Former Fairport Convention singer Judy Dyble and record-producer Marc Swordfish have teamed up. The results are quite surprising!
If you remember the Sixties, then you weren’t there, or so they say. For those who do remember that decade, it was an unsurpassed musical extravaganza, an era during which imagination and invention were given free rein, a time when the rules were not so much broken as shattered, an alchemical period when new and old fused into new and untried musical forms. Some of those forms still resonate down the years, giving inspiration and impetus to today’s new generation of musicians for whom genres are mere labels to be cast into the dustbin of musicological history.
Among those bands for whom music was an unmapped territory with no known borders was Fairport Convention. The band in their early days drew widely from folk, blues, rock and country and numbered among their sources American singer-songwriters such Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Richard Fariña. An example of the Fairport treatment of the latter’s ‘Reno, Nevada’ is to be seen the recent video-biography of Richard Thompson by Paul Bernays in which Thompson’s astonishing guitar solo crosses the border between rock and jazz. But then Fairport didn’t need any musical passports. They were busy discovering new lands.
In those early days, this eclectic group of pioneers was fronted by a slight and slender lady by the name of Judy Dyble. Judy (or Jude, as she prefers to be known) was born in North London and grew up among the lads and lasses of the Muswell Hill musical intelligentsia who might one night be seen nodding their long-haired heads at a John Cage concert and the next be singing traditional songs in a smoky folk club in the upstairs room of a pub. The folk revival was in full swing and Jude’s first major public appearance was in 1964 with a Seekers look-a-like band – Judy and The Folkmen – at a candlelight soirée in the august premises of the Hornsey Conservative Association. In the heady summer of 1967, Jude, her brother Stephen and Richard Thompson, all heavily under the influence of John Cage, recorded a weird session in the Dybles’ front room, using open piano strings, recorders and a copper watering-can. Their backing musician was Jude’s mum – on sewing machine. The results were…strange.
Jude recorded one single with Fairport (‘If I Had A Ribbon Bow’) and the band’s eponymously titled first album, released in June 1968, on which Jude played piano, recorder and autoharp, a then somewhat uncommon instrument in the world of rock music. Before the LP was in the shops, Jude had left the band and was soon to join Giles, Giles and Fripp. The offspring of that happy union long remained hidden from the eyes and ears of the world, until Pete Giles gathered together the surviving tapes and issued them as “The Brondesbury Tapes” in 2001, an album which goes to show that if a thing’s worth waiting for, it’s worth waiting a long time for. Jude features on a number of tracks, including the folky ‘Under The Sky’, the jazzy ‘Make It Today’ and a classic track, ‘I Talk to the Wind’, that later appeared as a King Crimson number on “AYoung Person’s Guide To King Crimson”.
After the near-launch of a band with her friend Roberta, married for a while to Simon Nicol, Jude started a new venture in the form of Trader Horne, a band which she formed with Irish musician Jackie McAuley, a sometime member of Van Morrison’s band, Them. A few gigs, a few TV appearances, and Trader Horne then vanished into the history books, leaving one excellent if under-rated album, “Morning Way”, twice re-released on CD in a more appreciative era. Like Fairport Convention, Trader Horne drew on many sources and influences, took them, re-moulded them and stamped them with their own distinctive character. On the album you will find folk, blues, Elizabethan harpsichord music, baroque and much, much more, each track weaving around some well-known genre and then giving it a cheeky if respectful twist to make it something quite new and quite different. Jude is not a lady to be confined, contained or catalogued.
In the period between the 70s and the early 80s, Jude worked with her husband, Simon Stable, on their tape-duplication business in Oxfordshire, producing everything from cassettes for examination boards to radio commercials. One of these was a remarkable advertisement for Mirror Master chrome cassettes, on which Jude sang a version of ‘Amazing Grace’ in which she extolled the virtues of the said tapes in a voice which made one wish to hear her singing the original song. Occasionally she would venture into the studio and lay down a track or two or sing backing vocals for other singers. One of her tracks was the country song ‘Satisfied Mind’, a number recorded by the Byrds on their second album, “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, and covered by Fairport as a stage number. Another was a funky, punky version of Pink Floyd’s ‘See Emily Play’, recorded in 1982 and produced by Adrian Wagner, inventor of the Wasp synthesiser. Yet again crossing borders, Jude pre-dated much of the synthesiser-based music that was to dominate the Eighties. Sadly, these tracks never found a commercial outlet and Jude’s only musical output was the occasional appearance at Cropredy, guesting with her old friends from Muswell Hill.
Back in the Sixties, while Jude was busy singing through the purple haze of the Underground clubs of Old London Town, one Marc Swordfish was busy growing up in Southall in Middlesex and absorbing the sounds around. Unlike Jude, his roots weren’t in folk, but in The Who, Pink Floyd, Bolan, Bowie and Slade. A drummer by musical inclination, he was into Keith Moon and Ginger Baker, until he met the latter and decided that the man was something unprintable. His music ultimately took him into the production side of things, and it was at Pete Townshend’s Meher Babar Oceanic Studio that he first saw the possibilities of sampling, mixing and synthesising sounds using tape and other wonders of the electronic kind. For ten years he worked in an Arts Centre, producing and engineering for others. Never a one for genres, labels or any other kind of pigeon-holing of music, Marc began to work for himself on sampling and producing sounds with synthesisers, creating work that referred to the old, yet was perfectly new in its conception. If any walls, fences or barriers remained in the musical world, they were there to be torn down.
Marc’s professional work led him into re-mastering tapes for record companies. Among the artists who came under his hand were Berlin, Todd Rundgren, Bob Marley, Guns and Roses and Flock of Seagulls. In all of these, he breathed new life into old products. But this was not quite good enough. It was all once-removed, all second-hand. Marc at this time was playing with his ground-breaking band, Astralasia, who created half a dozen albums of their own. Marc’s own favourite among these is “Whatever Happened to Utopia?”. He now nurtured a musical dream in his heart, a creative dream involving Astralasia – and someone else. He had played at the Marquee, had seen the first gigs of bands with inspiration, including U2 and Simple Minds, and it was that element of genius, that ability to synthesise that attracted him. At home, too, he had inspirational albums in his collection, those that showed the ability to progress, those that boldly went where no musician had gone before. These included Love’s “Forever Changes”- and “Fairport Convention”, that first diverse, different and durable album that is still highly listenable. It had become Marc’s dream to make an album with Judy Dyble.
Happily, dreams do come true. Acting as intermediary, Barry Riddington of Talking Elephant brought the singer and the producer together and the result is something that is new, vibrant and exciting. Marc laid down outline backing tracks in his studio in Cornwall, using other musicians such as Simon House on violin and Stevie B. on saxophone, as well as his own talent on guitar and synthesiser. He sent the rough products up to Oxfordshire. Jude received them with some surprise. ‘I thought, “Lumme! I don’t understand this music, I don’t know how to deal with it.” ’ So she listened, chose pieces that she liked, reflected, walked round the fields and came up with lyrics inspired by the mood and structure of the music. She dug out, too, her thirty year-old song book with songs from the Fairport and Trader Horne era and selected three songs to marry to the contemporary sounds of Marc’s production. Among Jude’s archives, there was, too, a poem written for her by Brian Patten. In distant bed-sit days in Notting Hill, she used to baby-sit his typewriter when he went away, and the poem was a ‘thank you’ written once on his return. This, too went into the melting pot.
Over a period of two years the creative process continued, with Marc travelling from Cornwall to Oxfordshire, where he recorded Jude at home in the peace and comfort of her own music room. It is perhaps for this reason that she sounds so at ease and relaxed on the album, away from the stress of the live performance or the pressure of the studio. The songs went through various mixes and refinements, as layers of music were added and developed, until the final product appeared in the summer of 2004. It remained to find an outlet for the album. Happily, it came in the form of Talking Elephant, a company that is never afraid to let musicians do their own thing and be creative. Just like the Sixties, really.
And so to the album itself. Where live input ends and the sampling and synthesising begin is impossible to say. The whole is an exciting symbiotic relationship between live instruments, live vocals and sounds conjured from the magic cauldron of the computer.
The cover sets the mood. A blue fairy sits with her head on her knees. In contemplation or despair? Who knows? Designed by Peter Pracownik, it harks back to Roger Dean, but with elements of legend, paganism and the New Age.
‘Summer Gather’s opens the album. This is a song about summer music festivals and about Cropredy in particular. Driven by guitar and tom-toms with a sax solo that echoes ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’, it moves at a head-rocking pace that will suit those festival-goers who like to stand in the middle of a seated festival crowd and dance half-naked and sinuously in time to a tune that is often as much in their heads as coming from the stage. The title track, ‘Enchanted Garden’ is Brian Patten’s poem written for Jude and is a whirling, weaving Indian-influenced number, with sitar and tabla counterpointed by spacey, computer effcts. The vocal is a gentle, echoing thread that runs through the tapestry of sound behind it. Tasteful guitar comes occasionally to the fore. This is music to listen to in a darkened room with joss-sticks scenting the air. This is the Sixties teleported into the New Millennium!
‘Rivers Flow’ is drawn from Jude’s archive and is a country-influenced song that bounces along on a dotted rhythm in a light and funky fashion, driven by some nice Ry Cooder-like slide guitar. Jude’s enunciation takes this song far away from any American swamp-lands and places it firmly in England, where the right romance has arrived at just the wrong moment. In ‘New World’ a jangling, almost atonal sound opens the introduction against an off-beat tambourine. The mood here is almost eastern, echoing Ketèlby’s ‘In A Persian Market’. A wild violin with synthesised effect plays an elongated solo, before Jude’s clear, precise vocal sums up the peace of a new and private world of sanctuary. The working title for the number was, in fact, ‘Sanctuary’.
The strangely titled ‘Nimbus/Thither Wood ’ is a solemn, dark regret for a lost love with a rhythmic, almost military insistence to its backing. A sampled hammer-dulcimer plays a rippling solo that transports the mood to the Balkans. Jude pleads for forgiveness to the offended lover while a great diapaison of “Phantom”-like organ-music swells behind the vocal. The song ends on a note of desperation as the vocal distorts and bleak synthesiser sounds fade into a hopeless distance. ‘Long Way Home’ is a slow nostalgic number with a heart-like pulse underlying Jude’s ethereal vocals. A Moog-like synthesiser gives way to soaring guitar and then to an edgy sax that lends a touch of Hawkwind. Little wonder, since the sax-player is Stevie B., sometime musician with that jazz-rock freaky fusion band. It has delightful harmony vocals, but surprises by lacking a vocal middle eight.
‘For You’ is the first track that Jude recorded in this partnership with Marc Swordfish. Dedicated to her late husband Simon, it is an address to the departed about musical days long gone and the continuing present, in which music, like life, goes on. Jude’s rippling vocal weaves slowly over an underlying current of rhythm and syncopation. The lonely and repeated ‘Where are you? Where did you go?’, which ends the song, strikes a touching note of longing. ‘Star Crazy’ is the second song whose words Jude wrote in 1969 or 1970 during the Trader Horne period. Love here is set in a cosmic background of stars and nature. Cymbals ripple and a bass drum pulses throughout, insistent and ever-present like the love-madness of which Jude sings. An echoing sax sets an atmosphere of disembodiment.
Neu Blue was written by Jude and her daughter Stephanie. Although you couldn’t tell unless you knew, the song is about Jude’s grey-blue greyhound Kymo, who featured once with Jude on ITV’s “Pet Rescue” as a ‘pat dog’. Kymo died a couple of years ago, and this is a mother and daughter tribute to a gentle and very lovely dog. The mood is soft as befits such a tribute. The final track, ‘Going Home’, is the third of Jude’s archive numbers and rocks along to a gentle Latin beat and a backing that approaches the sound of a string orchestra. Here endeth the album.
There’s only one thing to do when you’ve listened to this CD. Press ‘Play’ again. And again.
How does this album link with Jude’s previous productions? ‘It doesn’t really,’ she says. ‘The only relationship it bears to any of the previous stuff I’ve done is that none of the previous stuff was anything like the stuff I’d done before. It’s always been different. So it’s following a pattern of difference. There’s been no perceived journey, no intentional progression. The only thing in common is me. The only similarities are the differences.’
Jude’s name is associated with a sort of folky rock music. But is the music on this new album ‘folk music’? Producer Marc Swordfish is adamant on this point. ‘I don’t like labels and genres. Only Luddites apply those sorts of things. Punk was a folk music. Folk music is people playing from the heart. It’s music played in an organic way with organic feeling. This album has been a labour of love. I don’t want people to pre-conceive what sort of music it is. I want the album to be respected for itself.’ Certainly some of these tracks seem close to the genres labelled ‘techno-trance’, ‘ambient’ or ‘psychedelic’, but music, like many other things, doesn’t fall into categories. Rather, there are family resemblances between some musical productions and others. There are such resemblances here. Some tracks are like one type of music, others like another. But like individual people in a family, each is unique, each valuable for being itself and each the stronger for having the characteristics of two or more other family members.
So should we be reviewing this album in a ‘folk music’ magazine? Oh, yes. Folk music, like any other organic entity, grows and changes, sometimes predictably, sometimes in strange and surprising ways. Those of us who went through the Sixties witnessed the Electric Revolution. Nobody would have predicted that acoustic guitar-strumming, sharp-suited bands such as Peter, Paul and Mary would be replaced by the electric acid-folk music of the Byrds or the country-rooted rock of The Flying Burrito Brothers. Nobody would have thought that the finger-in-the-ear folk music or the skiffle and jug-band music that emanated from many a British pub would receive an electric jolt from a bunch of scruffy youngsters from Muswell Hill. At the time, purists screamed loudly from the tops of their isolated pillars, but they were lone voices in the wilderness. Now, too, some of the groovy geezers from the Sixties have become the grumpy old men of today, railing against anything that is new and different. But in all things, we must live and let live. Today’s ‘folk music’ is different from yesterday’s. Perhaps tomorrow’s will be too. Let’s hope so.
Interview and review published in Folk on Tap Oct-Dec 2004