It seems odd to review an L.p. first released in 1972, but hey, this is new to me, so it may be new to you too. Or you may have been trying to decide to get it or not since 1972 and this just might make up your mind.
I first ran into Lal and Mike Waterson’s own song writing and output as a result of listening to the Anne Briggs’s ‘classic’ L.p. ‘The Time Has Come’, which features a recorded version of ‘Fine Horseman’ by Lal Waterson. ‘Fine Horseman’ is a sublimely poetic song populated by Hardy’esque imagery and it had me intrigued in seconds. Then, when quite by chance I happened upon a re-release of ‘Bright Phoebus’ the 1972 L.p. by Lal and Mike Waterson (and others) which contained Lal singing her own version of this, the song she had penned, I just had to pick it up.
As a brief background, Anne Briggs was sometimes known as the honorary fifth Waterson of the Watersons, a British group of folks singers mostly (during its original tenure) from the same family, one that virtually defined traditional unaccompanied folk song tradition in the folk clubs of Great Britain during the British Folk Revival of the earlier 1960s. What many now lovingly refer to the ‘Wax on me finger’, or ‘Finger in the ear’ genre of folk. (Actually that’s a lie, but they might do for all its urgent self righteousness)
The L.p. has already seen two or three re-issues on c.d. and vinyl and was for a time an underground classic, passed between devotees on ropey self duplicated tape cassettes. This issue from 2017 sees Domino Recording Co Ltd re-issue it on REWIGLP102 in a gatefold format with a good quality booklet and sleeve notes, telling the story of Lal and Mike’s development from members of the traditional singing group into songwriters, and the story of this L.p.’s recording.
The album initially gained rave reviews in much of the music press, but simultaneously alienated stick in the mud brigades of ‘don’t you mess with our traditional music’ fans (who had lots of wax stuck on their fingers, and fingers in ears), which slowed acceptance and sales. The L.p. crept into collective memory and slept on the back shelves of old dusty record stores. However it has since become a wonderful example of musical creation and invention and of the power of musical Art to conquer ears and stupidity over time.
In my mind the album links the Watersons traditionally bound unaccompanied singing style, and that school, with the development of Folk Rock by those such as Fairport Convention. I think it little surprise that Richard Thompson, Ashley Hutchings, Dave Mattacks, Tim Hart and Maddy Prior are all helping out in various ways on ‘Bright Phoebus’, it makes perfect sense. Sticking the two together with guitar glue is Martin Carthy. Having redefined English Folk music by translating it to an instrument not traditionally used for it, he’s the all too important chain link in the album’s musical integrity I believe. Richard Thompson will I believe always be a Rock guitarist who got interested in Folk, not a Folk guitarist who has dabbled with Rock; and so it is Carthy that translates what Lal and Mike Waterson are trying to do here into something we can all ‘get’.
So I’ve alluded to some of the collective that combined to produce the music on this L.p., but what about the songs? As usual it’s such a personal thing, what a song means to any person that I am loathe to impose my opinion on you the potential listener and would much rather you shelled out your hard-earned moolah for a copy, and made your own mind up. However one thing is certain, they are dark in the main, mystery laden, intangible, phantom like songs. You expect the Hound of the Baskervilles to howl on backing vocals, you can hear the creak of the Reddle man’s wagon through the marsh mist rising from the ground as you drop the needle. The rain drizzles onto the stone Church’s boundary walls it dusts onto the heart’s tongue ferns and into the grooves of the record, hope dies, and in the morning sun, is reborn.