Friday, 27 September 2019

The Pentangle

Stuart Penney

This essay originally appeared in 2017 as part of the sleeve notes for the 7CD box set Pentangle: The Albums: 1968-1972 (Cherry Red CRCDBOX41)

“Has there ever been a first LP which was not ‘eagerly awaited’?” asked the faintly sardonic opening line of John Peel’s original sleeve notes for The Pentangle.  In 1968 there was no greater accolade than the Peel endorsement and Pentangle had recorded a coveted live session for his Top Gear radio show some months before their debut album was released.  The liner notes concluded, 400 carefully chosen words later, with “Play this record to those you love”.  Peel later confessed embarrassment at his florid prose style but not before that final line had been used as a sales pitch by Reprise records in their advertising campaign when the LP was released in the US.  

Alongside that reassuringly familiar Peel by-line, record store browsers in May 1968 may also have recognised the sleeve credit “A Shel Talmy Production”.  An American, resident in London since 1962, Talmy had produced big hits for The Who, The Kinks, Manfred Mann and The Easybeats (plus a couple of resounding flops by a pre-fame David Bowie) before dallying in prog folk with early albums by Pentangle and Roy Harper.  This improbable union came via Jo Lustig, another Brit-based American who managed both Harper and Pentangle at the time.

*US music press ad for the debut Pentangle album quoted John Peel’s original sleeve notes

Pictured on the front cover in stark black and white silhouette beneath a modish woodblock-style logo the band members appear virtually unrecognisable despite the (strictly alphabetical) list of names below.  The simple, yet somehow mysterious sleeve design is credited to Osiris (Vision) a company with close links to those doyens of the 60s underground International Times and Hapshash and The Coloured Coat.  Four decades later the distinctive hand-drawn band logo became known as the “Pentangle font” when, in 2008 it was commercially developed by the Manchester company K-Type.  

The individual Pentangle musicians were already familiar in folk and jazz circles if not to the wider record-buying public and all five members had previously worked together in some combination or other.  Bert Jansch (“owner of the most mispronounced name in Britain”, according to Peel) and John Renbourn had recorded together extensively and by 1968 were the undisputed glamour couple of British folk/blues guitar.  Jacqui McShee, a singer blessed with a silken voice of astonishing purity was a rising star in the folk world who had played in a duo with Renbourn and guested on his second album Another Monday.  The rhythm section of Danny Thompson and Terry Cox were even more well-travelled, having recorded TV soundtrack music with Renbourn and appeared on countless prestigious jazz/R&B sessions since the early 60s.  Bert was making friends in the rock world, too.  In 1967 he received a name-check (presumably at Neil Young’s behest) alongside Hank Marvin, Frank Zappa, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and countless other luminaries on the sleeve of the second Buffalo Springfield album Buffalo Springfield Again.  

To sum up: packaged in an unassuming sleeve with the anonymous catalogue number Transatlantic TRA 162, here was the debut record by a quintet of folk/jazz aristocracy, produced by the man who gave us “My Generation” and carrying the blessing of John Peel.  On paper it looked like an irresistible combination.

Fittingly it’s the sound of Danny’s buzz saw stand-up bass which introduces Pentangle to the world with the traditional “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme”.  First documented in the late 17th century this cautionary tale of young love became a folk staple with countless versions, including a 1963 recording by Bert’s erstwhile girlfriend Anne Briggs.  From the opening notes it was clear this was no ordinary folk group. The song moves with a distinct jazz swing feel as Bert and John weave their acoustic magic behind the bass and drums and Jacqui’s vocal rises clear and strong. “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme" c/w "Way Behind The Sun” was issued as Pentangle’s debut US single in November 1968 (Reprise 0784). 

The instrumental “Bells” was conceived by Bert and John before Pentangle was formed and in early 1967 a Danish TV crew filmed them working on the piece in their St. John’s Wood flat (the black and white footage can be seen on YouTube).  Originally titled “Belles of St. Mary's” the album version of “Bells” develops from a tightly arranged guitar duet into a drum showcase as Terry Cox delivers an early solo. 

*2017 Pentangle CD box set
Aside from “Hear My Call” all songs on the album are credited to the five Pentangle members, or a combination thereof, as writers or arrangers.  First recorded in 1962 by the Staple Singers on their Riverside LP Hammer and Nails, “Hear My Call, Here”, (to use its full original title) was written by Wesley Westbooks and Roebuck “Pops” Staples, following a racist incident involving Wesley’s daughter.  A stately gospel blues in waltz time, Pentangle’s version is taken at a similar leisurely pace to the original and features a tasteful solo from John, with Jacqui matching the Mavis Staples vocal every step of the way. An alternate take of the song is also included here.  

Here’s a quick question.  What do Black Sabbath, Bad Company, Motorhead and Pentangle have in common?  The answer is they’ve all recorded eponymous or self-titled songs. Starting with a brief vocal verse, “Pentangling” quickly turns into a complex improvised piece split into several movements, including a vocal refrain which, serendipitously, sounds not a million miles away from the 1966 Donovan song “Bert’s Blues”.  The version here runs for just 7 minutes, but in concert “Pentangling” often extended to 20 minutes or more, with John playing his Gibson ES335 electric guitar and usually featuring a mighty bass solo (or three) from Danny.  These lengthy excursions earned the band the (hopefully, tongue-in-cheek) nickname “the Grateful Dead of folk” in some quarters. In 1973 Transatlantic released a compilation LP titled Pentangling (TRA SAM 29). 

“Way Behind The Sun” is a blues featuring Renbourn on slide and a convincing Surrey delta vocal performance from Jacqui. It’s credited here as a traditional song arranged by the entire band, but it’s likely Pentangle learned it from a 1964 LP by Barbara Dane titled Sings The Blues With 6 & 12 String Guitar (Folkways FA 2471).  Three versions are featured here, including an instrumental take.  In 1969 The Byrds recorded a version of “Way Behind The Sun” during their Ballad Of Easy Rider album sessions.  

An epic murder ballad in the finest tradition, “Bruton Town” goes under many titles, including “The Bramble Briar”.  Davy Graham and Martin Carthy recorded versions in 1963 and 1966 respectively and Maddy Prior and Tim Hart tackled it in 1968, pre-Steeleye Span.  Comparisons with Fairport Convention’s “Matty Groves” are unavoidable, especially as “Bruton Town” became a cornerstone of Pentangle’s live set, where it remained throughout the life of the band.  A version recorded in concert at London’s Festival Hall in June 1968 appeared on the Sweet Child album.  Three studio versions of “Bruton Town” can be found here, including the previously unreleased Take 5.
*2017 Pentangle CD box set contents
The original 1968 album ended with the instrumental “Waltz”.  This instrumental tour de force had previously appeared on John’s Another Monday album, but the Pentangle version is extended to include a formidable bass solo and a side excursion into Mingus territory.  Listen for Danny’s(?) jubilant scream at 4.23 as the main theme returns.  

The UK debut Pentangle single “Travelling Song" c/w "Mirage” (Transatlantic/Big T BIG109) was released concurrently with the album in May 1968.  The pop/folk B-side was taken from the LP, but “Travelling Song”, written in tribute to Simon Bouchant (a friend of Bert then recently killed in a car crash) is one of the great disappearing Pentangle tracks.  Aside from a brief appearance on the 1968 Transatlantic various artists sampler Listen Here (TRA SAM 2) it remained unreleased on album until the CD era when it began to appear on Pentangle compilations, or as a bonus track.  “Travelling Song” takes its rightful place here as part of the debut album sessions.  

With its unfathomable time signature, the leftover instrumental “Koan” was probably a stroll in the park for Danny and Terry with their jazz chops, although it may have been uncharted waters for the folk guys.  Written and recorded by renown session guitarist Big Jim Sullivan for his 1967 album Sitar Beat, Big Jim’s original featured John McLaughlin on guitar.  Two unreleased Pentangle versions (takes 1 and 2) appear here. 

“The Wheel” originated on Bert’s 1965 second LP It Don’t Bother Me where it was one of three genre-defining guitar instrumentals.  The added bass and drums on the Pentangle recording breathes new life into the piece.  Another of Bert’s knuckle-busting instrumental excursions, “The Casbah” started life on his Bert Jansch debut LP where it was performed at a fair old lick.  Pentangle took it at a more leisurely pace and added a jazz swing feel, to great effect.  

Recorded in August 1967 at the first Pentangle recording session, “Poison” was left off the original album although Bert would re-record the song for his 1969 Birthday Blues LP, where he was backed by Danny and Terry, plus Duffy Power on harmonica.

*The 1968 Pentangle debut album

The Pentangle is one of the truly great debut albums of the 60s.  It was recorded at a time when their collective genius was operating at full tilt and in an era when anything seemed possible.  Here was a band who resisted classification and went against the grain of popular music, yet at their peak sold records aplenty.  With their intoxicating blend of folk, jazz, blues and rock, Pentangle amazed and delighted us in equal measure.  There were folk rock bands before they came along and there have been plenty since, but the music on this album will probably outlive us all. 

1 Let No Man Steal Your Thyme  2:48
2 Bells  4:02
3 Hear My Call  3:08
4 Pentangling  7:14
5 Mirage  2:02
6 Way Behind The Sun  3:11
7 Bruton Town  5:20
8 Waltz  5:06
9 Koan (Take 2)  2:10
10 The Wheel  2:00
11 The Casbah  2:17
12 Bruton Town (Take 3)  5:15
13 Hear My Call (Alternate Version)  3:18
14 Way Behind The Sun (Alternate Version)  2:49
15 Way Behind The Sun (Instrumental)  2:37
16 Bruton Town (take 5)  5:30
17 Koan (take 1)  1:41
18 Travelling Song (non-LP single version with strings)  3:01
19 Poison  2:37
20 I Got A Feeling  2:32
21 Market Song  3:28
Total: 71:06

Tracks 1-8: original LP
Tracks 9-15: Castle 2001 CD extras (from LP sessions)
Tracks 16-17: further LP sessions alternate takes (track 17 featured on The Time Has Come box set 2007)
Track 18: contemporaneous non-LP single
Tracks 19-21: August 1967 first studio session (track 19 featured on The Time Has Come box set 2007)

Buy The Box Set Here - Cherry Red Records

Wednesday, 18 September 2019

On the Road Again with John Renbourn

Stuart Penney

Today the M1 motorway cuts a 193-mile (311 km) swathe along the backbone of England, linking London with the major cities of the industrial north and midlands.  But back in 1959 when the road first opened it extended only 70 miles or so, petering out just south of Birmingham. That meant travelling to London from anywhere north of the midlands involved a tiresome slog along congested, slow moving minor roads through towns and villages.  The journey took even longer if you were hitchhiking.

Our story takes place in 1968 and although Britain’s first full-length motorway had by then pushed another 30 miles further north, almost as far as Leicester in fact, it still required a trek across country to connect with the miraculous new highway, as it was then viewed.

First, a few words on hitchhiking.  Once virtually de rigueur among the young and adventurous, thumbing a ride has fallen out of favour considerably in recent years, at least in the UK.  I’m not sure why, but I’d guess it’s primarily a safely concern.  But back in the 60s and 70s almost everyone I knew under 30 hitchhiked.  It was a romantic image, it made you feel like a character from a Jack Kerouac novel, but most of all, it was the cheapest way to travel.  Rain or shine motorway slip roads and major intersections were lined with hopefuls trying to score a free ride to destinations near and far.  Popular culture is steeped with idealistic references to hitchhiking.  It features in countless films (Easy Rider), books (On The Road), songs (“Coyote” by Joni Mitchell) and TV programmes (The Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy).  There was even a dance craze called the Hitch Hike which grew from the 1963 Marvin Gaye hit record of that name.  

Naturally hitching also had its own unspoken rules and etiquette.  Soldiers in uniform and tradesmen such as car delivery men carrying trade plates under their arms were deemed the most trustworthy or “safe” travelling companions and always received priority over a longhair with a guitar, so the wait could be long.  But generally, you’d eventually get a ride. 

And so it was that early on a Sunday evening in 1968 I found myself in the Staffordshire town of Burton-on-Trent, dropped off by an asthmatic, chain-smoking lorry driver who had given me a ride the 60 miles from Sheffield.  I was headed for London, still more than 100 miles away and at this rate I’d not get there until late into the night, or possibly even the next day.

Wondering what to do next I walked the streets considering the options.  The motorway was 20 miles away out of town and with traffic bound to be light on a Sunday evening I guessed the chances of getting a lift would be slim.  Then, completely by chance I passed a pub and noticed a chalk-written sign sitting out on the pavement: “Folk Club Tonight – John Renbourn” it read. This looked more promising.

Along with his musical partner Bert Jansch, John Renbourn was part of the UK folk blues aristocracy of the late sixties.  His acoustic guitar playing was legendary and other than perhaps the brilliant but wayward Davey Graham no one at that time came close to matching Renbourn’s flair and dexterity.

*Recorded in 1965 and released the following year, this is the first John Renbourn album

Folk music was still a long way from crossing over into the mainstream, however. Renbourn and Jansch may have been viewed like rock stars in the folk music world, but at that time your average record buyer wouldn’t have had the first idea who these people were.  When they weren’t playing the trendy London folk clubs or prestigious university circuit, artists like Jansch, Renbourn, John Martyn, Roy Harper, Ralph McTell and the rest made a living on the endless treadmill of provincial pub and club gigs. I should mention that between 1967 and 1972 Jansch and Renbourn were also members of Pentangle, the UK’s first folk supergroup, but both men continued to record their own albums and play occasional solo gigs during that time.

As was often the case back then the Burton-on-Trent folk club was basically just an austere upstairs room above a pub with lino on the floor and maybe 20 small tables seating less than 100 people.  I took a seat near the front and sat nursing a half pint of shandy for most of the evening.  As usual, Renbourn delivered an incendiary set.  He’d released just three solo albums at that point (John Renbourn, Another Monday and Sir John Alot of Merrie Englandes Musyk Thyng and ye Grene Knyghte) and we got a selection from all of them.

*Pentangle in 1968. John Renbourn, bassist Danny Thompson, drummer Terry Cox, singer Jacqui McShee and Bert Jansch
I vaguely knew John, having met him a handful of times in the space of a year or two, most recently at a Sheffield University concert only a couple of weeks before.  Part of his on-stage patter back then was to poke fun at Donovan, who had leap-frogged the other folkies to become a world-famous pop star, much to the chagrin of those left behind.  I’d jokingly taken John to task about his Donovan-baiting previously so when he saw me after the show, he said “Bloody hell, it’s the Donovan fan, what are you doing here?” I explained my predicament and asked if he was driving back to London, hoping for a lift.  He said he’d come by train and in any case was staying the night with the guy who ran the folk club (I hesitate to call him ‘the promoter’ but for the sake of this tale, let’s do that). A quick introduction to the promoter went something like this. Me: “I need somewhere to stay tonight”.  Promoter: “Sure, any friend of John’s is welcome to stay at my place.” What he forgot to mention was that he’d organised an after-show party for Renbourn and seemingly anyone else who cared to attend.

Back at the promoter’s house in the Burton suburbs the party was already underway when we arrived.  There were maybe 20 well-refreshed guests there with more arriving all the time. Tables groaned under the weight of food and drink and the air was heavy with the aroma of dope.  Incomprehensible modern jazz records were played, folk songs were sung and amid the hubbub, amateur guitarists of varying quality took to the floor.

As the night progressed events started to take a surreal turn.  The booze flowed, joints were freely passed around and a few couples even seemed to be getting rather too friendly over in the corner.  Then one man became so wasted and/or drunk he removed all his clothes, stood stark-naked on the coffee table and began to read aloud from a book by one of the Beat Poets (Ginsberg or Ferlinghetti, I forget which).  I’d never seen anything quite like it but no one else appeared to bat an eyelid. For a 17-year-old barely out of school it was exhilarating to be in such hedonistic company but it was also a little scary as well.

Finally in the small hours I found an empty bedroom and crept away for some sleep.  But just as I was drifting off, the door opened and amid much ‘shushing’ and giggling a couple stumbled in.  It was John Renbourn and he had a young lady in tow. Now, Renbourn was only 22 when he made his first LP and at the time of this story, he was possibly just 24.  Yet his trademark beard and unkempt appearance made him look like Billy Connolly’s dishevelled, older brother. Nevertheless fame, even in the rarefied world of folk music, is a powerful aphrodisiac and Renbourn’s lack of fashion sense was seemingly no deterrent when it came to attracting the groupies.  I should really draw a discreet veil over what happened next, so let’s just say that pretending to be asleep in the corner of a tiny bedroom while your folk guitar hero and an attractive young lady explored every page of the Kama Sutra (including the glossary) in a single bed not two feet away is an experience that never leaves you.

The next morning while the house was still quiet, I crept out into the kitchen to make a cup of tea.  Then I remembered something. The previous night Renbourn had stashed his guitar in a cupboard under the stairs.  As brazenly as you like I removed the battered case, undid the clasps (unlocked, mercifully) and took out the wondrous instrument.  It was a Gibson J50 with a blonde finish and carried all the dings and scars of a hard life on the road. Purchased for £50 from a US serviceman on a military base near Nottingham around 1966, it’s the guitar Renbourn used on five of his first six solo LPs, up to The Hermit in 1976.  It also featured on all six albums by the first incarnation of Pentangle (1968-1972).  Most notably it’s the guitar pictured on the cover of Another Monday, his second solo album (pictured here).  A precious object indeed, that guitar was very much a part of the soundtrack of my life.  It had Renbourn’s DNA all over it and there I was holding it in my hands. *(See below for more guitar info).

*Another Monday, John Renbourn’s second solo album from 1966 shows him playing his famous Gibson J50. The cover photo was taken on the steps leading to the Duke of York Column, just off The Mall in London
I don’t mind admitting I quite fancied myself as a guitarist back then, but the idea of owning an instrument as fine as this was out of the question.  Although a new Gibson acoustic could be had for around £100 in the late 60s, that translates to almost £2,000 today.  So, for a 17-year-old on minimum wage it was as unattainable in 1968 as it would be now.  Renbourn’s J50 played like a dream and all those Bert Jansch and John Martyn pieces I’d agonised and fumbled over at home seemed to come from my fingers easily. 

Lost in a reverie as I attempted the tricky counterpoint of Bert’s “Running From Home” I failed to notice a figure standing behind me.  “Not bad, but that bass line needs work” a voice said. It was John Renbourn. He’d been standing there listening for a while. But instead of the expected bollocking for using his guitar without asking, I received a surprisingly charitable reaction.  Taking the Gibson from me, he played the Jansch tune perfectly, pointing out where I was going wrong, then handed it back. We ran through a few other pieces before more people drifted into the kitchen and the impromptu free guitar lesson was curtailed.

*John Renbourn makes the cover of Folk Roots in April 1993 with an unseen picture from the 1965 photo session for his self-titled first Transatlantic LP

Around lunchtime we packed up and a few of us, including Renbourn, repaired to the local pub.  These folk guys were serious drinkers and the expensive rounds soon began to be ordered. I had very little money and still a long way to travel, so after a swift half I said goodbye and took my leave.  London was calling and I still had to find that elusive motorway.

*On John Renbourns Website  he says this about his Gibson J50: 

“In the mid sixties my guitar idol was Davey Graham.  Davey had an LP out called The Guitar Player and he was holding a Gibson on the cover.  I heard through the grapevine that an American serviceman on an airbase had one for sale and I had to have it.  It was a J-50, nearly the same as Davey’s and that was it for the old Scarth (the guitar used on Renbourn’s debut LP, pictured above) – musical considerations overruled by blind fanaticism.  I found out later that Davey wasn’t playing his by choice, he had owned a very nice Martin, gone to a party and come away with the Gibson, possibly without realising it! However, for me, it was a transformation.  From Another Monday right through into Pentangle it did the job – both acoustic and amplified.

*From 1963, The Guitar Player, the first LP by Davy (later Davey) Graham
"The J-50 has lasted well, only one major repair as I recall.  The back was smashed, courtesy of an airline – guitars into airlines do not go as I have learned (to my cost) over the years!  A friend of mine, James Flynn of the Flynn Brothers, has it at the moment and I heard it in action at the Troubadour in London recently and it still sounds good.

"The J-50 was my main guitar on the solo Transatlantic records up to The Hermit, by which time it was ready for a re-fret and a rest.  The recording studio can be a cruel judge of things that go unnoticed on the road.  It is now resting down in the south of France in the care of my old friend Remy Froissart.”

*Remy Froissart is now the custodian of John’s Gibson J50, seen here minus its pickguard.  The legendary Wizz Jones is also pictured (left) with his Epiphone Texan. (Picture courtesy of Renbourn Guitar Workshops) https://www.facebook.com/Renbourn/

*Mike Walker with John Renbourn’s famous Gibson J50 at one of the Renbourn Guitar Workshop annual gatherings in 2016.  John used this guitar in live performance for 10 years from 1966 – 76 and it can be heard on at least 11 of his albums (solo and with Pentangle) https://www.facebook.com/Renbourn/

In memory of those we have lost:
John Renbourn died at his home in Hawick in the Scottish Borders on March 26, 2015, aged 70.
Bert Jansch died in Hampstead, London on October 5, 2011, aged 67
Davey Graham died in London on December 15, 2008, aged 68

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