Bright Phoebus – Songs By Lal And Mike Waterson

James Yorkston examines a lost artifact of British folk-noir...

'Bright Phoebus' was an album I’d heard of and searched for, many years before I eventually got my hands on a copy. Intrigued by the one Lal Waterson song I knew well – Anne Brigg’s take on 'Fine Horseman' – I’d keep an eye out whilst crate digging, I’d ask pals, ask pal’s parents… When I eventually found a copy – it’s curious, chubby sun smiling out on a scuffed sky-blue cover – I could barely believe it. I carried it to the record store counter under-arm, protective, as though worried some other weirdo obsessing with cult gems would spot my loot and rugby tackle me, before perhaps running off with it into a bleary Edinburgh afternoon…

…Getting the vinyl home, well, I don’t know what I was expecting – something dark, perhaps, esoteric – I knew The Watersons a little as a singing group, but this particular record had such a reputation, I thought, well, it had to be beyond mere songs? It had to have some mystic draw, some supernatural hold?

And then, breaking through the first crackles of the vinyl, the song 'Rubber Band' appeared. And 'Rubber Band' is an old-fashioned knees-up. With a rubber-band solo on it.

Not quite what I was expecting, to be honest.

The copy I had bought was so badly pressed, that alongside the vinyl glitches and pops, the hole in the centre was so audibly off-centre, that it seemed every held note was a drunk, swaying in and out of pitch and time. On my staggering, wobbly, fizzing copy, that first song – 'Rubber Band' – sounded like a hallucinatory dream – a miner’s social club theme tune, sung after a long summer’s afternoon drinking.

But soon, Mike began singing 'Scarecrow' and then, right then, I knew that the magnetism I’d been told of in this peculiar record, well it was surely going to exist. What voice, what lyrics… How could you lay me down and love me, now? And the acoustic guitar playing on this track, that would continue throughout the album – mainly scaling, exploratory duets between Martin Carthy and Richard Thompson – was surely what started that oft-used method of describing finger-picked guitar – spidery – as the notes, the fingers, skipped up and down the fret board, up and around the melody, never settling, always skittering…

And three tracks in, when Lal finally appears solo voiced on Fine Horseman… Clearly, there is power here, soul, passion… Something is very right. This is the record that people try to make, this is the record that people pay producers to try to mimic the sound, the vibe, the atmosphere – but it’s impossible – not without songs this otherworldly, voices this individual…

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When I was asked to be Musical Director as the BBC Electric Proms show in honour of Lal Waterson, I got to work with Mike, as well as Norma, Martin, Eliza, Marry and Olly… He was a great fellow, Mike, delighted of the attention and the chance to tell his stories, sing these old songs and to hear others do the same.

My reward, come the end of the programme, was a CD of the 'Bright Phoebus' demos – and, honestly, how my heart leapt. I was asked to keep them private and have done so all these years, but I knew they were rough gold and was very pleased to find out they were finally being released officially in this reissue. I strongly suspect that if these demos had been released separately back when they were recorded, such a hypothetical release would now be seen as a landmark album in its own right – a good song will shine through a rough recording, after all.

In fact, I often find that the earlier a song is recorded, the purer it is, the more unique, before repeated singing has sanded its edges, polished it up… And these demos are that. First takes, perhaps, uncertain in parts, but with all the more humanity as a result. Think of them as early English blues recordings, comparable to Skip James’ 1931 masters or Mississippi John Hurt’s first cuts and that’s the feel, the sound they have. They’re that good. If only every reissue had bonuses of such quality…

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As I began to explore 'Bright Phoebus' further, at first it felt as though it were almost two albums – the jaunty, bizarre, almost country-party tunes – 'Rubber Band', 'Magical Man', 'Danny Rose', 'Shady Lady', 'Bright Phoebus' – off-set or complimented by the stripped back, stark, raw beauty of Lal’s effortless vignettes; melody, lyric and voice, aided of course by Mike, and also by sister Norma – I don’t need no bugger’s arms around me…. But all these years later, to hear one aspect of the album without the other makes little sense – for the dark, dry humour that runs throughout also threads the record altogether, making an unruly, disruptive but fascinating family of songs.

So, finally this classic album gets a proper release. And it is a genuine classic album. It won’t be for everyone – I imagine a lot of people won’t get past the rubber band solo – but persevere, for it’s worth it. Lal Waterson was a hugely significant and individual songwriter, and her spirit – alongside Mike’s energy, his unique, rasping voice and his own songwriting – plus the time capsule who’s-who of a support cast from the British folk scene of the early 1970’s – make this curious work of art individual, heartfelt and fun.

But most importantly, simply put, it is very, very good.


Words: James Yorkston

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