Monday, 4 April 2016
Jack The Lad "Rough Diamonds" (1975)
Rocking Chair/Smoker's Coughin'/Captain Grant/My Friend The Drink/A Letter From France//Gentleman Soldier/Gardener Of Eden/One For The Boys/The Beachcomber/The Ballad Of Winston O'Flaherty/Jackie Lusive
It's not often an album cover winks at me, dear readers, but this one just did. What's more it's holding a guitar in one hand a pint in the other. Oh and did I mention this figure happens to be a playing card? All in all it's our resident mascot dog Bingo's favourite album cover! In the hands of another band I'd be worried, but this album cover is pretty much spot on for the Jack The Lad unique brand of boozy bonhomie and gentlemanly geniality. What's more, it's an important breakthrough for a band that both they and album company Charisma have never quite known how to market properly (with barnyard banjos on the first cover and a down-home sitting room complete with washing on the second, neither exactly hip images in mid 70s music circles) and suggests that, at last, Jack The Lad know what they stand for and where they're going. 'Rough Diamonds', itself another very Jack The Lad image, demonstrates a new-found confidence with stability within the line-up (this is the only record the Lindisfarne spin-off will make with the same band members for two records running) and an eagerness to record the sort of anachronistic, head-scratching material no other band would touch. Though 'It's Jack The Lad' may have the better songs (mainly courtesy of Rod Clements) and 'The Old Straight Track' the better performances (mainly courtesy of Phil Murray's powerful bass), 'Rough Diamonds' is Jack The Lad's most deserving album commercially and a true band effort. The fact that it too failed to set the charts alight and saw the band quietly dropped from Charisma was a tragedy the band never quite recovered from.
Still, the band weren't to know that at the time they recovered this album which not only winks but positively twinkles, Jack The Lad having by now truly found their identity outside Lindisfarne. It helped that the band recorded it 'on holiday' as it were, having been invited to travel down to Bayswater to make the album a little bit different. Not that it was ecxactly an ideal holiday and the conditions were difficult: Charisma hadn't left an awful lot of money or much time to make the record (so it's just as well the band were hot from a recent tour) while the band were late booking their hotel room and ended up staying altogether in one room during the course of making the record (with Murray, a famously loud snorer, persuaded to sleep half-outside through an open window!) As with other AAA albums recorded in trying circumstances though (like 'Please Please Me' and 'Band On The Run') the 'we'll show you' attitude actually pulled the band together and the record seems to have been a much happier one to make than any of their other three despite all the practical difficulties.
After all the band had numerous reasons to be cheerful: John Peel's wife was still on at her husband to include her favourite band as often as possible giving the band ever more exposure (with Jack The Lad playing seven Peel sessions across their career - they'd make a fine compilation one day if only we can make the band famous enough between us to warrant it!), the band had just been on a successful tour in support of Ralph McTell (where they won most of the reviewers over to 'their side') and in 'Rockin' Chair' Billy Mitchell had just written a timeless classic that in any other hands would have been a surefire #1 hit record (but which, with Jack The Lad's typical luck, no one at Charisma blooming thought to release as one!) If the band's first two records were at least partly about the bitter Lindisfarne split then 'Rough Diamonds' was very much about announcing the band to the world. It should have worked. Why it didn't remains one of rock (certainly folk-rock's) biggest mysteries.
Of course, Jack The Lad hadn't severed ties with their Lindisfarne past completely. That winking album cover was drawn by fellow Lindisfarne refugee Ray 'Jacka' Jackson in a rare return to his days as a graphics student (and which is sadly his last album cover for any band, following his similarly inventive cover for his parent band's 'Nicely Out Of Tune') and he clearly understood the band well with their triumvirate of drinking, gambling and virtuoso playing. In fact Jacka, at a loose end after Lindisfarne Mark II split up in 1974, nearly joined the band as a spare singer and harmonica playing, adding a gorgeous solo to the band's highlight 'Rockin' Chair' and guesting with Jack The Lad at a few gigs (part of the soundtrack of which can be heard on the CD version of fourth and final album 'Jackpot'). Jacka, always a valuable addition to any band, really should have joined full-time and given the 'Lads' a slightly more commercial edge to go with their quirky songwriting (he was asked but declined), but six members would perhaps have been too many for the band to cope with (they wouldn't have fitted into the same hotel room for a start!)
The other major addition is Simon Nicol, fresh from working with Fairport Convention and - more importantly from a sound point of view - Richard and Linda Thompson, whose recent masterpiece 'Hokey Pokey' was very much in a Jack The Lad vein (with depressive folky philosophy interrupted by witty humour and a title track about an ice cream seller that wouldn't have surprised anyone had it come with Si Cowe's name attached to it). No one quite remembers why he ended up producing this album: as a freelance producer Charisma may have been washing their hands of anything to do with a project they knew was likely to fail or perhaps had noticed similarities between the folk-rock music he had been making. In actual fact 'Rough Diamonds' ended up being a poppier and less folky album than 'The Old Straight Track' had been, with a tougher more aggressive rhythm sound from Phil on bass and Ray Laidlaw on drums and a development of the tricky 'on/off' metres that had worked so well on the last album's 'Weary Whaling Grounds' (generally regarded as that record's standout track). Nicol, originally a guitarist before he tried his hand at producing, could also be called upon to beef up the band's three-part guitar sound, taking over from an astonished Mitch when he complained that his own part on his arrangement of 'The Ballad Of Winston O'Flaherty' was too hard to play. He also brought in his old friend John Kirkpatrick, the accordion player on 'Gentleman Soldier', after working with him on another Fairport solo project by Ashley Hutchings. It's a shame that Nicol never worked with the rest of Jack The Lad or Lindisfarne again as he clearly understood their sound, tidying it up better for top 40 radio without losing any of the band's idiosyncrasies or trademarks.
Musically, it's much like you'd expect from the first two albums: a gentleman soldier getting up to hanky panky in his sentry box, a highway robber who flees from prison, the evils of cigarettes, the bittersweetness of booze, a honky tonk Music Hall piece set in France, a French Riveria style tune set on an English beach, a spiritual piece where God is a gardener and a card game as a metaphor for life. The strongest songs though, as usual, came from the darker deeper side of Jack The Lad's repertoire. After some strong songs on the first albums Billy has really found his songwriting groove by now and turns in two of the strongest songs he ever gave the band: 'Rockin' Chair', as discussed, is a true classic up to the level of anything Lindisfarne did (which is saying something!) as the narrator lives what most would call a useful and productive life until the time comes to tell his grandkids stories of what he got up to and he regrets that he didn't step out of line and experience adventures more, like his own reckless seafaring horse-riding grandfather. There's also the reflective 'One For The Boys' which tries to divide up the narrator's meagre possessions before discovering that there's actually too many people to send them to, a thought that cheers him up no end. It also serves as a kind of overture for Jack The Lad and their financial struggles, with the band both worrying where the next payday will come from and not caring a jot because at least this song is being heard by someone. Add this to a song sung half-jokily half-seriously to 'my friend the drink' which blots out the world around him and you have to wonder if Mitchell was beginning to tire of the band's lack of success (he was, after all, half-expecting to join Lindisfarne itself, who had a much better chance of sales with their established name, while reviewers still insisted on comparing him to Alan Hull even though their songwriting came from completely different ends of the social spectrum). However, if such speculation is true, Billy seems to have cheered up immeasurably for the actual performances and turns in some of his strongest and most confident work, truly leading the band from the front now.
Billy also gets to sing several of Si Cowe's songs on this album (which, given that the record features just the one instrumental this time around, features more of Mitchell vocals than any other). However Si is still a strong presence on this album with his unique brand of songwriting exploring new avenues. Though Si is often in a predictably silly mood (who else would write a hymn to the delights of smoking, with the band coughing their way through it as a harmony!) there's also an undercurrent of sadness in his songs too. Si's first marriage was in the course of breaking up - loudly as it happens, with tales of thrown crockery and all-night arguments during the rehearsals for next album 'Jackpot'. Si will end up leaving the band soon after, with this his last recording until the Lindisfarne reunion three years later, and understandably you can hear the doubts and frustrations already in his songs here: though Billy sings 'The Beachcomber' as a cross between a roaring twenties foxtrot and a film noir soundtrack it's actually a heartbreaking song about looking back on a time when the narrator proposed to an 'icy maiden' and wonders why he tried so hard to warm her heart; 'Gardener Of Eden' too seems to come with a subtext about taking beauty and perfection for granted and expecting perfection to come only from 'perfect' people; 'Jackie Lusive' meanwhile is one of those 'crying court jester' sorts of songs that's built for laughs but was clearly written through tears of sadness. Cowe's only purely comic song on the album is about how smokers are going to die young because of a habit they can't kick and how everyone has an excuse not to quit - which is the sort of thing the Government turns into a sob story shown at tea-time with the sort of brutal realism you wouldn't get in an 18 certificate film nowadays. Though none of his songs are bad, one of the reasons 'Rough Diamonds' loses out over its predecessors is that Cowe's glorious eccentricity feels a little curbed here and unlike the first two records he's not quite up to the level of Billy.
The overall record theme, then, is loss and death and worry, but this is not a dark record. Jack The Lad were, after all, too busy partying to know how to make a dark record.Instead we have here a frequently laugh-out-loud funny record that covers some deeply serious subjects and one that seems to both celebrate and curse the excesses of modern day living. A unique mixture of absurdists and realists, 'Rough Diamonds' both laughs over and cries with us over the fact that life is often stupid, unpredictable and difficult and that hard times are inevitable. Rather than cry over what can't be changed, though, 'Rough Diamonds' prefers to laugh, wishing at the end of its life that, actually, the characters wish they'd been naughtier in life and led even more adventurous lives; though it hasn't left them much money to pass around to 'the boys' it has left them a lot of treasured memories. In the wake of Si Cowe's untimely death (the first of the 'Lads' to leave us - rather amazingly, really, if the tale of high living are all to be believed), this is more of a moving listening experience than ever it was at the time. Jack The Lad are a band that have grown with the passing of time well, even if they've grown old disgracefully. At the risk of repeating our two previous two Jack The Lad reviews, the fact that more fans didn't latch onto them at the time is one of the great tragedies of the 1970s music scene.
In many ways too 'Rough Diamonds' is the archetypal Jack The Lad album, uninterrupted by disappearing band members, the need to impress record companies or a desire to make lengthy songologues. Like the best dramas, the comedy doesn't detract from the tragedies while sometimes the best thing that can be done with a helpless situation is laugh at it. With so many practical jokers and natural comedians it makes sense that Jack The Lad should have ended up here (with poor Ray forced to play the straight-man for much of his time with the band - though he is at least credited on the album sleeve for 'crazy rhythms' this time around), but like the best comedians there's a sense that the band understand the importance of humour as a release from a difficult and troubled world with the laughs here for a reason. Like Simon and Garfunkel's 'Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme' and The Rolling Stones' 'Between The Buttons' (two of our earliest reviews), this is an album that's often delivering a different story to the one people think it is. Though the album often sounds jolly and happy and poplike, the real truth of the situations here are often sad: addiction, death, loss, religion: this album could easily have gone in a completely different direction in terms of arrangement and treatment (Leonard Cohen would have had a field day...) This is arguably the 'true' Jack The Lad spirit and style and it's heard at its best across an album here, past individual classics about giants and wurms and whalers notwithstanding, and you sense that the band could have continued in this vein for an awful lot of years to come had they wanted to or been allowed to. Instead the band jumped ship to Warner Brothers after feeling that Charisma effectively left this record to die - a move that sadly will take them away from the Lindisfarne family and ultimately cost them dear.
'Rough Diamonds', then, is another strong album by a great and perennially under-rated band, if not necessarily their best. On a song by song basis 'Rough Diamonds' is perhaps a step down from the impressively consistent first two albums. Few AAA debut records are as strong as 'It's Jack The Lad' with its carat gold classic 'Turning Into Winter' and 'Lyiong On The Water' (though admittedly no other such debuts have so much material about the split of a previous band to talk about), while the album also lacks the range and sense of adventure of 'The Old Straight Track' which switched from comedies about fortune tellers and giants to serious social protest as if they're all really the same thing. There's a slightly repetitive feel to 'Rough Diamonds' which just ever so slightly takes the edge away from proceedings with the band repeating the same ideas on a few songs and branching out perhaps a little too far into experimentation with the George Formby-esque curio 'A Letter From France', one of the weaker Jack The Lad songs. There's no performance here quite as tight or direct as 'Fast Lane Driver' or 'Weary Whaling Grounds' either, even if the band are also never as sloppy as they were on 'De Haviland's Mistake' or 'Rosalee'. However the major plus point in 'Rough Diamonds' favour is that this sounds like a full record this time and one made by the same band from track to track rather than a record that's trying hard to condense multiple bands in one. It's not quite the band's 'Jackpot' (though that record, with the switch to heavy rock, is actually the band's weakest), with perhaps half an album not quite up to the standard of the previous two, but it's close enough with some of the greatest Lindisfarne-related .songs of them all. Which, of course, means some of the best songs by anyone. 'Rough Diamond' is - despite the name - a record with a big 'heart' (and often a big club to wallop you round the head when you're not looking!)
The record starts near the end, as it were, with 'Rockin' Chair' as Great-Grandad Billy tries to find a funny story to impress his grandchildren with. Only he can't think of any - he was too busy being sensible and an upstanding member of the community (!), with a job family and children, not like his own Grandad who lived life to the full and was a right menace his whole life through (though, presumably, he too had children if Billy's his grandson...maybe he was one of those relatives who was always abroad sailing the seven seas?) But now that it's Billy's narrator's turn he can't think of anything interesting to talk about and ends up swiping some of his Grandad's stories instead. It's a clever idea for a song that sounds jolly until you scratch under the surface and realise how serious another band would have made this song, the unspoken aspect being that the narrator, presumably in his final years, has only just realised how wasted his life has been doing what people wanted him to do instead of what he wanted to do (it's a very Ray Davies like song now I think about it). All of this is delivered by Billy with a delightful swagger and Jack The Lads come up with a fun, bouncy arrangement that ties together most of their strengths with Walter's exquisite fiddle playing taking the song into country, Phil's heavy bass lines into rock, the acoustic guitars into folk and a guesting Jacka's delightful harmonica solo into blues. All of these ingredients seem to cook into such an obvious hit single - something Jack The Lad badly needed by 1975 - that you feel like slapping the Charisma staff with a wet fish for noticing it. The band themselves seem to have been particularly keen (sadly one of the very few surviving Jack The Lad TV clips - possibly for children's show 'Supersonic' - has them playing this song for a bunch of bored under-tens, which seems quite apt now I think about it; the Youtuber lists it as 'Sailed The Seven Seas' rather than it's real title but before you think that's going to lead to a cheap laugh, hey, this is one of the most obscure albums I own so I'm not going to complain and anyway I'm too grateful he/she thought to upload it at all). Perhaps the peak of Jack The Lad's career, a song that's catchy-but-deep in all the best ways and everything this band were all about.
'Smoker's Coughin' is, perhaps, a joke too far although there's a certain grim chuckle to be made at Si Cowe's song of praise to one of his favourite vices. The black humour comes from the pun on the word 'coughin' bringing the characters closer to 'coffins' and a memorable chorus of 'smoking, choking, sneezing, wheezing...' and a sarcastic comment that 'everyone's got their personal reasons[for not giving the habit up]' (this one's more like a John Entwistle song!) Jack The Lad perform this one like Music Hall never went out of fashion, with twin banjo parts from Billy and Walter and an opening where Si Cowe sounds like the Geordie re-incarnation of Edith Piaf. Like many Cowe songs this one is a little too left-field for most mainstream ears, but as usual in Si's Jack The Lad days there's a strong tune in there too, a jaunty happy-go-lucky melody that couldn't be less like the dark humour of the lyrics that goes alongside it. Though buried, the strongest part of this song might well be the full band harmonies (a rarity for Jack), as well as a deep whispered 'out you come out you come...' after the line 'He said do you fancy something stronger?' and a final peal of deep throated coughs. Smoking after this? You must be joking!
'Captain Grant' is often listed as the album's highlight, a traditional song in the same line as the hard-rocking 'Weary Whaling Grounds' from 'The Old Straight Track'. It's certainly a strong performance, full of the traditional stop-start rhythms the band nail with their usual precision as members drop in and out of the song. As a song, though, Captain Grant has slightly less going for it than some of Jack The Lad's best and is more like the straightforward traditional folk songs the likes of Pentangle normally do. Captain Grant is a military Robin Hood, stealing money ('Half I kept for myself, half I gave to the poor') before he's caught and it's assumed he's also responsible for a much bigger robbery that's also occurred. Sentenced to be hanged and carted off to Edinburgh jail, he escapes but is betrayed in turn by a woman he once loved and ends up swinging from the rope after all having thrown himself on the mercy of the court. The song doesn't fill us in on much background detail, but the very fact that Grant is a 'Captain' suggests he's quite rich to begin with which throws a different light on his unusual attempts at poor relief. He announces himself as 'one of the heroes of the highway', so he for one is convinced he was doing the right thing, though the rest of the song is more ambiguous. Though technically as great as Jack The Lad usually are, they still sound slightly uncomfortable on this song with Billy not sure how serious to take it and the decision to give the song a typical 'ta-dah!' pop ending rather undermines the weight of the previous few minutes.
Not that Jack The lad are addicts or anything, but next is Billy's ode to 'My Friend The Drink'. Another cheery song masking a sadder truth, Billy's narrator is watching everyone acting really sad and annoyed by a sudden downpour before telling us he doesn't care because he's drinking quite heavily. Later verses make it clear Billy's character is hiding bigger truths too: out of love with his wife when sober, he feels deeply in love with her when drunk and somehow switches from making this a love song to her to the empty bottle of booze in his hand. Billy throws in a quote from an old Lindisfarne B-side ('I have got no time to lose') and it's a track that would have sounded right at home on the similarly-sodden Mark II album 'Happy Daze'. There's no sense of unhappiness or bitterness in the actual song, which is another jolly pop song driven by a fantastically loud bass riff from Phil that takes the song by the scruff of the neck and makes it stay upright. However this is, at heart, another deeply unhappy song where the narrator admits that all he's really after is a 'replacement' for the one he loves and - in a line unlikely to be written nowadays - 'the needle's for fools' and though smoking is cool...'he prefers how he feels on alcohol. Clever, but perhaps a little too convincing and close to the priory for comfort.
Billy's 'A Letter From France' is such an oddball little song many fans assume it's one of Si's. A tale of a lover in the actually very Northern sounding town of 'Arkwright Street' (there's one in Burnley and one in Oldham, though none in Newcastle that I can find), related as a sort of working class Northern England lyric performed in the manner of a 1920s French romantic ode. Billy pours his heart out to a very gentlemanly sounding Si Cowe and quickly gets the giggles as the two fall in love, before 'Albert' gets cold feet and runs off to France pretending that he's died and sending her alimony under the pretence that it's a 'war pension'. It's the sort of half-remembered thing many of our AAA bands from the 1960s and 1970s delivered as a sort of nod to childhood when these sort of songs were many future rockstars' first introductions to popular music, at one with The Bonzo Dog Doodah Band and The Beatles' 'When I'm 64'. Si's outrageous accent aside, though, there's not much here to actually laugh at and the honky tonk/banjo backing is a little too George Formby for most fan's tastes.
DJ John Peel's favourite song of 1975 (or so he said on air at the time of a Jack The Lad radio session anyway), 'Gentleman Soldier' was said to be the most joyful song Peel had heard in a long time (he gets a credit on the original sleevenotes too, just to keep him sweet). It certainly sounds that way here with what a jolly chorus of drums going rat-a-tat-tat, a cheery double strum on mandolin and banjo and an opening that has nothing to do with the rest of the traditional folk tune (instead it sounds exactly like 'Twist and Shout' with some rocky 'aaahs'). Even for this album, though, it's actually a sad song at heart: a soldier falls in love and bids a fond farewell to someone he thinks is the love of his life, only to find out she's already married with three children ('My other love's in the army and one is too many for me!' Billy all but cackles on her behalf, before the most raucous country dancing instrumental break in folk history). There is something infectious about all this, though, with Laidlaw of all people driving the song on with a folk band's impression of Keith Moon. Not that deep perhaps, but still catchy.
Over on side two Si Cowe takes us back to the beginning with 'Gardener Of Eden', both in terms of subject matter (the first day of Earth) and the music (which is about as close to pure traditional folk as Jack The Lad ever came). Given the context of what's about to happen in Si's life, it's hard not to see this as one last fond look back to love and marriage and what it once meant for a teenage Si. The narrator urges his loved one to closer her eyes and look again at the world, to remember the 'beginning' back in their own personal Eden as the couple can 'start our life again'. They don't just 'walk' with each other, though, but with the 'Gardener of Eden', suggesting that Si also had God in mind here (or at least a sort of semi-agnostic 'Clear White Light' style deity as he doesn't act much like God). Is Si suggesting here that love 'is' God and he walks beside everyone in love? Or was he just after a phrase that sounded good? (Or was he simply drunk?!) Either way, 'Gardener Of Eden' is one of the most serious songs Si ever wrote and the fact that the track was handed over to Billy's more 'normal' vocals suggest that he saw this as a possible single for the band or that he wanted to distance himself from always being the 'joker' in the band. Sweet and pretty, it's a nice sojourn between the louder songs either side of it although it's not quite as memorable or distinctive as most of Cowe's material.
The album's second major highlight is Billy's drunken ode to his mates 'One For The Boys'. Like many songs on the album, it's really a sad and melancholy type of song but unusually for this album begins there: Billy's narrator comments that 'someone's trying to take a piece of me, they say they'll give me success in return' and sighs over the fact that yet again he knows it will never happen. A second verse sighs over having to pick up the pieces of your life and carry on 'when your heart is burnt' and how hard that is. A later verse has him lamenting the tears he cried and wishing he could spare more for the suffering friend/listener he's addressing this song to, greeting 'us' as another old mate down the pub in a verse that's most affecting. However the chorus ties all this misery up in a typical Jack The Lad twist: though the narrator is left with little practical material goods, he contents himself that he has so many people to give these things away to when he dies. This is clearly the better way round of the two and Billy adds a whole list of people to remember, including the friends who 'keep me from going insane' and 'the woman who took my name', ending with 'a small piece for whoever's hanging round - and a small amount to spread around the crowd'. It's more like a Who song this one, with its dark bitter introvert tones flipped on its head as a hymn to community and like-minded fellow suffering friends ('Quadrophenia' is full of songs like these). Billy plays things perfectly with one of his career best vocals, caught halfway between genuine sadness and feeling sorry for himself with real joy and celebration. A great song, much under-rated and one that's a perfect fit for Jack The Lad.
'The Beachcomber' is another Billy-sung Si-song that finds our usual joker on deeply serious form. Once again it's a song about a romance that seems to be over and the narrator wishing he could go back in time. He's probably gone a little too far back in time, actually, with this song's Medieval/Fantasy imagery of being followed home by a 'seal maiden'. The narrator seems to change partway through the song, weirdly, with the narrator now trying to hide her need for moisture and ugly skin from her beloved. By the end of the song the seal maiden has had six children but grown so homesick she has dived back into the sea, though she still returns to leave fishes for her human loved one every day as a token of their love. Yes, quite - it's that kind of a song (from that kind of a band). Like Si's previous songs 'Fingal The Giant' and 'The Third Millennium' from 'The Old Straight Track' this is a storybook account that throws light on human rituals and sounds in retrospect the sound of a marriage breaking up with the writer yearning for the days when things were simple (so that even the thought of an inter-species marriage can be overcome. Unless Si is having a go at his ex for looking like a seal). Unlike those earlier tracks, though, this one isn't an obvious comedy - you have to really search through the lyrics to pick up on just how odd this track is and Billy has his best narrator's voice on again. It's a rather sweet and lovely understated track, especially when the rest of the band add some lovely harmonies behind Billy's lead. In other words it gets the AAA seal maiden of approval, though perhaps not as memorable as past Cowe songs!
'The Ballad Of Winston O'Flaherty' is an unusual traditional song, one of those instrumentals that have kept the band in bread and butter and mandolins over the past few years. Like 'Corny Pastiche' it's really a medley of lots of songs in the public domain strung together, starting off slow and precise almost like Jack The Lad are a 'proper' folk band before getting rockier and more manic in the middle (with a near Hendrix explosion of feedback and noise in the middle). As with the band's other songs in a similar vein it's all well played and arranged with so many twists and turns that it never sits still for a second, while this time round the song benefits from the distinctly celtic flavour of things. However fans who've come here direct from Lindisfarne and think a Bazouki is a Geordie swear word rather than a Greek banjo (as played by Si on this track) will more likely skip it to get on with something else.
The album then ends with 'Jackie Lusive', a final burst of Cowe mayhem about a pack of cards. The opening a capella burst is impressive and of all the Jack The Lad 'originals' this is the one that sounds the most authentically 'old', complete with olde style language and nothing anachronistic about the lyrics or setting. The guitar playing, as usual, is pretty spot on too. However the song gets more and more peculiar as it goes along, moving from a tale of humans being divided up like playing cards ('Some are black, some are red, some are easily led...') into a morality tale of The King of Clubs taking the Jack and...what is that second verse about exactly? It doesn't help that Billy gets the words wrong at one stage (it's apparently meant to be 'box and fuddle your brain' which comes out as 'fox and ruddle...') and gets the giggles briefly again, or a confusing last verse involving a 'dealer' who doesn't seem part of the rest of the story. But then as the lyrics put it, 'it's only a game'. Jack The Lad and sundry extras then all join in the all-too-brief coda, shouting out the name of various card games (including, famously, Lindisfarne/Jack The Lad publisher Barbara Hayes, who has 'the manliest voice on the record' according to writer Si). It's a lot of fun, but lacks the deeper symbolism of much of the album and is also rather short (we could have done with an extra hand, especially the finale which fades all too soon).
Even if some of the hands dealt on 'Rough Diamonds' are a bit low, though, with one or two jokers in there somehow, there's more than enough here to make you feel you get your money's worth. Jack The Lad took a real gamble here by heading even more towards a split between their folk and rock sides, with even more oddities and one-off styles scattered through the record in between a handful of their most ear-catching accessible pop tunes. It's the sort of record you'll want to tell your children about from your rocking chairs in later life, while they sit there trying to divvy up your collection and working out what will sell for the most on ebay because it sounds so exciting: seal maidens, gardeners of Eden, comedy songs about cigarettes and alcohol - this is the sort of album that never got made again and was something of a one-off even for the times. Unfortunately from this relative moment of calm and stability will come a change in line-up, record labels and sound, as Jack The Lad leave their run-down five-to-a-room hotel behind for a bigger budget rockier record that would polish the Jack The Lad diamonds a stage further. Most fans, though, prefer this band back when they were 'rough', with the first of the band's three albums all varying classics to one degree or another, all much loved, much treasured and too much ignored for far too long.