the usually so direct Nash hide behind the sort of 'veils' Crosby, Stills and especially Young were more used to using in their work and Graham has clearly been paying attention: with 'shades of 'Shadow Captain' 'What's The Game' and 'The Old Homestead' respectively this is one of the better and more under-rated Nash songs. Funnily enough Nash with Crosby will be invited to sing on the oddly similar title track of David Gilmour's 2006 album 'On An Island' - you wonder whether Laurel Canyon music fan Gilmour was inspired by this track and whether Graham ever played 'his' version to the guitarist!
'Skychild' is a more traditional yearning Nash ballad, but again one that comes with a slight difference. Though most reviewers assumed that this was another song for new wife Susan, the 'feel' of the song and the opening verse points directly to Joni Mitchell. David (presumably 'Crosby') once 'told me that I'd be in trouble if I dared to take a look at you - but I took a look at you' (Crosby had been dating Joni till the pair fell in love, having 'discovered' here back in 1968). The music, too, has the same sort of chunky piano chords and surreal metaphors more usual to Joni's work, as if one songwriter whose seen the other work close up is paying homage by using their style. The CSNY Mitchell cover 'Woodstock' is also of course full of imagery like 'Skychildren', although there it's used to describe a specific generation. Nash has for the most part got over the sad way Laurel Canyon's couple split up oh so soon and the song is full of love, though Nash teases us with his 'nervousness' at how close his Canadian muse got to his reserved English self, 'aiming for my heart - right on target'. He also sighs in the last verse that she ought to 'look me up' next time she's in town and that he'll still be doing the same as ever, 'picking up the pieces' after the last time they met (which, surely, can't be 'about' Susan as the pair had only known each other a short time by here). Alas one of Nash's better lyrics is rather thrown away on a slightly generic melody which tries hard to be like Joni's sweeping, enveloping melodies without quite losing the Holliesy pop chords and open-ness of most of Graham's work. David Lindley's guitar, which burbles throughout the song, is also uncharacteristically distracting - Graham might have done better to stick with the mysterious drapes of Joe Vitale's twinkly organ and his own synth playing which add the right touch of mystery. Hearing a fourth straight 'mysterious' ballad in a row also means that the record is beginning to become slightly 'stuck' in a groove.
Thankfully 'Helicopter Song' rings in the changes with a fierce and aggressive riff that tries hard to zoom forward but returns back to old ground as if 'stuck' before sadly sinking back to the ground just when it seemed to be about to soar. Another set of descriptive lyrics from Nash could be taken at face value as a simple helicopter ride, with a now daddy Nash leaning out the window to wave to his waiting family and put his trust that a pilot he's only just met won't crash. As with so much of this album, the setting of the song takes place in the 'sky' which is a much cleaner and nicer place than being back on Earth (full of radioactive dumps and dodgy politicians); it's as if Nash is trying to draw mankind's attention back to space and his pioneering spirit rather than using technology for greed (space travel was slowly sinking from view by 1980 after a decade of lift-offs being major television events). However there's a sense of something else underlying this song: it's as if, having had the dream about being in the air on the title song, Nash is trying to replicate it physically, by bodily being back in the air to view the Earth anew. However where 'Earth and Sky' was full of religious and spiritual imagery, this one is more full of worry: this is an artificial man-made 'flight' and is mainly filled with worry about getting down to the ground again safely, his life resting on a 'silver blade above us' where once was the mysterious hand of fate directing him ever onwards. A nicely rocky and chaotic performance really stands out on such a carefully places and anti-sceptic sounding album and Crosby's harmonies are particularly strong, with a last final gorgeous blend between the two before Crosby's post-prison rehabilitation nearly a decade later. Stills also guests on guitar, even though it's not his usual style of song and he's not particularly audible except for a sudden leap into the unknown at the 1:40 mark as he sets off on a dance following Danny Kotchmar (as far as I know this is the only time the 'Section/Mighty Jitters' team ever worked with Stills on a Crosby/Nash recording and they sound rather good together). The end reason is a song that doesn't make much sense out of context and whose riff sounds slightly askew, but in context it's exactly what the album needs with a rougher sound that shakes the album up a bit while still linked thematically to most of the other songs here.
Side one could be considered the 'Sky' side and we're back to Earth with a bump at the start of side two with 'Barrel Of Pain (Half-Life)', Nash's damning song of nuclear warfare. Premiered at the No Nukes benefit, it's a typically Nash concoction of outrage and hope, with a scary monotonous riff that just won't go away turning into a much brighter singalong chorus, a trick Nash had been using since his Hollie days. Tim Drummond, a bass player more usually linked with Neil Young, plays the classic bass line which does its own thing apparently out of earshot of everybody else who ignore it but are still affected by it, until being joined during a fiery solo by David Lindley's guitar. Officially nuclear power has been deemed 'safe' and risk-free by successive Governments, but it only takes one mistake by human error to cause the most horrendous costs to innocent lives and the 'Three Mile Island' incident of 1979 had caused a new feeling of resentment and fear around nuclear power (particularly in America). 'Barrel Of Pain' is effectively Nash saying 'I told you so' as he imagined another, bigger axe about to fall somewhere else and complains that even from his kitchen window he can see the supposedly safe sea off the coast of the Farallon Islands 'glow'. Nash imagines a world where 'Wooden Ships' has come true, with his usual favourite subject of children now mutated and doomed forever by a radioactive glow created by adults who should have been keeping them from harm. Nash then feels his own skin peeling, mutated by radioactive ooze, while a million miles away some fatcat businessmen are making 'millions' from a 'deal', far out of harm's way. Nash is understandably livid and turns in a great performance (although he sang the track better still at the 'No Nukes' gigs), picking up on the nuclear terminology 'halflife' (it's a strange law of radioactivity that it always weakens by pretty much half its strength year upon year though it can take centuries to go back to nothing) and instead compares this with the 'half a life' those mutated by radioactivity can cause. The big fear of 1980 was that all the families who grew up around the Farallon Islands (Nash's included) would be showing signs of mutation and be suffering early deaths by now. That hasn't yet happened, if indeed it ever does happen (cancer rates are actually slightly under the national norm in that area as of 2015) but worryingly surveys intended to map all nuclear waste around the globe reckon there's a lot more radioactive waste in the region than was ever there in 1980 and that far from over-estimating the dangers everyone has probably under-estimated them in the years since. 'Barrel Of Pain', then, is fiercely in the grand CSNY tradition of giving people who don't have one a 'voice' and as a composition is cleverly constructed and admirable. However, there's one aspect of the song that's never quite worked for me: the ending. From nowhere a female chorus featuring Cleo Kennedy, Brenda Eager and Gloria Coleman comes in with a sweep of bluesy gospel as she yells about fearing 'no more pain' (in concert this part became a pure blues rant from CSN keyboardist Mike Finnigan, as can be heard on the live set 'Allies' in 1983); neither quite works sounding false and contrived on a record that's very much a universal song made with personal feeling and rage. I can see where Nash was going: the track is melodically much like a speeded up version of his beautiful 'Another Sleep Song' which ended with a lovely ad libbed Joni Mitchell part that's truly haunting and poetic (both songs even start with a similar 'false start' as the band warm up). But here the effect sounds clunky, full of 'right on' brotherhood that doesn't belong in a song about real feelings and real hurt. Still, for the opening four minutes or so this is another promising and under-rated song.
After all that bombast the similarly earth-bound 'T.V. Guide' is a welcome under-stated song that's easy to miss and one of Graham's shortest clocking in at just shy of two minutes. The first song co-written with regular collaborator Joe Vitale, it sounds as if it started by Nash having a go at his favoured 'Blacknotes' improvisation again (see 'Graham Nash, David Crosby') and having another go at something similar. Figuring that the music sounded like a nursery rhyme, Nash turns in a lyric that's more like one of Crosby's, childishly asking 'why?' the world is like it is. Perhaps seeing the modern world through the eyes of his newborn babes, Nash tries to pre-empt their questions about technology and rubbishing the idea that all developments represent 'progress' when the same old institutions are using them the same old ways. The 'cameras' in the sky via satellite don't point out at the stars luring us closer towards the sublime feel of the title track, but back down on us, 'spying' on our every move. Government agents wait to 'take you in again', presumably for 'questioning' in a McCarthy style witch-hunt, by 'listening through your TV' for criticism of their policies (Nash might mean this literally - televisions were a favourite bugging place of many spies - or might mean the way that TV programmes can 'divide' us and set neighbour upon neighbour' the recent culture of 'benefits porn' in the UK - which is almost all played by actors and designed to make deserving benefits claimants look bad - is a modern version of this). The song then finally drops its nursery rhyme element for a new section (written by Vitale?) in which 'the ghost of George Orwell is turning in his grave', with all his predictions coming true. Telling us one last time to 'check the TV guide' for evidence of the 'blinders' placed on mankind's eyes, Nash suddenly ends the song prematurely. This leaves a sea of strings, that we haven't heard properly in the rest of the song with everyone else playing, hanging in mid-air as if guiltily caught in the act of something they shouldn't be doing. It's another highly clever and under-rated song that perhaps needs another verse to make the most of the message it needs to tell.
'It's All Right' is perhaps the weakest song here, a chorus more than a whole piece of music. However it is a very lovely chorus, a typically Nash bit of hope and comfort actually written for himself during the difficult 'Wild Tales' years (and often performed during his 'solo spots' on the 1974 CSNY 'doom tour'). The track sounded rather better sung to Nash's simple strummed guitar and rather loses something when blown up from understated sweetness into full-blown joy (with those noisy gospel singers back again...) but the song 'fits' this album in a way it wouldn't have done on Nash's other records. This is a song about bad times coming to an end, all because of one person who ends the narrator's lonely vigil through life as he realises that he doesn't have to rush off into anonymity this time (a la 'Stranger's Room') or ponder his guilt ('Simple Man') but can instead enjoy being where he should be. He clearly means that he's feeling much more than 'alright' in this version and the 1980 Nash is clearly singing to Susan, but who inspired the song back in 1974? I'm afraid I'm not quite sure, though Nash had no end of liaisons around that time. Interestingly, though this track doesn't mention 'above' and 'below' like so much of this album it does refer to 'past' and 'present' as a journey which is very 'Earth and Sky' despite the song's vintage: the past was full of 'lonely heartaches and feeling blue' but the future is better simply because instead of being alone 'I see you', someone prepared to 'stay' in Nash's wanderlust life at last. It's always nice to hear a 'homeless' song get a proper place to rest at last and 'It's All Right' is a good fit, if missing the depth and poignancy of the best of the album.
'Magical Child' is, depending on your view, either one of Nash's sweetest songs or one of his most saccharine. Fans who finds Nash's more sentimental streak a bit schmaltzy will be well advised to steer clear, although those with a sweet enough tooth will find much to love. Nash still can't quite believe he's a parent after waiting for so long and all the medical textbooks in the world can't convince him that birth isn't 'magic'. Turning to Susan on the night of his baby's conceivement, Nash just 'knows' that things have changed and 'feels the life we made with our souls' already beginning to form. 'Nothing like this ever happened to me' he sings, genuinely struck by the moment, and wonders why it's taken him thirty-six years to see this 'miracle' happen. Nash, a worried father-to-be, then understands instinctively what to do, re-acting to a 'vague memory' and is also reminded of things from his own childhood long forgotten, 'watching myself grow up' as his son takes on the mannerisms of himself and his wife. Quiet and graceful, this is another song performed live long before it made it onto an album and again it sounded much better when Nash sang it live to his guitar rather than being swamped by somewhat treacly strings. Nash's actually vocal, though, is exquisite on the album recording and one of his very best, with a melody at first so vague it isn't there slowly growing and taking shape around him like a new human being born. As he once sang on 'Teach Your Children', all generations learn from each other and already, just by being here, Nash junior is teaching daddy Graham so much more about life he never understood. Jackson Nash (born 1979) even has some of his dad's instinctive harmonica playing, performing a just-audible harmonica part on the fadeout (well, breathing through one anyway - this part is much easier to hear on the remix included in the Nash 'Reflections' set). Graham's own harmonica playing is as wonky and Dylanesque as ever in the solo and sounds slightly out of place, although arguably the song needs something 'rootsy' here to stop it from floating away on a cloud of niceness. Sweet, perhaps bordering on over-sweet at times, but still sweet nevertheless.
Once again we've had three ballads in a row and the album is beginning to go back to sleep a little when in crashed another noisy song to end the side. 'In The 80s' is the poppiest moment here and sounds not unlike the period Hollies tracks the rest of the band were recording without him (those of you who know the 'Crazy Steal' album especially will know what I mean). Perhaps returning to 'Cold Rain' and with memories of his recent trip to Manchester still in his mind's eye Nash imagines the whole world standing in line and struggling through work waiting for something 'better' to happen. Now, with a new decade on its way, Nash wants the moment to be 'now' and urges the world to embrace the new sense of optimism and security he's just found for himself. However, the song doesn't end there: Nash has no idea how to make the new world 'come alive' and like a dog with a bone keeps returning to the images of frustration and hardship of the opening verse. Sadly this rather tips the song over from being a happy-go-lucky song into one long rant with an all too brief moment of joy taken from a single-line chorus which just feels 'wrong' - should we be cheering or sobbing? Instrumentally, too, the song opens with a weary sigh as the band slowly struggle to find the groove - which is then merged with the same gospelish choir from before to clap and sing along (this time round Nash seems to be capturing the feel of 'We Can Change The World', the tagged on finale to 'Chicago' from 'Songs For Beginners' - only instead of going out from the dark into the light, as per that song, we keep going from the light to the dark and back again to the point where our eyes hurt). The hook in this song is clearly meant to be the moment we turn to a major key and sing 'In the 80s we must come alive!' but that isn't the bit you remember (which is the line before that: 'We'll be lucky if we survive!') The result is something of a disappointment after such a relatively strong and consistent album, but there is at least some consolation in one last great David Lindley guitar solo on a Crosby/Nash project, left draped over the singers on the lengthy fade.
Overall, then, 'Earth and Sky' is a record that all too easily gets left behind. Less consistently inventive than 'Songs For Beginners' and lacking the jaw-dropping highs of 'Wild Tales', it is an album slightly out of time which wasn't quite enough like other period releases to 'be 'fashionable' enough to sell and equally not quite enough like other more energetic and involving CSN album from the past to simply sell to the core fanbase oblivious. Having seven ballads to three heavier songs is perhaps not the best way to 'involve' your audience and get them excited about your art either. However those who've always had a soft spot for Nash's way with words and melodies will find much to love here, with a record more subtle than normal that works even better than his first two as a consistent 'mood piece' travelling from the religious metaphors of the 'sky' half to the more worldly sighs of the 'Earth' half. Though perhaps only 'Out On The Island' and 'Barrel Of Pain' is Graham close to his absolute best, there's a lot of carefully made and moving songs here and the album is very successful at capturing a particular point in Nash's life when things were finally beginning to work out for him, though still with painful reminders of what might have been ringing in his ears. caught halfway between 'Earth' and 'Sky' it is perhaps the greatest neglected album in the CSN canon (along, maybe, with Stills' 'Thoroughfare Gap' and the two CPR albums, plus perhaps the trio's 'Live It Up') too often dismissed as 'boring' when what it really is is a sequential piece where the same production is stretched a number of different ways, full of some of the best and certainly the 'real'est Nash songs of all. Caught halfway between storms and rainbows, bachelorhood and marriage, youth and wisdom, hope and despair, magic and science and earth and sky, this is a far more rounded album than many fans give it credit for. Even with a long-awaited CD debut in 2001 on the French label 'Magic' (who've re-released a lot of the rarer Hollies album too) not enough fans got to know this charming and understated record before it disappeared from view again (did we dream it?)