Monday 26 September 2016

The Beach Boys "Little Deuce Coupe" (1963)

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The Beach Boys "Little Deuce Coupe" (1963)

Little Deuce Coupe/Ballad Of Ol' Betsy/Be True To Your School/Car Crazy Cutie/Cherry Cherry Coupe/409//Shut Down/Spirit Of America/Our Car Club/No-Go Showboat/A Young Man Is Gone/Custom Machine

'I'm getting bugged writing the same reviews, I gotta get back to when concept albums were new, it's not just for looks man it also drags...'

This record, dear readers, is the first ever concept album in rock and roll: not 'Sgt Peppers', not 'Ogden's Nut Gone Flake', not 'A Village Green Preservation Society', not even 'Pet Sounds'. Of course it's not quite the first ever concept album - some of those 1940s and 50s Sinatra albums were equally miserable or loved-up from track to track and there are a few jazz albums all based around one theme that could probably have a go there too. No, this is the first concept in rock, which is a slightly different prospect. Rock and pop, after all, was for teenagers. You weren't meant to think about it, you were meant to dance to it for two and a half minutes until the next entirely different song came along. Though a lot of pop songs from the 1950s do sound the same, it has to be said, no one else had ever quite strung songs based on the same theme together before. Imagine: owning a long-playing record that sounded like its own entity, rather than a collection of singles, for the first time in your life (hey Sinatra albums are expensive!); this is what The Beach Boys do, moving on from their songs about being a teenager and surfing into a full-blown collection of songs about the joys of the motorcar! Yes, alright, I hear what you're saying - this isn't a great opportunity for deep intellectual thoughts about love and life and loss, just an excuse for yet more songs about pink slips and motors revving under the hood (bar 'Be True To Your School' anyway), but even so this is a colossal step forward for 1963 and a band on only their fourth record. For this reason and this reason alone 'Little Deuce Coupe' never gets the credit it deserves and this overlooked Beach Boys record might actually be one of the most important they ever made. Or in fact anybody ever made. The Beach Boys are inventing the rules here, even if they're doing it in a language they were still making damn well sure teenagers everywhere still understood (and wanted to buy).

That is, though, the only real reason to own this album which even by early-1960s-era-Capitol standards is something of a cash-in. Teenagers had three weeks since the last album 'Surfer Girl' to save up their pennies and buy the next Beach Boys long-player. No that wasn't a mis-print, I really do mean three weeks: that's a lot of working at the gasoline pumping station and McDonalds for a generation of teenagers who only got given expensive records at Christmas (this is, by the way, by far the shortest gap between records by the same AAA band; curiously enough Brian Wilson is equal second with just four months between .'Gettin' In Over My Head' and the re-built 'Smile' in 2004). Nobody quite knows why Capitol were quite so eager or so greedy and keen Beach Boys collectors everywhere must have been horrified to learn on buying this record that they already owned four of the songs on it, with the exact same mixes of '409' (from 'Surfin' Safari'), 'Shut Down' (from Surfin' USA'), 'Our Car Club' and the title track (both from 'Surfer Girl') repeated again to fill up space. People really weren't thinking about Beach Boys albums as works of art at the time and the speed and carelessness with which this album was made screams at you throughout - not just the songs that had already been released but on the new tracks where vocal tracks disappear mid-note, backing tracks swamp the band's harmonies and the traditional accident of a Beach Boys cough somewhere in the middle eight starts getting ridiculous. Even two of the 'new' songs are re-writes, Brian recycling a recent single ('Be True To Your School'), 'Cherry Cherry Coupe' came from standalone single 'Pamela Jean' (on which The Beach Boys performed as The Survivors) and 'A Young Man Is Gone' borrowed the entire melody from The Four Freshman's 'Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring', a fact that wouldn't have been lost to the fans eager enough to hear the band sing it in concert that way. That leaves just five songs that are entirely new and they're all based round the same subject: I've got a brand new motor and I like it more than girls. This flies in the face of every past Beach Boys track (even the surfing songs never treated the sport higher than a teenage romance) and yet no one seems to consider that odd. Curiously conceived, curiously made and very curiously written, this overlooked Beach Boys record cash-in might also be the stupidest they ever made. Or in fact anybody ever made.

And yet even at their earliest and silliest there's something irresistible about this period of The Beach Boys. No other band was in such fine voice back then (not in 1963 anyway) and even if Brian knows he has to make another record to sell first and foremost, he's still having fun learning his trade and trying to get as good as he can. The productions have really gone up a gear, with Brian taking full control for the first time ever in his young life (he was, after all, still just 21 at this point). There are some moments on here - 'Our Car Club' and 'No Go Showboat' especially - where there's so much going on and in such an elaborate production-heavy way that it sounds as if you're listening to the future, even if the words seem firmly rooted in 1950s traditions. The band also mean every single word they sing, even when it's nonsense: back then Mike Love was one of the best frontmen in the business and the layers and layers of vocals make even the daftest lyric sound slightly poignant, such as 'The Ballad Of Ol' Betsy' (in which the narrator loses his first ever car)  or 'Car Crazy Cutie' (in which, shock horror, a girl likes engines as much as her boy). You can forgive this record a few rushed edges given the circumstances behind making it mere weeks after the sessions for the last album ended (with all eight new songs recorded in a single session on September 2nd 1963, which is hard work even by Beach Boys standards)  and, no, this record was never going to hold up to the British Invasion ready to arrive in a few precious months (it falls apart compared to the British equivalent 'With The Beatles', even if this album contains far more originals and less cover songs). But it's as good as anyone could get under the musical rules still present in America in 1963 before the world changes and at times you can already hear The Beach Boys a-revving up their engines and eagerly waiting for the changes they can hear coming on the horizon. It's not their fault they aren't the ones bringing that changing world in - they've already invented the mixture of Chuck Berry and Four Freshman that everyone in their day was attempting, plus inventing the concept album and establishing the fact that bands should write their own material, at least most of the time. That's enough for one era. Don't be greedy - leave the rest to The Beatles and co.

This record's other saving grace is new lyricist Roger Christian. Much older than the band and already an established success with his own radio programme, Roger was better suited to help in his role of moving forward musically without leaving anyone behind than most. As a star in his own right he was also better placed to stand up to Murray 'Dad' Wilson during the inevitable run-ins over the new material that had killed off the promising career of Gary Usher before him. Roger had no interest in surfing though and made his condition of working with The Beach Boys clear from the first; his first love had always been cars and he had been particularly impressed with Gary's lyrics for '409' and Mike Love's for 'Shut Down' and wondered why Brian hadn't written more in the same sort of formula. Roger tried to write to the same sort of principle as these songs, but he has a very different feel and flow to his predecessors, being more interested in detail and, well, mechanics in all senses of the word than the emotional teenage abandon of earlier Beach Boys car songs. His lyrics are much longer and stretch The Beach Boys' vocal abilities to their limits, with them usually ending each line with a big gulp of both air and relief. He's not afraid to go into detail, updating 'Little Deuce Coupe's list of little observations with a whole list of pistons, rods and axels. Few fans probably noticed or cared, but it does give these songs a sort of authenticity amongst the car enthusiasts of the world that they never enjoyed with the surfer movement (because only Dennis knew the details to put into song and sadly nobody was listening to Dennis in 1963). The fact that this album was the band's 'autumn' release at the beginning of their second year probably wasn't lost on anyone either: nobody was going to buy a Beach Boys surfing album when the beach was freezing and they had maths homework to do, but they might just buy an album that celebrated the car they were saving up to buy or take out at the weekend. Brian, too, knew one hell of a lot more about cars than he did about surfboards and approved the change as being similar enough to have the same appeal, but different enough to allow him to go somewhere new. It also probably wasn't lost on either Roger or Brian that with The Beach Boys selling well but not ridiculously they might not be able to afford a house out of making this album, but they could probably afford a car each!

The biggest reason this album turned out the way it did, though, was another sneaky trick Capitol pulled on the nations' teenagers in 1963. Noticing that 'Shut Down', the humble B-side of 'Surfin' USA', had sold very well in its own right (ie enough teenagers had walked into a shop to ask for the song by that name not the A side, even though it got far less radio airplay), they flung together their own car compilation named after the song. Though 'The Beach Boys' were only mentioned in small print, many fans saw the name (and the sheer amount of Brian Wilson songwriting credits as the set included Jan and Dean songs he'd written) and assumed it was one of their albums. Capitol seem to have encouraged the misleading of fans in this way, knowing that people thinking a catch-all set was by their biggest act probably wouldn't hurt. No one told The Beach Boys and there was nothing they could do, but the success did inspire Brian into thinking along similar lines and the packaging of the two albums is very similar: a crisp white background filled with close-ups of a motor. Of course if you bought that album by accident you'd have been even more annoyed at this one, with both records containing 'Shut Down' and '409'.

Whatever the cause, cars seemed like a good idea to follow, even if 'Little Deuce Coupe' actually gets rid of most of the things people had come to associate with The Beach Boys by then, again making this little unloved album a far more daring record than people realise. The only females on the whole album are the very macho 'Car Crazy Cutie' and the pom-pom wavers of 'Be True To Your School' - there are no Judys, no Surfer Girls, no California Girls. In fact this is easily the most masculine Beach Boys record - it celebrates womaniser and racer James Dean, involved the narrator 'shutting down' another driver and features several narrators who seem to have eyes only for their motors. Back in 1963 most Beach Boys fans were girls (mainly because of Dennis, a little bit for Mike) - all the live footage of the period shows a sea of screaming teenage girls with only one or two bored and deaf looking brothers/boyfriends. You'd have thought that would have made the sales go down a gear or so but no, this album continued the strong sales of the albums just before it incredibly, despite the presence of four older songs. Oddly there's no mention of sport either across the whole record and not one surfboard.

This despite the fact that in this period of Beach Boys history Brian Wilson has just done the unthinkable: have a number one American hit record with one of his own songs about surfing! Unfortunately The Beach Boys didn't sing on it - Jan and Dean did - with 'Sidewalk Surfin' so close to The Beach Boys sound it could have been one of theirs with very little work whatsoever. This is, sadly, the start of a slight loss of faith in the band's superstar that begins to creep in little bit by little bit in this period. Why was Brian writing number one hits for his friends - why wasn't he writing them for his own band? Murray Wilson, particularly, flipped his wig and demanded that his son work harder for 'the team', perhaps missing the bigger picture which was that The Beach Boys sound was so in demand by the summer of 1963 that even sound-alike acts were scoring hits with it. Jan and Dean happened to get their first, but The Beach Boys weren't far behind with 'I Get Around' right around the corner (this album's 'Be True To Your School' wasn't far behind either). Brian, though, had a much happier time making music with Jan and Dean than he did his own family and if anything it's that lightness of touch that shines through on 'Sidewalkin' Surf'. Brian could simply have released a Beach Boys version of the single, but impressively given the circumstances (he was terrified of his dad - and his cousin) he stood up to everyone, shooed Murray out of the production control-room and recorded some care songs that didn't sound anything like his most recent hit. This is the making of Brian in the short-term - and sadly the breaking of him in the long-term as, one weary year of British Invasion competition and parental pressure later, he'll crack for the first time. Not yet, though. For now 'Little Deuce Coupe' has the same lightness of touch that all of those other period Beach Boys albums seem to have.

In truth it's a bit of a step backwards from 'Surfer Girl', which was a bit of a patchy album but featured a real move forward in some areas and some breakthrough songs. Most of the breakthrough work on 'Little Deuce Coupe' comes from the older songs (especially the title track and 'Shut Down', with the exception of '409' sounding so much older in context than just a year and a bit), while the new ones have the brake on as much as the accelerator. 'A Young Man Is Gone' celebrates the hero of yesteryear with the soundtrack of yesteryear a capella folk with it too for goodness sake and doesn't sound like a record from the end of 1963 'should'. Tracks like 'No Go Showboat' and 'Cherry Cherry Coupe' have some great singalong parts but are, by contrast with other songs from this period in Beach Boys evolution, downright daft. 'Custom Machine' is a real step backwards, with its primitive drumming and 'wahhh! waaaaah!' siren chorus. 'The Ballad Of Ol' Betsy' is too wordy and way too grownup for this album, an adult song about loss and moving on from a broken heart welded onto the broken bonnet of a beloved first car. This album is a mess and despite the thematic links in the lyrics often sounds on both a musical and production level as we're in a car sale surrounded by so many different models it makes out head spin. The 12 songs on 'Little Deuce Coupe' have nothing in common except The Beach Boys license plates. It's a car-crash, with few survivors.

And yet, when this album works, it works, old or new, it doesn't matter. Few teenagers in the 1960s were collectors, well not till the end of the 1960s anyway - they didn't buy up every LP for the pure and simple fact they couldn't afford it (that's why compilations sound particularly well in this era, with teenagers swapping singles and LPs around so everybody got to hear them, but few people got to buy them). Having four old songs on here seems like career sabotage today but it wasn't quite as heartless as that in 1963, even if you doubt Capitol cared much behind the few extra bucks they were making from having these songs here. They work anyway, by and large: 'Little Deuce Coupe' is a fun Chuck Berry-style character number, 'Shut Down' is a surprisingly aggressive rocker, '409' is cute but old and 'Our Car Club' is one of those exotic, complicated models with a high production price tag. Of the new songs 'Be True To Your School' really doesn't fit here (does the car take the cheerleaders to school or something?!) but it's one of the better period Beach Boys tracks on single which grabs you by the ear and plays the 'good boy doing well at school' card, which was actually probably braver than the 'wild kid in the school holidays' card they played so often (a shame the album cut isn't anywhere near as good, though). 'Car Crazy Cutie' is good fun and is the first ever Beach Boys song to feature all the band singing parts one by one with an opening 'round' giving way to a cheery song that sounds like the best parts of lots of earlier songs stuck together. 'Spirit Of America' too is an excellent song, actually about a car rather than a country but it kind works for both, with a lovely slowly unwinding melody and one of Brian's most gorgeous falsetto vocals. Who cares if he's singing about a car, he sounds as if he's in love in a way that only Brian Wilson can. Is that enough to buy this album? Ah, it's probably best to leave this one in the garage unless you're a collector really and especially if you already own the famous songs, but if you've ignored this album for decades because of all those bad reviews this poor album always gets then you might find a surprise. This is 'Little Deuce Coupe' - unless you're a big enough Beach Boys fan to actually own the thing, you don't know what it got!

(Note: first published in our review for 'Surfer Girl', News, Views and Music Issue #244  on May 12th 2014)
'Little Deuce Coupe' is along with 'Fun Fun Fun' to come arguably the best car song the band ever came up with and will even become the title track of the next Beach Boys album (released just a month later than 'Surfer Girl'!) dedicated to the band's growing inland fanbase who didn't know one end of a surfboard from another. 'Little Deuce Coupe' is simply great fun writing, a clearly proud teenager showing off about his car despite his opening line promising 'I'm not bragging so don't put me down'. Technically speaking the band mean the 'Ford Model B' although practically everyone called the cars 'little deuce coupes' once the song came out. One other line in the song that confuses many: the narrator's assertion that he's got the 'pink slip daddy' - this was the piece of paper in California that was effectively a teen's driving licence (is the narrator promising his girlfriend's parents that he can actually drive the car and she'll be safe?) A fun song with a typically technical lyric from Brian's DJ friend Roger Christian that doesn't get in the way, 'Little Deuce Coupe' is perhaps best known for its distinctive shuffle beat, a kind of brisk walking pace that manages to join boogie woogie with rock and roll. The band are clearly having fun with the vocals too - especially Mike, who absolutely shines in his role of the teen who has everything and can't stop showing off about it. Every teen with a love for a good motor wanted a little deuce coupe after hearing this song - which was a shame because, being Beach Boy fans, they must have all rushed out to buy a '409' the year before and would have to safe up for a 'Cherry Coupe' and a 'Little Honda' before too long as well...'Little Deuce Coupe' has deservedly become almost as famous as any Beach Boys song and despite not being a single the first time round per se made a highly respectable #15 on the charts simply from people requesting that 'side' of the 45 whenever they bought the record from a shop.

'The Ballad Of Ol' Betsy' is all too clearly modelled on 'Surfer Girl' (which itself borrowed rather too heavily from the Disney song 'When You Wish Upon A Star'), but somehow this tale of love for a second-hand car that's falling apart doesn't quite have the same emotional impact somehow. The Beach Boys are very much in 'Four Freshman' mode here, which really isn't their best sound - their vocals tend to drag a little when doing all those slow 'aaahs' and 'oohs' and the rush to make this song means that Brian's usual perfectionism goes astray over his double tracking. There aren't many Beach Boys songs that are boring, but this one comes close. However there are some good points too: Roger Christian absolutely nails the sense of proud many teenagers felt on owning their first cars/wrecks and portrays the loss of a loyal jalopy as a real rite of passage in the lyrics. The key change into the second half (when you think that Brian's already reached as high as anyone could possibly go) is sublime and one of those typical Beach Boys treats that proves how much extra attention to detail was going on, even in the days before the band started using session musicians and combining funny sounds. And the finale is staggering, a run of long held a capella notes that aren't so much sung as hummed. Old school this might be, but there's nothing wrong with being proud of the school you come from.

Talking of which, here's the one song on the album where the car link is tenuous: the #6 American hit single 'Be True To Your School'. Many Beach Boys aficionados rate it amongst the best of their early singles and for good reason: the tension and urgency of their faster songs like 'Dance Dance Dance' and 'Fun Fun Fun' are there, but so is the 'story' of their slower hit songs like 'Surfer Girl'. An ear-catching opening is born for Mike Love, rotten pupil as he was by his own admission, as he attacks a friend for saying his school is 'best' - I mean, seriously? His school was unarguably the best - it had sweaters with your name on if you were in the track and field team, they won every football game in the league and everyone is proud to come from there, complete with added pom-poms and school chant (wherever 'there' is, Hawthorne High presumably, but cleverly the band never name the school so we can all pretend it's our school that's the best. Well you can. My school was terrible. They couldn't even teach the hidden depth and meaning in 'Eleanor Rigby' properly. I'm not going to be true to mine whatever Mike Love says). Oddly enough, though, it's not a Mike Love lyric but a rare Brian Wilson one dating back to the brief era in between his work with Gary Usher and Roger Christian. It's one of his very best and though Brian pretty much hated school as well (note how most of the narrator's pride comes from the sports team - Brian was a great runner and American football player; Al Jardine was too and they met on the school team when Brian accidentally made a wrong 'call' and everyone sat on Al and broke his arm) the lyric rings true, perhaps truer than most for early period Beach Boys surfing schools written by a man who hated being in water.  The band's loyalty is almost as impressive as the song's structure as the song goes from anger to joyous celebration in quick succession and like the best early Beach Boys songs this track really sums up the exuberance of youth. Unfortunately, though, Brian hasn't had time to really nail this song yet with perhaps an hour at best to get it down on tape, so what we have here on 'Little Deuce Coupe' is the earlier, inferior album cut. Not for the last time, the single is better and had a lot more love and care thrown at it, complete with Brian's in-laws The Honeys playing the part of cheerleaders ('Get back, get back, waaaaay back!'), a horn section,a much more prominent guitar part and much more of a carnival atmosphere. Thankfully most CD re-issues of this album include both so you can compare. Even the album version has its moments, though and is one of the two strongest amongst the eight new songs. The chorus 'Rah Rah Rah Rah Sis Boom Bah' has never sounded so good either.

'Car Crazy Cutie' is the other 'new' highlight, a classy bit of Beach Boys writing and arranging even if the performance is showing up signs of being put together at speed again. The opening is sublime - yeah The Beach Boys might not have sung the line 'Da Doo Ron Ron' first, but they absolutely make it their own here with an impressive opening that for the first time uses the Beach Boys as individuals rather than just as a massed choir (in order - Mike, Dennis, Carl and Al, then Brian). The backing might sound a little too much like 'Little Deuce Coupe' for comfort, but in terms of melody this is actually the better song, with a lovely 'woa-a-a-ah' hook and a lovely Brian Wilson double-tracked lead that flows so naturally it burns rubber on all four wheels. You can tell, though, that the lyrics (again mainly by Brian) aren't quite as inspired and he doesn't have either his cousin's wit or his new friend Roger's encyclopaedic knowledge about cars. That's because Brian spent a long time crafting the melody, determined to deliver a 'hit' for old friend, first flatmate and writing partner Bob Norberg and his group 'The Survivors', with a first draft celebrating the typical teenagery tale of a holiday romance with a cute girl named 'Pamela Jean' (The Beach Boys ended up providing the backing vocals and instruments, making it quite the collector's item until a surprise re-issue on vinyl in the mid-1980s). The song flopped badly in the charts for some reason (it's both superior and more Beach Boysy than 'Sidewalk Surfin'), so Brian reclaimed it and wrote the lyric at the eleventh hour, with Roger apparently re-writing the lyrics later. This is clearly far from the deepest song The Beach Boys ever sang (basic plot: the girl likes cars as much as her boy and was born 'with axel grease under her finger-nails'; it starts off as a surprise proto-feminist anthem until things get back to normal in the last verse when every other boy gets jealous over her 'big blue eyes and candy-apple lips'). However it's one of the funniest, jolliest songs The Beach Boys ever sang. A shame, then, that they don't sound so much jolly as jetlagged (even with such a short time to make this song, Brian still drilled the band's vocals over and over according to the bootlegs and it's probably the most complicated part they sang that day, so no wonder they're all slightly fed up), but that's a small price for a small nugget of Beach Boys goodness.

Alas 'Cherry Cherry Coupe' is just a drag. Not a dragster, that would be fun, but a drag. This wannabe 'Little Deuce Coupe' (both in terms of car and song) never quite sparks somehow and sounds like it comes with a flat battery. Mike is so bored he really messes up the double-tracking while Carl, the loudest on the backing vocals for once, sounds like he's just been badly scolded by either his brother or dad or cousin or all three. Legend has it that this song was a re-write too, of 'Surfin' USA' outtake 'Land Ahoy', but the similarities are slight - and frankly 'Land Ahoy' is the better song, embarrassing sailor cries and all.  It's just that nothing happens on this song which remains firmly in cruise mode without sparking to life and showing what it can do. Lyrically this song just repeats 'Little Deuce Coupe' with a tale of envy and speed, without the added wit and rebellion that made 'Fun Fun Fun' so exciting an album later. Lines like 'chrome reversed rims with whitehall sticks' and 'it turns a quarter mile in 1:06' also reveal why the Roger Christian years, good as they were, never resulted in a song as memorable or with such universal appeal as 'California Girls' or 'In My Room'. Oh and what is a 'solenoid system', this song's equivalent of the 'pink slip' which fans didn't understand even at the time? (Don't bother I've had a look - apparently it's a coil wrapped round a tight helix to better convey petrol fumes; catchy, man).

(Note: first published in our review for 'Surfin' Safari', News, Views and Music Issue #28 on April 20th 2009)
[13] ‘409’ is the most assured of all of the very earliest Beach Boys recordings – amazingly the ‘Surfin’ Safari’ album (the first ever AAA album in chronological terms) contains not only the two templates for the band’s ‘surfing’ records but their ‘car’ records as well! Despite another slightly dodgy (or at least under-rehearsed) performance, this is quite possibly the best of the band’s early ‘car’ records – it swings more than ‘Little Deuce Coupe’, has more to say than ‘Shut Down’ and sounds more heartfelt than novelty records like ‘Our Car Club’ and ‘Cherry Cherry Coupe’, though it dated faster than any of them purely in performance terms. Written so that fans inland would have a Beach Boys record to buy that related to them, ‘409’ is another classic vignette of teenage life in 1962, back when having a car to take your girl out on a date was the most important thing in the world. Brian’s already got the knack of mixing Four Freshman vocal influences, Chuck Berry guitar licks and early 60s novelty lyrics and the use of sound effects (which don’t appear on Beatles records until 1965!) is well ahead of its time. Classic stuff.

(first published as part of our review for 'Surfin' USA', News, Views and Music Issue #220  on November 18th 2013)
[28] 'Shut Down' seems to have been a surprisingly popular song considering it was only ever released as B-side (to 'Surfin' USA). The song is important for two reasons: firstly, it properly introduced 'car' songs into the band's repertoire (after a false-start with '409' on the back of the 'Safari' single) and gave the band something to sing about other than surfing; secondly it's the first song Brian wrote with his second collaborator Roger Christian (Brian knew almost as little about cars as he did about surfboards, with most of the technical points in the increasingly detailed Beach Boys songs of the next year down to Roger). The first sign of something a little aggressive about this album (a theme we'll return to in 'Finders Keepers'), 'Shut Down' is a song about a drag race between the narrator's 'fuel-injected Stingray' (which, I'm reliably informed, is a Chevrolet Corvette, a brand new car in 1963) and a rival's '4:13' (God knows what that is!) We never find out who wins (The narrator admits in the last verse the 4:13 is ahead but 'it's lead is starting to shrink') or why they're racing and trying to 'shut down' (i.e. beat) each other. Personally, this is one of the band's weaker car songs for me, a little too cliched and full of technical jargon without any emotion (unlike some reviewers I do think Christian will get better at this - 'The Ballad Of  Ole' Betsy' is the closest you'll come to weeping for an imaginary car until Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) and the song just sounds wrong somehow (few other Beach Boys songs are quite this harsh or competitive, even the Mike Love or Dennis Wilson ones - 'Surfer's Rule' from the next album being a single and unwanted exception, fake 'warnings' to the Four Seasons to stay off their patch and all). However, I can see why this song was so popular at the time: even music-lovers who thought surfing was silly were quite often kookoo about cars and the band turn in another powerhouse performance here, with full knock-out harmonies, another storming Brian-Carl bass-guitar interplay and a truly exciting arrangement that really builds up the tension and excitement. Even Mike Love's unexpected saxophone solo (played on two notes because those were the only ones he knew!) kind of fit somehow. The song was so popular Capitol even released an amazingly popular 'various artists' album about cars with 'Shut Down' as the title track - which The Beach Boys cleverly cash in-on by releasing an album titled 'Shut Down Volume Two' in March 1964, a full year after this song's release.

'Spirit Of America' looks like it's going to be a tale of American folklore and heroes - especially on an album that includes a tribute to James Dean. But no: 'Spirit Of America' is another sodding car and the result of a conversation between Brian and Roger that ran 'when we get bucket-loads of money from this albums, what's the car you've always really wanted to buy?!' Well, even 'Little Deuce Coupe' didn't sell enough to buy this baby: 'Spirit Of America' was the rather jingoistic name Craig Breedlove (no relation to Mike) gave to the car that broke the landspeed record at the Utah Flats  on September 5th 1963, just four days before this recording took place (that's the one good thing about The Beach Boys being made to release albums at such a pace - they managed to remain very topical, with this album in the shops even before the fuss about the record had died down). The rather-literal journalistic lyric describes the progress of the 'jet without wings' as the 'King of all cars' plays a 'dangerous game' yet comes through it all to 'average 407 per hour'. Ironic, then, that a song about a landspeed record should be so darned slow, with this another ballad in the 'Surfer Girl' mould without quite the legs or the beauty. There is, though, still much to admire, from the backing track mainly with Brian learning how to use horns with subtlety for the first time and there are many lessons here (such as the boogie woogie piano licks multi-tracked) that will find their way into 'Pet Sounds'. Brian copes admirably with the rather complicated lyric, while The Beach Boys sound a bit happier on backing vocals on this one (was it taped earlier in the day?) The melody, too, is rather lovely and the gear-shift from verse into chorus is so nicely judged that you don't even notice the join.

(Note: first published as part of our review for 'Surfer Girl', News, Views and Music Issue #244  on May 12th 2014)

 [44] 'Our Car Club' is another album highlight. I got to know this song first from the backing track on 'Stack O-Tracks' and wondered for years what the finished product might sound like: it's a very jazzy, very un-Beach Boys song that sounds more like Booker T and the MGs than their usual early style. I'm happy to admit I guessed completely wrong: the vocals sit across the backing, almost in competition with it, instead of following their melody and the result is one of the most complex and unusual Beach Boys creations of them all. Yes the lyrics are silly (a bunch of teenagers setting up their own 'car club' even though they don't have a car between them and seemingly far more interested in setting up rough initiation ceremonies for new members), but musically by 1963 standards this is like expecting The Spice Girls to do a prog rock album: it should be way way out of their league. This is clearly another 'Wrecking Crew' session and Hal Blaine's drumming is particularly inventive. It's also nice to hear a 'proper' saxophone part after hearing Mike Love honking two or three notes as in the past and there's an early sign of Brian's love of sudden, unexpected pauses (after 'this club's the very best) that will be a key part of his writing over the next few years (see 'The Little Girl I Once Knew' especially, whose long pause in the middle was daring for the day). Legend has it that this song started life as a quite different song named 'Rabbit's Foot' - although whether that was the 'real' subject of the song or simply a working title to be filled in later we'll sadly probably never know.

Brian's a touch shrill on 'No Go Showboat', though, which sounds like a step backwards to the 'comedy' lyrics of the first two Beach Boys albums. Having celebrated a surprising amount of 'winning' characters on this album, all of them with cars that other people idolise, it's good to hear The Beach Boys going back to a situation more of their fans would recognise. Brian's hapless narrator has spent all his money lovingly sprucing up a car and it looks fabulous! However he's spent more time thinking about looks than speed and when he drives away for the first time, it's a disaster. 'She's just for looks, not for drags' quips the band, while they also tip a nod of the head to the fact that not everyone can re-enact the lyrics to 'Shut Down' with the line 'When it comes to speed I'm outta luck, I'm even shut down by the ice cream truck!' backing wise there's an even stronger use of horns on this one behind the usual 'Boogie Woodie' beat and the backing vocals are impressively complex, even if Dennis' pat-a-cake drumming is showing signs of struggling. This time the melody and general groove of the song will get recycled for the later track 'Drive-In' from the 'All Summer Long' album in about nine months' time but is all-new for this album for once. The later song is much more fun and dynamic and Brian sings in a much more 'normal' voice on that one too, but 'No Go Showboat' has a certain charm too and is perhaps the most 'Chuck Berry'ish lyric on a Beach Boys album, telling a tale of miniature Americana every teenager of the day could recognise (probably quite a few even now). Roger still shoe-horns in an awful lot of technical references into this lyric though, including the memorable rhyme 'chrome goodies' with 'Ford woodies' (the vehicle used to transport surfboards to the beach, thus combining two Beach Boys topics in one).

Why is that when people love something they have to steal it? Brian Wilson especially it seems, who can't let go of his beloved Four Freshman and so turns to re-writing one of their standard songs by their main writer Bobby Troup. The band had been singing 'Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring' for years (the best version is a soundcheck taped in 1967 and included on the 'Smiley Smile/Wild Honey' CD) and a good thing too: sweet, poignant and heartfelt, it's a lovely chance to hear the four different Beach Boys vocal parts at their most separate and clear. Less essential to their canon, though, is the re-write 'A Young Man Is Gone' which Brian urged Mike to write, celebrating the life and especially the death of actor James Dean. Despite the fact that he lived his life fast with flashy motorbikes (hence the song's inclusion on this album), Dean just doesn't seem like a natural icon for The Beach Boys to follow somehow. He's way too 50s, flashy and 'cool' for a band who spent their time on stage in striped shirts and were already defining the 1960s sound before The Beatles and co came along and built on it. The Beach Boys were also never cool - well hardly ever cool, at least to the same degree; their respect and adulation was based more on Dennis' looks, Mike and Brian's voices and the band's ability to tap into things that teenagers could relate to; not the sort of flashy other-wordly icon that James Dean at least wanted to become. The celeration here of his death, which in truth caused by his recklessness though you wouldn't find many teenagers thinking that at the time and even the Beach Boys calima 'no one knows the reason why' though everyone really did by 1963, seems out of place in The Beach Boys catalogue somehow, despite similar songs written about JFK ('Warmth Of The Sun'), Carl ('Lay Dopwn Burden') and Brian himself ('Til' I Die'). We're used to mournful tributes from The Beach Boys, not celebrations - and yet, for all the a capella understatedness and the sad slow tempo, this is a celebration. It's an odd tribute, though, delivered by Mike Love with all the love of a tabloid or the subtlety of a picture postcard. 'Screaming tyre, flashing fire and gone was this new star...' while the desperate attempt to shoe-horn 'The Rebel Without A Cause' into the end of the song is tacky by Beach Boys standards. That said, the band sing from the heart and in the days before 'Spring' became available or bootlegs were around this was the first chance to hear just how prettily The Beach Boys could actually sing without all the rock instruments getting in the way. Actually they're stronger even than The Four Freshman, singing at a faster lick and with an even closer blend, plus there's far more going on in the way they hold their notes and pass each other in one great long jigsaw puzzle of counterpoint greatness. Just don't listen to what they're singing too closely or you'll be sick!

The album ends on more normal territory with perhaps the most Beach Boysy song on the whole album 'Custom Machine'. Built on a mega surf guitar riff and a 'Flight Of The Bumblebee' piano solo, even though there's not a surfboard in sight, the backing is exciting and fun, with even Dennis' unsturdy drumming nailing the song's sense of joyful abandon. Roger Christian's last lyric for the band is as impenetrable as the rest unless you really know your motors and not many other songs you'll ever hear starts with the line 'She's metal flake blue with a corvette grill' and know what it's actually talking about. However there's far more Beach Boys signatures in this too: after a verse setting up the mechanics about why this car is so good and why the mechanic narrator has improved it, we get a chorus in which Mike steps on the gas and the car goes 'waaaa-aaaah-aaaah!' in an irresistible moment of pure Beach Boys. The backing vocals are also amongst the tightest even this band ever did and you can drive a wheel nut between the gaps in the voices throughout. Unfortunately, though, this song rather peters out after a great beginning: after the first magical trip through from verse to chorus, we get another one straight away, a piano solo and then nothing - the song just fades well short of the two minute mark (which is short even by this album's compact standards). You'd have thought after spending all that time building the perfect hot-rod the band would have enjoyed showing it off a little more and placing this song at the end of the album is a little underwhelming as a finale too. Never mind though - the parts that are here in this 'Custom machine' work very well.

Which is kinda true of the whole album really: what's here and what's new is generally strong - up to standards with 'Surfer Girl' anyway and with none of those embarrassing instrumentals or spoken word 'comedy' pieces to pad stuff out. Given the quick turnaround since the last album, it's a wonder we didn't just get eight songs that listed the makes of cars over a Chuck Berry riff for hours. However, there's no escaping the fact that pretty much half this album is recycling and that even in 1963 fans would have expected a little bit more from a Beach Boys album which they'd already bought a third of by now. Collectors in the modern age are most put out that they have to buy the same songs again so soon, so spare a thought for both the collectors in 1963 (who didn't have as much choice of Beach Boys records to buy) and another for  whoever put the CD re-issues together for Capitol at two albums per one CD disc (and realised that two songs from this album were on this record's natural twin 'Surfer Girl'; switching the order round so album number three 'Surfer Girl' ended up with album number five 'Shut Down' and album number four 'Little Deuce Coupe' ended up with album number six 'All Summer Long' isn't ideal, but is better than hearing the exact same track twice). The end result? 'Little Deuce Coupe is not a Ferrari perhaps, or a Rolls or a Porsche. Actually it's not even a 'Little Deuce Coupe' in motor terms. But it's a Ford - it does the job, it doesn't break down (well, not that often for the price) and it sold by the bucketloads because it appealed to just the right amount of teenagers at just about the right time. 

There's a whole beach worth of other BB articles available at this site so get your motor running and read the whole lot right now!

'Surfin' USA' (1963)

'Surfer Girl' (1963)

'Little Deuce Coupe' (1963)

'Shut Down Volume Two' (1964)

‘All Summer Long’ (1964)

'Beach Boys Christmas' (1964)

'Today' (1965)

'Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!!!!!!!) (1965)

'Party!' (1965)

'Pet Sounds' (1966)

'Surf's Up' (1971)

’15 Big Ones’ (1976)

'Love You' (1977)

'Pacific Ocean Blue' (Dennis Wilson solo) (1977)

'Merry Xmas From The Beach Boys!' (Unreleased) (1977)

'M.I.U Album' (1978)

'L.A.Light Album' (1979)

'Keeping The Summer Alive' (1980)

'The Beach Boys' (1985)

'Still Cruisin' (1989)

'Summer In Paradise' (1992)

'Smile' (Brian Wilson solo) (2004)

'That Lucky Old Sun' (Brian Wilson solo) (2008)

'Smile Sessions' (band outtakes)(2011)

'That's Why God Made The Radio' (2012)

The Best Unreleased Beach Boys Recordings

A Complete (ish) Guide To The Beach Boys' Surviving TV Clips

Solo/Live/Compilation/Rarities Albums Part One 1962-86

Solo/Live/Compilation/Rarities Albums Part Two 1988-2014

Non-Album Songs Part One 1962-1969

Non-Album Songs Part Two 1970-2012

Essay: The Beach Boys and The American Dream
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

Pentangle: Solo/Live/Compilation/Reunion Albums Part Two 1973-1987

You can now buy 'Watch The Stars - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of Pentangle' in e-book form by clicking here!


(Transatlantic, '1973')

Light Flight/Bruton Town/Omie Wise/Will The Circle Be Unbroken?/Pentangling//No Exit/Cruel Sister/When I Was In My Prime/Once I Had A Sweetheart/Reflection

"I think I'll pull the red rose up and plant a willow tree!"

 Pentangle compilation number three is a budget re-issue set released only in Britain and the first to use the band's actual pictures on the front of a sleeve of one of their band records. It's a sort of art gallery which suits the piecemeal approach of this compilation which hangs lots of the usual suspects  ('Light Flight' 'Sweetheart' 'Circle') alongside some unusual tracks  ('Omie Wise' 'No Exit' the a capella 'When I Was In My Prime') seemingly at random, two tracks per each of the five Transatlantic albums. Given the speed at which Pentangle kept changing, it's like walking into a gallery and seeing an artist's classical, cubist, impressionist, modern and postmodern styles all jumbled up across the same walls and a little bit disconcerting. Still, considering this retailed at around half the price of a full LP back in the day it's a welcome way for new fans who'd just discovered the group to buy up their old recordings and dip their toes into some Pentangle-flavoured water. Many future passionate collectors grew up on low budget compilations like these which are a valuable part of the story, even if sadly this album never did make it to CD.

Bert Jansch "Moonshine"

(Reprise, February 1973)

Yarrow/Brought With The Rain/The January Man/Night Time Blues/Moonshine/The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face/Ramble Away/Taw Corbies/Oh My Father

"Starving each and every year along the road, forever"

Released a month after the 'official' end of Pentangle, Bert sounds relieved to get back to his own solo career again. Surprisingly, though, rather than going completely solo again, this is a more 'Pentangle' like range of styles and players which includes bluesy harmonica (played by special guest Ralph McTell), electric guitar, violins and even a harp. Many fans rate this album highly, calling it a major improvement on the last few Pentangle albums, but whereas the album features many truly lovely moments ('The January Man' is a lovely variation on 'April Come She Will' with one man's moods changing with the months and the rockier closing track 'Oh My Father'(asking God why he doesn't intervene and stop people's misery around the world) its not quite as coherent or as original as many earlier Jansch albums. Bert has in fact never sounded as if he needed the rest of Pentangle more, singing all of these similar songs the same way, so that the album sounds like one long track rather than nine little ones. The re-make of 'If I Ever Saw Your Face' - sung in an ill advised duet with Mary Visconti - might also rank as one of Bert's weakest recordings, without the fluency and telepathy of Pentangle. There are though a couple of throwbacks to the Pentangle years: 'Yarrow' is a traditional song Bert had been playing in the band's sets for a while - a recording of it appears on the 'Time Has Come' box set and will be re-cut in rather less glittering form on the band's first reunion album 'Open The Door' in 1985. The whole album was also produced by Danny Thompson, who also occasionally plays double bass, suggesting that the Pentangle friendships were still strong even when the band as a whole was in poor health.

Though this isn't one of Bert's most memorable albums, though, there's a case to be made that 'Moonshine' is one of his most rewarding records if you're prepared to do your homework and study. Taken individually, rather than as a whole, each song is a welcome insight into Bert's more vulnerable and inward style. Though there's no lyric here quite as strong as 'People On The Highway', his last song for Pentangle, many take a similar line, finding life at a crossroads and wondering which way to go. Several lyrics reflect on a life full of changes and colour that Bert doesn't feel able to join in with, 'rooted like a tree' as he reflects sadly on the unbridled lives of joy everyone else he knows seem to be leading. 'Moonshine' is an oddly sober album in fact, despite the alcohol-related cover and the rather silly cover illustration of two pompous English gentleman in a saloon, with Bert at his saddest and most frustrated. There's notably less frivolities here - no instrumentals and less folk songs than usual - which is what many fans seem to like. For my tastes, though, Bert is at his best when his scope for music is unlimited and his mood is varied; in many ways this album is just a long beautiful sulk.

'Yarrow' is the most 'traditional' recording here, a stately folk song about a lady who rejects nine suitors in favour of her stable boy, the only one who loves her for anything but her money. There's a very pretty double-tracked flute arrangement which together with the slightly offbeat rhythms makes this sound more like Jethro Tull and the arrangement is prettier than the full Pentangle remake, but Bert is in scratchy voice and every verse sounds the same.

'Brought With The Rain' is a heartbreakingly sad traditional song with Bert straining his voice something rotten on  a track about how life can never be good again. Ralph McTell's harmonica part is by far the best thing about the song, taking it out of folk and into blues, but again Bert sounds slightly false and artificial here and his guitar part is, by his high standards, fairly basic.

'The January Man', a Bert original, is one of the real highlights of the album with a pretty backing which features Bert bouncing ideas off a piano part. It sounds very much like an obscure English folk song about the 'twelve stages of man' who always seems to be dreaming about the future: in March the narrator 'hopes for better weather' while in July hew's 'feeling idle', prepared to work when it gets cooler.

'Night Time Blues' is the epic of the album, an insomniac song where Bert tries to work out why he can't sleep for a full seven minutes. But though he lists a great long items of what isn't bothering him and keeping him awake, it's clear that something is as an urgent violin pulls against his bluesy guitar as if locked in a musical arm wrestle. Bert finally pins the fact down to someone lonely out in the world who needs comforting. Another album highlight that gets quite hypnotic by the time all seven minutes are up!

The title track 'Moonshine' is sadly a bit of a step backwards, an original that sounds like every other folk song out there - melancholy flutes, simple guitar riff, another odd vocal. That's a shame because the lyrics about being stuck against your will and unable to go forward are some of Bert's very best.

Though 'The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face' is a beautiful song, best sung by Johnny Cash. But this duet version is weak and woolly, oddly paced and with Bert and guest Mary Visconti singing against each other, not to each other. The main reunion on the album between Bert and Danny deserved to be better than this rather unlistenable heap of noise.
'Rambleaway' is somewhere between the two, with a lovely flowing melody that's played by the fiddle again with Bert's guitar underneath. Poor Bert sounds like he needs a hug as he takes on the world's problems and gets frustrated he can't save any of them

'Twa Corbies' - more usually named 'Two Crows' - isn't one of Bert's better ideas. It's this song that really rambles, while Bert sounds like he's got a vicious cold, although it's nice to hear him singing a rare Scottish folk song from his own heritage.

'Oh My Father' is a strong ending to any record though, a plea to somebody with power to do something, performed with a real grunt from a full rock band backing. Bert wonders if God has been on the Earth and if they have whether he's seen the same empty corn fields and hungry hopeless faces he has and sounds about as angry as we'll ever hear this usually laidback figure. There's a switch near the end when the 'Father' is clearly more human and perhaps Bert's own dad or a symbol of them, asked 'have you sold out to the devil's gin?' or 'his poppy seed'.

Overall, then, 'Moonshine' is something of a mixture. A collection of Bert's best work and his worst, it's clear that the folk legend was in a bad place in 1973 though admirably he turns this into a song not of personal moaning but of despair that the whole world see4ms to be suffering and all of Bert's fame and money can't put it right. A dark, bleak and mysterious album, this is one for poring over and studying late at night although it lacks a lot of the strong melodies and performances from earlier records. Thankfully there will be a way out and Bert will literally 'turnaround' his blues by his next record.

Various Artists "Heads and Tales"

(Transatlantic, '1973')

Ralph McTell: Spiral Staircase/Pentangle: Light Flight/Humblebums: Open The Door/Peter Bardens: The Answer/John James: Pickles and Peppers/Gerry Rafferty: Singing Bird/Jody Grind: Bath Sister/Bert Jansch: Reynardine/Errol Dixon: Ain't Goin' Back To The Chicken Shack/Young Tradition: Lyke Wake Dirge/Stefan Grossman: So They Say/Stray: Time Machine/Duffy Power: Louisiana Blues/John Renbourn: My Johnny Was A Shoemaker/Storyteller: Remarkable/The Johnstons: Streets Of London/Mr Fox: Mr Fox/Marsupilami: Prelude

"Please be civil, my company forsake, for to my good opinion I fear you are a rake!"

We don't as a rule include many various artists compilations in our books, but this one is more worthy than most. You could almost call it a 'Pentangle tribute album' as a whole string of bands on Transatlantic - the label funded by Pentangle money more than anything else - record their songs or songs that Pentangle might have recorded, with performances by future collaborators, friends, rivals and members nestling in amongst band and solo tracks. Transatlantic are clearly filling the void Pentangle have left behind after they left for Warner Brothers, but the mood is oddly respectful over a departing band (compared with what happened when The Rolling Stones left Decca and The Kinks left Pye anyway). The band are represented by the studio take of 'Light Flight', Bert by 'Reynardine' and John by 'Johnny Was A Shoemaker', while there are also songs from the likes of Bert's future buddy Ralph McTell and John's future guitar partner Stefan Grossman. Other performances by lesser known bands covering Pentangle songs including a nice a capella adaptation of 'Lyke Wake Dirge' by Peter Bellamy's group Young Tradition.    Though rare and never re-issued or released on CD, this set is worth tracking down if you can find it and is a fascinating way of comparing and contrasting Pentangle's sound with other, largely more traditionally folk-based groups. Be warned, though, that you may have competition tracking this one down with 1970s comedy fans, as the record also features a very rare and early performance by Billy Conolly's band The Humblebums, who funnily enough record the traditional folk song 'Open The Door' - the title track of the first Pentangle reunion album in twelve or so year's time.                                          

Bert Jansch "L A Turnaround"

(Charisma, September 1974)

Fresh As A Sweet Sunday Morning/Chambertin/One For Jo/Travelling Man/Open Up The Watergate (Let The Sunshine In)/Stone Monkey/Of Love and Lullaby/Needle Of Death/Lady Nothing/There Comes A Time/Cluck Old Hen/Blacksmith

"Let us pack our things and leave tonight, babe, keep going till the road runs out and gets to an end"

Though Bert was the one who ended up bailing out on Pentangle first, this wasn't as so many have assumed so that he could simply pick up his solo career again. Bert had cut his ties with record label Transatlantic when the band did (unlike colleague John Renbourn who'll be with them for decades longer) and seems to have felt that the folk scene was at something of a dead-end anyway. Down in the doldrums and fed up with music, the once ultra-prolific Bert's output had dwindled to the point where the only songs he taped during an aborted session produced by Danny Thompson ran to two half-hearted songs ('Chambertin' and a cover of John's 'Lady Nothing'). Never a natural businessman Bert also had a hard time winning record company interest in his work, despite his still strong reputation and sales draw after Pentangle, and refused to work with Warner Brothers after the way the last band album had 'disappeared'. Bert always attracted good people, though, and he found himself being 'saved' by his friendship with two different AAA bands: Lindisfarne producer Tony Stratton Smith was a huge fan and eagerly signed Bert to the 'Charisma' label in 1974, effectively as Lindisfarne's 'replacements'. Bert was also befriended by ex-Monkee Mike Nesmith who offered him a studio, a backing band and a producer's role as well as one of the few influences Bert had not yet covered on his own material: country music. Papa Nez, of course, had been a pioneer and his career resembled Bert's in many ways - the stigma of having been in a famous band and now thrown on the scrapheap and the desire to unite rock with a less popular style when fans just wanted to hear 'pop hits'. Nesmith was a valuable ally and it's to his credit that he offered so much help to a musician he'd long admired but never met - for his part Bert always works best when he has another guitarist to bounce ideas off and the Jansch-Nesmith partnership is one of the most fascinating in Bert's career, especially so when Nesmith's terrific pedal steel guitarist 'Red' Rhodes joins in too.

As the title implies, 'L A Turnaround' rekindled both Bert's creative fire and his sales figures, with a fuller production and sound that tails nicely with a more commercial-than-usual set of Jansch compositions (Bert writes everything once again) but one that's less stuck to its time and place than both the usual 'LA sessionmen' albums of the mid 1970s or the later, more streamlined Jansch records. The backing band occasionally extends to include an honorary Beatle (Hamburg pal Klaus Voormann), the only non-Beatle to play with John and George on their solo albums (Jesse Ed Davis) and session drummer Danny Lane who'll be a key member of Bert's bands for many years to come. Fans of Nesmith's solo work will also recognise a certain timbre and sound from his own guest appearances (this is the period when Mike was cutting his own acoustic album-plus-book 'The Prison'). 'L A Turnaround' just sounds like a more accessible Jansch album, while getting the mixture between heartfelt writing and crass commercialism about right.

However, though 'L A Turnaround' has the sound of an excellent Jansch LP, the songs are by his high standards something of a mixed bag and haven't quite shaken off the sense of apathy from the year before. There are, it's true some truly excellent moments: 'Fresh As A Sweet Sunday Morning' has deservedly become a compilation favourite, the fond farewell song to old manager Jo Lustig on 'One For Jo' is one of Bert's sweetest songs, 'Travelling Man' is one of Bert's best autobiographical tracks harking back to the very earliest Pentangle work 'Traveling Song', whilst the pretty 'There Comes A Time' may well be one of the most under-rated song in his catalogue. There are, also, far fewer instrumentals on this album than usual and sadly those that did make their way through the net such as 'Chambertin' and 'Lady Nothing' aren't much cop, suggesting that aborted 1973 album would have been a heavy slog indeed. The rest are at times pretty awful though: the country hoe-down 'Open Up The Watergate' is far less interesting than it sounds, 'Cluck Old Hen' is yet another childish novelty song I could have done without and 'The Blacksmith' is one of the ugliest attempts to update an old subject to the present day (Bert really drops an anvil here). It's the re-make of 'Needle Of Death', though, which takes one of the most powerful songs of the past ten years and turns it into a sloppy country ballad that's the really painful moment here. In other words, 'L A Turnaround' is a great album and well worth owning for the things it gets right - but it's not the best Bert record by any means and though it's probably the best production job on a Bert record I feel we've been swayed a bit too much into claiming it as Bert's best set of songs too. Interestingly the reception on this album when it finally appeared on CD in 2009 - after a massive long delay - was far more positive than I was expecting given the very 70s sound, so who knows; perhaps there's time for my tastes to turnaround yet too? By the way the CD adds three alternative versions of which a fully acoustic 'Blacksmith' is the best without all the distracting drums and extras, plus an album outtake in Bert's charming reading of Holst's gorgeous carol 'In The Bleak Midwinter' that's gloriously eccentric and compared to the rest of the album unashamedly folk. The bleak midwinter must have seemed a long way from bright and sunny LA in the spring though!

'Fresh As A Sweet Summer Morning' is a last love song for second wife Heather before things get complicated. Bert once again imagines himself a bird, just so he can get near her at all times instead of just when she lets him. It's a pretty song with some lovely Red Rhodes pedal steel, but could do with being a lick or two faster.

The complex instrumental 'Chambertin' is in many ways the end of an era - it's the last Jansch guitar instrumental that's here purely to 'show off'. It's a clever piece that never stops moving, which is lovely until you realise that it's named after a Burgandy Wine and may well be an alcoholic's ode to his favourite fuel! It sounds rather out of place on this record too.

'One For Jo' is a sweet piece actually not written directly for manager Lustig as everyone says but his new wife. It's a kind gesture from one intense relationship to another to encourage his dreaming and not care too much about it ('I don't believe the tales he tells, though they're always nice to hear') and praises him as a 'prince of living who knows all the rules'. Bert remained good friends right up until his manager's death and praises him to the hilt in the Pentangle CD re-issue frenzy and box set. The CD includes a rougher alternate version, although for once the 'right' take made the record!

'Traveling Man' is where the new session country backing works best. Producer Nesmith knows that this song about a lone rambling traveller is exactly the sort of thing Bert would normally perform solo but gives it an extra kick with some lovely Rhodes pedal steel. Bert sadly tells us that he's arrived at his new destination with 'nothing', without any wares to sell in the land where everybody is offering something for profit, but asks to sing for his supper if we can 'lend' him an ear. No problem Bert, not when the songs are as good as this one!

Bert's songs don't often pay heed to what's going in the big world, so 'Open Up The Watergate' - which would have been a very brave and pertinent song for May 1974 - sticks out like a guitarist's sore thumb. A howling blues with Jesse Ed Davis playing a mean George Harrisonesque slide guitar (over a track not unlike the Beatles' 'Sue Me Sue You Blues' as it happens...), it's a curious near-instrumental number. A slightly less dense and slightly better early take appeared on the CD as a bonus track.

The poppy 'Stone Monkey' features Bert 'n' Mike bouncing acoustic guitars back and forth about escapism and Bert seemingly hiding from all his problems back home while he makes this album. I've never heard why this track is called this or why it has the chorus 'stone monkey, gather your family around and watch the sun go down', but I'm willing to bet it had something to do with Mike's former occupation as a 'stoned Monkee'...

'Of Love and Lullaby' is one of those Bert ballads that really grows on you. It sounds like a sampler of other Bert songs, with just one verse quoting from lots of earlier songs ('So early in the Spring...For you I sing my song of love') which sounds as if Bert is trying to tie a neat ribbon around his second marriage and turning all the good that once was into one last pretty song.

Alas the re-make of 'Needle Of Death' is near-unlistenable, a folk classic turned into an over-emotive country weepy that someone really should have stepped in to stop. Bert's vocal sounds like he's sung the track so many times he's stopped remembering the harrowing events that inspired the original, but then his scared and fragile vocal for his debut album would have been pretty darn hard to beat.

I love the fact that even after Pentangle have broken up, not without a little acrimony, the quintet were still friends enough to work with one another and record each other's songs. 'Lady Nothing' first appeared as 'Lady Nothynge's Toye Puffe' on John's 1967 album 'Another Monday' and is in many ways his solo signature tune. A tricky little Medieval instrumental, it audibly challenges Bert to play in his friend's style and he can't quite carry off the ease of the original, but it's a good cover nevertheless.

'There Comes A Time' sounds like the one album song written with the country style in mind. An open and honest account of his failing second marriage or possibly even the end of Pentangle, Bert tells us that he's had a great time but everything ends sooner or later - and this is clearly time to part after 'One too many mornings lazing, one too many nights fooling around'. It's a gorgeous, devastatingly frank track in the 'People On The Highway' mould enhanced greatly by Red Rhodes' playing, although Bert's slightly off-key vocals don't have quite the power of his very best work (was this song too painful to sing for another take?)

'Cluck Old Hen' is an oddball, another near-instrumental that does a good job at summing up pecking hens in a farmyard before Bert compares their endeavours with the hungry railroad workers who devour their eggs every breakfast. There's some nice blues guitar work here, but it all sounds just a little bit odd - too silly to be taken seriously, not funny enough to quite be a comedy.

I'm really not keen on album closer 'The Blacksmith' either, which is the sort of thing fans feared when they heard Bert was working with a bunch of session men in LA: it's all a bit anonymous, with lengthy keyboard solos and sloppy playing that rather smother Bert's own personality. The song doesn't have many words either and those it does have sound uncomfortably like every Pentangle folk song thrown in a blender. The outtake included on the CD shows much more promise.

Overall, then, there are more turnarounds on this album than an LA highway: just as you think you've worked out where this album is going wrong or right it surprises you by nailing/failing everything you'd just got used to loving/putting up with. I can sympathise with the Pentangle fans the first time round who fell in love with this album as one of the first to be released after the band's first split and also those who fell in love with this album afresh as the latest Jansch album to make the shops before Bert's sad death. It's certainly not the ghastly mistake it could have been, despite being such a departure for his work. However, for me it rivals 'Moonshine' as the weakest Jansch album to date, with its inconsistent set of songs the biggest obstacle, though with at least a trio of career highlights included too. Bert will keep to the same formula, but will sound less happy, on sequel 'Santa Barbara Honeymoon', which despite being critically slaughtered and selling far less copies is actually more or less the same in quality (always the bridesmaid, never the bride...)

Bert Jansch "The River Sessions"

(Charisma, Recorded November 1974, Released November 2004)

Build Another Band/I've Got A Feeling/One For Jo/The Blacksmith/Travellin' Man/Lady Nothynge's Toye Puffe/Fresh As A Sweet Sunday Morning/Angi/Stone Monkey/Dance Lady Dance/When I Get Home/In The Bleak Midwinter/Key To The Highway/Chambertin

"I know that my baby's back home"

A nice mixture of the old and the new, the earliest live recording we have of Bert since his pre-fame days in Glasgow surprisingly only came as late as 1974 - and won't be released until thirty years later. It's a good set that should have been released sooner, capturing Bert at that crossroads between his Pentangle days and his return to solo work. Many of the best tracks from his latest record 'L A Turnaround' are here but so too are many from his next LP 'Santa Barbara Honeymoon', which must have been a pain for those in the audience who had to wait eleven months to actually own this latest batch of songs. There is notably little from the Pentangle era, just a slightly weedy version of 'When I Get Home' and a unique 'I've Got A Feeling' with Bert taking the song to a very different place to Jacqui, while there's also a cheeky 'steal' from John Renbourn's solo work with a short version of 'Lady Nothynge's Toye Puffe'. 'In The Bleak Midwinter' (well, it was late November) sounds particularly good tonight, with Bert's unusual sour vocals fitting Gustav Holst's gorgeous carol  nicely, although 'Anji' sounds a little past her best. Bert clearly feels more at home in Glasgow's City Hall than the later Pentangle tours - it was his 'home' after all - and is on particularly witty form, talking a little bit about most of the songs before playing them. The one song fans might not recognise here is also the oddest: 'Stone Monkey' is a bit of book reading by Bert from a piece translated from the anonymous Chinese book 'Journey To The West' dated to the sixteenth century about a Buddhist monk's travels in India to explore his faith. Quite what this reading has to do with Bert or his music is unclear, but it actually rather suits this thoughtful setlist full of some of the deeper and more spiritual songs in the Jansch back catalogue. Though only an hour long and played with just a single guitar accompaniment throughout, there's more of Bert in here than on most of his records and this archive release is a highly valuable find, begging the question - what other gems are out there that haven't been released yet?!
Bert Jansch "Santa Barbara Honeymoon"

(Charisma, October 1975)

Love Anew/Mary and Joseph/Be My Friend/Baby Blue/Dance Lady Dance/You Are My Sunshine/Lost and Gone/Blues Run The Game/Build Another Band/When The Teardrops Fell/Dynamite/Buck Rabbit

"Living is a gamble baby. loving much the same"

A rather overlooked sequel to the best-selling (well, comparatively) 'L A Turnaround', 'Santa Barbara' was aptly named after being recorded in the 'honeymoon' period of Bert's association with Charisma and is a rather overlooked album. Certainly it's not as strong as its immediate predecessors and the mid-70s production has got bigger while the songs seem to have got smaller in scope (there's the first appearance of a synthesiser on a Jansch record - not a good omen - while there are no backing tracks here that wouldn't have been enhanced by wiping everything except Bert's voice and guitar, especially the ones featuring the gospel chorus, the Dixieland jazz band and the steel drums - I only wish I were kidding, but I'm not). Bert's still in great voice though and at the end of his greatest extended peak as a writer, with ten originals and two of his more interesting covers making for an album that would be great if only they could remix it one day. The CD is even more generous, turning this twelve-trackers into a nineteen song set with a mini-live performance from the period performed with John Renbourn and a whole six outtakes, which taken together makes this one of the better Bert Jansch albums to get.

'Love Anew' somehow still manages to sound like Bert despite being under a mammoth layer of mid-70s singer-songwriter mediocrity of synths, guitars and drums. The lyrics about starting again by worrying what went wrong the last time round are very Bert, though.

'Mary and Joseph' is the album song that divides fans the most. To my ears it's rather fun and typical of the Pentangle humour, as Bert retells the nativity as if it was happening in the future, with the anxious parents taking off in rocket ships and worrying about getting back to planet Earth in time for the birth. The lovely flowing piano is unusual for Bert and enhances the song nicely too.

'Be My Friend' is the most traditional song on the album, as Bert tries to get an ex-partner whose mad at him to at least be his friend if no longer his lover. Sad and guilty sounding, it's a poignant track with a lot of character.

I'm not so sure about the bland and forgettable 'Baby Blue', though, which has so many rock overdubs on top it's claustrophobic. The lyrics are Bert's most cringe-worthy yet too: 'Baby blue I love you, strolling down the high street I see you passing by shopping at the market sweet flowers you buy...'

The jazzy 'Dance Lady Dance' is rather icky too, with one of Bert's emptiest songs dressed up in finery which, like it's author, doesn't wear well on someone so delightfully scruffy.
I do however quite admire the re-styling of the old standard 'You Are My Sunshine' in the same folk-lament style as most Pentangle songs. Though Bert gets the giggles at one point (probably because a choir start 'ooh' ing along en masse) but actually one of the better pre-Beatle songs around sounds all the better for the straight and serious, slower reading Bert gives it here. One of the album's success stories.

The moody 'Lost and Gone' is more like the old Bert too, pining for the end of his second marriage and the things he left behind when he moved out of his old house. The backing choir are a tad obtrusive though.

Jackson C Frank's remarkable 'Blues Run The Game' could easily have been a Bert Jansch song sharing so many of his hallmarks: travel, blues and guilt. Bert's reading is more aggressive than most and finds him still in a guilty frame of mind. The sparser reading on Bert's debut album is still the best version around though.

'Build Another Band' is clearly about the 'other' big split of Bert's life - Pentangle - and would be a rather nice sequel to 'People On The Highway' had Bert got rid of both the gospel choir and the steel drums. Calypso-folk? Though the master of combining styles, even Bert struggles with this one, which is a shame because the slightly sarcastic lyrics deserve better than this backing and reveal another side to Bert's character.

The delightful 'When The Teardrops Fell' is the most memorable song on the album, even if Bert is having a rough day vocally. For once the sweetness of the backing track actually enhances a pretty song about knowing that an attack of the blues is coming but taking strength from the fact that you've dealth with it before.

The sleepy blues-rocker 'Dynamite' is another unusual Bert song, sounding not unlike period Rolling Stones: slow and blurry but still a rocker. The fuse never quite blows across this song, though, with Bert holding his musicians back for a release that never quite comes.

The album then ends with the funky 'Buckrabbit', a re-write of 'Run Rabbit Run' as Bert again imagines the chase and identifies with the rabbit more than the hunters after him. Again the backing sinks a promising song, though: there's no reason for the jazz band to be here (how did they even fit down the rabbithole?!)

Overall, then, there's a few more mistakes than normal on 'Santa Barbara Honeymoon' and fans have never been quite sure what to make of this record, which usually ends up being regarded as one of the bigger failures in Bert's catalogue. It's far from being bad though: as with the string-fest (string vest fest?) 'Nicola' it's good to hear Bert breaking up his usual formulas and stretching himself, even if he inadvertently reveals why his best albums all feature just him and the guitar. You could certainly make a claim that this is his most inconsistent LP, but it's not a bad one - there's still more than enough here worth hearing and - hey - it's a honeymoon so if Bert is ever going to get away with tampering with what's been working then it's here!

John Renbourn "The Hermit"

(**, '1976')

The Hermit/John's Tune/Little Alice/Old Mac Bladgitt/Faro's Rag/Caroline's Tune//Three Pieces By O'Carolan: The Lamentation Of Owen Roe O'Neill-Lord Inchiquin-Mrs Power/The Princess and the Puddings/Pavanna (Anna Banana)/ Medley: A Toye-Lord Willoughby's Welcome Home

" Awright geeezzaa! welcome 'ome lord willoughby, do put yaaahr feet up an' make yaaahrself comfortable. Sorted mate"
After the busy Pentangle years, John retreated to peace and quiet and solitude, back to a house in the country he'd bought with his savings and whose luxury and space and tranquillity must have seemed a world away from the flat he'd so recently shared with Bert in London. Even more than his old partner, you can tell easily what sort of a period John is going through by the music he creates and 'The Hermit' is equally introspective and subdued. John wasn't strictly a 'hermit' - he had a family in tow and guests to play on the album like Dominique Trepau (doing the 'Bert' guitar part) and John James, but he's clearly been doing some thinking and has spent the last three years relatively cut off from all his old responsibilities and music contacts. The new Renbourn hasn't changed that much in terms of style though: this record is still dominated by music from the Middle Ages, often painstakingly transcribed from harpsichord and lute to an acoustic guitar. The eleven track album is fairly evenly split between traditional tunes of 500 years vintage and new original pieces. The biggest change is how rehearsed and carefully planned everything is - there's no sense of experimentation or improvisation here, which actually isn't as bad a thing as you might think (John reasoned that without Bert he was more reluctant to set off into the ether and was also pleased to be hailed by a 'new' generation of guitarists desperate for guitar tabs to pass down - John often had to admit sheepishly that a lot of his most famous moments were improvised and thus were never notated properly!)

Sadly this is mainly an album of instrumentals again - sadly because I rather like the sound of John's voice, not because of the chance to hear more of his superb guitar playing - which does rather prevent this from being one of the true greats of his back catalogue. However it's one of his better albums of the 1970s, with some terrific engineering work across the album which makes his guitar sound really soar, while the balance of styles and tempos is better executed than on some other period LPs of John's. Highlights include 'The Hermit' itself, a busy complex guitar piece that involved every last millimetre of John's guitar and the delightful 'John's Tune' which sounds like the theme song to some olde worlde comedy show ('Henry VIII's Chopping Days Till Xmas!' 'Raleigh smokes a potato!' 'How Cromwell Got His Warts!') I'm not sure I quite agree that it's the best thing John ever did (there are a lot more slower songs here than usual and after a while the album does get a bit repetitive) but it's another strong album by a master guitarist near the height of his powers. The CD release in 2004, curiously, adds five bonus tracks taken from later Renbourn LPs but no actual outtakes or alternate versions and messes around with the original running order without any real sense of improvement.

Bert Jansch "A Rare Conundrum"

(Charisma, May 1977)

Daybreak/One To A Hundred/Pretty Saro/Doctor Doctor/3AM/Curragh Of Kildare/ Instrumentally Irish/St Fiacre/If You See My Love/Poor Mouth/Cat and Mouse/Three Chord Trick/Lost Love

"Across the blue and restless waters - perhaps I can earn my living there"

The extended 'holiday' in LA over, Bert returned home to England to pick up his career and return to the sparser, more traditional setting of his earlier career. Thankfully he fell in with another good crowd who really cared for his music and many of whom will be his best pals for years to come: Lindisfarne's Rod Clements will later be in the reunited Pentangle in the 1980s as would violinist Mike Piggott, while Dire Straits' Pick Withers took time off from the band to provide some excellent and typically under-rated drums. It was a milestone moment for Bert, who was at the end of his long-standing twelve year relationship with Transatlantic and looking for a new deal. The music kind of reflects that - Bert never did anything without considering all his options carefully first - and there's a lot of to-ing and fro-ing as Bert questions where he's come so far and where to go in the future.

'Conundrum' goes further back than most of Bert's albums, actually, and contains a career highlight in 'One To A Hundred' about the moment he 'grew up' when his best friend at school died in an awful accident in a quarry. Bert imagines his younger self stuck in a permanent game of hide and seek his friend beat him at by going to a place 'so far away'. The pain clearly still lingers even this many years on. 'Doctor Doctor' is a strong song too about Bert's declining health played on a banjo and sung with a special kind of stark horror only Jansch can manage. 'If You See My Love' is another sad highlight as Bert pines for second wife Heather, urging mutual friends to tell her that without her he's 'slowly sinking, heavy drinking' - a mess. The album also ends with one of Bert's better songs of the decade 'Lost Love', although it's a track the reunion Pentangle will do slightly better on their  'Open The Door' album - this one is too bouncy by half. Bert also struggles vocally across the album, losing his usual ability with phrasing and emotional power, but then he really wasn't in too good a place during the making of this LP - the wonder is that so much of it is as good as it is. When finally released on CD in 2009 - one of Bert's last to make it to the digital world - many glowing reviews made this out as a real long lost classic. It isn't, with too many ordinary songs and a production that's beginning a slow uncomfortable descent into being ordinary and contemporary, but it still has lots of powerful moments fans need to hear. The CD also adds three really fine outtakes, all of which should have been on the album - a cover of Rev Gary Davis' blues song 'Candyman', the sad original 'Three Dreamers' and a cover of the John Bidwell song 'Dragonfly' - not to be confused with the Pentangle reunion song of the same name.

John Renbourn Group "A Maid In Bedlam"

(**, '1977')

Black Waterside/Nacht Tanz-Shaeffertanz/A Maid In Bedlam/Gypsy Dance-Jew's Dance/John Barleycorn/Reynardine/My Johnny Was A Shoemaker/Death and the Lady/The Battle Of Aughram/Five In A Line/Talk About Suffering

"Leave this world of trial and  trouble here below"

John's second album after the Pentangle split finds him coming out of his 'hermit' cave and looking for a new life in the country, away from all the hustle and bustle and spotlights of the big city. It's one of his sweeter, happier albums and sounds not unlike unwinding in a hot bath with the sense of relief at going back to what the guitarist was doing before the band, with the added bonus of a slightly bigger budget. Though the album title hints at madness, this album sounds more like the opposite - it's a man going back to sanity after years of being moulded into a slightly different shape, as all solo artists who end up in bands end up becoming to one extent or another. However Renbourn is keen not to break with his colleagues too much. Jacqui appears on many of John's albums but this one particularly is quite a close partnership, with McShee's velvet vocals really enhancing a good half of the record. John also cheekily has a go at the traditional song 'Blackwaterside' made famous by Bert, stamping his own personality on the song and tackling it in a far more authentic and traditional manner than his partner's direct 60s protest style. 'Reynardine', played often by Pentangle but at first only recorded by Bert, also appears here as a delightful jam session for Medieval flute, accordion and tabla!  John also starts a long lasting partnership with several new friends here, including singer and flute/recorder/lots of weird Medieval instruments player Tony Roberts (whose knowledge and passion for the Middle Ages rivals John's own), Sue Draehim (who sings the songs that Jacqui doesn't, while simultaneously playing fiddle - this is the Renbourn album that sounds most like 'The Corrs') and Keshav Sathe whose tabla playing adds a nicely Pentangly 'Indian' feel to this most English of albums and a feeling that these are stories for everyone from all walks of life and eras.

The result is one of Renbourn's more likeable albums, with a notably upbeat selection of songs whose tapestry of styles makes it perhaps the most Pentangly of the records made after the band split. Several songs that will become regulars on Renbourn compilations come from here - Jacqui's tasteful reading of 'My Johnny Was A Shoemaker', the traditional jig 'Death and a Lady' (which sounds far too cheerful about the whole thing!), the funkiest reading of the oft-heard 'John Barleycorn' you'll ever hear and the lovely title track, which is about as psychedelic a version of a traditional eighteenth century Norwich song as you'll ever hear! In fact the title track is a real highlight that deserved to be better known - the tale of an African American committed for his 'strange' love for an English lady he can never be near and which he becomes committed for rather than renounce is exactly the sort of times-change-but-people-stay-the-same morality tale Pentangle were born to record. Though not quite as memorable, 'The Battle Of Aughrim' is quite an important song in the Renbourn back catalogue too: it's an anti-war song written not during the height of Vietnam or Korea but after the 'Willamite War' in Ireland in 1691 that saw 7000 locals slaughtered. No wonder Renbourn follows this up with the folk-gospel song 'Talk About Suffering': the Earth is a mad place and always has been on this record; the decline and fall of modern civilisation feels inevitable after so many tales of betrayal and deceit.

There are perhaps a few too many instrumentals here and sad to say John himself keeps quiet across most of the record, with only one harmony part across the entire LP, while his guitar is no longer the focal point it is on so many of his other records. Take nothing away from this pretty but also pretty tough record about life, death and madness though: 'A Maid In Bedlam' feels like it has the same eagerness, hunger and storytelling of the early Pentangle records laced through with the same sense of magic that these styles really shouldn't go together and yet end up sounding like the perfect fit. Like the best albums that try to remind us about our history, this set pulls no punches with its storytelling and though its low on originals and features more 'obvious' songs to cover than some other albums, all are delivered with an extra special 'twist!' The result is one of the more accessible Renbourn albums for Pentangle fans and one of the few that is truly an essential part of his solo catalogue, with Jacqui of course playing a highly important role too. If this is madness, then I am glad to be mad - a mad album is better than a bad album any day!


(Transatlantic, '1978')

Market Song/Lord Franklin/House Carpenter/Goodbye Pork Pie Hat/Will The Circle Be Unbroken?/Way Behind The Sun//Lyke Wake Dirge/In Time/So Clear/In Your Mind/Waltz/Light Flight

"All day I can hear them cry: come buy them, sweet records, with covers orange, fresh for you - on sale all day"

Part of a Transatlantic re-issue frenzy when they needed money in a hurry, both this and the accompanying Bert Jansch set look cheap and nasty, with plain orange covers that bear little to the multi-hewed music inside and a real jumble of songs. Only 'Light Flight' and 'Circle' are tracks you'd expect to see on a Pentangle best-of, with other obvious selections like 'Traveling Song' 'Let No Man Steal Your Thyme' and 'Once I Had A Sweetheart' all absent. There is, at least, a nicely rounded selection from the band's first five LPs (the sixth having been released on Warner Brothers and so was thus expensive to license back in 1979) with three songs apiece from albums two and three and two songs from the others. More by luck than skill I suspect the record still comes up trumps with some excellent selections that don't get enough recognition: 'Waltz' 'In Time' and 'Lyke Wake Dirge' are three of the heaviest going songs from the first three albums when most fans feel  Pentangle were at their 'peak', but also three of the most rewarding. You have to question what some of the other songs are doing here in place of the better known material though. What's odd is that, released in punk's 'year zero', many of these traditional and traditional-sounding songs actually stack up really well. Though I doubt any punk would have been bothered about the Middle Ages the sheer adventurism and realness (especially on the early jazzier songs) gives Pentangle more in common with the Sex Pistols than most people recognise.

Bert Jansch "Anthology"

(Transatlantic, '1978')

Nicola/Reynardine/So Long/Allman/Peregrinations/Weeping Willow Blues/Angie///The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face/Nottamun Town/It Don't Bother Me/Box Of Love/Henry Martin/The Needle Of Death

"Walking through the stalls, I am amazed by them all, come buy them, sweet records, with covers yellow  - on sale all day"

The solo Jansch anthology looks even worse with a plain cover in fading yellow colour, looking to all intents and purposes as if the sister 'Pentangle Anthology' set robbed the printer of all the 'reds'. It's odd that John didn't get his volume too to complete the set - perhaps there'd been too much of a fan outcry by then? The result is a record quite similar to last time: a few of the things every Jansch fan needs to own are here ('Nicola' 'Reyardine' 'The Needle Of Death' 'Anji'), but this set doesn't exactly tally with what most fans would expect to see either (where is 'Blackwaterside' 'The Gardener' and 'I Am Lonely'?!) A fair introduction to Bert's talents at the time given that it was at least cheap, you still can't help but feel that Transatlantic were slumming it here. Surely a cheap shot of the band and the hiring of an actual fan to choose the running order couldn't have been that expensive?! Again, the record stacked up surprisingly well in the year of punk despite all this record's flaws and helped Bert regain something of a critical standing with the young crowd that will grow and grow until his untimely death.

John Renbourn and Stefan Grossman "Stefan and John"

(Stefan Grossman's Guitar Workshop, '1978')

Snap A Little Owl/Bermuda Triangle Exit/The Shoes Of The Fisherman's Wife/Luckett Sunday/Why A Duck/The Drifter/Looper's Crooner/Luke's Little Summer/Spirit Levels/The Way She Walks/Woman From Donori

"Stefan and John are gone, man, solid gone on guitar solos that are sometimes too long but nevertheless demonstrate a real bond"

There can't be many Medieval manuscript loving folk guitarists with a large blues record collection in the world so it seems inevitable that Renbourn and Grossman would have crossed paths at some point. Renbourn was always happiest when playing with others and bouncing ideas off a guitarist with a very different style to him and Stefan is very like Bert, whilst also being very different. Both guitarists are about rhythm and possess amazingly dextrous fingers, with a musical curiosity that John also shared, but the difference is that Stefan is from the totally no-rules background of jazz and rather than being happiest when creating something utterly new (like Bert) is at his best re-acting, dancing around a guitar riff until the music is finally spent. This was a fascinating collaboration and John had been eager to work with his future pal ever since learning that he'd actually met the late great blues legend Rev Gary Davis (a hero to both men). The pair had become friends long before Renbourn's career had taken off with Pentangle, after Grossman moved from the States to check out the London guitar scene. They re-connected post-Pentangle and made this album quickly and cheaply in London ('after bribing the engineer out of the pub' according to John's later recollections!) The pair went on to make three studio albums and a live record together over the next few years, coming together and drifting apart with a looser structure than Pentangle and in many ways their records are the best John made outside the band.

They're certainly the Renbourn records to buy if you're more interested in 1960s jazz than 1460 Medieval banquets and of all the Pentangle records these are the ones that come closest to the improvisatory style of Pentangle's first LP. Especially this first record, which finds the guitarists at their most sympathetic and telepathic, dancing round each other and complementing each other nicely. Charlie Mingus and his 'jive ass slippers' (according to the original LP track title!) were a major inspiration for both men and the jazz writer crops up a lot across the album, even on the pair's original songs. They tend to be the best tracks too, with a languid laidback jazz breeze rather than a wild wind, although it's the album's folkiest and most Pentangly moment 'The Drifter' that's arguably the album highlight, with a first-class melody performed by two first-class guitarists. If at times this album feels more like an extended guitar lesson ('Luke's Little Summer' is an overlong exercise in playing guitar scales) and Pentangle fans like me miss the vocals and lyrics, if any album was going to turn me into the sort of fan who loves 40 minutes of guitar instrumentals then this is it. No wonder Stefan and John have the sun in their eyes on the album cover - the inspiration and 'muse' are up to full strength across this album so it makes sense they're blinded by some sort of celestial light (most AAA bands seem to equate the sun with inspiration somewhere in their career it seems). In a nice nod to how influential this record once was for guitar players, the current CD re-issue even includes a free pdf file featuring guitar tabs for most of the songs! What the acoustic guitar was made for.

John Renbourn "BBC Live In Concert"

 (**, Recorded July 1978 and May 1980, Released December 2001)
All Things That Rise Must Converge/Belle Qui Tiems Ma Vie/Tourdion/The Trees They Do Grow High/Great Dreams From Heaven/Douce Dame Jolie/Plains Of Waterloo/Sidi Brahim

"The war it is over and peace is now returned again"

A nice unexpected Christmas present in 2001 was the first time two interesting Renbourn concerts had been heard since the date of first broadcast. Though most guitarists would have used the extra publicity to give their most famous song a plug and would have chosen a set-list that was 'newbie friendly', Renbourn is characteristically more concerned with letting audiences hear his favourite obscure folk songs, many of which aren't even sung in English. Jacqui is special guest, as she so often is on Renbourn's records, which makes this set of particular interest to Pentangle fans - though only a particularly lovely and expressive 'Medieval psychedelia' arrangement of 'The Trees They Do Grow High' sounds anything like their old style. Long term buddy Stefan Grossman guests too, giving Renbourn a fellow-minded guitarist to play against and as usual this pair sound better live than they ever did in the studio. The 1980 gig is the more interesting of the two, containing a glorious reading of the folk song 'Plains Of Waterloo' (perhaps surprisingly the only Pentangle song about Napoleon and Nelson). The addition of the very different sounds of flutes and tablas to the arrangements make everything here sound at the very least interesting, though, with Renbourn and friends putting together a sound that defies all genre labels, in true Pentangle style. Overall, a palpable hit.
Bert Jansch "Avocet"

(Charisma, February 1979)


"She sings as she flies, she'll tell you no warnings, she'll tell you no lies"

'Avocet' is the sort of album no one but no one else was making in 1979 as birdwatcher Bert turns combines two of his biggest hobbies and writes a six-part instrumental suite dedicated to birds. Released at the height of punk, it's clear that Bert had long since given up trying to stay relevant to the current music fashions - which is, frankly, wonderful news. Only the truly bird-brained could argue that 'Avocet' isn't the sort of thing Bert was put on this planet to do: use his rare combination of folk, pop, jazz and blues as the inspiration for a series of song suites that are utterly captivating and quite unlike anything else ever made. The results could easily have become easy listening or jazz lounge, like so many instrumentals, but there's a real sense of discovery and adventure across most of this album, especially on the eighteen minute long title track which is as ambitious a track as any in the Pentangle canon since the band tackled 'Jack Orion' at a similar length. Performed throughout as a power-trio, with Bert's guitar, Danny Thompson's typically gorgeous and experimental double bass and new pal Martin Jenkins' fiddle and flute playing, you get the sense that the threesome had a ball making this album and pushing each other to their limits. Of course, with any album of such ambition and freshness, there are caveats to all this. The second side of smaller songs is nowhere near as impressive as the first and sounds a bit rushed, making it unlikely you'll play it as often as some of Bert's more thorough works (once 'Bittern' twice shy?) It surely can't just be me who was waiting for Bert to go for the extremes on the really unusual varieties of bird too (a sleek refined monochromatic 'Penguin', a fiery epic 'Phoenix' and a scatter-brained 'Dodo'), but just as 'The Guitar Of John Renbourn's selection of instrumentals for library use may well be a candidate for the 'dark horse' of his back catalogue, so 'Avocet' may well be the 'blackbird' of Bert's - the album you're not expecting much from but whose packed full of superb performances by three musicians somewhere near their best. A definite feather in Bert's cap of Bert's catalogue, this remained his favourite of all the solo albums he ever made, although shockingly it was one of his last to ever make it to CD, belatedly issued in 2003.

John Renbourn "The Black Balloon"

(Transatlantic, '1979')

The Moon Shines Bright/The English Dance/Bouree I and II/Medley: The Mist Covered Mountains Of Home-The Orphan-Tarboulton/The Pelican/The Black Balloon

"Full of music and mirth in the sweet sounding language of home"

While Bert will go on to fly a 'toy' one, John's balloon is darker and a homage to the 'original' Victorian 'Transatlantic' company his record company were named for, whose logo was a 'black balloon'. Like many a Renbourn album, this is a fully instrumental album that almost always uses the guitar - the album cover, in fact, features him looking over his guitar at a piano in horror, as if it's a completely alien piece of technology to him. This is one of John's more traditional albums, with only the one original (album highlight 'The Pelican', which continues Pentangle's love of birds with a lovely warm flowing piece that may or may not have been inspired by Bert's 'Avocet' album out the same year - then again John says it's named after a street name he rather liked!) and the rest all folk songs or old cover tunes. John recalled later that he'd become obsessed with the 'finger-style steel-stringed guitar' in this period and performs it frequently across the album - even using it on songs originally transcribed for the lute or harpsichord. Most of the record is solo, but there are early appearances by future Renbourn group members Tony Roberts and Stuart Gordon too, who give the record both a traditionally folky and futuristic spacey feel with their flute and tabla work. Many rate it as one of John's best LPs, especially those who come to his records just for the guitarwork and there are certainly some good things on it - 'The Pelican' works best but the thirteenth century 'English Dance' works well too, played at breakneck speed. However the title track falls a bit flat, which as the thirteen minute epic on the album leaves a big hole and this record doesn't feel quite as thrilling or adventurous as some other Renbourn LPs. Sorry to deflate the balloon if this happens to be your favourite, but there are other albums of John's that do this sort of thing better.

John Renbourn and Stefan Grossman "Under The Volcano"

(**Transatlantic, '1979')

Idaho Potato/Sheebag An Sheemore-Drunken Wagoner/Under The Volcano: Resurrection Of Blind Joe Death-Four For The Roses-Montagu's Pact-The Rights Of Man/Bonaparte's Retreat-Billy In The Lowgrounds/Swedish Jig/Water Gypsy/All Things Parallel Must Converge/The Blarney Pilgrim/Mississippi Blues Number Three

"Let no man steal your magma"

Though other fans seem to like it just as much, John and Stefan's second album doesn't quite have the same passion and fire as their debut for me. The formula is the same - seven guitar duets plus a solo showcase for each man - made up of four arrangements of traditional folk songs in a jazzy style, four new collaborations and a solo Renbourn piece. In a neat mirror of the Pentangle years, this is very much like their second album 'Sweet Child' in that the pair try to investigate their favourite genres one at a time rather than exploring them all at the same time. As a result this album doesn't feel quite as fresh or new, although both men still play exquisitely and their styles are well matched for each other. However its John's solo piece 'Water Gypsy' that is perhaps the highlight of the album, a clever loosely jazzy series of chords on the trusty old acoustic rattled off at dazzling high speed. Other highlights include the stunning ten minute title suite which heads in lots of different directions across its ten minutes, being a sort of mini-history of the acoustic guitar from baroque to the present day and the unusual moody 'All Things Parallel Must Converge' which sounds like the scariest Western film soundtrack ever written. The result is a good album which fans of the first one will enjoy very much, but it's a record to come back to later once you've enjoyed everything else rather than something you desperately need in your collection. The album's best feature may well be the great cover - a traditional Japanese illustration of a volcano about to flip it's lid, with tasteful shots of Stefan and John in the top corners.

John Renbourn "So Early In The Spring"

(Transatlantic, '1980')

So Early In The Spring/Lindsay/The Mist Covered Mountains-The Orphan/To Glastonbury/The English Dance/The Banks Of Sweet Primroses/Blues Run The Game/Great Dreams From Heaven/Peacock Rag/If You Haven't Any Hay/The Young Man That Wouldn't Hoe Corn/Buckets Of Corn

"I'll sail the seas till the day I die, I'll break through waves rolling mountain high"

By 1980 many former European stars were struggling to sell records and tickets back home but found they had a growing and faithful audience over in Japan eager to hear more music. Always happy to explore new cultures, John took up an invite from a Japanese record company who hoped that the guitarist had a bit of time to spare at the end of a tour there to make a quick record. 'So Early In The Spring' - the second of three times one of other of Pentangle would have a go at their most oft-recorded song - is a return to the slimmed down folkier sound of John's early recordings. Gone, for now, are the Medieval recreations and the sound experiments in favour of a pure folk album featuring nothing except John and an acoustic guitar performing what was pretty much his live set at the time. Because of the circumstances - Japan were testing out a new digital system (after fellow AAA star Stephen Stills had been the guinea pig chosen to test it the year before) and weren't practised at editing yet, requesting the album be made as live - this sounds more like the original Renbourn sound than any album since 'Another Monday' thirteen years earlier. John's guitar is heard unencumbered by accompanists and better yet he actually sings across most of this record and rarely had he sounded this good, this full or this warm.

Unless you're one of the small handful of fans who like their Renbourn best when he's surrounded by lutes and fiddles and transported back in time five hundred years, this may well be the best of the guitarist's solo albums. Though there's nothing as cutting edge as Pentangle, this is folk protest with grit played by an excellent guitarist near the top of his game with several highlights. This record's 'So Early In The Spring' is far more traditional than the band versions from 1970 and 1993, fast paced and laidback rather than urgent. Live favourite 'Lindsay', a tribute to a guitar player who may just possibly be Fleetwood Mac's Lindsay Buckingham, sounds the best of all the many times Renbourn came back to one of his favourite songs. 'Blues Run The Game' is faster than when Bert plays it and even more traditionally folk. 'Great Dreams From Heaven' is a pretty ditty about earthly ties and a heavenly surprise. The closing 'Buckets Of Rain' has Renbourn doing amazing things with his guitar so that it really does sound like a peal of water droplets!

In truth the album fades a little towards the middle when so many folk songs are given the same mid-paced flowing peal of guitar chords they risk sounding the same, but the beginning and end of this LP is plenty good enough to make up for the rest. After all that work, Renbourn's English record companies passed on this low budget LP, which until the 21st century was only available in Japan or on import. Oddly enough this may well also be Renbourn's most 'English' of LPs, from the long list of traditional folk songs in the set and the typically English pastoral album cover! Recommended - sometimes the low budget releases really are the best.

Bert Jansch Conundrum "Thirteen Down"

(Sonet, July 1980)

Una Linea/Let Me Sing/Down River/Nightfall/If I Had A Lover/Time and Love/In My Mind/ Sovay/Where Did My Life Go?/Single Rose/Ask Your Daddy/Sweet Mother Earth/Bridge

"Let me sing about love, love without fear and tyranny, love like a tempest, like a storm. like a sign of the devil, you can cut off my hand but I'll be stinging till the day I die, let me sing and let me live!"

By my maths that's thirteen down - and thirteen to go if you count 'lost' albums and live records, putting this album right at the heart of Bert's output! Though Bert has now reached the unlucky thirteenth album, he seems to be taking the ill omen in his stride, forming a whole new 'mini Pentangle' with future reunion members Nigel Piggott and Martin Jenkins along with drummer Luce Langridge. He may have been inspired to the title by the name of his first compilation, the limited edition 'Lucky Thirteen' released by Vangaurd in 1966 which mixed songs from his first two records - the sensationalist, superstitious title chosen by the record executives sounds like exactly the sort of thing that would have struck Bert as 'funny'! Perhaps to subvert the old title, 'Thirteen Down' is a surprisingly joyous, happy-go-lucky album that has more in common with the reunion pentangle than the moodier first incarnation, with a touch of funk and a certain swagger about this record that makes it quite unlike anything else in the Jansch canon. Sometimes that's a good thing: 'Let Me Sing' is a Stones-style song about the drive to sing despite the devils in the way that brings Bert more out of shell than ever, whilst 'Time and Love' is one of the prettiest and poppiest songs in Bert's oeuvre, with a sunny riff and a determination to make the most out of a second chance to 'start again'. Elsewhere it's less successful: a cackling re-make of Pentangle traditional cover 'Sovay' is a little too Jethro Tull with Bert growling out the lyrics over a frenetic backing track that doesn't suit him, while the French accordion of the Charles Aznavour style 'Down River' takes a lot of getting used to. This record's Pentangle guest appearance comes from Jacqui who helps turn traditional folk song 'If I Had A Lover' into the most 'Pentangle' like song on the album thanks to a bluesy downbeat riff and a tale of loneliness and despair. A similar solo song, 'Where Did My Life Go?' is also well up to standard, a sad and bitter song about the passing of time with Bert vowing that he's too happy in his ways to change them but too lonely not to regret the fact, performed with a real bitter feeling not heard since his pre-Pentangle folky albums (though Bert revealed later he wrote the song not about his own passing years but his good friend Sandy Denny, who was going through problems of her own). A mixed record, then, and one that sounds both strangely polished and strangely rushed all at once (the record's sleeve lists two songs as by 'unknown' because nobody could be bothered to research them - actually both 'If I Had A Lover' and 'Sweet Mother Earth' appear to be obscure traditional folk songs in the public domain from Sweden and Brazil respectively, though both could easily be Bert originals. Oddly the album changed covers for release in UK, US and Australasia markets, with the UK edition by far the best with a shot of the new band apparently caught in mid 'thank God that's over!' relaxed pose as they get up to go from the dreaded cameras. 'Thirteen Down' may not be the best of the thirteen, perhaps, but it's delightful optimism makes it a memorable entry in the solo Jansch discography and at an impressive thirteen tracks long it has enough strong music within it still to withstand the filler and failed experiments.

The John Renbourn Group "The Enchanted Garden"

(**Transatlantic, '1980')

The Maid On Shore/Douce Dame Jolie/A Bold Young Farmer/Sidi Brahim/Belle Qui Van Tiens Ma Vie - Tourdion/The Truth From Above/Le Tambourin/The Plains Of Waterloo

"Pourquoi fuis-tu mignarde, si je suis pres de toi"

('Why do you flee daintily when I'm around you?')

Or as one mischievous friend of Renbourn's called it 'Vivaldi In Gumboots!' By now John's dreams of retiring from the city to the country had become a reality and he was happily mixing with the member of the Renbourn Group who had all moved nearby him. Unlike 'Bedlam', which is a slightly stricter reading of antique folk songs, 'Garden' is a lot more informal and sounds as if it was hatched at the local pub rather than the history museum, more concerned with the songs of the peasants than the dignitaries. The same caveats apply as before: this album won't be for everybody and by now includes only the slightest of similarities compared to Pentangle.  The highlights include a memorable guitar duel on Jean-Phillippe Rameu's 'Le Tambourin' (which translates simply as 'tambourine'), the fascinating eight minute guitar/tabla work out on traditional folk song 'Sisis Brahim' that melds so many different styles together it makes your head spin and a gorgeous vocal from a guesting Jacqui on a rare Pentangle French folk song 'The Plains Of Waterloo'. Not everything works: Jacqui's latest a capella performance 'A Bold Young Farmer' is no substitute for 'So Early In The Spring' and the Celtic panpipes-at-dawn 'The Maid On The Shore' may make you question what on earth you've just forked good money out for. But overall this is a garden in full bloom and an excellent place to play time travel in.

The John Renbourn Group "Live In America"

(**Transatlantic, '1981')

Linsday/Ye  Mariners All/English Dance/The Cruel Mother/Berton Dances/The Trees They Do Grow High/Farewell Lovely Nancy/Van Dieman's Land/High Germany/Sidi Brahim/The Month Of May Is Past-Night Orgies/John Dory/So Early In The Spring/The Fair Flower Of Northumberland/John Barleycorn

"We must march away at the beating of the drum"

The Renbourn group somehow ended up in the Americas for a lengthy tour promoting 'The Enchanted Garden', which somehow turned into a live LP. In truth though it's a bit of an odd live LP - this is after all a band who primarily re-create folk songs as perfectly as possible; while rock albums tend to sound better live when the adrenalin's pumping and the crowds are chanting and even solo folkies can uncover whole new strands of the songs they're singing, do we really need a live album of music from the middle ages? After waiting five hundred years to be put on album, couldn't these songs have waited a few months more to be done in the studio? That might just my hang-up, however, because this has always proved to be a popular LP. Jacqui McShee is still very much a part of her band and she gets to duet with John a lot more often than on the Group or Pentangle records which is delightful (they always had a special blend). The track listing includes a few too many jigs for my liking but also includes a pretty much spot on selection of songs from the first two Group LPs and three songs recorded by Pentangle and not often heard in concert ('The Trees They Do Grow High' as sung by Jacqui and John, 'So Early In The Spring' as sung by John not Jacqui and - biggest surprise of all - 'High Germany'). The album cover too is spectacular: Erich Von Schmidt's caricatures of the band are all very spot on, even if both John and Jacqui seem to have green hair! Given that there only were ever two Renbourn Group studio albums, it's welcome to have anything  - although owning the live album still seems a little more pointless than owning either of the studio sets.

Bert Jansch Conundrum "Radio One Live In Concert"

(Windsong, Recorded July 1981/April 1982, Released August 1993)

Poor Mouth/Running From Home/Kingfisher/Let Me Sing/Sovay/Alimony/Love Is Lost/Fresh As A Sweet Sunday Morning/Up To The Stars/If I Were A Carpenter/Sit Down Beside Me/Is It Real?/Heartbreak Hotel

"You got the kind of smile that tells me you're happy but you ain't"

Two interesting shows from the short-lived 'Conundrum' project, this radio archive feature isn't quite as worthy as a whole Pentangle-linked BBC disc would be one day (Bert and John between them did loads) but it shines new light on what's a relatively unknown period. Bert is by not struggling with his drinking and his live shows are becoming a bit more of a struggle, certainly compared to his work in the 1960s, but he's still a great performer. The first gig is perhaps the stronger of the two featuring a nice mixture of old favourites from the solo and Pentangle days (including a rare solo reading of 'Sovay') alongside several of the better songs from 'Thirteen Down' including a particularly raw and passionate 'Let Me Sing'. The second gig is mainly made up of songs from 1982's 'Heartbreak' album and is nice but rather raw compared to the record. Bert is clearly struggling at times but sometimes this really adds to this songs such as an impassioned 'Is It Real?' The closing 'Heartbreak Hotel' still sounds weird though. A nice historical document but far from essential.

 "At Their Best"

(Cambra '1982')

I've Got A Feeling/Bells/Market Song/No More My Lord/House Carpenter//Once I Had A Sweetheart/Miss Heather Rosemary Sewell/Bruton Town/In Time/Sally Go Round The Roses//The Earl Of Salisbury/The Time Has Come/Pentangling/So Early In The Spring/Rain and Snow//Light Flight/Three Part Thing/Lord Franklin/Haitian Fight Song/When I Get Home

"I will take you where the grass grows green on the banks of the river deep"

Well, a title along the lines of 'the best of' is usually like a red rag to a bull with me but this double-album retrospective is actually a lot better than most. The extra length allows the compilers to tell the story and provide all the hits and fan favourites so that what you have is as good as any 85 set can be at summing up the many different Pentangles there are out there to collect. The packaging could be nicer, but at least compared to 'Anthology' there's an actual picture of the band used this time and the running order actually works quite well despite not even coming close to chronological order. There's even room for a real oddity: 'Miss Heather Rosemary Sewell' is a Bert Jansch guitar instrumental written in honour of his wife for their engagement in 1968 and included on the 1969 solo record 'Birthday Blues'. It features no other members of Pentangle and is the only solo recording features in this compilation, suggesting it's actually here by mistake rather than design. No matter though, it's a pretty song to have here and offsets the similar acoustic instrumentals by Renbourn on this set from 'Sweet Child' like 'The Earle Of Salisbury'. A likeable and comprehensive set, it's a real shame that this one isn't currently available on CD although the 'Light Flight Anthology' contains even more in terms of songs and back history. If not quite Pentangle at their best (no 'Train Song' 'Let No Man Steal Your Thyme' 'Lyke Wake Dirge' or 'The Trees They Do Grow High', all far more important and listenable than 'Three Part Thing' or 'Haitian Fight Song', two of the more heavy going moments in the Pentangle catalogue) this is at least Pentangle close to their best, which as compilations go is closer than most get.

Bert Jansch "Heartbreak"

(Logo, April 1982)

Is It Real?/Up To The Stars/Give Me The Time/If I Were A Carpenter/Wild Mountain Thyme/Heartbreak Hotel/Sit Down Beside Me/No Rhyme Or Reason/Blackwaterside/Not A Word Was Said (This is the vinyl version - he CD changes the running order but the tracks are all the same)
Deluxe Edition Bonus Tracks: Live At McCabe's Guitar Shop 1982 (The Curragh Of Kildare/Poor Mouth/Blackwaterside/One For Jo/Let Me Sing/If I Were A Carpenter/Blues Run The Game/Is It Real?/Ask Your Daddy/The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face/Kingfisher/Wild Mountain Thyme/Come Back Baby/I Am Lonely)

"Where I'll end up God only knows - all I know is that I've got to go!"

One of Bert's more interesting albums, the good and bad on 'Heartbreak' rather cancels each other out and leaves it sitting somewhere about the middle of his catalogue. On the downside Bert is by now reduced to actually thinking about his audience for a change and pays far too much heed to them, with an over-slick production, a reliance on cover songs that are far too obvious  (is there a band who didn't sing 'Wild Mountain Thyme' or 'If I Were A Carpenter'?) and a much inferior re-make of 'Blackwaterside' that hints at everything that's gone wrong between the Bert of 1965 and seventeen years later. Skip this album at your peril however because underneath it all, hidden away underneath the surface murk and a rather anonymous band performance, are some of Bert's most poignant and moving songs about the growing distance his drinking was putting between himself and his loved ones and Bert is in fabulous voice throughout- amazingly so given what a 'heartbreaking' period this was for the guitarist. Not that this is Bert's saddest album by any means: despite the title it's rather an 'up' album by Jansch standards, with a real swing in its step at times - arguably a bit too much of a swing at times.
The highlights are many. 'Sit Down Beside Me' has taken a while for me to notice but is quickly becoming one of my very favourite Bert songs, with a gorgeous riff and a lyric caught between concern and love when Bert bumps into an old lover. He doesn't even recognise her at first but knows her well enough to know she's lying when she says 'I'm fine'. Throughout the song acoustic guitars dance around each other trying to say nothing, while Bert's electric pounces and says everything direct he can't bring himself to say. 'Up To The Stars' sees Bert vowing to leave the world to start afresh on a new one and features a truly mesmerising performance as he's torn between longing to escape and tearfully promising his loved ones he'll be back when he's ready. 'Is It Real?' features one of Bert's most philosophical songs as he debates over how 'life's not always what it seems' and the only part of living that seems 'real' to him is when he plays his guitar. The closing 'Not A Word Was Said' is impressively funky too, more like the sort of sound the later Pentangle reunion albums tried to go after and failed ('Meat On The Bone' especially), with an unusual irregular slam of the acoustic guitar up against a bubbling electric guitar part and a bass waiting to pounce.

Of course up against these four great moments are six tracks that are average going on ghastly. Bert's growled cover of 'Wild Mountain Thyme' needed an awful lot more rehearsal time than this, 'If I Were A Carpenter' is too fast and too ragged and yet somehow also too polished for Tim Hardin's intended emotion and the folk version of 'Heartbreak Hotel' is surely a candidate for the weirdest thing Bert ever did (some fans seem to like it - but even in an 'ironic' sense it doesn't feel as if Bert 'understands' this song at all). 'Blackwaterside' was a song ripe for re-recording, but not like this with a mandolin accompaniment, jazz drums and the most 1980s slap-bass ever recorded playing along  - just, no...not even close. The originals 'No Rhyme Or Reason' and 'Give Me Time' are better, but still rather forgettable by Bert's high standards and feel as if a man of great intelligence is stooping down to keep things as simple as possible for us. Given that by now only Bert's real fans who loved his depth were buying his records anyway, it all feels that little bit wrong. Ah well, there's heartbreak indeed on 'Heartbreak', but a lot of heartwarming stuff too.

One final word about the CD release, which was much delayed (it's one of the last AAA recordings to get its first showing on compact disc, as late as July 2014) and they 'messed around' with the album quite a bit. I'm not sure the revised track listing (it now starts with 'Blackwaterside' instead of starting with 'Is It Real?') is any better really - not enough to mess with history over anyway. However the addition of a 'bonus' disc containing a period concert 'Live From McCabe's Guitar Shop' is an excellent find, if a little similar to the second 'Radio One' concert recorded the year before. The album tracks sound much better without the heavy production or the other players, intimate and warm, while a strong selection from Bert's last album 'Thirteen Down' in a solo acoustic setting also improves many of those tracks too. 'Blues Run The Game' sounds especially good tonight, while the rare 'Ask Your Daddy' is a nice find too, with Bert turning concerned parent. Only a slightly weary feel to Bert's voice prevents this from becoming his best live album - it's still a good one though and far more interesting than a good half of the parent LP!

John Renbourn and Stefan Grossman "Live In Concert"

(Transatlantic, '1984')

Looper's Corner/The Shoes Of The Fisherman's Wife/Twelve Sticks/Cocaine Blues/Pretty Girl Milking A Cow/Tightrope/Make Believe Stunt/Sheebag An Sheemore-Drunken Waggoner/The Assassination Of John Fahey/Cincinnati Flow Rag-New York City Rag-Hot Dogs/Judy-Angie/Lindsay/Lament For Owen Roe O'Neill-Mist Covered Mountains Of Home/So Early In The Spring/The English Dance/Great Dreams From Heaven/Sweet Potato/Bonaparte's Retreat-Billy In The Lowgrounds/Goodbye Pork Pie Hat/Candyman/Midnight On The Water/Spirit Levels/Mississippi Blues

"Let's see if we can tickle the strings on this guitar!"

Recorded in 1982 in Portland, Oregon, with a few tracks added from a year later from Sydney, this is the John 'n' Stefan collaboration at its peak. Both men are on good form, taking the spotlight in turns and egging each other on before coming together in a series of two-hander duets where their friendly competitive sides really come out - far more so than between John and Bert! The concert is mellow, but fast, with both men restricted to acoustic guitars and both are fantastic players. Sadly many of the choices tend to be Medieval folk songs and instrumentals at that rather than original songs, although there is a smattering of tracks from the pair's first two albums together at the beginning and end of this record too. Oddly enough the closest thing here to a Renbourn 'standard' is a cover of 'Charlie Mingus' 'Goodye Pork Pie Hat' which is similar in feel to the version on Pentangle's 'Sweet Child' - the odd bit comes from it being performed not by John but by Stefan solo! (It's a sign how similar the two friends are actually - if there was a blind hearing test I doubt many fans would notice the change!)  As a sign of how low budget the album is, however, track nine starts with John introducing an entirely different song ('The Orphan') before he plays one of his lengthy melodies, something the editor should really have picked up on. The original vinyl packaging also 'skips' the number fourteen and jumps from thirteen to fifteen (what would the missing song have been?!) The engaging opening rocker 'Looper's Corner' is amongst the highlights here with its pretty rhythms, while the 'roll' comes from the clever instrumental 'Spirit Levels', where the two guitarists really do sound like a changing tide. One of the better Renbourn live recordings around, with an informality that hides what a skilled and clever set this performance is.

John Renbourn "The Nine Maidens"

(Transatlantic, '1985')

New Nothynge/The Fish In The Well/Pavan D'Aragon/Variations On My Lady Carey's Dompe/Circle Dance/The Nine Maidens (Clasarch-Nine Maidens-The Fiddler)

"For your next record, John, we were thinking you could do something along the lines of...maybe...rock?"

I'd like to imagine that Camelot was something like this and so, I suspect, did John Renbourn: simple and traditional but with a hint of new age records as well as past history that makes this more than just a boring exercise in Medieval history lessons. Renbourn's love of the Middle Ages and their music is famous, but many of his albums tend to use the style as one element amongst many - a sort of colourful court jester in the Pentangle court of many colours or as an authentic theme park for fans to go back in time and visit for the day. Though the album title recalls Pentangle tales of helpless maidens tackling big bad wolves, it's actually - like the album cover - based on a tale surrounding nine mysterious stones buried in the ground at St Columb Major in Cornwall, a sort of unfinished Stonehenge (the album was recorded just down the road from the stones, which Renbourn visited often for inspiration). The myth - and the title track instrumental based on it - is that nine friends were all turned to stone by God for daring to dance on the holy Sabbath day while another larger stone - the fiddler - stands a couple of fields away caught in mid-pluck. The stones date back to Neolithic times, making this an 'old' album even by Pentangle standards, though surprisingly this is a Renbourn original and no folk song ever seems to have been written about the stones (there is an opera though by George Lloyd!) Renbourn clearly steeped himself in the local customs and even goes the trouble of 'borrowing' the Padstow Abbey Oss Drum which was played during local ceremonies on May day where locals dressed up as a horse (a sound that, in all likelihood, had never been captured on a record before).

Of all the Renbourn albums 'The Nine Maidens' is the one that takes it commitment to updating the Medieval sound most mysteriously without any sops to chart placings or record sales or what fans think. There are, for example, no vocals anywhere across this LP. Only one rare occasion ('Circle Dance') do you hear any other performers at all and the sudden interruption by period horns feels like a real intrusion. The record also has the lowest number of pieces per album - six - than any since Pentangle's 'Cruel Sister', while at 34 minutes the running time isn't exactly generous by the standards of the mid-1980s. One of them - 'New Nothynge' - is a remake of the oft-played 'Lady Nothynge's Toye Puffe' collectors already had several times over by now. Almost all the album is in the peculiar tuning of G Minor, a key Renbourn had first used on his piece 'The Hermit' an album earlier and decided to use across the whole LP, something musicians and songwriters rarely do because of the interests of variety. and repetition. Which makes this either the greatest album in Renbourn's solo catalogue or a bit of a problem, depending on what exactly you've come to hear. John's careful but exuberant playing is as exquisite as ever and his passion for the material comes over loud and strong, with highlights such as the closing thirteen minute medley title track impressively fluid and memorable, as if we really have been transported back some five-six hundred years.
 If they'd have had record players at the time of the Tudors and Stuarts 1) this would have been an even weirder period in history (Ye Spice Girl witches recorded ye horrid LP and dressed provocatively with thine ankles showing on the cover - off with their heads!') and 2) this record would never have been off the turntable. However for modern audiences who don't share Renbourn's passions quite so thoroughly this is an album that can often be boring, with every song taking its time with all the urgency of a solar-powered tram on a gloomy British day. The kind reviewers in the mid-1980s praised John for giving the compositions so much 'space', rare in an age when every conceivable hole was filled up by noise somewhere down the line'; the less kind reviewers called it pompous and dull, a whole album where nothing happens and every minute sounds like the one before. The truth as ever lies somewhere in between: Renbourn's authenticness and desire to treat us to as bare-bones a Middle Ages record as he can make is admirable until you actually have to listen to it and you yearn to hear some other instrument or tempo in there somewhere. Though an album about the middle ages, 'The Nine Maidens' risks coming across as a bit too middle aged and old before it's time.

 "Open The Door"

(Spindrift, July 1985)

Open The Door/Dragonfly/Mother Earth/Child Of The Winter/The Dolphin//Lost Love/Sad Lady/Taste Of Love/Yarrow/Street Song

"Wild geese flying Eastward leave their music to the sky"

Ding dong! Most fans are quite dismissive about Pentangle's reunion years, some thirteen years after their original split. By the mid-1980s Pentangle had become something of a folk memory themselves, a passing of time so good and so brief that it seemed far too magical to have ever existed anyway - resuscitating that sound with  mid-1980s production values of all things seemed like madness. However, I've always been fonder of the reunion albums than most and this first album especially which, while never as good or as groundbreaking as Pentangle the first time round, was at least never bad (which is more than you can say for some AAA reunions!) For now four fifths of the band had reunited, with John Renbourn the odd man out and replaced by Mike Piggott (who also brings his violin to the party), and it's probably fair to say that the band come about four-fifths of the way to capturing their old sound. For a time Renbourn was part of the band too, with all five original members appearing for a show in 1982, their first in nine years although it was a very odd returning gig. Terry had been involved in a nasty car accident that saw him unable to play (although he did sit in with the band and played what he could) and without his drums the set was poorly received (probably the reason Renbourn legged it soon after, although the official reason was that he'd just enrolled in a classical music course at Darlington College!)

 Far from using Pentangle as just another excuse to make money, Pentangle get busy concocting mini-dramas out of old folk songs and new tracks that sound like them that are as edgy or uncompromising as anything the four had made solo. One of the pieces - the finale 'Street Song' - even recalls 'Market Song' with its dramatic use of see-sawing double bass riffs and shouted a capella vocals; Pentangle hadn't been quite this daring since 'Cruel Sister'.  Oddly the band also moved record label to make the album, switching to Spindizzy, even though most of the band continued to release solo albums on their old label for the next decade or so. Only the slightly anti-sceptic 80s production (though not quite as bad as most), some occasionally iffy song choices and the passing of time making the harmonies sound a little less pristine prevents 'Open The Door' matching the quality of the original six. Even so, it's a door well worth opening - especially if you've bought all the originals already.

There's also the case to be made that 'Open The Door' is Pentangle's first bona fide concept album. Which seems odd when you think about it - so many Pentangle albums ran with similar themes and yet this is the one that comes closest to coming out and saying it. Fittingly the theme if one of conservation, perhaps the only 'protest' movement not in full swing back in Pentangle's heyday and one steeped in their usual passions of tradition and leaving things for your grandchildren as taught to you by your grandparents. Many songs on this album concern the plight of animals and by association whether mankind is trying to make himself extinct as well. Only three songs are actually traditional - and one of these, Bert's 'Yarrow', had been kicking around for a while - and there is perhaps more of a contemporary feel to many of these songs. Bert is on particularly fine form, now promoted into being the album's chief guitarist and he's a lot happier singing with Jacqui after years of successful albums than the shy awkward youth of the earlier albums. His songs 'Lost Love' and 'Taste Of Love' are his best in years, while Jacqui doesn't sound any different, instantly connecting with the slight melancholy air of the album and extending her usual storytelling skills from frightened maidens to scared dolphins and carefree dragonflies. Danny and Terry get less to do and the arrangements are tighter, without any recourse to jazzy improvisations, but Danny fits in a few double bass solos that still sound unlike anything else music had to offer at that time and Terry's voice has aged better than anyone's, uniting with Jacqui's on 'Street Song' like the good ol' days. Piggott too is as good as anybody could be in the John Renbourn part except John Renbourn himself and he tastefully re-creates his predecessor's style while throwing himself into the violin parts. He'll remain with the band for some-time to come, though of the original members only Jacqui will last the course.

The opener is fittingly enough 'Open The Door', the most Pentangly thing on the album. An old folk song from Ireland (the first Pentangle had ever done, though Renbourn will do a whole album of this stuff in a decade or so's time), it's possibly adopted from the Victorian era 'Paddo's Song' , with Jacqui and Bert crossing lines as they try to get their lover to stop talking enough to tell them something important. The great acoustic guitar rhythm is more like a sea shanty, while Danny's double bass rumbles are highly distinctive.

'Dragonfly' is a bit more like contemporary folk - the sort of thing Steeleye Span were up to around this time. It's all still nicely Pentangly though, with Danny again getting top marks for playing loud and aggressive against the more laidback backing track, while Piggott's violin solo adds a lovely dash of colour too. As for the lyrics, though credited to the band 'Dragonfly' sounds very much like a Jansch song as a dragonfly is born and dies within a day without any chance to ponder the meaning of life - has a human, with all their many years, put their time to any better use?

Milton Nascimento was a Japanese protest singer admired by many (including Jefferson Starship who often covered his songs). 'Mother Earth' is typical of his canon, a slow song that hops from one foot to another in protest over the ridiculousness of a species that keeps making life difficult for himself. I'm not sure the sudden switch to falsetto harmonies was a good idea (Pentangle struggle a little vocally on this album anyway) but the song is a good one and fits nicely into the Pentangle style.

The five minute ballad 'Child Of Winter' is one of those songs where not a lot happens but it doesn't happen very prettily. Jacqui emotes over twin guitars without the rhythm section appearing at all on a lyric about feeling lost and alone.

'The Dolphin' is a stately instrumental that sounds like a slightly smaller and more graceful animal than such a large but intelligent one. Bert leads the way on a very Jansch instrumental part before Piggott's violins join in. It's not the best or most memorable Pentangle instrumental around but it does the job.

Side two begins with 'Lost Love', a surprisingly poppy song by Bert who despite the gap of these many years is still searching for the perfect image of love he once had in his mind's eye. The gently rolling melody is an excellent basis for some terrific Jansch electric guitar solos and he and Jacqui have never sounded better together, however more 'normal' and un-Pentangly the lyrics may sound.

'Sad Lady' is the most rocky song on the album and points the way to the other Pentangle reunion albums to come. Piggott's guitar pings aggressively across Jansch's acoustic, while Terry hits an unusual offbeat groove. Jacqui is back to portraying maidens, but this one is much more modern than normal and feistier with it, choosing to be alone after being previously hurt rather than being the passive victim in life's drama.

Bert's 'Taste Of Love' is perhaps the album highlight. The melody is gorgeous and rolls around the song's chords like washing flying off a line, while the lyrics are far more autobiographical and revealing than usual for Bert. He's been hurt so bad he fears he'll never love again and begins to wonder what the point of anything he's done is anymore. But then he remembers the tiny taste of love that once inspired him and figures that it must be out there somewhere waiting for him again and that a tiny taste is all he needs.

Traditional song 'Yarrow' is before the band kicks in sung a capella by Jacqui, the first time she'd done this since 'So Early In The Spring', although chances are the choice of song was Bert's (the song had appeared on his first post-Pentangle album 'Moonshine'). Given that it's an old folk number (originally listed as 'The Dewey Dens Of Yarrow') you'd have thought this Scottish ballad about nine noblemen trying for the band of a lady who chooses her servant boy would be right up the band's street. However compared to the days of old no one sounds that interested in this song and for the first time on record Pentangle sleep-walk their way through the track. Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the record.

Thankfully 'Street Song' sends us out on a high. Part 'Market Song', part 'Who Will Buy?' from the Lionel Bart musical 'Oliver!' and a whole lot of 'Oranges and Lemons', it's a musical compilation of market vendor cries as Terry and Jacqui overlap vocals over a moody held double bass note from Danny. After one of their most gripping introductions the main song is no slouch either, with a hard-edged rock attack and some terrific Bert improvisations with a solo in turn for all the musicians. Though the song is little more than a list of fruit, it all sounds much deeper than that, as if the whole of humanity's eco-system is up for sale. It's a memorable end to a usually memorable album.

Overall, then, 'Open The Door' may not have opened that many doors for Pentangle - the few people who heard it didn't seem to like it that much while most of the world met it with a yawn. The record wasn't the happiest to make and Danny decided to quit soon after its release, with more and more members leaving bit by bit over the course of the next nine years. Released at the peak of mass produced factory fodder pop, it was perhaps an album a little too removed from its time and while the music world was still fond of Pentangle as a memory neither Bert nor John were yet quite held up in the high esteem of bands in the 90s and 00s. A rather boring cover of crops being harvested in a field also did little to remind people what Pentangle had once been and oddly enough is their most generic 'folk band' sleeve on what may well be their least folk-orientated album.There is however much of value that got passed by, from the chance to hear Bert strutting his stuff against another top guitarist and throwing in two of his more accessible songs that sound suspiciously like he'd kept them in his pocket in the hope of having them played by the band who could do them best to most of the band sound back the way it should be despite the passage of time. A handful more top notch songs (preferably traditional folk covers) and Pentangle might yet have cracked the music market in 1985. Caught somewhere between a waste of time and improving on the original, the Pentangle reunion is a mixed affair that does just enough to remind you of what a great and distinctive band they were in the first place without adding an awful lot to your understanding of the band you didn't already know.

Bert Jansch "From The Outside"

(Konnexion, September 1985)

Sweet Rose/Blackbird In The Morning/Read All About It/Change The Song/Shout/From The Outside/If You're Thinking 'Bout Me/Silver Raindrops/Why Me?/Get Out Of My Life/Time Is An Old Friend/River Running/High Emotion/I Sure Wanna Know/From The Inside/From The Outside
The 1993 CD re-release changes the running order and substitutes the tracks 'Blackbird In The Morning' 'Why Me?' 'River Running' and 'High Emotion' for the songs 'Ah Sure Wanna Know' and 'Still Love Her Now That She's Gone'

"I'm gonna get my kicks from a different source...keep the tune but change the song"

The release of this solo album in the very short gap between two Pentangle reunion albums meant that 1985 saw more Bert Jansch material to buy in the shops than any year since 1968! This is proof of just how revived and rejuvenated Bert felt in this era, inspired afresh after his brush with death when he nearly died from pancreas failure after a lifetime of drinking and eager to turn his experiences into song. A cross between the mournful Jansch of last album 'Heartbreak' and the happier albums to come, this is a very complex and important album that seems to have been kind of lost amongst Bert's following. Few if any rate this as his best album, perhaps because Bert's reputation had slipped to the point where this album was only originally released in Belgium, but while the 1960s work and a couple that come later might just have the edge, this is a far more inspired Jansch than we'd had for the past decade or so. Writing wise this is the closest Bert ever came to writing a full album himself (Nigel Portman Smith from the reunion band helps him out on 'If You're Thinking 'Bout Me'), proof of how much creative juice was flowing through his veins. The biggest change is in Bert's voice: its sweeter and as close to a 'mainstream' top 40 voice as it will ever be and so different to his singing on 'Open The Door', evidence of just how much alcohol had impaired his singing by this time.

'Change The Song' is Bert's best song for years, a humble but upbeat song about all the changes Bert is going to make in his life and how good it will be. Bert is realistic enough to know that 'someone is going to get hurt', but knows that he needs to make the changes now or more will get hurt - it's a glorious life-affirming moment that Bert isn't ready to throw in the towel yet when he still has so much on his mind to say. The opening song 'Sweet Rose' is another good one which sounds several hundred years old at least and re-acquaints Bert with his old banjo.  'I gave it all I had - it taught me a lesson' Bert sighs on 'I'm Thinking 'Bout You', a poignant song about a man vowing to stay alive for his loved ones though he's not quite sure why for himself. 'Read All About It' is an angry protest song about the people being laid off work for the flimsiest of excuses in Thatcher's Britain and Bert, rarely political, sounds really bitter here. 'Why Me?' sounds like Bert's darkest hour as he falls apart on a bluesy piece of self-pity, pleading with life to put things right. 'Time Is An Old Friend', meanwhile, reflects Bert's relief at simply still being alive and given another chance - a soppy ballad by Bert's standards but deeply heartfelt. The idea of twin songs about suffering first hand and what it seems like from a loved one's point of view is also well handled, Bert acknowledging that its him who caused the 'problem', but not only him it has consequences for.

All of these songs are major moments in Bert's songbook and worth buying the album for alone, even if around half of the album sounds like filler by comparison (with songs perhaps left over from the Pentangle reunion). However, the sad truth for us Pentangle fans is that this album is notoriously hard to track down. Though Bert might have been joking, he revealed to a reviewer who asked about this album selling only 500 copies the first time round that even he didn't own a copy! Only ever released once in Europe, in 1993 on CD, it wasn't even a straightforward release of the album but a curious hodgepodge that swapped four of the better album songs in favour of two newer and slightly lesser songs. Though no explanation was given, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that Bert had requested it: notoriously private, he must have been mightily relieved to hear that the album would only be given release in one small country and thus wouldn't get much attention back home, judged 'from the outside'. Taking the most revealing songs out sounds like something Bert would do ten years later, when the problems behind this album were still very much in his memory banks. However, for me a writer is never greater than when they're admitting to their faults and failures and my respect for Bert is all the stronger having heard him grapple with his failing health and what he's put his loved ones through. Far from being something to be ashamed of, 'From The Outside' is a terrific album that reveals what a great and undervalued writer Bert was and how important his work still was twenty years on from the release of his first LP. I really hope that one day this album will get a proper re-issue, with tracks taken from both versions of the record, and the world can enjoy again the moment when Bert realises that there is something in this life to live for, however many painful changes and admissions that results in. An album to treasure for those lucky enough to have heard it.

"In The Round"

(Spindrift, '1986')

Play The Game/The Open Sea/She Moved Through The Fair/Set Me Free/Come To Me Baby/Sunday Morning Blues//Chase That Devil Away/The Saturday Movie/Suil Agrar/Circle The Moon/Let Me Be

"She went her way homeward, with only one star awake"

Though the title conjures up the image of a Medieval Theatre with Pentangle physically surrounded by their audience 'in the round', this is the point at which what Pentangle fans want and what their band delivers become two different things. Pentangle had never sounded as if they'd even noticed they had an audience before this and had certainly never paid lip service to what their peers were up to, but 'In The Round' begins a series of albums that spend so much time looking over their shoulder at commercial expectations they lose their way in the path ahead.. Danny Thompson, a particularly strong believer in thinking 'outside the round' quit early on in the sessions to be replaced by Nigel Portman Smith, who'll also play the Renbourny guitar parts when Mike Piggott has his hands full of fiddles and while once again Portman Smith as good as anyone can be it's another piece of the distinctive Pentangle sound gone missing. A hideous 80s production, shoddy album packaging (what is the cover meant to be? A Pentangle star on top of a polo mint on a stripy beach towel?) and a whacking mistake (apparently this album features a 'Jackie McShee' - no it's not a long lost twin but an embarrassing mis-print) make 'In The Round' a strong candidate for the nadir in Pentangle's catalogue.

The surprising thing is that, despite all that being true, 'In The Round' is not as deep and low as some would make it out to be. Any band that still includes Jacqui, Bert and Terry can't be all bad and the song choices are pretty sound - it's the arrangement and performances that are a bit weaker than normal. 'She Moves Through The Fair', for example, is perfect Pentangle territory - ghostly, mysterious and full of unrequited loving. Terry gets a rare writing credit on the poppier than normal 'Set Me Free', which is a great vehicle for Jacqui. The lovely 'Suil Agrar' is another adaptation of an Irish folk song and like the Celtic songs on other period solo and band albums is amongst the best the band have tried. Bert gets seven credits on the album, the most of any Pentangle release, and while not everything is a classic the best of it - the singalong 'Come To Me My baby' (the only Pentangle song ever co-credited to Bert and Jacqui) and the dramatic 'Let Me Be' are well up to standard. Jansch was actually going through a horrendous period, battling with alcoholism and struggling with the aftermath of a divorce to second wife Heather and while that's clearly a tragedy for him it's to the record's benefit, giving 'In The Round' a strangely gritty feel every so often compared to 'Dragonfly' which cuts through even this production horror. There remains, though, a feeling that the fun has gone out of the band again even on the second reunion album. The best moments from Pentangle in the past almost always revolved around the band doing interesting things together, but this is just a bunch of occasional solo showcases. There are fewer flying solos, more overdubs and less harmonies than ever before. Pentangle's magic was diluted with the loss of one of its five 'points' last time around, but still managed to be head and shoulders above most other period folk albums. The band can't manage with two points gone though and are in danger of sounding just like everybody else. Though other Pentangle albums feature the band falling flatter on their faces, 'In The Round' suffers the fare greater crime of being anonymous.

'Play The Game' is a rare song by Jacqui, co-credited to Portman Smith who hits the Pentangle blocks running with a credit on his first song released with the band. Alas it's not a very memorable one being more like the poppy folk rock Steeleye Span et al were making in this period and even the return of Bert's banjo and some nice crisp harmonies can't make it stay between the ears.

'The Open Sea' is a great Bert song, full of seafaring metaphors and life as a stormy wave of emotion, that's rather poorly performed. It's hard to work out where the trouble is, but nobody really seems to connect with this song, which sounds as if the band all added their contributions on later. A shame, as Bert has rarely so dramatic or emotional, like a one-legged pirate whose just lost his crutch and his parrot.

Though most fans seem to reckon it's one of the band's weaker traditional folk arrangements, I actually like what Pentangle have done to 'She Moved Through The Fair'. This version is entirely different to any other version I've heard yet still suitable to the song, slowed down to an eerie crawl with lots of keening violin played over the top. Until somewhere near the end only acoustic guitar and fiddle are heard, which means this song has less to get wrong compared to the rather overcooked productions elsewhere.

You can always count on Terry to add something a bit more straightforward to an often convoluted LP and 'Set Me Free' swaps the metaphors and attempts to genre-bend with a nice uptempo pop song that at last gives Jacqui a chance to soar. It's another of the album's songs about love gone wrong with the narrator trying to remember the moment when things went wrong and he no longer felt 'your spirit blowing through me'.

'Come To Me My Baby' is a fun uptempo number with an accordion and a hint of cajun jazz co-written by Bert, Jacqui and Nigel. Though the words aren't as gloriously complex as the melody's multiple time signatures, it's still one of the album's better songs about dreaming of better tomorrows.

Bert and Jacqui also wrote the distinctly oddball 'Sunday Morning Blues' with Mike Piggott which is again more jazz than blues and features Terry playing an entirely different beat to the rest of the band. 'What a way to start the day!' Jacqui sighs as the narrator feels deeply out of synch with the rest of the world.

Terry adapted 'Chase The Devil Away' from an old  folk song though it's not one I've ever been able to track down (the closest is 'Chased Old Satan Through The Door' and even so it's not very close). Terry adds a nice jazz shuffle to this song which gives it a more urgent feeling than most of the album, while Jacqui stops being mere decoration and turns into ice maiden seductress on by far the album's most striking and memorable moment.

Bert, meanwhile, has gone to watch 'The Saturday Movie' and it's encouraged him to live life to the full once he gets outside. However, life is not like a movie and he soon finds life paling by comparison. A most unusual track for Jansch, this song pretty much has him growling rather than singing and is one of the most commercial moments on the album.

'Suil Agrar' (loosely translated as 'Hope for the harvest') is a pretty Irish folk ballad that's sung with just the right amount of sting by Pentangle over the closest thing this album has to a bank of acoustic guitars. Jacqui is in good voice too on this tale of being deceived by a lover who makes her sell all her possessions to prove her love for him - and then does a runner to France. For all that, the narrator still believes he really did love her and will come back - even though the listeners know that's looking doubtful from the details she gives.  Only a rather stilted, artificial feel from the production end of things prevents this one from being a mini-classic. The song may have been an 'evolutionary branch' from an even earlier Irish folk song 'Siuil A Run' where the lover runs away to join the military - and the jilted fiance still feels proud of him!

Bert's prettiest acoustic song on the album, 'Circle The Moon', was co written with Portman Smith and given to Jacqui to sing, all about the circle of life and how beginnings start from endings. You can just imagine Bert writing this one during a morning after sobering up job after the rages of the more unhinged and emotional songs across this album.

The album ends with another of those sorts of songs with the highlight 'Let Me Be'. A demand for freedom in all things, it's not clear whether Bert is singing to a lover, his God, his band or his record label but it works just as well in all cases as the band stomp their feet to one of his best rock guitar riffs and Bert gets right carried away by the end of the song. Though as much of an experiment in sound as most of the LP, this track has far more life to it and you can tell that Pentangle are playing live at last, with the atmosphere in the room crackling with some much-missed energy.

In truth 'In The Round' could have done with a lot more of this sort of thing. Though only a few songs here are truly bad, there's less heart and soul and less care across these recordings than usual and of all the eras for Pentangle to start sounding like everyone else around they couldn't have chosen a worse time than the mid-1980s. Generally lacklustre, with poor production values and badly lacking John and Danny, there are never the less great things at the 'core' of 'In The Round' and Pentangle might well have come up with another promising LP had they had the time to 'go round again' and rehearse these songs up enough to record them as-live. For completists only really.

John Renbourn and Stefan Grossman  "The Three Kingdoms"

(Transatlantic, '1986')

The Three Kingdoms/Round Midnight/Dollar Town/Catwalk/Cherry/Rites Of Passage/Kiera's Dream-Parson's Mud/Keeper Of The Vine/Minuet In D Minor/Farewell To Mr Mingus/Abide With Me-Old Gloryland

"Once upon a time there were three kingdoms: folk. blues and jazz"

Though this record was recorded in the home studio of Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, there's nothing rock and roll or flashy about this predominantly acoustic record. In fact the informal recording sessions were ruined by that very 'rural' of problems - loud sea gull squawks down the chimney pots when the pair were trying to record! (The guitarists even took it as turn to be 'seagull scarers' when the other were recording their parts!) As usual Renbourn's folk, Grossman's jazz and their shared love of blues makes for a unique mix that's as equally at home on Medieval standards and modern day heroes (including a sad farewell to jazz player Charlie Mingus). There's little here to get pulses racing, with slower tempos than the pair's three earlier records and less 'wow' moments across the whole LP. The record is, however, solidly played and carefully chosen, with the pair both bringing songs to the table they know the other an embellish and the telepathy between the two players is getting ever closer to the peaks of Bert 'n' John. I just wish there was as bit more urgency about this albums, which is a little too neat and tidy and with the emotions removed, like a guitar workshop rather than a pair of visionary writers. In fact there are far fewer original songs here than normal - just a couple each, with a pair of shared collaborations on  'Keeper Of The Vine' and 'Rites Of Passage'. This last song is by far the highlight of the album, with the pair playing in their own unique styles and finding an overlap in psychedelia of all things, taking it in turns to crash down to earth and take off into the stratosphere. Thankfully the guitar sounds are captured perfectly and the clarity of each growing improvisation is enough to make the hairs at the back of your neck start doing funny things. It's a shame there aren't more moments like that across this album, though and the collaboration was clearly running its course. The only records the two will make together from this point on will be live concerts and archive releases.

John Renbourn "The Essential Collection Volume One - The Soho Years"

(Transatlantic, '1986')

Judy/Candyman/Lost Lover Blues/East Wind/Nobody's Fault But Mine/The Wildest Pig In Captivity/I Know My Babe/After The Dance/No Exit/Lord Franklin/The Cuckoo/Another Monday/Country Blues/Waltz/White House Blues/My Dear Boy/The Hermit/Buffalo Skinners/Sweet Potato/Kokomo Blues/So Clear

"Come walk the streets of crime and colours bright, ther corners of love with the Earth"

A nice collection of songs mainly taken from the first three pre-Pentangle albums, with a small gaggle of later songs included too right up to 'The Hermit' but skipping the more historical sets 'John Alotte' and 'Lady and the Unicorn' entirely. Old favourites 'Lord Franklin' and 'So Clear' are here to represent Pentangle, while the solo selections are a bit up and down. It's fascinating to me that so many different record labels can all have come up with such different ideas of what really is 'Essential' John Renbourn and there are only a handful of tracks replicated with other compilations. This is perhaps the best one to go for if you're after John's poppier-folkier side, without any distracting moments from the Middle Ages (if instead that's more what you're after then 'The Medieval Almanack' should suit you just fine). The packaging leaves a bit to be desired, too, with the cover of 'John Renbourn' over a blue background and hardly any details about the songs heard in the set, where they came from or what year. For all that, it's not a bad set but there are better Renbourn best-ofs around.

John Renbourn "The Essential Collection Volume Two - The Moon Shines Bright"

(Transatlantic, '1987')

Gypsy Dance/Lady Nothynge's Toy Puffe/The Lady And The Unicorn/The Lady Goes To Church/The Trees They Do Grow High/The Watermill/The Trees They Do Shine Bright/My Johnny Was A Shoemaker/Alman/Melancholy Gallaird/The Pelican/Three Pieces/Morgana/The Earle Of Salisbury/English Dance/Pavanne/Jew's Dance/Tourdion

"The moon shines bright and the 'star' gives it a light..."

Aww - I was really hoping that after the 'Soho' years in London Transatlantic were going to call this more historical orientated set 'The Camelot Years'. This is, you see, a compilation that draws heavily from the Medieval branch of Renbourn's music and includes several tracks from 'Sir John Alotte' and 'Lady and the Unicorn' alongside a few later recordings by the Renbourn Group. There's no Pentangle this time, although you do get to hear John and Jacqui together on their 1978 remake of 'The Trees They Do Grow High'. Jacqui pops up a lot on this album actually, which shifts the emphasis away from solo acoustic guitar pieces to more of a band sound. Even so, I'm not quite sure who its chiefly aimed at: old fans know this stuff already and new fans after a Middle Ages album still sounding youthful and vibrant will get a lot more of this sort of thing on 'A Medieval Almanack', which was marketed as much more of a historical type record. Still, the track selection isn't bad and includes many favourites.

Danny Thompson "Whatever"

(**, '1987')

Idle Monday/Tilll Minne Av Jan/Yucateca/Lovely Joan/Swedish Dance/Lament For Alex/Crusader/Minor Excapade

"I'm free to be whatever I, whatever I choose and I'll play jazz and the blues if I want!"

Of all the five members of Pentangle, Danny went on to have the most unexpected careers, a journey that will take him to the more extremes of the Pentangle love of genres. After the band's split he threw his lot in with a film company and helped both produce and write scores for wildlife documentaries amongst others. He also played with everybody who was anybody - including some old Pentangle colleagues' albums. After hanging round for just the first of the Pentangle reunion albums, Danny decided to form his own mini-Pentangle which, though it was never billed that way, was effectively the antithesis of what the reunion band had become. Whereas the modern look Pentangle were slick, secure, rehearsed and predominantly folky, Danny's new band 'Whatever' were a jazz combo who never played a song the same way twice. However, like the debut Pentangle album, the brilliance of 'Whatever' was that they weren't just another jazz group but a combination of styles and you can also hear bits of folk, blues and pop in the mixture too. The shoulder shrug of the band name was what Danny responded with whenever any of the music press asked Danny what form the band would take and 'Whatever' became a playful term for the band's limitless horizons.

Sadly 'Whatever' didn't even last as long as the original Pentangle before running out of steam and turning into something of a caricature of themselves. Though the band will make three albums in total (one of them a film soundtrack) this is arguably the only you really need to own - a thrilling, ambitious purely instrumental  twist on the 1980s' current obsession with modern jazz by giving it a sense of tradition and history via the traditional numbers. Danny's off-beat double bass trills are at last back at the heart of the music again (surely a re-action against the final mix of 'Open The Door' in which Danny is barely heard), but he's well matched by Bernie Holland playing the Bert/John guitar role and multi-instrumentalist Tony Roberts handling all kinds of saxes, clarinets and the like. Though Danny was the biggest 'star', with his name and picture upfront and big on the sleeve (very unusual in fact - only a small handful of Pentangle albums together and apart ever feature themselves on the covers - and when they do they're usually smaller than the band/artist/record company logo), this is very much a collaboration with the parts of the album that work best the ones where the band are really bouncing off each other. Opening original 'Idle Monday' is a good example: 'jazz baroque' that's one part 1590s to 1950s. The atmospheric ballad 'Tilll Minne Av Jan' is pure 1980s, but for once that's a good thing not an insult: think one of those brilliantly mood Dire Straits tracks that goes on for hours. 'Yucateca' (it's what the natives call 'Yucatan' in Mexico) is what an Aztec jazz band might have sounded like, so close yet so different to our own world's style. 'Crusader' is baroque and roll. 'Minor Escapade' the best 'running down a corridor to get the baddies in a 70s cop show' soundtrack ever made (why has no TV series used it yet?) Not everything is quite so top notch, but there's a strong half hour album in these 42 minutes, which is better odds than most.

Debate rages as to whether this is 'purist' enough to count as jazz. Personally I don't care: Pentangle don't technically qualify as folk with their sitars and their amplifiers and their subject matters of trains and hippies, but the music is more important than the label in both cases. Well, whatever 'Whatever' it is, it works. Like so many of these Pentangle solo albums this might well not be for everyone, but of all the many (100?) solo Pentangle records out there this is the one post-split that best captures that anarchic free genre-bending spirit that made the group so special. Would that there had been a better sequel - but then the relative failure of the next two records makes this album even more special.

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

Surviving TV Appearances 1968-2000 and The Best Unreleased Recordings