When my website (which is still under construction) was in its planning stage, I had the thought that under the heading “Back-Tracking” I would give accounts of how some of the most memorable tracks I’ve worked on as either an arranger or player came into being, and so I began (as one does) at the beginning.
“Woe is Love, My Dear” from Bert Jansch’s album NICOLA – the back cover of the album showing a facsimile of my score for this song is to the left – was to be the first of those “Back-Trackings” and here it is but, sadly, on the day after Bert, following a short illness, passed away.
I’ve come to know that, since time began, true musicians have passed through their lives in pursuit, largely, of staying alive and trying “to write a better song”. Nothing else really matters at all.
Live performance i.e. the next gig, is as much a part of their life support system as is food and water, and the best of ‘em leave behind the legacy of memorable performances, outstanding recordings and, above all – quite modestly and without claim, either – the considerable influence they have had over their admiring contemporaries and upon the younger generation of upcoming players, all of whom they leave behind.
Bert Jansch was an outstanding example of that breed, and guitarists from Jimmy Page to Johnny Marr and Graham Coxon – and all those lying ‘twixt the frets (before and after) – will, I’m sure, be the first to endorse those words.
I’m aware that I owe “big” to a lot of people who have helped shape my life as a music writer and Bert is one of them. Moreover, he was there right at the very beginning of my career.
I was introduced and recommended to Bert by Nat Joseph, the founder of Transatlantic Records and the label to which Bert was signed.
Bert had already completed four albums and was in the process of finalising the line up of Pentangle at the time I was asked to provide arrangements for his next album, NICOLA.
It was 1967 and I’d just left the Royal Academy and was working in London as a session arranger and nightclub pianist and, conveniently, at a time when the use of musical instruments and musical styles not usually associated with rock or folk music was becoming very fashionable.
(George Martin’s use of the string 4tte in Yesterday and Eleanor Rigby and then the piccolo trumpet solo in Penny Lane (played by David Mason) set the ball rolling – adding to those tracks new dimensions of great character and identity hitherto unknown.)
Bert came over to my place a couple of times and played through all the songs destined for the album.
I was mightily impressed with all of his material and especially his guitar playing, but his playing on one song (which I scored but it didn’t make the cut onto the album and I’ll never know why) was absolutely stunning.
It was called TRAIN SONG. When he played it to me for the second time I shut my eyes and it felt as though we were riding a train like a couple of Hobos – but we weren’t; we were in a tiny little bungalow in East Molesey, Surrey.
I recommend everyone to find a copy of Train Song – it is stunning
It was in that song I realised that Bert used far from conventional tunings. He’d detuned the low E string to D and made other changes too. He made the instrument do what he wanted; he was no slave to convention, Bert. The guitar was his servant – and how! Wow.
We recorded “Woe is Love, My Dear” and the other orchestral tracks at the Decca Studios in Broadhurst Gardens, Hampstead. The studio engineer was Gus Dudgeon who went on to produce much of Elton John’s early work.
The orchestra booked for the session was formed from the musicians I was working with regularly at the time and now reads like a roll-call of England’s finest! The leader was Kenneth Sillito – an outstanding violinist who, at the time, was the leader of the celebrated English Chamber Orchestra. The trumpet soloist was John Wilbraham and Herby Flowers played bass. No passengers here then; everyone else was a brilliantly gifted player, too.
The session was at 2.00pm on Friday, April 27th, 1967 – a fine afternoon!
Everything went very smoothly with Bert and the musos all getting it on and having a good time.
The recording schedule was completed successfully and without overtime, either and we were in The Flask – a pub in Hampstead – by 7.00pm.
The last detail I recall of that typical “post recording session evening jolly” was watching the keyboard player, Barry Booth, disappear (drunk as a sack) down the south bound tunnel at West Hampstead Tube station saying he was walking home. He survived.
Though NICOLA received mixed reviews I’m proud of what I contributed to the album and, in particular, this track “Woe is Love, My Dear” albeit I may have “over-egged” the D trumpet solo a bit. I suppose I could have given him a few less notes and it would have been just as good; he’d have been paid the same fee.
I suspect in suggesting that Bert should dispense with his guitar and sing along, pop style, with the orchestra, the producer may have had in mind hopes of a commercial success.
If putting Bert’s gifts and my skills together was a good or bad idea, I don’t know, but it wasn’t my call – I was just glad to be working not only with a superb and original talent which embodies everything about Bert Jansch but on what was my first entry point into the world of recording
Suffice to say – and regardless of whether that doubtful “commercial objective” was achieved or not – the album remains available and, to my old ears, still sounds remarkably fresh.
Anyway; Bert – God bless him – has gone to join Nat Joseph and Jo Lustig (one time manager of Pentangle) and so they can chew it over if they wish but, somehow, I don’t think they will.