on 11 January 2011
This is a wonderful book. Though nominally a cultural history of `folk into folk-rock' Young's intention is not to write a collectors' guide for anoraks. Instead his agenda is to approach from a novel angle that great explosion of drug-fuelled left libertarian dreaming that flowered between the early-60s and the mid-70s. Abandoning the tired `Americanisation' narrative of Beats, Bob and blues boom, Young traces the indigenous wellsprings of a very British youthquake, with roots in late Victoriana and tendrils still budding today. Rather than delineating folk as an idiom, his interest lies with musics inspired by the countryside, whose preoccupations were the dignity of labour, the rejection of the industrial city and, above all, the mysticism of the ancient landscape. Hence the extended time frame and eclectic cast list, from William Morris to Hauntology, by way of Sharp, Vaughan Williams, Bax, MacColl, the Watersons, the Fairports, Nick, Sandy, Shirley, Richard and Linda, Pentangle, the Beatles, Led Zep, Traffic, the Peggs, Sylvian and so, so many more.
Lovers of the genres will be sure to learn more about favourite artists and come away filled with anticipation for checking out the unknowns Young dishes up (even a few for whom Danny Thompson didn't play bass!). An added pleasure is the way he garlands the music with related cultural products - novels, films, plays - which speak to his theme. Who could have expected, for example, to be reminded about the magical realist tv drama `Penda's Fen' which seeped into the Aquarian consciousness nearly forty years ago? Yet Young has somehow resurrected it and illuminated its meaning for those who can remember.
Naturally any century-long survey will entail selection decisions to irritate as well as delight, viz. the complaints of my fellow reviewers. The space devoted to Vashti and the String Band ... why not? They're exactly what the book's about. Dreary reminders of Steeleye Span's leaden stomp ... surely not! My personal gripes are the lack of more than passing mention for Roy Harper, the complete absence of Rameses (a must for obscurists) and the neglect of the Floyd's `Cirrus Minor' (the very acme of pastoral psychedelia). And although the Strawbs' `Grave New World' appears in the listings, Young has missed a trick in his survey of portents of the fall when he overlooks Dave Cousins' anguished delivery on the title track. A soundtrack for spitting on Thatcher's grave.
Naturally too there are provocative authorial judgements which will infuriate some, like the saloon bar Donovan enthusiast below (is this really how you want to present yourself to the world sir?). By in large though, Young refrains from smartass sarcasm, albeit with a few witticisms that veer towards condescension. And like those other clever people at the Wire, he still buys into the weary mythos of punk's `cleansing fire', a media lie as big as the `winter of discontent'. That's forgiveable, and anyway always stimulating.
But for quinqua- and sexagenarian ex-hippies the strangest thing about this book will be to find your own life historicised. Because if you lived through it, the music was never just a consumer choice but an inspiration that still resonates. And how could Rob Young perceive this, other than in his imagination? For he was a mere child in the golden age he describes, growing up in haute bourgeois Bristol. He can never have swallowed one of Olde Albion's microdots, nor witnessed John Martyn in full flight, nor made the festival scene before commodification drained it of vitality. So his effort to impose meaning on things which even then were so mutable and polysemic is a little like trying to catch the wind. After all, the bucolic idyll was for us always intertwined with the city and the world, just like `Bryter Later' was sandwiched somewhere between `Transformer' and `In Blissful Company' in the LP stack. Which makes me wonder, why now should this artefact appear and what does it signify? Perhaps, like those teen Americans who ritually followed the Grateful Dead in the 1990s, it's a manifestation of despair. A forlorn attempt to recapture a time when music and politics genuinely fused. So read this book as a paean to that last great hope. Fragments to shore against our ruin, as we accelerate towards the end of days. But read it, anyway.