Tag Archives: Dave Mattacks

Watching The Dark

15 Jan


With hundreds of thousands of  bad compilation albums out there, it’s easy to forget that there are some good ones too. I suppose the advent of iTunes and shuffle buttons mean that fewer people care about listening to tracks in the sequence the artist intended them to be heard – and certainly a lot of compilations are thrown together, seemingly at random. This one is an exception: A triple-CD collection of  tracks recorded by Richard Thompson  between 1969 and 1992. It was compiled (actually, I’d prefer to say curated) by long-time Thompson enthusiast Edward Haber and issued in 1993 on Hannibal Records (HNCD 5303), the label set up by Joe Boyd who had produced many of Thompson’s finest recordings over that period. It was also pulled together with the artist’s full involvement.

In more recent years Thompson has been the subject of two substantive box sets.  (Plus a double album anthology of his period with Capitol Records (Action Packed)). There’s  RT: The Life and Music of Richard Thompson, a mammoth 5 CD + book collection produced by Free Reed in 2006 and a 4 CD retrospective, Walking on a Wire put out by Shout! Factory in 2009) but this was the first real anthology (although Island records issued a double album of live tracks and rarities in 1976 when Thompson had left the music business for a while to live in an Islamic commune). Listening to this again though, I think it may be the best of the whole bunch.

The first thing to note about Watching the Dark is what good value it is. Each of the three discs contains more  than 70 minutes of music and of the 47 tracks, only half (24 if you’re pedantic) were available at the time of issue. The remainder are a mixture of  live versions of songs, re-mixes, wholly unreleased or unavailable material. The package also includes a carefully compiled and expensively-produced colour booklet. While not including song lyrics this does provide details of the source of each recording (studio or venue) and every musician plus a thoughtful essay on Richard Thompson’s career to the date this collection appeared.

The next thing to note is how the project is sequenced – which us unusual but works surprisingly well. Instead of attempting to ‘theme’ the material or simply present it chronologically, Haber groups the tracks into two or three year periods (1978-80,  1972-73 and so on) but then spreads it about (so three tracks from Thompson’s Fairport Convention period are in the middle of disc 1 while three from his  first solo album are on disc three while the five most recent songs of all are in the middle of disc 2.  I can’t work out why this works so well – but it does! Another thing I found impressive was that Haber didn’t feel the need to represent all of Richard Thompson’s side projects. This means that although the French, Frith, Kaiser, Thompson collaboration is featured (‘Bird in God’s Garden/Lost and Found’) there’s nothing from other ensemble albums like Morris On, Rock On or Saturday Rolling Around.

Finally, there’s the music. The five LP’s worth of songs recorded with his former wife Linda Thompson form fifteen of the tracks here – and for me they’re among the most outstanding (‘Withered and Died’ and ‘Strange Affair’  are certainly in my top-ten Richard and Linda favourites! Interesting too are three songs which were released on the Shoot Out The Lights album (‘For Shame of Doing Wrong’, ‘Backstreet Slide’ and ‘The Wrong Heartbeat’)  but which are represented here in earlier versions produced by Gerry Rafferty and Hugh Murphy for an album which Richard Thompson vetoed because he hated the production.  I think they’re rather good though, although the sound is rather ‘lusher’ than I would have associated with Thompson at this time.

Also well-represented are live tracks from the Richard Thompson Big Band which, for a while, included Clive Gregson and Christine Collister (who were making their own albums as a duo around this time). A later female vocalist who was part of the band for a while and who is represented here is Shawn Colvin.  Others featured include Pete Zorn, John Kirkpatrick, Simon Nicol as well as past and present Fairport Convention drummers Dave Mattacks and Gerry Conway.

In the mix too are some solo performances – including a handful of acoustic guitar versions of traditional tunes.

All in all, it’s a really impressive collection and worth commending. Although it’s not cheap, even on Amazon, it shows that decent compilations are worth buying if they’ve been compiled with care and attention to detail (unlike those which appear without even crediting the artists, producers and engineers whose work is represented).


Hark! The Village Wait

20 Oct


From 1970 comes the debut recording of Steeleye Span. My vinyl copy is on the original RCA label but my CD is  a 1991 re-issue on the Mooncrest label (CRESTCD 003) with a different cover to the one shown here but a helpful sleevenote by John Tobler.

Formed by bass player Ashley Hutchings after he’d left Fairport Convention, the rest of the original line-up (which split-up pretty much on completing this recording and never toured) comprised two duos: From England these were Maddy Prior and the late Tim Hart (who’d made a couple of acoustic folk albums) and, from Ireland, Terry Woods (lately of Sweeney’s Men) and his wife Gay Woods.  This line-up lacked a drummer (a bit of shortcoming if the project was to make a folk-rock album) so they used two guests to fill-in as required – Dave Mattacks and Gerry Conway – hardly a surprise to anyone familiar with this genre!

There are twelve tracks, all credited to ‘traditional’ (although the opening ‘A Calling-On Song’ was adapted by Hutchings and the lyrics to ‘Fisherman’s Wife’ are by Ewan MacColl). And the sound is much, much, ‘folkier’ than Mr Hutchings’ previous  recording (Fairport’s ‘Liege and Lief’) with banjo and dulcimer high in the mix.

Although some sound very much ‘of their time’, this is a remarkable album – rather unlike anything else, including most of Steeleye’s subsequent recordings (indeed the band’s second album included a totally different version of track two ‘The Blacksmith’).

The standout tracks for me are track three (‘Fisherman’s Wife’) driven by Gay Woods’ autoharp and combining the two women’s voices really well; track five,  ‘Dark Eyed Sailor’ (same mix of voices plus Gay Woods’ concertina) which was adapted pretty much straight by June Tabor and the Oyster Band (see this blog 13 October) ; and track 10 (‘Lowlands of Holland’) which benefits from great drumming by Dave Mattacks.

The rest aren’t bad either: (Richard Thompson borrowed the version of ‘Blackleg Miner’ for his ‘1,000 Years of Popular Music’ project and Maddy Prior’s vocal on ‘All Things Are Quite Silent’, which has a great rock rhythm section backing courtesy of Hutchings and Conway) is outstanding.

If you’re too young not to have been there first time round, I’d urge you to track this down – especially if you only know Steeleye Span through their pop-influenced period. This was a different band, a more delicate sound and great music.

Strict Tempo!

21 Jun

Strict Tempo

In 1981 Richard Thompson was out of contract with a record label so he formed his own, Elixir Records, and put this collection of “Traditional & Modern Tunes For All Occasions!!” out himself. He explained to his biographer, Patrick Humphries “…it was a remarkably cheap record – about £800 or something – I think we recouped it within hours of release. I think we’d actually driven round to HMV in Oxford Street and recouped! Delivered our own records!”

It is Mr Thompson’s only all-instrumental collection to date and consists of 12 tracks, all credited as ‘traditional, arranged Richard Thompson’,with the exception of Duke Ellington’s ‘Rockin’ in Rhythm’. In addition all the instruments are played by Thompson and Dave Mattacks who is credited with “drums, percussion and piano on ‘Ye Banks and Braes’.

It goes without question that Richard Thompson’s guitar playing – both acoustic and electric is exceptional and this album has the bonus of hearing him play bass, harmonium, mandolin, banjo, hammer dulcimer and even penny-whistle! As I write this I’m listening to the mixture of styles he handles effortlessly – not just polkas, jigs and reels but early music, north African -influenced music and of course the single-handed cover of the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

Although Elixir never released another item, it can be seen as a remarkable success since Strict Tempo! has been licensed repeatedly. In addition to the original vinyl I have one such CD re-issue, from 1981 on the American label Carthage (catalogue CGCD4409),whose logo appears top right on the front cover. Interestingly the actual disc also bears the logo of Hannibal records, to which Richard signed for his next few releases.  There are also pressings out there with a different cover – but the quirky original is part of the charm of this collection

Morris On

28 May


I first bought this on vinyl on Island Records’ budget HELP label for something like £1.49 in 1974, a couple of years after it first appeared. My current copy is a CD on the boutique Fledg’ling label (FLED3037). I got it largely because it featured three former members of  the ground-breaking ‘Liege and Leif’ line-up of Fairport Convention (Ashley Hutchings, Richard Thompson and Dave Mattacks) along with a couple of others, (Barry Dransfield and John Kirkpatrick) who I didn’t know at the time. This album was also the first time I heard the great English traditional singer Shirley Collins (credited as Shirley Hutchings because she was, at the time, married to Ashley) who provided vocals on a couple of tracks.

In its own way ‘Morris On’  is no less remarkable than ‘Liege and Lief’ because what Ashley Hutchings did (and while the album is credited to all five principals, it was Hutchings who assembled them and put the project together). This was to record twelve traditional morris dance tunes using their traditional accompaniment of fiddle and concertina supplemented by a rock trio of  electric guitar, bass and drums. This sounds pretty simple now – but nobody had ever thought of it in 1972 and it worked surprisingly well! Morris dancing – and the music that supported it was, at the time,  deeply unfashionable – but this project exposed it to a rock audience. While it  didn’t make it fashionable, it did help kick it out of a reverential, respectful  ‘preservationist’  men-only custom into a  more open and enjoyable revival of the tradition which continues to this day!

For readers outside the UK it may be necessary to explain that morris dancing is a traditional English custom, going back at least to the 15th century, in which men (and back then,  it WAS just blokes), drink beer in between undertaking formation ensemble dances – generally in the open air. They are often dressed in white, sometimes wear bells on their knees and wave white handkerchiefs or large cudgels or swords, depending on local tradition.  Some sides also perform with blacked-up faces – although since the custom goes back way before Britain became multi-cultural, there are no modern racist connotations). The word ‘morris’ appears to be derived from ‘Moorish’ and may relate to  the expulsion of the Moors from Spain in the 15th century.

The players sound like they had a great time – it’s energetic, exuberant, good-humoured and slightly eccentric. The tunes chosen are deeply evocative of rural England and the recording was done ‘as live’ – which gives it a homespun sound – complete with false starts. They even brought in a morris side to perform a couple of stick dances as the tape rolled.

Pretty much every time I play this I end up smiling and humming along!