Heron – 1970

There’s a sound you faintly hear as you play the opening track from Heron’s 1970 self-titled debut, its the faint sound of a rolling river and bird song. As the gorgeous romantic pastoral folk song unfolds, and ends to the sound of distant bird song, you start to realize the exact reason Heron fit perfectly in its time and place. Recorded, much like the rest of the album, outside, next to the banks of a country river in one take, “Yellow Roses”, captures a certain romanticism, warmness, and communal feel that English neo-folk music had been coalescing around at that time (of which a couple of Beatles were capturing perfectly in varied ways through All Things Must Pass, Ram, and Plastic Ono Band).

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Recorded outside in a field, at that time isn’t something any normal band would do. Field recordings and concert recordings were notoriously spotty hearings for a reason. Heron knew this from the get go. However, there was something about being outside that stimulated their senses. Before deciding to record in such a setting they had gone to record their debut single “River of Fortune” and “Some Kinda Big Thing” at Pye Studios. The single itself was released to massive airplay, but by bad fortune an oil shortage made it extremely hard to create any vinyl pressings of this single. The loss of that potential success and being turned off by the imposing, sterile studio environment made them try to look for a more comforting environment to record in. They imposed themselves the allowance of comfort, from now on they would record outside only, if possible.

Heron album cover.

Somehow they convinced their record company, the Dawn label, to let them record their debut album at the place where they’ve been practicing recently, the farmhouse where one of its members had lived in Appleford within a spitting distance from the River Thames. At first things started inside the farm, however they had experienced such a great run of great weather that they decided to load up their instruments and recording gear, pile it up in a truck and head outside. Outside is where their juices started to flow. At first the sonic environment was so pristine that initial recordings sounded as clear as a studio environment. From then on, they’d deliberately place a microphone around 30 yards from their round to capture the sounds of nature cycling around them.

Cover inlay showing recording environment.

Such a pastoral setting underneath those huge trees allowed them to come up with songs showing their Incredible String Band and Paul McCartney influences. While the sounds of nature could provide a background ambiance that complemented their warm folk sound. These songs they were creating, all originals, that they would play as a group, and periodically take breaks from to go back to the farm to prepare meals, started to coalesce into the exact sound they were after. Acoustic guitars, melodeon, concertina, flutes, portable piano, bird sound, and harmonies all working toward an extremely unique goal of English comfort folk-rock.

Once the debut album was released, they decided to perform a series of penny concerts with other brilliant, if a bit different in vibe, new English bands like afro-poppers Demon Fuzz and dark-folkies Comus which brought them briefly a legion of new fans but hardly any record sales. By the time, they’d decided to record their second album Twice as Nice & Half the Price, a double album for the price of one, they’d gone back to the farm again, recording outside, next to the farm (a picture you can see on the album cover itself!) with maybe too much comfort, though you wouldn’t hear them complain about it.

Twice As Nice & Half the Price album cover.

This time around they didn’t have quite the same amount of editorial thought and released too many songs that could have been culled to make a proper, strong release that could rival the debut. Shortly, after that release, they went their separate ways. However, that debut is some triumph and a true gem showing the importance of going outside, recharging and releasing the soul for a bit. I traverse further down the English neo-folk sound tomorrow though…

Recommended Listening:
Upon Reflection: The Dawn Anthology (both albums in one essential compilation)

or stream it here: