I used to work with a Maths teacher called Pieter. He entered the teaching profession as a mature teacher, having had a highly successful career in the oil industry. He turned out to be a great guy: he was friendly, humble, very clever and a good communicator. His students liked him and they achieved good results. However, early impressions were misleading and most of his colleagues took against him. At an early meeting, he argued vociferously against most of the other teachers. He spoke his mind, politely, but without fear of upsetting his colleagues. It transpired that in his previous job, everyone was expected to be assertive during meetings which allowed the manager to listen to differing points of view before coming to a decision. In the more rarified air of a teachers’ meeting, expectations were that the group would come to a consensus and agree amongst themselves. When the different cultures were explained to Pieter, he was quick to explain, to understand and to modify his approach to meetings.
What is more attractive? Someone who speaks their mind, honestly and without compromise? Or someone who is sweetly charming but probably a little insincere? In the end, we all respected Pieter for his commitment and courage to express himself in the way that he felt most comfortable with.
The recent Villagers album starts with some very tuneless playing and bizarre singing from Conor O’Brien. The album is good but the opening few minutes are uncompromising and don’t fit into the Spotify-suggested-formula of grabbing the listener’s attention in the first thirty seconds. It’s an impressively uncompromising start. By contrast the opening song on the new Big Red Machine album is gentle, tuneful and immediately makes me want to hear more. The more challenging songs come later.
I’m not really in favour of someone apologising for being rude by explaining that they “tell it like it is” but I’m always a bit suspicious of an over-the-too charming smooth talker. To use a cliche, the best things in life need to be worked at, whether it’s getting to know someone or getting “into” an album.
In the late Sixties/early Seventies, I was more prepared to listen to music that I found initially quite difficult to listen to. The most extreme examples would be “Astral Weeks” by Van Morrison, “Starsailor” by Tim Buckley and “The Least We Could Do Is Wave To Each Other” by Van Der Graaf Generator. None of these are an easy listen but over hundreds (if not thousands) of listens, I grew to love them and still do.
I think the same is true of much “progressive” music from that time. A lot of albums were uncompromising, with the artists having a vision of their music which they knew might be initially difficult to like but they knew would reward careful listening. Not every album can be as initially charming as “Deja Vu”. Now, I love the first minute of “Job’s Tears” from The Incredible String Band’s “Wee Tam”, but the first time I heard Robin Williamson’s tuneless warble, I thought “what the hell is this?”
I felt the same about a week ago when I heard the opening notes of “Soldiers Three” from Trees’ second (and last) album, “On The Shore”. The harmonies are not sweet and the numerous key changes make it a demanding listen. Having listened to it a lot, I like it, and maybe the difficult journey to familiarise myself with it makes the arrival point even more pleasurable.
To flog this analogy beyond the limits of interest, whereas listening to a Kate Rusby album is similar to a conversation with a charming but possibly unemotional friend and listening to “Metal Machine Music” is like putting up with the ramblings of a madman, the best progressive music is getting to know someone who is inherently very interesting, if a little offhand at first meeting. The sort of person who, in later life, is sure of their opinions, likes to talk a lot and refuses to let anyone else get a word in. As a younger person, progressive music was interesting and liked you to get involved. In their old age, prog rock drones on and on and, in the end, is a bore. A bit like an album by Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
Sam Costa was a radio personality in the Fifties. I’m not sure there are too many radio personalities these days when TV reality shows create instant fame, but his performances on “Much Binding In The Marsh” (alongside Kenneth Horne and Richard Murdoch) and his work as a Radio Luxembourg DJ makes the nomenclature appropriate. His son, David Costa became a freelance graphic designer and was responsible for many album covers including “Cloud Nine” by George Harrison, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” by Elton John, “A Night At The Opera” by Queen and many other albums. Before his move into graphic design, David Costa played acoustic guitar with Trees.
Tobias (“Bias“) Boshell co-wrote “I’ve Got The Music In Me” for Kiki Dee in 1974, played with Barclay James Harvest in the early Eighties and became a full time member of The Moody Blues between 1991 and 2001. Before that, he was the bass guitarist and songwriter for Trees.
David Costa was studying Fine Art at The University of East Anglia in 1969 when a friend introduced him to Barry Clark, who was working in an advertising agency. They got their guitars out, started playing and never returned to studying or working, deciding to form a band with Barry Clark on lead guitar. Barry Clark was, at the time, sharing a house with Bias Boshell and he was invited to join the band. He, in turn, had been at Bedales School with drummer Stephen (“Unwin”) Brown and, thus, the male core of the band was formed. The band was completed when David Costa invited Celia Humphris, the sister of one of his friends, to audition for the band as lead vocalist. She was enjoying her studies at Drama School and had never heard any of the songs by The Incredible String Band that they asked her to sing so she sung “Summertime”. As she left the audition she had no interest in joining the band but changed her mind overnight.
As a 15 year old, hanging around folk clubs in Hampstead, David Costa became friendly with Martin Carthy and he developed a fascination for British folk songs, as interpreted by American musicians. He said “When the received tradition becomes convoluted, it folds over itself so many times that you get surreal, distorted lyrics and wonderful aural accidents, simply as a result of muddled hearing”.
This distillation and synthesis of separate elements of folk music led to a distinctive sound that was well suited to Celia Humphris’ voice. She said “I certainly wasn’t a folk fan but the music suited my vocal limitations. I had trained as an opera singer and I totally passed off my singing teacher when I joined Trees. ‘Two years wasted’ she said. I’d have loved to sing blues or jazz but I had too light a voice”.
Cyril Tawney was born in Gosport, Hampshire in 1930 and joined The Royal Navy, aged 16. He served on submarines for 13 years. He became increasingly aware of a feeling growing within him that he was destined to be a poet and he started reading poetry, including W. H. Auden’s “Roman Wall Blues”, written as a soliloquy by a Roman soldier on a lonely vigil at Hadrian’s Wall. Cyril Tawney felt that the structure of the poem was similar to a 12-bar blues. Walking to walk, early one morning, he was reminded of the opening scene of a film he had just seen called “On The Town”. A crane driver arrives at a deserted shipyard and slowly sings “I feel like I ain’t out of bed yet.” He felt an urge to write a poem and by the time he reached the submarine, “Sally Free And Easy” was written. He had remembered a girl named Sally who had “two-timed” him when he was stationed in Gibraltar.
John Lomax was an American musicologist who collected hundreds of American folk songs. His son, Alan Lomax followed in his father’s tradition but was blacklisted by The House Of Un-American Activities and moved to the U.K. Between 1953 and 1958, he was responsible for a BBC radio programme called “As I Roved Out” which showcased the folk songs that he (and others) had collected. Cyril Tawney was greatly inspired by listening to this programme and in 1957, he visited Cecil Sharp House where he met radio producer Charles Parker. Cecil Tawney made his radio debut on Christmas Day 1957 on another Alan Lomax programme called “Sing Christmas”. He made his TV debut the following Easter, left The Navy and had a long and successful career, writing and singing until his death in 2005.
The last paragraph encapsulates much of the originality of Trees. Cecil Sharp House is named after the renowned collector of British folk songs and Cyril Tawney was inspired to visit it after listening to Alan Lomax, a collector of American folk songs. Trees’ cover of Cyril Tawney’s best known song, “Sally Free And Easy” is the best song on their fantastic second album and illustrates a unique blending of American and British folk, set in an early Seventies progressive music setting.
Trees’ version of “Sally Free And Easy” begins with a rolling piano introduction played by Bias Boshell. As Celia Humphris begins to sing quietly, David Costa’s tremolo guitar playing creates an intense mood of foreboding. Tony Cox, producer of the album plays bass and Unwin Brown’s drumming is typically inventive. After two verses, the pace increases for an instrumental section in which Barry Clark’s guitar showcases the influence of raga rock. When Celia Humphris begins to sing wordlessly and Buss Boshell’s piano playing merges with the guitar, the sound is genuinely progressive. A contemporary review by Karl Dallas described Trees as a band where everyone was playing the lead and although that could make a messy sound, it doesn’t; in fact, it is exactly why this song is so interesting and never fails to delight. Celia Humphris described her singing as “the fifth lead instrument”. David Costa recalled how the song was recorded in just one take. “None of us expected ‘Sally Free And Easy’ to happen the way it did and it took the wind out of our sails. We couldn’t quite believe what we were doing but we knew it was a defining moment”. This was the first time the band had ever played the song. David Costa had seen Cyril Tawney perform the song in a club and, having listened to his explanation of how the song was recorded, believed that the tremolo was representative of the hum of a submarine. He was unable to maintain the tremolo throughout the song because his fingers were sore and thus the band increased the tempo. The recording was made at 5:00 a.m. and when it was finished Celia Humphris tried another vocal. They couldn’t decide which was better so they merged the two versions, sometimes doubled tracked, sometimes harmonising and sometimes simply overlapping.
The song was also covered by Marianne Faithfull, Carolyn Hester, Davy Graham, The Corries, Alan Stivell and Pentangle.
Richard Thompson’s guitar playing style is evident throughout the album. Throughout Fairport Convention’s ‘Liege And Lief’, his “pick and finger” technique (playing bass notes and rhythm with a pick and melody with his fingers) provided a unique sound that was quickly adopted by many other guitar players including Barry Clark. Another influence on Trees was the song “Bluebird” by The Buffalo Springfield which was one of the first songs to illustrate how acoustic and electric guitars could combine. This is evident on “Streets Of Derry”, an eight minute epic that was probably first heard by the band on Shirley Collins’ 1967 album, “The Sweet Primroses”. It is Roud song 896 (Roud is a folk song database of 25000 English language songs from all over the world, compiled by Steve Roud and is available through the website of The English Folk And Dance Society, co-founded by Cecil Sharp and based at Cecil Sharp House). Celia Humphris once fell asleep on stage during the long instrumental passage of “Streets Of Derry”. She had taken to lying on the floor because a teacher at Wellington College Boys School had previously complained that her practice of turning her back on the audience and wiggling her bum was “distracting” the boys.
“Murdoch” was written by Bias Boshell who, at the time, was obsessed with the sound of the lyrics of a song rather than their literal meaning. An acoustic guitar strums the introduction and Celia Humphris’ pure voice sings the first verse beautifully. An electric guitar, clearly influenced by Richard Thompson’s playing on “Tam Lin”, adds texture. The melody of the chorus involves lots of key changes which, at first, are distracting but the double tracked lead vocals come into their own in the glorious coda when two guitars, drums and vocals integrate to create a spectacular climax.
“While The Iron Is Hot” was written by Bias Boshell about The Tolpuddle Martyrs. The verses sound similar to Steeleye Span but they bookend an exciting dramatic electric guitar solo from Barry Clark. Bias Boshell regrets a mistake in the words where the events of 1819 were described as happening in 1890.
Adam de la Halle was a 13th century French poet and musician and Trees learned “Adam’s Toon” from a book of medieval music. By contrast, “Fool” was co-written by Bias Boshell and David Costa. Neither of the composers had any idea who “Oswald The Smith” was, even though the fact that he “has not returned” appears to be significant.
Gnarls Barkley is an American soul duo consisting of singer-songwriter CeeLo Green (Thomas Calloway) and producer Danger Mouse (Brian Burton). In 2006, their song, “Crazy” reached Number One in the U.K. charts. The parent album, “St. Elsewhere” also reached Number One and the title track included a sample of “Geordie” from “On The Shore”. Every member of Trees (apart from Bias Boshell (not sure why?)) gets a writing credit. “Geordie” is another Roud song and was also included in the Child anthology (305 traditional English and Scottish songs collected by Francis Child in the 19th century). The song’s origins are difficult to pinpoint but what is clear is that the protagonist and the story have been modified by many different singers over, possibly, 400 years. Trees’ version starts in a traditional folk-rock oeuvre, as if taken from a Fairport Convention album but the groove that develops after two and a half minutes is chilled out and, presumably, perfect for a Twentieth Century soul song.
The closing song, “Polly On The Shore” is magnificent. It was collected by Vaughan Williams in 1905 from a sexton in Kings Lynn and has been covered by Martin Carthy, Shirley & Dolly Collins and Cyril Tawney. Trevor Lucas sung it on Fairport Convention’s “Nine” album in 1973 and it has been described as his finest moment. The lyrics concern a sailor who was pressed into service in the Navy who, as he lies dying after a battle, dreams of his love, Polly. The Trees version is more folk-rock than progressive folk with beautiful singing from Celia Humphris and it is concluded with a wild electric guitar solo from Barry Clark.
Trees only recorded two albums. The first, “The Garden Of Jane Delaney”, was described by Bias Boshell (referencing William Blake) as their “Songs Of Innocence”, whereas “On The Shore” is a collection of their “Songs Of Experience”.
Tony Meehan was a member of The Shadows between 1959 and 1961, playing on early Cliff Richard’s’ singles as well as “Apache” and “FBI”. In 1961, he left the band to work as a producer at Decca records. On January 1st 1962, he produced 15 songs by an unknown group from Liverpool. They were later rejected by Dick Rowe who preferred The Tremeloes. Tony Meehan later married and had seven children. One of them, Katie Meehan, appears on the front cover of “On The Shore”, dressed as a Victorian girl and photographed at The Pergola and Hill Garden in Hampstead Heath. The sleeve was designed by Storm Thorgerson, who designed every Pink Floyd album cover as well as albums by Paul McCartney, Led Zeppelin, Genesis, ELO, 10cc, Yes and hundreds more.
Tony Cox produced the album and he went on to produce albums by Yes, Caravan, Renaissance and Family. He later married singer Lesley Duncan and in the mid Nineties they moved to The Isle Of Mull.
Vic Gramm engineered the album and he had previously worked with Dr. Strangely Strange, Jethro Tull, Steeleye Span and Shelagh MacDonald.
Celia Humphris’ married DJ Pete Drummond and worked as a voice over artist for chocolate commercials. You can hear her any time you travel on the Northern Line in London as she advises you to “mind the gap”.
The gap between progressive rock music and prog rock is similar to the gap between a raconteur and a pub bore. “On The Shore” is a great example of the former and, despite playing it non stop for a week, I’m confident that it’s a classic.