Bright Phoebus

Today, for the first time in more than thirty years, it became possible to buy a legitimate new copy of one of the greatest, and most important, albums of all time, Bright Phoebus.

Bright Phoebus: Songs by Lal and Mike Waterson was originally released in 1972, in a vinyl pressing of two thousand copies. One thousand of those copies were accidentally pressed with the hole in the wrong place, so unplayable. According to the owner of the record label that put it out, by the early 1980s four hundred of the remaining thousand copies were still unsold. A CD reissue came out very briefly in 1985, but was swiftly deleted, and the album remained in legal limbo until now.

Despite this, the album has gained a reputation as “British folk’s Sgt Pepper“. I think this is unfair — it’s a much better album than Pepper. I’d say a closer comparison would be that this is British folk’s Forever Changes — there’s the same dark sweetness to this album, the same mix of childish fun and a sense of tapping into something very creepy and, as the kids of three or four years ago would say, “well haunto”.

The image on the cover will probably make most people born since the album’s release think of The Wicker Man, which uses a very similar image, and there’s a reason for that. The Wicker Man is these days described as “folk horror”, and much of the reason we think of “folk” in that context is because of the Watersons, an a capella (usually) singing group that featured Lal and Mike Waterson and their sister Norma (along with originally their cousin John Harrison and latterly Norma’s husband, Martin Carthy. Their first album, from 1965, Frost and Fire: A Calendar of Ceremonial Folk Songs, was an astonishing combination of traditional folk songs, arranged to show the thematic connections to the stories of dying and resurrected sacrificial kings found in The Golden Bough. It was an album that presented an argument, and it was hugely influential in British folk music. Without that album we might, possibly, have had folk horror, but we wouldn’t call it *folk* horror.

The Watersons continued performing for several years, and were the most important vocal group in British folk music history (this 1966 TV documentary on them is fascinating to watch, and is particularly good in the way it differentiates the parts of their work that come from traditions from their need to reinvent those traditions from their ashes), but they eventually tired of the life of a gigging band, and stopped performing.

But Mike and (especially) Lal began writing songs, even as they’d stopped performing, and when Martin Carthy (then in the successful folk-rock band Steeleye Span) happened to be playing a gig in Hull where they lived, he heard a few of their songs, and he and his friend Ashley Hutchings determined that an album should be released of these songs.

And it is the songs, not the performers, that are clearly the star of this album. It’s not credited as an album by Lal and Mike Waterson, but of songs by Lal and Mike Waterson. While they take the majority of the lead vocals, several are ensemble performances by a host of British folk singers (all of the Watersons, Carthy, Tim Hart, and Maddy Prior), “Child Among the Weeds” is a duet between Lal and Bob Davenport, while “Red Wine Promises” doesn’t feature either of Lal or Mike performing, being just Norma Waterson on vocals and Martin Carthy on guitar.

The musicians on the album are equally impressive — essentially a Fairport Convention/Steeleye Span combination, with the backing for the most part being provided by Martin Carthy and Richard Thompson on guitar, Ashley Hutchings on bass, and Dave Mattacks on drums. Given that Carthy and Thompson are, as far as I’m concerned, the two greatest living guitar players in the world, this should give some idea of how good the instrumental backing is.

But even so, it’s the voices of the Watersons that matter here. They (and their extended family — various Waterson and Carthy children have followed in their footsteps, most notably Norma and Martin Carthy’s daughter Eliza Carthy, a prodigious artist in her own right) have a unique approach to singing, one that often gets described as quintessentially English, but is more accurately quintessentially Yorkshire — they emphasise the qualities of their thick, working class, Yorkshire accents, like the flat vowels, that are often considered ugly, and make them beautiful by sheer force of personality and pride in being who they are — which is not to say they’re “raw” or “unsophisticated” singers — these are *hugely* technically accomplished and musicianly harmony singers, just ones who refuse to see their own accents as in any way less beautiful than Southern English or mid-Atlantic ones.

The album opener, Mike Waterson’s Rubber Band, is the perfect opener but is very far from typical of the album. An oompah-band novelty song with a rubber band solo, it’s almost a children’s song, with every possible pun on the two meanings of the word “band” (along with lines like “just like margarine our fame is spreading”). It’s gloriously silly in something of the same manner as the Bonzo Dog Band or Ringo’s songs on Beatles albums.

The Scarecrow is almost its polar opposite. The song is mostly Lal’s work, but Mike takes the vocal, backed only by Carthy and Thompson on guitars. The song starts by the narrator seeing a scarecrow in a field — “ah, but you’d lay me down and love me if you could/for you’re only a bag of rags in an overall”, and has an astonishingly beautiful melody. But then in the second chorus, the “bag of rags” has turned into a “bag of bones” — Lal Waterson had the first two verses and chorus, but couldn’t finish the song, and in the last verse, by Mike Waterson, a troupe of “jolly dons” (apparently a term for folk dancers performing a fertility rite) lead a child to the pole the scarecrow is on and sacrifice it, turning the song in a different, much darker, direction.

Lal’s Fine Horseman is another solo vocal performance, backed by Thompson and Carthy again, but with cello and oboe. An absolutely lovely little baroque-folk number (very like some of Judee Sill’s stuff), with a heartbreaking ending.

Winifer Odd is another song by Lal (who wrote the bulk of the album, and most of its strongest material), and another two-guitars-and-solo-vocal piece. Inspired by Mike’s daughter’s imaginary friend, this is very like some of the material Michael Palin and Terry Jones wrote for Barry Booth’s Diversions (an album that is more similar to this than many have realised) — a song that walks the line of tragedy and comedy so well it manages to do both simultaneously, in its story of a woman who spends her whole life waiting for something to happen. “Waiting for God/She bent down to pick up a glittering thing/And was knocked over by a car/It was her lucky star/And she waited for death to come/And wrap her up warm/but he never came”. It’s *VERY* Yorkshire, this mix of surrealism, pathos, and pitch-dark humour.

Danny Rose, a Lal/Mike writing collaboration on which Mike takes lead, is a much less powerful song than the ones right before it, but it provides some much-needed uptempo relief. It’s a straightforward rockabilly track, with a backing that could be straight from a Carl Perkins record, and the lyrics seem to almost be a first draft of Thompson’s later 1952 Vincent Black Lightning, with their story of a car thief killed by a police roadblock, though the song’s not as good as the later one.

Child Among The Weeds, written by Lal and her friend Chris Collins, is apparently a response to the birth of Lal’s son — and the stillbirth of his twin sister, although unless you know that you’d only see it as a hymn to nature. Most of it is Lal backed by guitars, but for the middle section everyone else drops out and Bob Davenport sings several verses (“Fly bird fly on your raven wing/Take to the sky and sing for the love of wheeling and turning”) a capella, sounding almost like a call to prayer. It literally sends shivers down my spine.

The Magical Man, by Lal, Mike, and Collins, is one of the few songs which make the “folk Sgt. Pepper” tag sound accurate. A rinky-dink Victoriana novelty song sung by a whole group, it’s mostly not a million miles away from 1967 novelty stuff like “Granny Takes A Trip” in mood, with lyrics about seeing a traveling magician doing conjuring tricks. But even here, the song suddenly goes from full-band singalong nonsense into a rather creepy solo Mike Waterson singing from the magician’s perspective — “One touch of my hand sends a chill down your spine/Two touch of my hand and you’re mine”. The magical man suddenly seems more like Papa Lazarou than the charming kids’ magician of the rest of the song.

Never The Same is another song by Lal. After her songs about heartbreak, death, stillbirth, and child sacrifice, she clearly decided to go for something lighter, and so here we have a song about nuclear winter, and a little girl sitting, coughing, in a meadow, in an unending rainstorm full of radiation that will kill her after a nearby nuclear blast. It’s actually quite beautiful, with a lovely acoustic-guitar-and-cello backing, but it’s *bleak*.

To Make You Stay is another Lal song, with her singing over Carthy and Thompson’s guitar, and it’s a strange one, a song of very possessive love. It could be the song of a controlling lover, but it could equally be the song of a mother wishing her children wouldn’t grow up and leave her. The last lines (“I once had a starling/a pretty little darling/and she flew away in the night time/from under my right arm”) could also be about the stillbirth of Lal’s daughter. It’s very pretty, and very disturbing.

Shady Lady, by Mike Waterson, sounds very like a lot of the singalong jam stuff on the Beatles’ White Album, right down to some very George Harrison sounding lead guitar from Thompson. It’s a simple, upbeat, tune, with simple words (“Shady lady/Now’s the time to get yourself a tan/Shady lady/Get yourself some sunshine while you can”), sung by a huge ensemble. It’s a very lightweight, frothy, piece, but after the darkness of Lal’s songs it’s an essential one. The album gets much lighter from this point on — we’re out of the darkness and into the light.

Red Wine Promises is another Lal song, but is a lovely piece of self-mockery, making fun of herself for getting drunk and falling over in the street, and telling her husband when he tries to help her up “I don’t need nobody helping me, I don’t need no bugger’s arms around me”. It’s sung by Norma Waterson, backed by Martin Carthy — the two of them became an item during the recording of the album, and are still married now, forty-five years later, and still making great records together and separately (and with their daughter).

And the last song, the title track, Mike’s Bright Phoebus, is just joyous. Sung as an ensemble, it’s another very simple one, but its gorgeous catchy melody is as uplifting as the lyrics — “today bright Phoebus, she smiled down on me for the very first time… no more clouds, no more rain/gone the clouds, and she smiled again”. After a very dark album, it’s an earned catharsis, and all the more joyful for it.

Unfortunately, while everyone involved thinks Bright Phoebus is one of the highlights of their career, it got a poor reception at the time, because people expected traditional songs from the Watersons, not original material. That, combined with the distribution problems, meant that Lal Waterson (who died in 1999) never lived to see the reputation the album has now. Mike Waterson, who died in 2011, at least saw the regard the album is held in by generations who obtained dodgy bootleg copies. But now it’s finally out on CD, in a set with a second disc of demos. Buy it if you love music.

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2 Responses to Bright Phoebus

  1. Andrew Hickey says:

    One thing I didn’t mention in the review proper is just how much “To Make You Stay” sounds like “Don’t Say No”, an obscure song that Ruthann Friedman wrote for the soft-pop group Oracle. There’s no way Lal Waterson would have ever heard that song, but the similarities are spooky.

  2. Justin says:

    Thanks for bringing this album to my attention. I’ve been listening to it almost straight since you posted your review.

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