Island Samplers – more than your money’s worth in old pence

Island sampler You Can All Join In front cover

In the early 1970s, inspired by the success of CBS’s The Rock Machine and The Rock Machine Turns You On, many record companies started putting out budget-price samplers. Island Records made some of the most popular samplers, and the Island samplers are still regarded with affection and listened to today. Fairport Convention, Jethro Tull, Traffic, Cat Stevens and King Crimson all gained some of their early following from these collections. This is their story.

Cheap as chips

At the cusp of the 60s and 70s, albums were still quite an expensive item at around £2 (The equivalent would be £21 today; for context, the average weekly wage was around £32, a pint cost 20p and a new car £600!) These budget samplers would come in around at the pre-decimal equivalent of 70p (£8 today!) and were good for the labels, the artists and the punters. For many, this is how they were introduced to their favourite bands and albums. Would you pay £21 for a new album unheard?

 

You Can All Join In (1969)

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When Island released its first sampler, the Island ‘family’ was small enough and obscure enough to be gathered together in a park of a morning for the cover photo, taken by designer Cally for Hipgnosis, ‘bleary eyed after a party’. Standing shivering in greatcoats are the likes of Richard Thompson, Stevie Winwood, Sandy Denny, and all the members of Jethro Tull, Traffic and Free.

(Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/You_Can_All_Join_In for a who’s who of the cover)

For some of the bands, this was lift-off. Jethro Tull, Traffic, Fairport Convention and Free all gained a huge new audience. Some of the other bands, like Art and Tramline, disappeared.

SIDE ONE
1. Jethro Tull – A Song For Jeffrey
2. Spooky Tooth – Sunshine Help Me
3. Free – I’m A Mover
4. Art – What’s That Sound
5. Tramline – Pearly Queen
6. Traffic – You Can All Join In

SIDE TWO
7. Fairport Convention – Meet on the Ledge
8. Nirvana (not THAT Nirvana!) – Rainbow Chaser
9. John Martyn – Dusty
10. Clouds – I’ll Go Girl
11. Spencer Davis Group – Somebody Help Me
12. Wynder K. Frog – Gasoline Alley

… and You Can All Join In is one of those seamless compilations that simply cannot be improved upon. A dozen tracks highlight the best — and that is the best — of Island’s recent and forthcoming output, from much-anticipated debut albums by Jethro Tull, Free, and Spooky Tooth to the sophomore effort by Fairport Convention. There’s also a healthy taste of the label’s most-successful-so-far signing, Traffic, as a leaf from Steve Winwood’s back pages — the Spencer Davis Group’s “Somebody Helps Me” joins Tramline’s cover of “Pearly Queen” and Traffic’s own “You Can All Join In” (yes, indeed, this collection’s title track). (http://www.allmusic.com)

The compilation reached the top 20 in June 1969. Such is its place in music history that this cheap, almost throwaway compilation was reissued on CD during the early 90s rush to the shiny disk, even beating some of the albums it referenced. The CD combined it with Nice Enough To Eat, and is now attracting high second-hand prices.

Nice Enough To Eat (1969)

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Encouraged by the success of You Can All Join In, a followup Island sampler appeared later the same year (1969) featuring many of the same bands. Jethro Tull, Fairport, Free, Spooky Tooth and Traffic got a further boost, and this time they were joined by such rising stars as Mott The Hoople, King Crimson, Quintessence, Nick Drake and Dr Strangely Strange. This lineup has proved to be more enduring over the ensuing decades, with only Heavy Jelly lost to us.

The collection may have been a bit less cohesive and more demanding than its predessor, lurching from Nick Drake’s tender Time Has Told Me to the iron crunch of King Crimson’s 21st Century Schizoid Man, gentling down to Quintessence and the Strangelies. Allmusic.com describes it as ‘slightly incoherent’.

Mike Sida’s cover spelled the band names in alphabet biscuits on the front, and featured biscuits accompanied by various pills and capsules on the back.

SIDE ONE

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1. Fairport Convention – Cajun Woman
2. Mott The Hoople – At The Crossroads
3. Spooky Tooth – Better By You, Better Than Me
4. Jethro Tull – We Used To Know
5. Free – Woman
6. Heavy Jelly – I Keep Singing That Same Old Song

SIDE TWO
7. Blodwyn Pig – Sing Me A Song That I Know
8. Traffic – Forty Thousand Headmen
9. Nick Drake – Time Has Told Me
10. King Crimson – 21st Century Schizoid Man
11. Quintessence – Gungamai
12. Dr. Strangely Strange – Strangely Strange But Oddly Normal

Bumpers (1970)

The next Island sampler was a double album, released in 1970. There were variations in the designs and track listings released in Europe and Australia, which Wikipedia puts down to a rushed release. It cost the equivalent of £1.50. Bumpers were a kind of sports shoe fashionable at the time, and the cover was designer Tony Wright’s artwork, put into context by Mike Sida (who, inexplicably, put the shoes on the feet of an Aztec figure on the back).

In the track listing we can see some follow-through of the acts that were now the flagbearers for Island – Tull, Crimson, Fairport – as well as newer acts like Cat Stevens and Fotheringay, the band formed by Sandy Denny on leaving Fairport. Jimmy Cliff was there representing Island’s Jamaican past, as this music began to go mainstream in the UK.

SIDE ONE
Traffic – Every Mother’s Son
Bronco – Love
Spooky Tooth – I Am The Walrus
Quintessence – Jesus, Buddha, Moses, Gauranga

SIDE TWO
Mott The Hoople – Thunderbuck Ram
Jethro Tull – Nothing To Say
Jimmy Cliff – Going Back West
Blodwyn Pig – Send Your Son To Die
Dave Mason – Little Woman

SIDE THREE
John and Beverley Martyn – Go Out And Get It
King Crimson – Cadence And Cascade
If – Reaching Out On All Sides
Free – Oh I Wept
Nick Drake – Hazy Jane

SIDE FOUR
Fairport Convention – Walk Awhile
Cat Stevens – Maybe You’re Right
Renaissance – Island
Fotheringay – The Sea
Clouds – Take Me To Your Leader

El Pea 1971

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The last in the series of classic Island samplers was this double album released in 1971, the title an obvious pun on ‘LP’. The design – by Douglas Maxwell Ltd – was unusual – a cardboard gatefold sleeve in which the two albums were presented in transparent plastic pages. The inner sleeve had drawings of the artists by Alan Cracknell.

El Pea had a leaning towards acoustic and folky songs.  Some of the hungover urchins who had appeared two years ago on the front of You Can All Join In were now stars, and could be used to attract listeners to Island’s newer signings like Amazing Blondel, Tir Na Nog and the Incredible String Band, who had just come to them from Elektra. Notable surprises were the String Band’s Mike Heron showing off his rock chops with John Cale, and McDonald and Giles  and Emerson Lake and Palmer, two off-shoots from King Crimson.

SIDE 1
1. Traffic – Empty Pages
2. Sandy Denny – Late November
3. Alan Bown – Thru The Night
4. Heads Hand & Feat – Song For Suzie
5. Fairport Convention – Lord Marlborough

SIDE 2
6. Jethro Tull – Mother Goose
7. Quintessence – Dive Deep
8. Amazing Blondel – Spring Season
9. McDonald & Giles – Extract from Tomorrow’s People: The Children Of Today
10. Tir Na Nog – Our Love Will Not DecaY
11. Mountain Side 3 – Don’t Look Around

SIDE 3
12. Free – Highway Song
13. Incredible String Band – Waiting For You
14. Cat Stevens – Wild World
15. Bronco – Sudden Street
16. Mike Heron – Feast Of Stephen

SIDE 4
17. Emerson, Lake & Palmer – Knife Edge
18. Nick Drake – Northern Sky (listed on the sleeve as One Of These Things First, a different track from his album)
19. Mott The Hoople – Original Mixed-Up Kid
20. Jimmy Cliff – Can’t Stop Worrying, Can’t Stop Loving
21. Mick Abrahams – Greyhound Bus

I don’t think El Pea was ever released on CD but it’s been shared on YouTube here

The appeal of the samplers was clear. Punters got a chance to hear some of the best new music at a heavily discounted price, whilst the record company got to promote music that did not readily lend itself to radio or TV airplay. Some of the compilations were classic recordings in their own right, and Island Records probably came out with the classiest. (Nic Oatridge)

Other labels samplers

Island sampler artists I’ve written about

 

A Norman Lamont sampler!

If you’ve made it this far you might want to try this:

Witchseason & Joe Boyd

Joe Boyd

Witchseason logoThis little logo appeared on the sleeve of so many of the albums I listened to from the end of the sixties and the early 70s that it was a kind of quality assurance stamp. Mostly on Island but some on Elektra. This was the symbol of Witchseason Productions, and of Joe Boyd and it played a huge role in the career and development of many artists who are still loved today.

Joe Boyd

By the time Joe Boyd, born in Massachusetts but raised in New Jersey, settled in London in 1966 he had already established his place in music history. He had promoted tours by leading blues artists in the US and in Europe, bringing new audiences to the likes of Muddy Waters and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Initially dismissing Bob Dylan as a flash in the pan, he wandered into a room at a New York party where Dylan was playing the unrecorded ‘Hard Rain’ to friends and was smitten. Becoming a pillar of the folk scene, he embraced Dylan’s rebellious nature and was on the mixing desk when Dylan shocked the audience at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival by playing his first electric set.

In his fascinating autobiography White Bicycles, his first impressions of Britain are striking:

Shuttling back and forth between Britain and America in the sixties provided endless opportunities for comparison and contrast. For a start, the British didn’t seem to own anything. The most poverty-stricken folk singer in Cambridge (Massachusetts) or Greenwich Village had at least a record player and a refrigerator and many drove cars. In England, pilgrimages would be made with a newly purchased LP to the flat of someone with the means to play it. Milk bottles on the window ledge brought hurriedly inside on winter mornings were a reminder that kitchen appliances –and central heating –were rare luxuries

When I started meeting musicians, I noticed other differences between the cultures. Some British art students would form a group, then learn how to play their instruments well enough to perform the songs written by the group’s strongest personality. The results might be technically unsophisticated but were often more original than those of their American counterparts, who were too close to our musical forms to do much more than accurately re-create them. Dylan, always the exception, was almost British in his unconcern with vocal grace or instrumental fluency.
Joe Boyd, White Bicycles

Witchseason

In both America and the UK, the hip music scene was closely interwoven with what was called the Underground – venues, magazines, demonstrations, festivals and, above all, tribal identification. The clothes, the hair and the albums you carried under your arm advertised you as not part of the mainstream. In the US it was more serious and political – after all, they were at war and males in the Underground were resisting being drafted into the army and sent to Viet Nam. In Britain, it was lighter in tone and more about culture. Boyd notes how young men with long hair, earrings and Afghan coats would be standing in the pub sharing pints with their ‘straight’ fathers – something very rare in the polarised US.

Boyd quickly established himself as a father of the Underground scene in London, setting up the venue UFO where the cool bands could play to stoned and tripping audiences. While he partook in all the hedonism available, he was organised, efficient and had an American work ethic. He produced Pink Floyd’s first single Arnold Layne, and narrowly missed signing them and The Move to his new management and production company. It wasn’t long before he found his first rising stars, the Incredible String Band, in Glasgow.

I had been stumped for a name when Donovan released a song called ‘Season Of The Witch’: Beatniks out to make it rich Must be the season of the witch.”
Joe Boyd, White Bicycles

Although the String Band were on Elektra, who supported Boyd’s ambitions, he found his spiritual home with Chris Blackwell, who was turning Island Records from a West Indian calypso and reggae label into a home for the more experimental side of British music.

Joe Boyd with Incredible String Band
Boyd (left) with Rose Simpson, Mike Heron and Licorice McKechnie of the ISB, and tour manager Walter Gundy

Soon he had an impressive roster of performers – The Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, Nick Drake, Vashti Bunyan, John and Beverley Martin, Dr Strangely Strange – all earning around £20 a week (£240ish today). Of these, it was Nick Drake who most inspired him, and on whose behalf he worked hardest. Boyd was a champion of artists who seemed to have – indeed who had – little commercial potential. Nick Drake’s albums were an opportunity for him to take the raw material of a brilliant but shy songwriter and package it in imaginative arrangements. They made little impact at the time outside the small London folk-rock scene but the Nick Drake legend has grown steadily and endured till a tribute concert by well known artists can fill a hall.

John Wood

Island and Boyd were two corners of the Witchseason triangle. The third was studio engineer John Wood, who not only captured the Witchseason artists at their peak but managed the studio experience in a way that challenged them and brought the best out of them.

“In a way I would say that there were three stages to the process. The first stage concerned the relationship with the artist about the music — what were we really doing here? — which was my job. Then came the actual recording, in which John took a stronger role than I did, in terms of the process — we’ll have the guitars here and the drums here, that was all John. And then once the sound was all set up, I got involved again, saying ‘Let’s do it again a little faster,’ or ‘Let’s do it again a little slower,’ or ‘I don’t like the way you’re singing it.’
(Joe Boyd interview)

What was Witchseason really like?

Andrew Greig by Billy Fox
Andrew Greig by Billy Fox

I used to see the Witchseason logo on Fairport and String Band albums and wonder what Witchseason actually was – I imagined a three or four storey white building on a dignified London street, like the Beatles’ Apple, which I’d seen on Let It Be. Andrew Greig, a String Band fan from Fife, took the same curiosity all the way to London, and turned up on Witchseason’s 83 Charlotte Street doorstep to plug his own psychedelic folk band Fate and Ferret. Here are his first impressions and his fleeting encounter with Nick Drake.

The Witchseason office was not notably psychedelic, just a desk and a phone, and a dark-haired young woman sitting behind it. A few assorted seats, a couple of framed posters, others just pinned to the wall. Boxes, papers and some loose records. It did not look like the epicentre of hip London: the ISB and Fairport Convention, Pink Floyd and the UFO Club.

‘We’re Fate and ferret from Pittenweem. We’ve brought our tape for Joe.’
‘You can leave it with me.’

We waited. A tall man in a dark jacket appeared silently from the street, glanced at us once – something vivid in that look – then studied the floor.

‘Just go in, Nick – Joe’s expecting you.’

The long black hair and averted face nodded and shuffled through to the inner sanctum. George and I looked at each other, shrugged. Five minutes later he emerged, raised his head fractionally to glance at us, then scuttled out.
(Andrew Greig and Mike Heron You Know What You Could Be)

 

Stories My Killer Told Me coverIf you like the artists I’m writing about here, you might enjoy a free download of quirky story-songs Stories My Killer Told Meget it here!

 

 

 

The End

As his artists grew in stature and confidence, Joe’s nurturing care was increasingly questioned.

The Incredible String Band’s devotion to Scientology and refusal to listen to my advice, coupled with my arguments with Sandy, the growing recalcitrance of Fairport and Nick’s simple concept for his next album all combined to make me feel that everyone might be happier with me out of the way.

Certainly my involvement with Witchseason artists was intense. Everything was based on the assumption that there would be success – when it became clear that it was headed for more hard slog and meagre rewards, the Witchseason business model fell apart. In retrospect, I might have considered selling to Island but staying on as producer etc. But I was too burnt out to see that clearly and was intrigued by the possibilities of learning about the film business.
(Joe Boyd interview)

In 1970 Boyd returned to the States, where he established the Hannibal label and added to his list of achievements the soundtracks of A Clockwork Orange and Deliverance, and worked with R.E.M., the McGarrigles and 10,000 Maniacs while continuing to work with Richard Thompson and becoming a champion of East European music.  Living in London again now, and looking half his age, he continues to speak, write, produce and organise concerts, notably celebrations of Nick Drake, the Incredible String Band, Bert Jansch and Fairport Convention.

 Joe Boyd productions for Witchseason

( This is only the 1967 – 1971 fraction of his massive list of credits!)

1967

The Power of the True Love Knot (Shirley Collins)
The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion (The Incredible String Band)
Rags Reels and Airs (Dave Swarbrick, Martin Carthy & Diz Disley)
“Arnold Layne” / “Candy and a Currant Bun” (single by Pink Floyd)
“Granny Takes a Trip” (single by The Purple Gang – see ‘Further reading’ section)
“She’s Gone”, “I Should’ve Known” recordings for projected single by Soft Machine, June, Sound Techniques, London released on Triple Echo, 1977, Turns On Volume 1 (Voiceprint 2001 CD)

1968

Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London (Pink Floyd tracks)
Very Urgent (Chris McGregor)
“If I Had a Ribbon Bow” / “If (Stomp)” (single by Fairport Convention)
“If (Stomp)” / “Chelsea Morning” (single by Fairport Convention)
Fairport Convention (Fairport Convention)
The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter (The Incredible String Band)
Wee Tam and the Big Huge (The Incredible String Band)
Kalpana – instrumental and dance music of India (various artists)

1969

What We Did On Our Holidays (Fairport Convention)
“Si Tu Dois Partir” / “Genesis Hall” (single by Fairport Convention)
Unhalfbricking (Fairport Convention)
Five Leaves Left (Nick Drake)
Liege & Lief (Fairport Convention)
Kip of the Serenes (Dr. Strangely Strange)
“Big Ted” / “All Writ Down” (single by The Incredible String Band)
Changing Horses (The Incredible String Band)

1970

Desertshore (Nico)
Just Another Diamond Day (Vashti Bunyan)
Stormbringer! (John and Beverley Martyn)
U (Incredible String Band)
Full House (Fairport Convention)
Fotheringay (Fotheringay)
I Looked Up (The Incredible String Band)
Be Glad for the Song Has No Ending (The Incredible String Band)
Pottery Pie (Geoff and Maria Muldaur)
Brotherhood of Breath (Brotherhood of Breath)

1971

Bryter Layter (Nick Drake)
Smiling Men with Bad Reputations (Mike Heron)
Call Me Diamond / Lady Wonder (single by Mike Heron)
The Road to Ruin (John and Beverley Martyn)
Heavy Petting (Dr. Strangely Strange)

Find out more about Joe Boyd and Witchseason

White Bicyles

Boyd’s vivid and amiable autobiography.

You Know What You Could Be

A fan’s-eye glimpse of Witchseason and the world they, their musicians and their audience lived in.

Joe Boyd Interviews

 

Stories My Killer Told Me coverIf you like the artists I’m writing about here, you might enjoy a free download of quirky story-songs Stories My Killer Told Meget it here!

 

 

 

 

Richard Thompson – Doom and Gloom from the Tomb

Photo of Richard Thompson by Anthony Pepitone

Doom and Gloom from the Tomb was the title of a Richard Thompson compilation of unreleased material issued on cassette in 1985  It’s a phrase that’s stayed with him over the years. Few songwriters have plumbed the depths of sadness, anger, resentment and hatred with such a direct and unsentimental vision as Richard Thompson.

Folk and Fairport

He emerged from Island Records folk-rock darlings Fairport Convention as a guitar prodigy but one with a difference. His style was unlike the blues-based riffing of virtually every other lead guitarist at the time. It was both droney and twangy, percussive and yearning, based more on the bagpipe and accordion tunes he learned from his Scottish father. While his peers would call out American bluesmen or jazz guitarists as their influence, Thompson pointed to Scottish accordionist Jimmy Shand.

Guitar style: a bunch of wires over a plank of wood

There were two main factors in his guitar style – his use of hybrid picking, where he held a plectrum with his thumb and index finger, but used the other fingers to pick, often over an open string struck by the plectrum. The other was his minimal use of effects. His Stratocaster sounded like a Stratocaster. In one interview he said he liked a guitar to sound like a bunch of wires over a plank of wood. In trying to describe his guitar on a track I was reviewing one time, I said it was the nearest musical equivalent to a prickly gorse bush.

Richard and Linda

But, as we were to see, his guitar skill was only part of the story, probably the lesser part. In 1972 he released Henry The Human Fly, his first album of self-penned songs, slated by critics for its relentless misery and ignored by the public. He saw more success, within a fairly limited folk-rock audience, with the albums he released with his new wife Linda, beginning with I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight. No less bleak in outlook but with Linda’s commanding voice to draw the ear, they began to build a loyal fanbase and to tour.

I saw them a few times in those days. They were a far cry from the entertaining Richard Thompson presentation of today. The first gig was a support slot on a Traffic tour. They both looked and sounded terrified, tiny stick figures on a huge stage. Linda made a few attempts to speak to the audience, Richard just stood in the background, his mop of hair over his face. When their first headline tour came to Glasgow City Hall not long after, there was a little more communication – Richard talking unexpectedly about his love of country music, not the coolest thing at the time – but the overall impression was of a couple who hated the limelight and possibly hated being there at all. Both these performances were acoustic. Thompson had given up the use of the electric guitar.

Richard the Sufi

This was largely due to his conversion to Islam. But this wasn’t the joyless anti-life version of Islam we’re often presented with in today’s media. The Thompsons embraced the Sufi path, a meditative and mystical path seeking direct knowledge and experience of God, uses ecstatic dancing and chanting. Its most famous exponent, the 13th century Persian poet Jalalud’din Rumi, talked of love, lovers, and drunkenness as metaphors for religious worship and absorption. That Thompson was following in Rumi’s foosteps was evident in his songs, particularly in the album Pour Down Like Silver, where each song can be interpreted as a straight love song, or as a hymn. Not only love but the hostility of society to their faith.

Some people say
That I should forget you
I’m never going to be fool
Better life they say
If I’d never met you
I’m never going to be a fool
(A Heart Needs A Home)

 

Who looks out with my eyes? What is the soul? I cannot stop asking. If I could taste one sip of an answer, I could break out of this prison for drunks. I didn’t come here of my own accord, and I can’t leave that way. Whoever brought me here, will have to take me home.
(Rumi. This was later paraphrased by Thompson in A Bird In God’s Garden)

For a while they walked away from their music career, living first in a Sufi commune then trying to start an antique shop; they still put out albums but sales declined and their contract was dropped. The story of the breakup of their marriage, their ‘US tour from hell’ supporting the Shoot Out The Lights album, and Richard’s re-emergence as a solo performer and electric guitarist has been told many times, sometimes by Linda, so I won’t reiterate it here.

Richard the entertainer

Today Richard Thompson lives in Santa Monica, but tours the UK and USA frequently, alternating band setups with solo performances where he can create pin-drop silence or gales of laughter. His themes haven’t changed since the 1970s, a grim Ken Loach world of broken hearts, drunken fights and poverty, but his vocal delivery has become powerful and versatile and his guitar playing astonishing, both on electric and acoustic. He shares tips regularly on tutorials (see the playlist below) and even residential camps, and his self-deprecating humour makes a Richard Thompson evening thoroughly engaging.

“As a songwriter, I think what you are aiming for is slightly to discomfort the audience, to get just below the normal consciousness at the things that are not quite talked about. To the feelings that the audience doesn’t know it has yet…” Richard Thompson interview

What have I taken from Richard Thompson?

  • Embracing my folk roots in using simple chords and more traditional melodies for songs
  • Trying to express what I’ve learned from Buddhism in song without being preachy
  • Trying to find killer lines that nail a raw emotion in an unsentimental, almost brutal way. I think I’ve managed it once or twice.
  • Expanding my acoustic guitar style using hybrid picking – this is an ongoing struggle but I’m getting there.

 

My pick of Richard Thompson

With over four decades of Richard Thompson to choose from, and very few lapses in quality over the whole period, it’s hard to pick a few tracks. These are the ones I keep coming back to.

Other inspirations posts

Finally, if you’re curious, a few songs of mine with a thematic link, trying to express that spiritual side of life


Credits

Photo of Richard Thompson by Anthony Pepitone