Monday 30 April 2018

Pentangle Essay: The Time Has Come (Or Has It Been?!?)

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Before Darwin put together his theory on human evolution in 1859 (which even he admitted was a bit dodgy in his opening chapters) mankind hadn’t given a thought to the idea that mankind was progressing or evolving. The idea that everything that went before him was a chance to reach this particular point in time was a very Victorian idea, which doesn’t really bear thinking about given the many wars and hostilities that have broken out in the 20th century. Mankind may have evolved genetically for the better (though looking at who we’ve elected as world leaders in the Western world lately I doubt it!), but the idea that morally he used to be an animal and is only now reaching his potential is one that just screams ‘Queen Victoria’ and ‘empire’. We may have had a claim in the 1960s that mankind was evolving into an ‘Age Of Aquarius’, but ask any hippie during the Vietnam and Korean wars and the missile race between two world superpowers if life was better in any way other than technological and they would have laughed in your face (before checking the windows to see if there was an FBI informant recording their every move). For most people, though, they don’t really think about it: we wear suits in our day jobs now, get haircuts and go to work in technologically advanced pieces of equipment whilst muttering into small boxes about how late we’re going to be because the technologically advanced apparatus has broken down again. Surely, people think, this means progress. We’re not like we were when we believed in fairies and elves and dragons, women are no longer fair maidens out to come under the spell of witches and wizards and sadly there are no magic horns (well, not unless you’re playing one of those endless infernal games on that technological box you take with you everywhere). If nothing else will give you the feeling that actually we might be going backwards you only have to look at The Spice Girls and weep.
Pentangle, though, have a slightly different relationship to time. They seem to believe, much like the Medieval philosophers believe, that mankind is going in circles and chasing his own tail. Back before there was such a thing as science and astrology filled the gap they used to call it ‘as above, so below’ – that when the heavens reflect a past historical date in the sky so the same old events will happen on Earth all over again. You may be surprised to learn, dear readers, that our astrological alignments of all the planets (including ones the Medieval scholars didn’t even know about) reflect the period of the 8th century, when there was a Moorish invasion of Europe from the far East and corrupt Kings ransacked their citizens for extra money every five minutes. We had our share of weak and feeble leaders, in mind and body, who insisted on making our miserable lives steadily worse to further their own nests and who wore increasingly stupid hairpieces while the citizens spent their back-breaking days joking about what sexually transmitted diseases they’ve picked up this time. Anyone who can read that sentence without picturing Donald Trump in Lederhosen and a baroque wig will, if nothing else, sleep better than I possibly will tonight.
For Pentangle history isn’t some remote object that happened in the past to be done away with and forgotten. For them history is now, or at least it was at the time they were recording (time is confusing to talk about!), forever to be repeated. The past isn’t the present on holiday, some theme park that’s just different enough to hold our fascination – it’s a time that was just like ‘now’, only with more fairy tales and less Pythagorean Theory tales (joke copyright Cat Stevens 1976). There are, you see, other bands besides Pentangle who did what they did, taking songs from many centuries past and singing them in the modern day, but what other bands do to a lesser or greater extent is make them sound like period pieces, to give listeners the same thrill they get when stepping back through time in a museum where everything is authentic. The Incredible String Band, Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention – they are all ‘guilty’ of this to one extent or another, which is fair enough if you like that sort of thing.
What Pentangle do, though, is treat the past like a guest in ‘our’ world which is much more interesting. Considering the fact that they were all folk scholars to some extent (with a prestigious knowledge of the ‘Harold Childe Ballads’ which gathered together as many folk songs as possible that had survived up until the 19th century in the different regions of Britain), Pentangle were a very ‘modern’ band for the day. They were specialists in jazz, which combined with their rock instruments gave them the same ‘feel’ as the San Francisco bands of the day like The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane where fiery improvisation ruled the day. They performed on all the latest equipment then in fashion, be it sitars (John Renbourn was one of the West’s best players), marimbas or particular guitar tunings. They wore hippie clobber on stage more often than not. And their songs were what you might consider ‘racy’ to some extent, full of murders, rapes and pointless wars. The difference was that a majority of this material came from days of centuries past, written by our great-great-great-grandparents. All this taken together gives Pentangle a fascinating sound that none of their contemporaries share: it’s as if the past is still here, or that we are living in days that will one day be the past, struggling with all the same questions that kept our ancestors up at night. Mankind is going in a circle – which isn’t far off the Pentangle ‘five pointed star’ logo if you think about it (the fact that it looks very 1960s, while based on an old pentagram for warding off witchcraft, also makes it the perfect image for this band).
A good example is Pentangle classic [  ] ‘Let No Man Steal Your Thyme’. You don’t have to scratch the surface very far to realize that the maiden narrator is not singing about herbs: she’s talking about a man stealing her ‘future’, literally taking her ‘time’ by interrupting her bodily cycles and making her fall pregnant. It’s a warning couched in song because nobody in the 1680s when this song was first referenced (under the name ‘The Sprig Of Thyme’) could actually come out and say it. In 1968 when Pentangle recorded it three hundred years not much had changed: the world was still full of predatory man desperate to satisfy their urges whether it makes young girls pregnant or not and you still can’t talk about this openly in artforms or you’d be at risk of a radio ban and censorship. The fact that the song just feels’ like a late 1960s song (with *that* guitar-bass-drum interplay sound) only exaggerates the effect that time is spinning round in a circle. [  ] ‘Once I Had A Sweetheart’ is every tale of heartbreak and girls being wronged by boys there has even been across time (and is a leading source of pop music even now), this one from several centuries in our past, updated with the sound of a sitar that makes this piece universal as well as timeless. 18th century tale [  ] ‘Jack Orion’ is surely an in-joke, a tale of a minstrel who gets into trouble for working for a different Kingdom who falls in love with a princess, who is raped by his manservant pretending to be him and who gets off scott free and all three principle characters in the song die out of guilt and shame (while this wasn’t exactly what was happening to Pentangle to the letter, they had just discovered that their record label Transatlantic and their manager had left them high and dry financially with some poor business decisions while the band was unable contractually to sue or sign with anyone else for the time being). Most worryingly the guilty church leaders of [  ] ‘Lyke Wake Dirge’ – the oldest Pentangle song of them all, dating to something or other BC - begging for mercy after some heinous deed are surely more relevant to our time than ‘theirs’. Of all the band’s cover songs only two *feel* contemporary: [  ] ‘Turn Your Money Green’ is a modern song by Pentangle standards, but still dates back all the way to 1928 (and thus forty years old by the time the band first performed it already); [  ] ‘Cold Rain and Snow’ dates even further back though it might seem modern with its tale of a man being kicked out the house by his girl after years of marriage in a feminist gesture – it’s actually another ‘Childe Ballad’ song that dates back at least a couple of centuries!
Interestingly, though, the opposite happens with the songs that Pentangle wrote themselves. You would expect that, freed of the need to write for times historical, Pentangle would lay down the imagery or witches and dragons, but it’s rare for a band original to be set specifically in the modern day. The band’s most famous composition [  ] ‘Light Flight’ may have been commissioned specifically for the BBC drama ‘Take Three Girls’ but it’s lyrics could be set anytime: it’s about escape, of running away to nature, staring at stars that have been in the sky much longer than mankind. [  ] ‘People On The Highway’ might use the title imagery, but that’s the only part of a song that wouldn’t chime with a Medieval gentleman had he somehow passed forward in time – it’s a song about the human-long feelings of despondency, of having taken a wrong life turning and of  realising that something has stopped being fun. [  ] ‘No Love Is Sorrow’ comes with fairytale like imagery of forests and creatures and words like ‘I dearly love thee’ that belong to a different century. The sentiments, though, are the same mankind has also been singing for centuries long: I love you so much, what do you mean you don’t love me? [  ] ‘A Woman Like You’ is a Bert song that could have been written in any era and just happened to be written in the 1960s. The narrator has lived all of his life alone and is surprised by the speed with which he falls in love; without that eventuality happening in every single generation mankind would have died out long ago. Even [  ] ‘Train Song’, whose title screams 20th century progress and muscle, is oddly antique in feel: ‘fare thee well little lady…love is a basket of light, grasping so tight’. Though nobody in the Middle Ages would know what a train was, turn it into a dragon and they’d have understood every word: this is a man being torn away from his sweetheart by a vicious beastie after he turned out to be less of a man than they both thought he was (it’s also, according to the sleevenotes, a ‘lament for the end of the steam trains’ – Dr Beeching’s cuts were only six years earlier as if this is another song recognising that the then-present day will also become old and faded, the facets that are particular to it passing into folklore one day too).
Pentangle don’t just twist time in a historical, societal sense. At the same time there’s a sense of overlapping going on in the music (again, a bit like the logo, of triangles all laden over the top of each other). More often than not, particularly on their jazzy debut album, this band are playing in five different time signatures – often in different keys too. More than that, though, its as if the band are playing with different mind-sets. Almost all Pentangle songs feature two guitarists, but rather than duel in a Rolling Stones or a Stills-Young kind of a way one of them (usually John) will be pointing towards the past in his stylised courtly tones and the other (usually Bert) will be playing hot licks so far ahead of their time it feels like we haven’t quite caught up yet. Throw into this mix any number of variations (ancient historical instruments like celestes and harpsichords, sort-of modern instruments like sitars and drums, harmonies that can be of the past, present or future depending on the arrangement – Pentangle were good enough and had enough voices to cover it) and any Pentangle song feels as if it could be from any time period. It’s as if somebody reckless has left the Pentangle time machine on fast forward and it’s giving us glimpses of lots of our possible futures and definite pasts all playing at once and overlapping each other (which is why Pentangle’s second most recognisable image – their bodies in silhouette against one another – is so apt too). Maybe this is why one of the signature Pentangle instrumentals is called [  ] ‘In Time’. This is clearly a joke: the band aren’t playing in time or in synchronisation with each other but going their different merry ways for the most part until a typical big ending! But in some sense they are all of their own time, even though the time is different: Bert’s very loose 1960s riffing comes off a stark and harsh Medieval rhythm from John, the bass and drums are pure jazz lounge 1930s and the whole song somehow has the feel of being like music of the future, that you’ve never heard before.
These are all reasons why I’ve always been shocked that Pentangle have never been given their true due, as being way and above all their folky peers. They come in so many extra dimensions: their maidens wronged could be your children now; their corrupt Lords and Kings ruling the land badly could be our modern day world leaders; these tales of doubt, of worry, of woe could all have been from our own times – and conversely all the original songs are about topics and use language that seems deliberately written to invoke our past. Songwriters are still tapping into the same ‘sources’ that we have always used, mankind still looking for questions to his age-old worries and fears. Pentangle, though, come with a difference that to my ears no other band has: when they sing of pain and misery, especially on songs from the past but even ones from the period, they sing it *knowing* that it is going to end. Many a time it seems as if the dragons rule the kingdom, or that the [  ] Lady of Carlisle’s spiritual tests are impossible, or that [  ] ‘The Snows’ are here to stay. But Pentangle know they are not because these songs worrying about what the future holds were written centuries ago. We know we have more of a future than many of these Childe Ballads, haunted by fears of invasion and death from plague, ever realised. And that somehow makes the modern songs about modern worries all the more palatable too: we may be lost and confused people [  ] ‘On The Highway’ not so sure where to go after the 1960s (as true now as it was when written in 1972 I fear), but there must be a future as we’ve doubted so many times in our past that we would have one and that somehow turned out kind of ok.
Sometimes the only way to know where we’re going is to work out where we have been and to learn from it, to stop ourselves going round in circles. Pentangle knew that more than any other band. While like other fans I adore their stunning musicianship, their sense of scope in song, their ability to go anywhere thanks to being adept at so very many different styles all at once and their desire to hide from the spotlight, to be very much a cult band despite the fact that they could have been huge, it’s this feeling that mankind is as trapped in the present as he was in the past and by many of the same things that make Pentangle the standout group of their ilk to me. Not, of course, that there really was any other band doing what Pentangle did and playing in time because perhaps what makes Pentangle unique most of all is that we have never ever had another band quite like them – in past or present. Maybe the future all bands will sound like Pentangle though and in the 58th century mankind will be listening to modern-day songs about i-pods and The Spice Girls being the devil incarnate; that would, you suspect, be rather great and a fitting legacy to a band who were never constrained by anything: style, subject or time.

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

Surviving TV Appearances 1968-2000 and The Best Unreleased Recordings

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