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

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sending me the link to this Stuart, I'm just re-reading it at 4.30 a.m. having woken up in the 1960s! I read it just before I went to bed and then had a vivid dream about a party involving the young John Renbourn. It didn't follow this account however ... this notwithstanding that I was 'the Promoter' of the gig you recount here. That is to say I was the founder, M.C. and resident both as a solo artist and with my band back then. This would have been the second time John played at The Barley Mow whereby we became very good friends and I was lucky enough to tour with him here and abroad. The 'Promoter' you refer to was the guy doing the door for me who went on to run the club until the 90s I think, one Roy Mason. It was his house where the party took place though it's unlikely he invited you as he wasn't too pleased with the number of people who turned up or the Bacchanalian reverie you describe, being somewhat 'straight' himself. He was particularly put out by the nude poetry recitation which I would surmise with confidence to have been by Billy Taylor, a wild, eccentric character who became something of a legend locally before his untimely - but entirely characteristic - death in the 70s. I say 'surmise' as at that point I was involved in the sort of liaison you described witnessing with John in the spare bedroom. I though was having to make do with the bench seat of the Band's Bedford Workabus parked outside. I'll write more later after having given it some thought and maybe add some other anecdotes about the times I spent with john down the years. As you discovered in tracking me down, the club continues to this day, though has moved venue numerous times and fairly recently my younger Brother Geoff became custodian. Afters parties now though are rare I believe and considerably more civilised when they do occur! I'm happy to answer any questions you may have also about the night in question.


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