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Bob Stanley And Pete Wiggs Present English Weather, LP (£21.70)
The autumnal sound of Britain at the turn of the 70s, looking out through wet window panes to a new decade with a mixture of melancholy and optimism for what might come next. With the Beatles gone and the pound sinking, a new and distinctive sound emerges, led by flutes and mellotrons. Available in 18-track CD and 19-track double LP formats. The LP version is pressed on 180g vinyl in heavy-duty gatefold sleeve.
It’s hard for me – and I’m guessing I’m not alone here – to shake the Get Carter theme from my head whenever I cross the Tyne rail bridge on a journey up from London. The city may have changed dramatically since the film was shot at the turn of the 70s, but the weather hasn’t. One day last autumn I was working in Newcastle. With an afternoon to kill, I did what I usually do with a couple of spare hours in an unfamiliar town – I sought out a record shop. It would at least protect me from the rain, which was getting steadily heavier.
As I flicked through the racks I was trying to identify the record that was playing, an album with a hint of Crosby, Stills and Nash but an identifiably British pall hanging over the sunny harmonies. It was by Shape Of The Rain, and had a sepia sleeve which was an attempt to suggest the Old West even though it was clearly a shot of a post-industrial Britain that still felt closer to the War than it did to punk, just six or seven years down the line.
Outside the Newcastle rain was getting ridiculous. I was stuck in the shop. There was no one in there apart from me and Craig, the lad behind the counter. Once he’d twigged that I was genuinely interested in the Shape Of The Rain LP he pulled out T2’s “It’ll All Work Out In Boomland” and stuck it on the Hacker turntable. The sound was warm but slightly awkward, slashing guitars that recalled 1966 and frenetic drums hemmed in by warm brass, minor chords, and the kind of hazy nonchalant English vocals reminiscent of Caravan, or More-era Pink Floyd; not an easy listen, but absorbing. Then he revealed albums by the Parlour Band, Aardvark and Spring. All of them were melodic, melancholy, with jazz and folk touches and the same similar shrug of resignation, their collars turned to the wind of 1970 and the end of the Aquarian dream.
Enveloped in this post-psychedelic cocoon, sheltering from the rain, these records made a lot of sense together. I had childhood flashbacks of cafés with steamed-up windows, occupied by workmen in donkey jackets; hippies and bikers on Box Hill; odd music on Radio 1 on a Sunday afternoon that had a sense of serious intent but without knowing what for.
While America may have licked its wounds at the turn of the 70s by turning to singer-songwriters, purveyors of homilies like “teach your children well”, Britain wasn’t so ready to give up the trappings of psychedelia. And while the UK counter culture may have shed its “faith in something bigger”, it wasn’t about to chuck out the mellotron. This is how the day after the 60s felt: damp, fuzzy-headed, neither optimistic nor pessimistic but more than a little lost. British bands would mirror the ennui of the new decade with a new kind of music.
Any song on this collection could have been on the soundtrack of Bronco Bullfrog, Barney Platts-Mills’ film about bored youth trying to get its kicks in crumbling 1969 East London; each of them could have been the title song for the same director’s Private Road, with its young couple holed up in a country cottage, directionless, travelling without a destination. The post-psychedelic, pre-progressive age was brief, but rarely has contemporary music summed up a sense of place and time so perfectly. Some of these songs pre-date and post-date this era but all of them share an atmosphere.
Plenty of the acts on this compilation only got to make one album. Some got to make many more, but even with the bands who became leviathans of progressive rock, their debuts tended to be more focused, more human-sized; significantly, they pre-dated the term, and therefore the connotations of “prog”.
English Weather was also the name of a record shop I loved when I first moved toLondon, out in Crouch End which, back in the mid-80s, was deep bedsitter land. The shop was run by Dark Star magazine’s Steve Burgess – a major influence on my tastes and my writing, Steve put me onto records such as Mellow Candle’s “Swaddling Songs”, Fairfield Parlour’s “From Home To Home” and the now-venerated Spring album: “It may look like prog”, he said of Spring, sensing my scepticism at the peak of prog’s unfashionability, “but it's beautiful”. He was right. I hope he’d have liked this selection.