BRIGHT PHOEBUS

Mojo (UK) - - Contents -

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.

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