Spirogyra (Martin and Barbara far right)

Now here’s another interesting band. One that highlights the importance of giving equal providence to other voices, feelings, and sounds that English neo-folk was exploring. Spirogyra, appropriately enough, another band hailing from the mystical Yorkshire Dales area (home of Mr. Fox if you can remember!) has a very distinct sound you could say its another mutation. Imagine a decidedly less sinister Comus, lost at sea, pining strongly for more human emotions love, anguish, justice and the like.

Started in 1969, by Martin Cockerham (lead songwriter, singer and acoustic guitarist) and Julian Cusack (violinist) they started as a duo simply keen on performing original folk songs that drew from their influences, mostly the Beatles, Dylan, and the Incredible String Band. Before they had even met, charismatic leader of the group Martin had by then come back after taken a sojourn hitchhiking from Europe to Israel (only coming back via a ride given by a tank driver to avoid getting caught in the crossfire of the Six Day War!). He sailed by the sea into Marseilles, then on to Canterbury reconvening his school studies and hoping to start out paying his musical dues in folk clubs.

These two were natural performers, they had a particular song called “The Forest of Dean” which brought every folk club down, due to a catchy sing-a-long bit at the end, to the point that one of the artists they blew away quit recording to become their manager (now the surprisingly powerful head of the Universal Media GroupMax Hole). Shortly thereafter, they’d take this folk career seriously. They put out adverts seeking members to join them in a band. Many entered but the chosen few were the bass extraordinaire Steve Borrill, and Barbara Gaskin (from Hatfield, and ironically future Hatfield and the North member) a magnificent singer and charismatic performer. While the three of the boys were proper miscreants, Barbara, the literary undergrad, was beautiful and erudite. displaying a pristine Englishness that the others lacked.

Photo taken at St. Radigunds

Together, joined by future Gong member Steve Hillage (on rent money duties) and their respective girlfriends/boyfriends, they set out to live in a communal flat at 5. St. Radigunds St. By this time they had be signed by B&C Records and were given time to think about how they’d start out recording their debut album. That’s where Mark would write most of the songs you’ll hear in St. Radigunds. All songs affecting some kind of mariner, almost sea shanty-like, influence that served as a backdrop to Mark’s ruminations on life, love, and other laments.

As they toured extensively in colleges, they started to develop their multi-celled sound. Joining Mark’s quasi-twisted vocal delivery and experimental open-tuned guitar, was the Romany-sound of Julian’s violin which the rest of the group would coalesce around. The introduction of Barbara’s vocals allowed them to trade lead duties depending on the spirit a song needed to convey. Mark would actively seek to involve Barbara as much as possible not for tokenism, but because she added some levity and etherealness his own voice couldn’t quite capture.

St. Radigunds album cover.

That’s what makes their first masterpiece St. Radigunds so cool. Produced by Nick Drake’s string arranger Robert Kirby, and the Incredible String Band’s engineer Jerry Boys, those two knew exactly how to capture on tape the exact vibe Mark, Barbara, and the rest of the band was trying to portray. On certain occasions you’ll hear Tony Cox play synthesizer and Dave Mattacks drum for added emphasis. For me, it sounds so wayfaring, swashbuckling, and oscillating. You’ll frequently hear Mark lead a song with subdued waves like in “Island”, then you hear Julian introduce gravity to take it somewhere entirely even more heavy. Its the sound of a band knowing how to give every member their space to roam and scout perfect places to discover new folk sounds. Heck, you even forget that most of the songs that sound propulsive have no drums to speak of.

Its this freedom to improvise and not dwell too much on tradition, that presents itself fully when you hear “Magical Mary”. No longer belonging to psychedelia, this sound has a complexity in parts and sonics that make it belong to a new genre…Progressive Folk. The song itself is some kind of retelling of sleazy port liaisons. The next song “Captain’s Log” with a watery synthesiser sound played by ex-Trees producer Tony Cox gives you another taste of the changes pushing neo-folk into different realms they hadn’t explored then. This was one of the first bands realizing the idea that English folk music was more about a feeling than a sound. “Cogwheels, Crutches, and Cyanide” must have given a young John Lydon more than enough ideas of how Cruel Britannia can be confronted.

I must say though, my favorite bits though are all on the B-side of the album, where Barbara takes most of the lead duties. I’ll leave you that side to discover yourself, but for me again, what’s interesting is how Barbara’s more classically, pristine voice can work so brilliantly with the twisted nautical sound the rest of the band conjure around her. “Time Will Tell” provides the thematic feel of the rest of the album. Its a brilliant piece that doesn’t know how to resolve itself, mirroring the fantastical foreboding experience of being out at sea.

This is something that makes you listen to the garbage music of the likes of the Decemberists or Mumford and Sons, compare it to the Pogues and Spirogyra, and wish they had an ounce of the same talent that is displayed in gorgeous, bittersweet, truly progressive, songs like “We Were a Happy Crew” with its ingenious mix of dance folk and oscillating violins. Songs like “Love is a Funny Thing” prove that having some modicum of talent, earnestness (rather than mimicry), and uniqueness can make one understand that when you go truly out there, like in the “Duke of Beaufoot”, you’re not ‘aving a laugh with the audience but actually serious about your craft. Seriously, listen to “The Duke of Beaufoot” and see if you can picture this group dressing up like musical theater rejects.

Spyrogyra – 1971

Luckily, for Spirogyra this won’t be the last time you’ll hear them shake up this neo-folk genre. However,  for now this album is showing you shapes of things to come from other second generation English folk artists. More of that tomorrow…

Listen to St. Radigunds at Spotify.