Duncan Browne – 1978

Someone who turned to many places and never found the audience he merited was Duncan Browne. When we last left him in 1973, he had released one of the most sophisticated neoclassical folk albums ever. Neo-Romantic but modern, perhaps too modern for its day that self-titled release languished in the forgotten bin of musical history while many bands took years to catch up to its brilliant blend of pop sensibilities and complex folk sound. Feeling dejected from the rejection he faced, he would travel new routes where knowingly few others could keep up with. Before the idea of a modern neo-folk music existed, there were explorers like Duncan Browne going into those wild places.

In 1973, Duncan left England for Paris. There he would make it a goal to take his classical guitar technique and Neo-Romantic sound into the electronic realm. There he met a young musician named Peter Godwin. Together as a duo they formed the group Metro. This band for two years honed and refined a sound far removed from their present time. Taking the sophisticated folk sound of Duncan and combining it with the progressive rock of the day, they were creating a new blend a sort of Art Folk.

There’s a reason David Bowie would later go on to cover their track “Criminal World” in 1983’s Let’s Dance when you hear the original; so slinky, funky, androgynous, and seductive as it is, there’s something unlike anything else there for its time. This track the opener of their self-titled released in 1977 encapsulates the genius of what they were doing. Rather than completely remove from the music all of Duncan’s prior folk influence they spin that core through various friction. That soft, barely there whispered vocal that was a turn off for most listeners before, sounds positively heated under this new guise. His fingerpicked electric style allowed Duncan to display an angular guitar sound that harkened to a new music that didn’t exist yet: New Wave. This doesn’t even bring up a new image as seen in the video or on the album cover, of androgynous sophisticates who oozed modern coolness.

Metro album cover.
Back then, for the few who actually managed to score a copy of Metro the rest of the album yielded even more gems. Tracks like the electrified Neo-Romantic ballad “Precious” which sounds like Nick Drake jamming with Venus and Mars-era Paul McCartney, or “Overture to Flame” a mutant funk monster the equal of any of Bowie’s later work, though, itself, a prelude to the damn near classic and epic “Flame“. “Flame” presents this other branch of modern neo-folk music that can exist. This track is driven by a multi-tracked delayed classical guitar played by Duncan that hovers around an elegiac mode. Duncan’s vocals though suggest something far more romantic and seductive. The music itself building up to the climactic finale of it all, which if you can suss out the lyrics, speak more to some kind of chase for distance into some pastoral meadow for rekindling of certain kinds, rather than pure body action.

The whole B-side of the album from “Black Lace Shoulder” onwards serves as its own billboard for this far more artistic and experimental folk sound. The mutant Irish Traveller folk of “Black Lace Shoulder” updates the mystical sound of early Donovan and Marc Bolan into this unique other thing which can transform an electric violin into some kind of trance inducing sound. Its Folk-gaze of sorts, its music which blurs audibly through the use of studio trickery the need for a folk sound to capture a folkish mood. The twisted choral cabaret of “Paris“, “One-Way Night“‘s languid string-driven torch lament, and the phased out acoustic ender of “Jade” present a nifty thought piece. How would all those tender, slightly bittersweet folk singers of the past like Donovan and Nick Drake have fared if they embraced some sake of musical modernity…they’d most likely sound like this.

Wild Places album cover.

This sound culminated perfectly into Duncan’s renewed solo effort, 1978’s Wild Places. Somehow, he found another way to reconfigure all sorts of sonic inbetweens with his underlying pastoral folk sound. Inbetweeny, how else would you describe the pastoral funk of “Wild Places”?  Combining 12-string acoustic guitars of all sorts, with the dastardly funk of Brand X’s bassist and Judas Priests’s(?!) drummer, Duncan’s arrangement recalls some forgotten past. Lyrically and sonically its the built-up feelings of repression needing release: whether via sex, dance, or going to some unknown destination, whatever gets you out of some normal location, and its something you hear the music perfectly mimic. Its no wonder this became Duncan’s last hit song, something about it just sounds positively avant garde.

The rest of the album just hovers around a wonderful place, where ambient interludes, jazz-fusion romps, and extended angular guitar workouts hit strategic points that evoke a fantastical mood. Tracks like “Roman Vescu“, “Kisarazu“, “Camino Real” all hint at a future sound that groups like Japan, OMD, Windham Hill label artists, and the sort would attempt to inject within albums. “New sounds of England” that recalled English landscapes, or history without drawing exactly from traditional sources. We all may laugh a bit about the album cover, but at the time, after Glam’s descent from popularity, artists were trying to rekindle a modern feeling that recalled the spirit of Byron, Keats, and Black knowing full well that this required smoothing out a lot of this period’s rough edges.

When the album finishes with the gorgeous “Planet Earth”, a barely there electronic folk ballad dedicated to enjoying the earth you live on, you can hear how a big part of this Neo-Romantic sound will add a new rung to neo-folk music. We’ll explore more of this new romanticism with folk music soon though…

Listen to:

Metro (1977)
Wild Places (1978) and Streets of Fire (1979)

Bonus track, the glo-fi pop opener of the equally brilliant 1979 release Streets of Fire, “Fauvette”: