Monday, 12 September 2016

Pentangle: Non-Album Songs 1968-2000

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Pentangle's first single [34] 'Traveling Song' didn't appear on the first album, oddly enough, making it the only Pentangle recording to appear exclusively as an 'A' side (till compilations at least).  In case you were wondering, first album song 'Mirage' was chosen to be the B-side. Few fans even realised the song was out, with record label Transatlantic later admitting that the decision to release a single was last minute and got rather lost amongst promoting the first record. That's a shame because this single really does sum up the early Pentangle sound quite well as a 'sampler', a simple Bert Jansch song based around a great beat and with shades of almost all the early Pentangle styles: folk, blues, rock, pop and jazz (only the psychedelic overtones of the 'Basket Of Light' period are missing). Bert sounds like he's parodying every other dumb song in the pop charts at the time, not taking this 'hit single' thing seriously at all, starting the lyric not staring up at the moon and thinking or talking to his creator but 'sitting behind the front wheel, got my woman beside me too'. Given the context of 1968 listeners were probably imagining Pentangle were a hipper Steppenwolf or a folkier Troggs. But this isn't some journey out into the great back and beyond full of wine women and song, but a song of excitement about going the other way and returning home. Bert should be happy to have spent so long in a different sunny climate, but he doesn't care about the drizzling rain because it's a sign he's home again, back right where he belongs. Bert spends the next verse putting his foot down and promising his girl he'll do anything for her - again like most other songs.  But then it gets weird: some hear the penultimate verse (which is hard to hear with Bert's pronunciation) as 'All I hope is we don't get stabbed by someone on the way' (though I hear it the word as 'stopped'). Before you think that's unlikely for Pentangle, this really is the last verse: 'I don't mind telling you gal a policeman wouldn't do us good - a jail house would be no home'. Is the big twist at the end of the song that these are two fugitives on the run dreaming of a home they can never return to? Or have I just been on the travel sweets again? Whatever the meaning of the trick ending (or not) this is a strong song with an excellent catchy melody and a nice if brief string arrangement. The twin guitar solo, played simultaneously by Bert and John in their different styles is pretty spectacular and the highlight of the song, although that is over too soon as well. By the way, that isn't a mis-spelling - well it is, but it's not mine but Pentangle. This single really is officially named 'Traveling' with just one 'l' which seems an oddly lax bit of proofreading for one of the world's more intelligent bands and suggests that the person overseeing this album at Transatlantic was either American (where this spelling is common) or a Medieval monk (where this spelling was occasionally common). The spiritual Camelot flavour of the other Pentangle records makes me long for the second possibility, although actually this song  is one of the most bang up to date Pentangle ever made, with less references back to the Middle Ages than most. Find it on: the CD re-issue of 'Sweet Child' (1968) and the box set '#The Time Has Come' (2007)

I have no idea why both versions of  [30] 'Koan' released so far, as a bonus on track on the debut album and 'The Tine Has Come' box set, both insist on calling this an 'alternate' recording. A short, snaky jazzy instrumental similar to but still very different to all those that made the album, the track is built around a fun Renbourn medley whose heavy beat is quickly picked up by Terry and whose extreme octave jumps is picked up by Danny. Though this sounds more like a bit of playing around between takes rather than a full on instrumental, it apparently came very close to being considered for release on the first album and would have suited it rather well as a sort of scene-setter. Though the band have never spoken about where the odd title came from, it seems likely given their interests at the time that it's taken from the Buddhist word 'Koan', a sort of hypothetical philosophical crossword puzzle monks used to work out where the true harmony in the world lay (you know the sort of thing: would you move the switch to divert a train from running down a baby to running down the Spice Girls). Pentangle's ever-moving 'Koan' certainly sounds like an enigma wrapped in a code inside a mystery and never quite feels as if its revealed it's true self. Find it on: the CD re-issue of 'The Pentangle' (1968) and the box set 'The Time Has Come' (2007)

There's also just the one  version of moody band instrumental [31] 'The Wheel' rolling around, despite that being labelled as 'alternate' too. Neither of them sound quite finished, being simply the sort of solo guitar improvs Bert was used to playing on his solo albums with a gentle accompaniment from Terry. Though Bert is too good a player to ever be fully boring, there's less going on in this track than most of the others in his catalogue. Find it on: the CD re-issue of 'The Pentangle' (1968)

[32] 'The Casbah', however, is the middle jazzy section of that energetic instrumental 'Waltz' from the first LP, here played by Bert as a solo guitar piece that builds up instrument by instrument into a full-blown Pentangle song. Bert had had this simple riff (badoo dee dee badah doo doo) kicking around for years before the band got hold of it and turned it into something new and may have had either the Islamic equivalent of a city (spelt 'Kasbah') or the Casbah Coffee Club, a Liverpudlian hang out for folkies. The song is bit of a mixture of both - you can imagine it going down equally well with drunken locals after a night of heavy folk or a wide stretch of desert where nobody ever comes. Find it on: the CD re-issue of 'The Pentangle' (1968)

[33] 'Poison' is perhaps the most substantial of all the outtakes from the first album and the only one with lyrics. A song many Pentangle fans knew first from the solo version included on Bert's mid-Pentangle album 'Birthday Blues' in 1969, it's a snarling and unusually aggressive rocker that's very Dylan-influenced and suggests the year 1968 wasn't a total barrel of laughs. Bert's narrator thought he understood life, but what used to be so magical and spiritual and changing everyday has turned into a drudgery of highs and lows, of solving problems and escaping them, where 'the rain falls, the wind blows, the sun shines'. Pained, Bert looks up to the sky and complains 'creator, don't you know you're running out of ideas?' All that's left to take him out of this drudgery is 'poison' - what poison is left ambiguous enough to include any vice from alcohol and drugs to hanging out with the wrong kind of people to listening to the wrong kind of music (perhaps Bert already had an inkling about The Spice Girls thirty years early?) Usually Bert's existential angst songs like this one have a happy ending or at least some sort of resolution, but the best that a tired and weary Bert can manage is to be kind to your neighbour, in case he's going through the same things as you. This song would have sounded badly out of place on the joyous upswing of the debut album and hints that Bert was already longing for a new sound like Pentangle to come along to break the monotony of solo records even before the band had properly met. It remains, however, perhaps the single most interesting outtake made by Pentangle and one that finds them sounding very out of character: Bert and  a quieter Jacqui hiding behind him sound sarcastic, while Renbourn gets as close as he can to making his clear and concise leads sound ragged and warped, while Terry is caught between the song's jazzier overtones and the hard rock feel, deciding on a unique style somewhere between the two. The result is far from 'Poison' and remains one of the band's most overlooked performances. Find it on: the 2007 box set 'The Time Hazs Come'

 [  ] 'John Donne Song' is a lovely solo Renbourn performance taped at the same Royal Albert Hall gig as half of the 'Sweet Child' set and the only track left off the album that hadn't already appeared on the debut LP. That might have been because the track had already appeared as 'Song' on the guitarist's first solo album 'John Renbourn' in 1965, although this version is quite different, more timid and worried than calming and confident. A song about dreaming of the impossible even though you secretly know you'll never quite do it, the poem is best known from its opening line 'Go and catch a falling star' and suits John's quietly expressive melody well. A very welcome find from the Pentangle archives! Find it on: the CD re-issue of 'Sweet Child' (1968) and the 2007 box set 'The Time Has Come' 

Bert's rather moody [46] 'I Saw An Angel' was picked as a B-side (the flip to 'Once I Had A Sweetheart')  even though it's more or less up to standard with the strong selection of songs on 'Basket Of Light'. It's another of those slightly spooky Jansch songs where he's the calm centre in a backing track of confusion full of ghostly wailing from an echo-drenched Jacqui that's tremendously effective and some terrific primal drumming from Terry. Despite the sweet title, this is anything but a lovely song and is instead another typical Jansch love song about longing for something so perfect that it probably doesn't exist. Bert's narrator is greeted by an angel who takes him by the hand and tells him 'your present life don't do you no good or bring you true love'. When Bert acts surprised she replies in an oddly earthy style that it's a 'fair cop' and that the only thing on Earth that's perfect is mother nature - mankind is too apt to make mistakes. Bert's comment is that 'I found it ridiculous!' so instead of going with her he wonders back to his 'sweet love', viewing her in a much happier way than before. Was this all a trick by the angel to make him see what his eyes had been blind to back on Earth? Or was there never really such a thing as an angel at all? This cleverly arranged song keeps the mystery and one of Bert's best lead vocals is matched by a band on fine form who really nail this song's complex stop-start structure. Find it on: the CD re-issue of 'Basket Of Light' (1969) and the box set 'The Time Has Come' (2007)

[45] 'Cold Mountain' became one of Pentangle's best known songs in the 1960s thanks to being picked as the flipside of 'Light Flight', the band's most successful single (it's also the last non-album B-side the band will release). An Appalachian Mountain folk song, it's sung by John and Jacqui in tandem with some great vocals, while Bert plays one of his finger-picking best accompaniments and Danny and Terry add some nicely jazzy overtones. Another Pentangle folk song about unrequited love, this take finds the narrator a million miles up in the air geographically but well down in the dumps emotionally. He dreams that his old love is by his side, before remembering he's come all this long way home to East Virginia in an attempt to forget about her and avoid bumping into seeing her with another love which would break his/her heart. Despite this melancholy the arrangement is actually bright and breezy, sung throughout with a big grin that's the polar opposite to the words. Not the greatest or most memorable Pentangle folk song cover, but the arrangement is touched with the same extra magic something as the rest of the band's recordings across 1969. Find it on: the CD re-issue of 'Basket Of Light' (1969) and the box set 'The Time Has Come' (2007)

John had long been fascinated by J S Bach,  although strangely the only piece of his that was ever committed to tape was [  ] 'Sarabande' (the fifth of six 'Cello Suites' written around 1720), a piece originally for cello and in these versions for guitar and glockenspiel, recorded solo for the 'Lady and the Unicorn' LP in 1970 and with the band for the folk club TV special 'The Two Brewers' later the same year, performed in an authentically Medieval looking pub. Though originally the Spanish 'Zarabande' was a frenetic dance in triple time, those romantic French slowed it right down to an intimate and at the time rather shocking slow dance performed at court (one famous quote about the dance claimed 'Hell is its birth-place and breeding place'). Only John and Terry play, conjuring up the right Medieval ambience although by Pentangle standards this isn't one of the more interesting cover versions with Renbourn in too much of a reverential mood to play around with this piece the way he did with so many others. It sounds a little too much like a music history lesson, whereas most Pentangle grabs from the Middle Ages goody-bag are more like the full-on experience of a school trip. John's solo version is slightly the stronger out the two though both are similar. Find the studio version on the John Renbourn album 'The Lady And The Unicorn' (1970) and the live version on the Pentangle box set 'The Time Has Come' (2007)

The unexpected highlight of the entire 'Time Has Come' box set is the remarkable  [  ] 'Wondrous Love' , performed as part of a history re-creation for the TV show 'Journey Into Love'. Actually the song isn't quite as old as it sounds, despite the presence of the David Munroe Ensemble (specialists in early period music) and a very authentic 'at court' performance by Pentangle. 'Wondrous Love' dates back only as far as the early 1800s, which in Pentangle terms is positively modern, an American spiritual that shares a melody with 'The Ballad Of Captain Kidd', which suggests to me that it might have been 'borrowed' by slaves working on plantations who didn't understand or agree with the original words. The two styles are closer than they sound though: the slow haunting shuffle with lots of wide open spaces together with the religious text really does mean this song could easily have been an ancient chant. Lyrically its very much in keeping with Pentangle's usual lyric: The narrator was 'sinking down, before God's righteous frown' before being 'sent' a love that has made life worth living. Later verses have the narrator desperate to tell the news to everyone else in despair, spreading God's message via 'winged seraphs' (a Jewish archangel), 'Zion's King' (Jerusalem's ruler) and 'millions' who will 'rise up and sing the tune'. The song, batted back and forth between Pentangle and the Munroe Ensemble, builds up to a very gospel-style finale full of outpouring and joy as the pair combine on a verse about how the narrator can even go to his death happy at having experienced such a delight. A remarkable piece that Pentangle really should have out on record rather than kept for a TV show that no one remembers - and which sadly no one seems to have kept apart from the soundtrack. Find it on: the Pentangle box set 'The Time Has Come' (2007)


A Now Complete List Of Pentangle Related Articles At Alan’s Album Archives:

Surviving TV Appearances 1968-2000 and The Best Unreleased Recordings

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