On Saturday August 16, 1969, while the Woodstock festival was into its second day with epic performances by Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, The Who and many others (including the unlikely but in tune with this post’s topic, The Incredible String Band), a much smaller event took place in south London. It was the Beckenham Free Festival, showcasing arts and music in an attempt to raise money for the Arts Lab, a small community of artists led by then-folky David Bowie. Bowie performed that afternoon and later immortalized the event in the song Memory of a Free Festival. Other artists playing that day included Bridget St John, Keith Christmas and Toni Visconti. Not many remember, but one more band performed that day, as they did on most Sundays at the Arts Lab’s hosting pub, the Three Tuns. The band’s name was Comus, and they sounded like no other band on earth. That remains true to this day.
In Greek mythology Comus is a god that represents anarchy and chaos. It is also a poem written in 1643 by John Milton, celebrating the virtue of chastity by unfolding the story of a lady who gets lost in the woods and is tempted by the devious character of Comus to engage in all kinds of earthly sins. Despite being prisoned in his palace and facing magic spells, the lady defends her moral stand and is eventually set free by her brothers.
When a group of like-minded art students were forming a folk band in Beckenham, Chris Youle who later became their manager, suggested the name Comus. It matched their music perfectly and gave the band its identity. If you are wondering what Comus may look like, you need to look no farther than the gatefold cover of Comus’ debut album First Utterance, an album that has since become synonymous with the acid folk genre. The pen drawing was created by guitar player Roger Wootton who while in art school was influenced by the drawings of Gerald Scarfe and MC Esher.
Comus was categorically part of the British folk revival movement of the late 60s, but they had different tastes than the bands around them. Rather than going back to olden English melodies like Fairport Convention, consuming suspicious quantities of drugs and going psychedelic like the Incredible String Band, or writing sweet melodies while roaming the English countryside with a horse and a cart like Vashti Bunyan, Comus were drawn to the dark side. Roger Wootton says: “The love and peace thing, it was very weak. It didn’t have any teeth, and you wanted to give it a kick”.
The band members were deeply rooted in the folk tradition, but when performing in folk clubs early in their career they chose to play acoustic covers of the Velvet Underground songs. Their listening habits were wide and included their contemporaries King Crimson and Pink Floyd, and also modern classical composers Toru Takemitsu and Messiaen. In the emerging folk scene they respected John Renbourn, Bert Jansch and their band The Pentangle.
It was a period when progressive music was sought after by major record labels. Finding it hard to handle such artists as part of their commercial agendas, the majors spun off smaller labels who focused on the fringe. EMI created Harvest, Philips did the same with Vertigo, Decca had their Deram label. Pye, who had the Searchers and the Kinks on their roster, decided to go the same route and started the Dawn label. Comus signed with Dawn and in October 1970 entered the studio to record their first album. However they found that while the label was happy to sign them, they had no understanding of the music and no knowledge of how to go about recording them. The producer was Barry Murray who thus far specialized in pop and TV music and worked with Mungo Jerry, the label’s hit band. To be honest, Comus is not an easy band to record and the traditional techniques of layering rhythm and melody tracks are no good in their case. Everything had to be recorded live.
True to their name, the record deals with such charming topics as rape, murder and mental illness. However there is a 12-minute break from that foreboding world in the shape of the song The Herald, my favorite on the album. It features great acoustic guitar work by Roger Wootton and Glen Goring on 6 and 12 string guitars. Wootton: “This song was co-written by Glenn and myself. (Bass player) Andy Hellaby had discovered this technique of using a slide on the bass with the playing hand rather than the fretting hand. It was so atmospheric, it got Glenn and I going. I wrote these wistful mythical lyrics and Glenn came up with the finger picking guitar solo.” Bobbie Watson’s angelic vocals sound great with that intricate melody. The piece also features great contributions by Colin Pearson on violin and Rob Young on flute and oboe.
Sadly the record found no audience. Even in those progressive-friendly times it was a hard one to swallow. Bobbie Watson said years later: “I never, never told anybody what I’d done. Comus was so strange, it didn’t seem to have any relation to any other kind of music at all”. Dawn pressed only 10,000 vinyl copies of the record. The band lost its mojo after the record’s commercial failure and never recorded that type of music again. Luckily with the re-emergence of acid folk in recent years the record was re-released and the band reunited and recorded the DVD Comus Live at Melloboat, including most of the material from their classic debut.
Comus became a major influence on a younger generation of musicians in the 21st century. Mikael Åkerfeldt, lead singer for Opeth, is a big fan. After Comus reunited he gave then a plug: “Listening to them now I got reminded how fantastic they are and how much of a masterpiece the ‘First Utterance’ (1971) album is”. You can hear a good example of the influence in Åkerfeldt’s collaboration with Steven Wilson, the album Storm Corrosion which they released in 2012.
If you enjoyed reading this article, you may also like this about another British folk album released in 1971: