Lal and Mike Waterson’s uncanny folk rock masterpiece was overlooked for decades. Martin Carthy, Richard Thompson and more draw it back into the light.
IT WAS A NeW DeCADe, AND TO ALL intents and purposes, The Watersons had retired. The rise of this Hull-based family of folk singers had begun in 1964 when Bill Leader, then a 35-year-old record producer working for the Topic label, first heard the quartet, late one Saturday night, performing at the Troubadour in south London. Now 87, Leader remains a storyteller of compelling detail, yet as he recalls first seeing Lal, Mike and Norma Waterson singing on stage with their cousin, John Harrison, he is momentarily lost for words. “They opened their mouths and… this… sound came out,” he says. “The Troubadour [acts] were normally in the American folk camp. My Baby’s Gone Down The Plughole, that sort of thing. The Watersons stood there, with their four-part harmonising, and British rural repertoire and… whammo! This… intensity. They drew you in. You stopped everything.” Leader, who made his recordings in a back room in Camden Square, invited The Watersons to cut five tracks for a Topic compilation called New Voices. Yet it was their next release, 1965’s Frost And Fire, “a Calendar of Ritual And Magical Songs” recorded at the suggestion of musicologist and fellow Topic recording artist A.L. Lloyd, that revolutionised the UK folk scene with its four-part vocal ballads of dance, death, and resurrection, delivered in raw, Northern vernacular. The Watersons released two more LPs on Topic and became a popular touring group; but as glimpsed in the 1966 BBC documentary Travelling For A Living their relentless road work and paucity of remuneration took its toll. The final indignity came with an open mike performance at the Queen’s University Festival in Belfast in 1967, where, says fellow Britfolk herald Martin Carthy, “They were told ‘sing for half an hour, then other people will come up and sing too’. There were bloody hundreds of them.” As Norma Waterson told MOJO’s Colin Harper, “We sat until everybody finished and walked back to our hotel, absolutely shattered, at 9am. We looked at each other and said, ‘What on earth are we doing?’ We decided that night to stop singing.” Following a 1968 farewell tour, John Harrison left the music scene; Mike remained in Hull with his family, working as a painter and decorator; Norma moved to Montserrat with her pirate radio DJ boyfriend and Lal went to live in Leeds with her husband George Knight and their young daughter, Marry. A year later, Lal and family were back in Hull. Lal, who’d trained as a painter and weaver and worked as an heraldic artist, had always written poetr y, but during The Watersons’ retirement she’d begun turning these poems into songs, helped by Anne Briggs and Mike’s sister-inlaw, Chris Collins. “My memories of that time are being sat in front of the fire, and the sound of Drop D on the guitar,” says Marry Waterson today. “Annie and Chris would come by and drink coffee, smoke ciggies and write.” Unbeknownst to Lal, Mike had also been sat at home with his new guitar, working on songs: “Mum said, ‘I’ve been writing these songs!’ Mike said, ‘Snap!’ They were both missing singing.” “It was around 1971 when I first heard those songs,” remembers Martin Carthy. “I’d done a gig in Hull, staying at Lal’s, and in the morning she pulled out her guitar.” Carthy had first met The Watersons in 1961, whilst playing at the family’s folk club in Hull. “I was backstage,” he remembers. “I clapped eyes on this woman, she clapped eyes on me, and that was it.” This was Norma Waterson, then Norma Anderson. “She was married but I wasn’t,” says Carthy. “The next time we met, in 1963, she wasn’t married but I was.” Smitten with Norma, and the family’s music (“Nobody sang like that. Nobody”) Carthy stayed in touch. “Lal’s songs were beautiful,” he remembers. “Very funny, very dark. There was profundity and mystery there, but she had no idea of chords. She’d say, ‘I know what I want, but I can’t play it.’ She’d make something up, and I’d pick out some of the notes, make a chord out of it and play it back to her. If I said Mike’s songs were simpler, that wouldn’t do him justice. I listen now and I’m astounded at [their] complexity and sophistication. Their narrative thread is not copied from tradition. It’s how they wrote. It was in their upbringing.”
AL, MIKe AND NORMA WATeRSON were raised in a musical family. Dad played jazz guitar and banjo, mum sang show tunes, while Uncle Ronnie, who’d played trumpet in the pit bands that accompanied the silent films, taught the siblings about opera. “It was that whole thing,” says Carthy. “everybody makes music, everybody sings. You sang until you couldn’t sing any more, then you sang harmony.” The Watersons lost both parents at an early age. Their mother died on Christmas eve, 1947, following an asthma attack, when the ambulance couldn’t get through the snow. “She suffocated,” says Carthy. “Their dad had a stroke not long afterward, then another that killed him.” Their maternal grandmother, eliza Ward, took the Watersons in, and their home became a 19th century world of music hall and old hymns. The children educated themselves in poetry and philosophy in the local library, looked after by a woman called Thirza, whom eliza had rescued from the local workhouse. “Thirza was stone deaf, four-foot six with a hunched back,” says Carthy. “She slept in a little bed in grandma’s room. It was another world.”
Among the demos Lal and Mike made with Carthy was Lal’s Song For Thirza (“You were brought from the workhouse to live with us/And you named yourself Dog on a very bad day”). “Mum could never get through that song without crying,” says Marry. “That’s why it never ended up on the album. But mum always said, if it hadn’t have been for Martin Carthy, nothing would have been recorded, because she and Mike were just doing these songs for their own pleasure.” “I was in Steeleye Span at the time,” says Carthy, “I explained some of these songs to Ashley Hutchings, from memory. He said, ‘Are they all like that?’ I said, Oh yeah. Well, when Ashley gets an idea, he doesn’t write about it, he makes an album. He said, ‘We’ve got to record this. Let’s get the Fairport lads together.’ Which meant himself on bass, Dave Mattacks on drums and Richard Thompson on guitar.” “I don’t have many attributes,” says Hutchings, “but one is I can make things happen, particularly in recorded form, so although we had material and The Watersons had a name, I knew it needed input from other people.” “I was having a late-night meal with Linda [Thompson] and Martin in the Witches Cauldron in Belsize Park,” remembers Richard Thompson. “And he said, ‘Lal and Mike are writing songs.’ I thought, Wow, that’s really interesting. He started reciting these lyrics [and] I was hooked from that point.” The next thing they needed was a place to record. “Lal, Mike and George Knight were down in London, at my flat in Camden Square,” remembers Bill Leader. “They said, ‘We’ve written these songs.’ They sang them to me and the old hairs on the back of the neck stood up. Lal’s songs were these riddles. There was no riddle at all in Mike’s. But there was a magic in both of them.” In 1969, together with his second wife, Helen, Leader had set up two record labels, Leader and Trailer. “Leader recorded traditional singers and musicians, and Trailer was concerned with folk club artistes,” explains the label’s in-house graphic designer, Janet Kerr. “We were a small company. Bill found the artistes, produced their albums, edited the master tapes and made the tea. Helen dealt with the paperwork, and made the tea. Tea kept us going!” Leader had recently taken over a 2-track studio in the basement of The English Folk Dance And Song Society in Cecil Sharp House, a step-up from the equipment he could usually afford, but a significant step-down for the Fairports.
“Bill was the rock,” says Carthy. “He had this ancient equipment from which he could get phenomenal sound. I have this abiding memory of Dave Mattacks looking at the control desk, saying nothing, then coming back out saying, ‘Best drum sound I’ve ever had. How does he do that?’” Recording began on May 16, 1972. For Lal and Mike this was a new experience, playing with an electric band for the first time. The first song they ran though would become the album’s opener, a sprightly, ironic Mike composition called Rubber Band (“Just like margarine/Our fame is spreading”), that featured Hutchings, Mattacks and Thompson playing alongside the front line of south London’s premier New Orleans jazz aficionado, Sammy Rimington, and backing vocals from Steeleye’s Maddy Prior and Tim Hart, who just happened to be passing on that day. “I remember thinking, This sounds so much like Sgt. Pepper!” says Hutchings today. “Especially Mike’s tracks – Rubber Band, Bright Phoebus, Magical Man.” Like Pepper, Bright Phoebus focused on normal lives in a mythic Britain, somewhere between the village bandstand and the Victorian music hall, the mundane front parlour and the mystical beyond. However, nothing on Pepper quite approached the oddness of Lal’s macabre character vignettes. “You come back to their strangeness,” says Maddy Prior, singling out Never The Same, written in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis. “Lal’s lyrics are abstract, mystical but also incredibly down-to-earth. Very Yorkshire. She was very subtle, underplayed. You didn’t get her so easily. But her tunes were distinctive. Nobody before or since has written anything like them.” “In some ways Lal was a musical naïf,” says Richard Thompson. “She didn’t always know, harmonically, what she was doing. That gave her a tremendous freedom. I think of Lal as a singing Brontë. Absolutely gothic, with a black humour.” Lal’s Child Among The Weeds (written with Chris Collins) mourned the stillbirth, in 1969, of a twin sister to her son Oliver. Lal and Mike’s The Scarecrow touched on human sacrifice. Their strangeness pushed the group to invent new ways of playing, in new combinations. “That was the first time I’d played with Richard,” says Carthy. “Jesus, it was a revelation. I’d sit there and relax, [holding] the tempo, and he wove around it, playing this flawless stuff, then do another flawless take, entirely different.” And yet, by rights, Thompson should probably have sent himself home after that first day. “I had the flu for the whole recording,” he says. “Plus, Bill built these new sheetrock baffles, so I’m also breathing in microparticles of fibreglass, which I’m allergic to. I’m dying, but pretending I’m not. It was too good a record. I had to be there.” A happy union of a different kind occurred on the recording of Red Wine Promises, Lal’s account of a drunken walk home with George Knight, where she attempted to leapfrog a bollard and “fell in the street in a drunken heap… bright water all around me.” Norma Waterson, who’d returned from Montserrat at the end of 1971, was asked by Mike and Lal to sing lead. With just her and Martin in the studio, it quickly became apparent their mutual attraction had remained strong. “Was there a particular electricity on that track?” considers Carthy. “Oh, you can bet your bottom and your dollar on that!” The pair decided they would get married at the end of that week. “It was one of the happiest weeks of my life,” says Norma. “First of all because Lal and Mike were so happy to get those songs out, and because Martin and I started our relationship. It was a week of friends, music, laughter and humour. An absolute joy.” Capturing that sense of celebration – and the weirdness within – Janet Kerr’s sleeve design depicted a chubby-cheeked orangeand-yellow sun against a pale blue sky, its enigmatic grin simultaneously benevolent and sinister. “I was very familiar with the tracks by the time Lal, Mike and I started chatting about sleeve ideas,” says Kerr. “As I see it, I just translated the verbal into the visual. I have no idea what became of the original artwork.” Sadly, the actual album quickly became just as elusive. “As far as I can reconstruct the crime,” says Bill Leader, “we tried to get it out for Christmas but were late, so it was pressed around Christmas and, possibly because the person responsible was down the pub, half the copies were pressed off-centre.”
NOTHER PROBLEM FACING Bright Phoebus was The Watersons’ fan base. “The folk scene was still fairly conservative,” explains Thompson. “They still wanted to hear The Watersons singing sea shanties.” “They thought bass players and electric guitars were a no-no,” says Bill Leader. “Nobody stopped me in the streets and said, ‘Take that you bastard!’ But the press was very cool about it. Plus, it was a crap pressing. It never zinged off the turntable.” “There were rumours of a big tour,” says Marry Waterson, “and doing the South Bank Show with Melvyn Bragg. Then people started saying, ‘Why have you made this album? We want the trad stuff!’ It was a tragedy. A Bob Dylan electric moment. Things just ground to a halt.” With half its 2000 copies pressed offcentre, and only middling press and fan support, the album soon went out of print. Struggling financially, Leader sold his labels to John Zollman of Highway Records, who, in turn, sold them on to Dave Bulmer of Celtic Music. Bulmer’s fascination with Irish fiddle music meant he prioritised those Leadrecordings er over releases such as Bright Phoebus. Yet despite (and because of) its scarcity, Bright Phoebus gradually became a wyrd touchstone for a new generation of ’90s freak-folkers, later accruing such big-name proselytisers as Billy Bragg, Jarvis Cocker, Richard Hawley and Arcade Fire. Then, in 2013, two significant events happened. Dave Bulmer died and Marry Waterson organised the Bright Phoebus Revisited tour, which saw Norma and Marry Waterson, Martin and Eliza Carthy, Kami Thompson and Jarvis Cocker introduce these
beautiful and peculiar songs to a new generation of fans. Now there’s a remastered version of the album coming through Domino. Exactly how Bulmer’s passing facilitated this is, for legal reasons, something all parties are still unwilling to discuss, beyond pointing out that The Watersons have been in possession of the Bright Phoebus master tapes ever since the album was recorded. Neither Lal Waterson, who died of cancer in September 1998 aged 55, nor Mike Waterson, who died in 2011 aged 70, lived long enough to see Bright Phoebus rise again, but, says Marry, “Lal always knew it was good. They both knew they had captured something incredible. I played the test-pressing to Martin and it was lovely. I watched him listening to it, bits where he was smiling, laughing at bits Richard had done, just remembering it all. He had a twinkle in his eye. At the end of it all he just said, ‘That’s how it should have been heard.’”
“They opened their mouths and… whammo! This intensity.They drew you in”: Mike and Lal Waterson, London, 1970.
“We’ve written these songs”: The Watersons Lal (left) and Norma flank cousin John Harrison and Mike, Hull, December 1966; (below) Lal’s too-sad Song For Thirza.
First families of folk: (clockwise from top) The Watersons; Steeleye Span; Richard Thompson; Lal with George Knight and their children Maria (Marry) and Oliver and John Harrison (front); (below) Lal’s lyric for Red Wine Promises.