I was raving on about this album to my friend John last week. I’d just let him hear The Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle. “But would I get it – is it not folk music?”
I had to explain that, yes, although Bright Phoebus was made by ostensibly folk musicians, its reach is far beyond genre – a bit like Odessey and Oracle or even Marquee Moon. Cosmic Humberside Music!
Bright Phoebus was released in 1972 and effectively vanished. This was partly due to small and botched original pressing, so there were very few copies in existence, but also due to the album not matching the expectations of many of the people who did buy it.
The proper title of the record is Bright Phoebus Songs by Lal & Mike Waterson, which hints at the problem – the Folk Police were not ready for an album of originals from former members of The Watersons folk group.
The Watersons, from Hull, had been very big on the British folk scene from 1964, where the expectation in the clubs had been that performers would sing traditional songs from the area they were from in their natural accents. This became constricting and although The Watersons were doing well in that context, it became too hard work for too little reward and the group disbanded after a couple of years of scrabbling for a pittance.
Lal and Mike were writing songs for themselves though and in 1971 had a set of demos each, which old friend Martin Carthy heard on a visit to Hull with his new band, Steeleye Span. Ashley Hutchings agreed with him that the songs needed to be recorded and enlisted Dave Mattacks and Richard Thompson from the Fairport Convention mothership – Tim Hart and Maddy Prior from Steeleye Span were also in for the recordings, which started in May 1972, produced by Bill Leader.
It took about a week to finish the recordings – on a few tracks, the Thompson/Carthy driven band is augmented with cello and woodwind, but the core sound is that of Thompson and Carthy interveaving their guitars to make one big, timeless accompaniment.
And the songs? Although, infamously, the fact they were composed by Mike and Lal (and sometimes with help from Lal’s friend Christine Collins) was a problem for many of The Watersons’ old fans, most of the time you wouldn’t know they are not songs from the old, weird England. The imagery is straight out of Childe ballads or The Golden Bough, although the subject matter is often more personal than mythically symbolic.
The mixture of the timeless style of the songs and the enthusiasm and skill of the players may well be why the record has endured.
But I say “endured”…there was a big hole in the middle between the release in 1972 and this reissue from 2017. I had certainly never heard of Bright Phoebus until a couple of years ago, when the Waterson and Carthy extended family performed some concerts of the material, with special guests including Richard Hawley. The writers, Lal and Mike Waterson died respectively in 1998 and 2011.
It appears that the original seeding of albums from 1972 spawned many cassette copies, which those in the know were swapping throughout the next decades – cassettes became CDRs in the noughties, then there was YouTube…
Last year the Domino label reissued Bright Phoebus in a remastered edition, which also included an extra CD of a selection of the 1971 demos – I didn’t get one immediately and for a few anxious weeks it looked as if the additional CD was not going to be re-pressed.
But I did get the demos CD and it was definitely worth the wait, if its intensity is a bit spooky – these are intimate recordings, obviously, and the clarity that the modern remastering gives them makes it sound as if the Waterson siblings are in the room.
But the parent album is a treat in itself and I’ve played it at least once most days since I got it in September.
This is Lal Waterson’s “Red Wine Promises” from Lal & Mike Waterson’s Bright Phoebus (I don’t know why YouTube has it as “Red Wine and Promises…”)
The guitar is by Martin Carthy and the vocal is by Norma Waterson – I love an album which has a track performed by neither of the album’s named creators!