Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Britain's "Electric Eden"

THE best of it still sounds as fresh as the day its long-haired practitioners pulled out their mandolins and plugged in the amps: British folk rock is one of the great unsung stories, at least in this country. The new book, Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music, gets at the movement's greatest musicians -- Vashti Bunyan, Richard Thompson, Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, Bert Jansch, Anne Briggs, many others -- and connects them to currents deep in British literary and cultural life, including the resistance to industry, the flight to the landscape and the search for a distinctively British (and sometimes pre-Christian) culture.

HERE is my LA Times interview with author Rob Young, former editor of Wired magazine and clearly a major Brit-folk obsessive. He was inspired to write about music by Revolution in the Head's Ian MacDonald's book on Shostakovich and sees the aim of music writing as deciphering cultural codes.

This is a wonderful and well-researched book, though like the music it chronicles, it rambles a bit. It's hard to imagine an American publisher allowing this much backstory -- William Morris, Holst, druids, etc. (The book is put out by FSG in this country but is primarily a reprint of a Faber and Faber book published previously in the UK.)

And while this was not the book's primary goal -- which was to chart the late '60s/early '70s heyday of British folk rock -- I would have liked to see a bit more on the contemporary scene. Gen X West Coast artists in particular -- Stephen Malkmus, The Decemberists, Joanna Newsom, Devendra Banhart -- have been voracious at consuming and reviving this stuff otherwise ignored by the marketplace. (It recalls to me the way Boomer musicians both in Britain and America helped bring black blues figures -- Lonnie Johnson, Son House, Mississippi John Hurt -- back into the light in the '60s.) 

Here are some bits from my conversation with Young that did not make it into my Times piece:

Which recordings or artists from the classic period seem to hold up best?
I guess that's a cue for some of my personal favorites. If you allow that the classic period is 1969–72, which I call the Indian summer of folk-rock, then I'd have to mention Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left, Incredible String Band’s Wee Tam And The Big Huge, Fairport Convention's Liege And Lief, John Martyn’s Bless The Weather and Sandy Denny's The North Star Grassman And The Ravens. 
All very different: Drake is Romantic in the original sense, and his "River Man" is a haunting and supernatural vision, with the ghostly string arrangements of Harry Robinson. Martyn is ecstatic and almost funky, using his Echoplexed acoustic guitar for the first time in scintillating patterns. Fairport's album is one of the cornerstones of modern English folk, with rocked-up ballads and wistful, melancholic songs written in a traditional idiom. 
ISB are on a personal quest, and their album pulls in all kinds of ethnic and exotic instruments in a panoply of world religions and spirit codes. Denny's LP is loaded with omens and her songs are autumnal, washed by the unruly sea of fortune. I could have chosen many more but this is a radiant selection that couldn't have come from anywhere else but Britain. 
The Incredible String Band
Where can we hear the legacy of this period in contemporary music? Did it leave any traces in mainstream – or not so mainstream – culture or thinking in Britain or the States?
Well, I hear it in all sorts of unexpected places -- the weirder side of Kate Bush, the pulverising, organic avant rock of late Talk Talk, even the uncanny electronic reveries of Boards of Canada. But this is not too much about the folk tradition any more, more a shared set of sensibilities that tap into the complex British relationship with the landscape, with memory and nostalgia, the constant longing to reconnect with a more innocent age. 
Interestingly, the musicians who I find most convincingly replicate the sound world of classic folk-rock tend to be Americans -- Joanna Newson, Devendra Banhart, Espers, Matt Valentine's various projects... There seems to be an empathy in musical terms there – whereas it's hard to find current British folk music that doesn't sound trite, but which preserves some of the mystery, the occult presences that the best folk contains. 


Pete Bilderback said...

I've been listening to a lot of British Folk in anticipation of reading this book later this month.

Britain produced a lot of wonderful folk/folk-rock music in the late 60s and early 70s: Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and Pentangle are among the best remembered.

The music of The Incredible String Band is very difficult to approach, but still rewarding. There are also many nearly forgotten acts like Dr. Strangely Strange, Trees, Forest, that perhaps don't hold up as well as the music of Nick Drake or Fairport, but are still serve as a weird and wonderful time capsule of the period.

I'm really looking forward to reading the book, and I appreciate that there is so much back story included. I think that, as an American, a lot of things about the music of Britain, and especially music that draws on the island's distant past, is really mysterious, and also easy to misunderstand.

I do think to really understand the music of ISB or Fairport, you have to consider Britain's long history and rich mythic tradition, as well as the reality of what life was like in industrialized Britain in the 19th and 20th Centuries (largely depressing).

Thanks for raising the profile of this book. Your coverage of it was much, much more intelligent than the piece that showed up in the NYTimes written by Bill Wyman (not the Stone).

Scott Timberg said...

Thanks Pete... Those other bands you mentioned are well covered in this book -- it's nothing if not complete. And Young makes those connections to the mythic tradition, etc, quite well.

The music of Richard Thompson and to some extent Fairport hit me hard as an American suburban teenager in the mid-80s, heard on the radio in between Elvis Costello and R.E.M. But living in England certainly deepened my understanding of it, and allowed me to dig people like Bert Jansch and the gloomy Mr. Drake.

Still, I continue to have trouble really connecting with the Incredible String Band.