Wednesday 10 February 2010

Obsessions With... Spirogyra

Here's to Spirogyra, the great lost hope of English music. They blazed a trail that no one could follow, even if the declamatory style of Johnny Rotten has a precedent in the scabrous glee of Martin Cockerham. No one since has written songs so expansive that they strive to include everybody and everything in whole wide world.

Tempted by the natural science name (and with a doff of the cap to Incredible String Band), their songs could be described as multicellular: great spiralling, sprawling entities that leave a trail of green goo on the carpet. Though some, like the beautiful Spiggly, are simple, single-celled creations (that's enough of the natural science metaphor).

The band first emerged in Bolton in 1967, as a duo of Martin Cockerham and Mark Francis. The classic line-up came together two years later, when Cockerham, Barbara Gaskin, Steve Borrill and Julian Cusack were fellow students at the University of Kent in Canterbury. There was always something of the clever student about Martin Cockerham. His was the authentic voice of idealistic youth, circa 1970; disheveled, disaffected but not yet jaded, trying to understand the world in earnest seriousness, and answering humbuggery with fierce scorn. The mix of vulnerability and arrogance is a particular feature of adolescence.

And then there is that youthful tendency to over-reach intellectually, on the basis that the sum total of the world's knowledge is a useful starting point for an exploration of one's own self. Is this a weakness? I love him for name-checking Marshall McLuhan and for creating a frame of reference that evidently includes Samuel Beckett as well as Bob Dylan (surely there's a touch of Beckett about Cogwheels, Crutches & Cyanide).

Martin Cockerham was the creative force behind Spirogyra. He still is, although the ego has been sublimated into a personal form of Buddhism. And, because the world is changing and impermanent, he also answers to the name Mahaaksha Das, and his group is sometimes known as The Original Spirogyra, and sometimes Gyram. For solo work, Cockerham has been known to adopt the nom-de-guerre Faery King.

But when he was young and scuffling, and still trying to make sense of it all, his preoccupations, fears and visions fired Spirogyra. There was another voice in the band: Barbara Gaskin provided a feminine counterpoint. She was angelic and sweet, where he was dark and sneering. Cockerham the songwriter gave his most plaintive melodies and most tender insights to Gaskin. She is the good angel to his tormented Raskolnikov. If Cockerham rants, then Gaskin replies with sweetness and reason.

The dramatic potential of the chemistry is realised as early as the first verse of track one of Spirogyra's debut album. The Future Won't Be Long, from St Radigunds, opens with Cockerham harshly asking, 'What was life like in the olden days?' The question is immediately softened by a more soothing voice, intoning 'long ago, ago, ago, before the war'. The contrast of tone is entirely appropriate for a bittersweet song about redemptive love and arbitrary slaughter.

The Duke of Beaufoot might describe a scene from an old-fashioned morality play. A poor woman, used and abandoned by her rich lover, begs to be admitted to his grand mansion (possibly castle). Cockerham claims that the band are not rooted in traditional folk, but the scenario is familiar from Lord Gregory (Child Ballad 76), a very ancient folk song.*

Cockerham, the class warrior, registers his resentment and rage in withering sarcasm - "He's very noble and his lineage is pure, but you, you're a whore…" - but Gaskin, more affectionate and forgiving, leaves the way open to reconciliation (it's obvious that if he does let her in, she'll be in real trouble). Spirogyra songs often have multiple viewpoints, and, in this case, a shifting timescale. What begins as a critique of the ruling order, complete with tally-ho huntsman's horns and whooping and dogs, moves onto explore issues such as love, and remembrance, and responsibility, in contemporary times.

Public indifference? I remember taking my copy of St Radigunds to play in a classroom at school, and it was taken off in favour of repeated plays of (this places it in time)… The Witch Queen of New Orleans by Redbone.

Old Boot Wine, the successor to St Radigunds, was the sound of 1972. You can hear the power-cuts. Literally, as the last note of World's Eyes isn't allowed to fade, but terminates in a power failure cut-out. It's so 1972 that there's a reference to Tory Home-Secretary Reginald Maudling in Disraeli's Problem, about the Northern Ireland Troubles ("Maudling, you fool…"). Cigarettes are much in evidence in the back cover shots.

In 1972 I was 13, and so when Martin Cockerham sang "I'm 21, but boy I do feel old", on Wings of Thunder, I remember feeling mild bewilderment: but 21 is old! Old Boot Wine helped me navigate my way through puberty. One song, Runaway, tackled the pains of growing up head-on. "Wonder if I'm a queer…" sang the singer, who certainly wasn't Cockerham. I've always presumed it was Mark Francis, who rejoined the band for Old Boot Wine, although the song, like Disraeli's Problem, was written by Steve Borrill. Anyway, at that age, anxious to clutch onto anything to make sense of the grown-up world, Spirogyra songs were lessons in politics, love and philosophy.

A confession: I thought that if I played Spirogyra loud enough, thereby proclaiming my sensitivity, I might even get a girl! Alright, not at the time, because that was patently ridiculous, but perhaps at some time in the hazy future, envisaging myself in a bedsit with thin walls in some unknown town (London? Canterbury, perhaps?). There is a tender embarrassment about recollecting the romantic dreams of childhood. In middle age, one learns to be indulgent about the callow dunderhead you once were. Alright, and I imagined myself drifting off into eternity to the cello accompaniment of Grandad, a song about lonely old age. Old Boot Wine had most of life's key phases covered.

Perhaps in anticipation of Cockerham's Buddhist-proscribed views on impermanence, from St Radigunds on, each album contain a valedictory ode to times passed and loves lost. These are invariably gorgeous, evocative and affecting: We Were A Happy Crew, a break-up song full of rapturous affection; again, A Canterbury Tale, from Old Boot Wine, is an ode to the resilience of friendship, replete with images of pilgrims and sea and candles, and is the plainest statement of Cockerham's golden rule - not be scared. Spiggly, in contrast to the monumentalism of much of Bells. Boots and Shambles, is a perfect miniature of a song: a haiku of love, aglow with bittersweet nostalgia.

Bells, Boots & Shambles is the one. It has a special tone - social alienation confused with transcendence. This combination is often responsible for flares of brilliance, but is very dangerous, and not at all sustainable. And so it was with Bells, Boots & Shambles, the last sighting of Spirogyra for several decades.

The first thing that impresses is its orchestration. The arrangements, by Dolly Collins, have an ambitious sweep to match the questing, spiritual nature of the subject matter. This is deceptive. The broad spectrum of sound is achieved by economic means, with a single cello, whistle and trumpet suggesting the diverse timbres of a full orchestra. Officially reduced to a two-piece of Cockerham and Gaskin, they were surrounded by all their old playmates in the studio, notably Dave Mattacks on drums. Steve Ashley played whistle, and, an outstanding contribution, Henry Lowther added a trumpet which was variously martial, magisterial and elegiac.

(What better place to discover this most undervalued of British jazz musicians? Lowther's own Child Song, recorded three years earlier, is a pinnacle of Jazz Britannia: transplanting Miles to a kind of English pastoralism with his poised, elegant, lyrical trumpet. Alas, I was too much of a dunderhead to latch onto him at the time, and my conversion didn't come until many more years.)

Bells, Boots & Shambles has no precedent in art-rock or folk. Indeed, it is so singular that, decades after the event, a new term had to be coined to describe it: Acid Folk. Oh, if only Polydor had poured a fraction of the profits from their success with, say, Slade (Coz I Luv You was roughly contemporary, and doing great business), to promote and disseminate Bells, Boots & Shambles. As it was, they dressed it in a nondescript cover (Mart and Babs in a bilious shade of green), signally failed to get it into the shops and deleted it altogether a couple of months afterwards.

Which is the best Spirogyra album? St Radigunds is the most fresh, Old Boot Wine is the most accessible, and Bells, Boots & Shambles is the best realised. In other words, all three are essential. Luckily for those without unlimited funds, the trio have been collected, in their entirety, on a 2CD set, A Canterbury Tale: The Spirogyra Anthology, with added single-only releases and unreleased cuts. The informative sleeve-notes, by David Wells, allude to "halcyon, far-off days". Amen to that.

*The definitive reading of Lord Gregory probably comes from Elizabeth Cronin, as heard on The Folk Songs of Britain Vol.4: The Child Ballads 1 (Topic, 1969)

Dyverse Values: Spirogyra - St Radigunds

1 comment:

  1. Martin Cockerham and the current 'Spirogyra' are playing at Bush Hall in June. Dare I take the risk and go along, or is it bound to be an incredible disappointment?


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