Duncan Browne

Londoner Duncan Browne is another one of those brilliant, forgotten ones. In 1973, with classical guitar in tow, he released another great totem for neo-folk music. His self-titled sophomore album combined some of that astounding experimentation with folk forms that John Martyn had shown, only he did it with more tempered, bittersweet music. Shuffling through neo-Classical, Eastern European chanson, and Spanish sarabandes motifs he’d use his considerably more learned talent to roll it into his idea of sophisticated, urbane English folk music. Sadly, this wouldn’t be the last time he’d be forgotten.

Duncan Browne – 1973

Rolling in that same rarified air of down-to-earth Romanticism that other releases like John Cale’s 1919 and the Bee Gees Trafalgar inhabit, one still wonders what a cooler musical world we’d have if artists like him were much more popular then. He was, in his own way, extremely cool. At the age of 19, he had attended the London Academy of Music and Arts enrolling in drama and music classes (his original instrument was a clarinet!). Originally, he wanted to be an actor but famous early Brit-Rock promoter Andrew Loog Oldham caught wind of his musical acts and quickly snatch him up to record his first album.

Give Me Take You album cover.

His first album, 1968’s Give Me Take You, was astounding. By now, self-taught in classical guitar, he rounded up a chamber orchestra and wrote all the arrangements, and lyrics, to accompany his decidedly baroque-type of sound. People had already gotten a taste of this sound when they heard the Nice’s “Hang on to a Dream“, arranged by Duncan as well. Drawing influences from Paul McCartney, Donovan, and early art-rockers the Zombies, he wanted to create a release that recalled the forgotten troubadour music of way, way yore. When you hear the eponymous titled opener you hear a spiritual cousin to Brian Wilson’s early work, an English Pre-Raphaelite bit of work so gorgeously sublime to the point it exists in its own time realm, dateless. If, you love some of the early solo work of Colin Blunstone would later mine (a person clearly influenced by Duncan), or Nick Drake’s more baroque folk, you’ll get the sound he was trying to capture.

After the failure of this album, Duncan took a brief sojourn to renew his acting career starring in a few German features but by 1972 Mickie Most, of Donovan production fame, convinced him to give it another go. A lot of people weren’t ready for his baroque-folk back then, but the rise of prog and art rock might yield more perceptible listeners now. Listeners couldn’t sleep on such a talent twice right? Originally, they didn’t. Somehow, his intricate pseudo-Glam pop, classical guitar-led single “Journey” became a hit. Little did they know, how much Duncan’s taste and quality had matured in those intervening years.

Great, almost Victorian-era influenced albums by the likes of Colin Blunstone, Gilbert O’ Sullivan, and Clifford T. Ward (click on the links to hear some great singles of theirs!) signaled that certain artists were ready to talk about more mature themes and go at English folk music in a different way. All of them had started to experiment with rolling English folk motifs into their decidedly comforting slightly-experimental pop music. They were attaining that melancholy success that Nick Drake didn’t know how to reach. None of them though, reach the level of comfort mixed with progression quite like Duncan does here.

Duncan Browne album cover.

My favorite track is the gentle “Over the Reef”, a decidedly almost tropical number with bits of electric piano tastefully here and there. Swaying in the most pastoral of ways, you can hear him introduce layers of reggae melodies into his Victorian sea shanty ballad. For me, its a small feat of experimentation that deserves a huge applause.

There are too many highlights to point out. The leading one is the opening track, “Ragged Rain Life”, which combines Tim Buckley-type of vocal experimentation, with Duncan’s flamenco-style melodies, and a decidedly more modern neo-Baroque synth and string arrangement. Then you have tracks like “The Martlet” which combine samba with Renaissance-like orchestral flights, all the while Duncan’s soft voice hovers over the intricate arrangements. There are songs George Harrison would have killed to write like the divine “My Only Son.”Then you have unclassifiable almost ambient-like folk songs like the “The Last Time Around” which still evoke some of that mystical English folk sound underneath all its layers of looping synths and guitars.

Once you finish listening to the album, you start to wonder how this fantastic bit of futuristic English folk music and folk pop soundly failed to sell. Its a criminal world I tell ya, and thankfully one that Duncan didn’t stop trying to push forward to liberate himself from. More of that soon, or tomorrow(?) though…for now, here’s a taste of that…

Listen to Duncan Browne (1973) at Grooveshark.