Barbara and Martin

There’s a bit near the 10:30 minute mark in my track of the day, “In the Western World”, a multi-part suite by Spirogyra, when Dolly Collins (Shirley Collins’ sister) magnificent arrangements join in with the sound of oscillating synthesizers and Barbara Gaskins harrowing voice, that the sign of a new branch of English neo-folk music appears: Folk-Punk. By then, essentially a two piece band, Spirogyra were led by Martin Cockerham and Barbara Gaskin (now a couple) the last remaining members of the original group which created the mariner folk-rock masterpiece St. Radigunds in 1971. More worried about the state of modern life than the past, they used traditional sounds to stoke a plea against unfettered globalization and the way we’re succumbing to the machine. All the while, fomenting a sound that shared more in sonics, ethos, and ideals with punk rockers yet to come.

Spirogyra – 1973

By the time they got to record Bells, Boots, and Shambles Spirogyra was close to losing the plot and their career. Their prior release Old Boot Wine (1972) was a wonton mishmash of an idea, trying to find an audience, any audience of sorts. Some songs like “Don’t Let it Get You” and “A Canterbury Tale” were brilliant steps in the right direction, but others, like the rest of the album proper, found them trying to rock out without the true spirit of hedonism needed to. As much as they wanted to get in on the decadence, they were thoroughly disgusted by the growing commercialism of rock music. As their most important musician, violinist Julian Cusack, started to quickly ease his way from the band they were at a crossroads. His melodies carried much of St. Radigunds and without him they had to do some real soul searching to discover their true strength. During Old Boot Wine they discovered one important thing, that Barbara’s gifted voice was more suited to sing the increasingly biting lyrics that Martin was writing. Martin sensing this change, reigned his role in and decided to play more of a background role. Ceding the lead to Barbara was the best choice he ever made. Now acting as a darker foil to her ethereal sound, he could inject an edgy undercurrent via sonics or background vocals to this new exploratory sound they were after.

Bells, Boots, and Shambles album cover.

The sound was a lot more complex and intricate than before. Now driven mostly by Martin’s acoustic guitar, they’d use a small ensemble with horns and neo-traditional classical musicians led by Dolly to beef up their acerbic melodies. Now cognizant of how far away they were from traditional land, they rightfully started to inject a more angular sound. Guitar parts became more direct and to the point, while the drums played by Dave Mattacks became more propulsive, all the while everything would revolve around the interplay Barbara and Dolly could create in invoking some bittersweet feeling of the past. Martin himself does the best thing he could do, pull all this feeling down forcefully to our modern era. Its a sound that’s best heard than described. The album, at a short 30-some odd minutes, just sounds rebellious to its core, in a way, that made it a masterpiece of the genre and so rightfully hard to review. I just imagine their sea faring stranger from St. Radigunds coming up on neo-Albion and shaking his head at how far its changed from its communal past, then I get a sense of what they were going for. Can you sense and feel the shifting travelogue, there are four parts total, found “In the Western World”…powerful stuff right? More of that 1973 tomorrow though…

Bonus track, forgot to clue you in on another track (recorded pre-Ziggy Stardust age) the simply biting snarl folk-punk of “The Sergeant Says”, make sure to stick around for the snarly end:

Listen to the rest of this ABSOLUTELY essential album at Grooveshark.