The story of British folk rock in the late 1960s and early 1970s is scattered with a vast array of curious artists and bands. For every Fairport Convention, Pentangle, Steeleye Span and Lindisfarne there were countless acts that, when lucky, got the chance to release a single album before vanishing from the annals of music history as fast as a bullet. What made that chapter in modern music so magical is the high quality of many of those lesser known and unfortunate musicians. The reason for their commercial failure was usually unrelated to their ability to create great music, but rather a result of their label’s lack of promotional support, their utter cluelessness of the music business and their inability to project themselves on stage due to their shy and introvert personality. One band combined all these maladies and through an amalgam of dysfunctional circumstances produced one of the best albums of that period. This is the story of the progressive folk masterpiece Swaddling Songs by Mellow Candle.
Mellow Candle’s is a story in two chapters, the first starting in 1963 when a group of three Irish lasses studying at a convent in Dublin named themselves The Gatecrashers and started singing together. Clodagh Simonds, Alison Williams (then Alison Bools) and Maria White were rooted in that period’s pop and folk music and listened to American girl groups, Helen Shapiro and Bob Dylan. They had a talent for creating and singing beautiful angelic harmonies together. After sending a demo tape with a few home recordings to radio Luxemburg they were invited to London to record the single Feeling High, backed by an orchestra and The Breakaways, Cliff Richard’s backing singers. They were 14 years of age at the time of recording and the hit single, written by Clodagh Simonds, sounds impressively mature for three young girls living miles away from the pop Mecca of the time. There is a strong influence of Phil Spector’s wall of sound and production techniques. In an interview by Russell Cuzner for The Quietus, Clodagh Simonds recalled: “Ever since I first heard Phil Spector, I’ve been enamored of the artificial enhancement of sound, so it started early. I did try right away to emulate it – I heard ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ on a jukebox in a cafe, when I was around 10 and as soon as I got home to the piano, I discovered my formula for the next few years: keep your foot hard down on the sustain pedal at all times, play fast and extremely loudly, round up a few friends with equally loud voices, and all sing at once.” The single was released in August 1968 on SNB, Simon Napier Bell’s label and like most of the short-lived label’s output, flopped. The girls went back to Dublin and for a year drifted into separate worlds. End of chapter one.
For most bands with a first single that goes nowhere, chapter one would be all there is. But we are talking about two persisting ladies here. Maria White gave it up but the other two members kept the flame alive, albeit separately. Clodagh Simonds continued to write songs and Alison Bools joined a cover band called Blue Tint. The second chapter starts with Alison meeting guitarist Dave Williams in that band. Williams was a big influence, and his tastes in music included Frank Zappa and Yes. Clodagh Simonds on David Williams: “It was really his idea to form the next step of Mellow Candle. Dave was much more musically literate than I was, and his influence was enormous on the band.” The girls started listening to artists such as The Incredible String Band and Joni Mitchell, adopted a hippie lifestyle and with the aid of chemical supplements started to create songs of a new kind. David Williams brought bass player Pat Morris who was very much into Jethro Tull, and the group worked together on the songs, many of them written by Simonds. During 1970 the quartet practiced in the stables at Clodagh’s parents’ house and some of the songs in their forthcoming album originated from these sessions. It is surprising to hear the demos recorded during these sessions and find how close they are to their final recorded version a year later when the band recorded them proper in a studio. One of my personal favorites in their short catalog of songs is Heaven Heath, and the early drum-less version may even be superior to the album version. Some songs remained as demos, such as the vocals and piano duet The Virgin Prophet, many years later to be released on the demos collection album of the same name. A few gigs ensued with the fledgling band supporting acts such as the Chieftains, a semi-professional group then. They performed at the Wexford Festival of Living Music, hosted by John Peel. Alison Williams: “That whole festival was very interesting. There were some very, very good acts — Principal Edwards’ Magic Theatre, Continuum and Fairport [Convention] of course, who we were jealous of because they had it in their contract that they had to have a crate of beer at the back of the stage.”
Things started to move fast for the band. Ted Carroll, Thin Lizzy’s manager, added them to his roster of artists. Phil Lynott became a fan and invited Simmonds to play keyboards on Thin Lizzy’s second album Shades of a Blue Orphanage. She contributes a tasteful mellotron accompaniment on the title track. Alison Bools turned Alison Williams having married Dave Williams. Together with Caravan drummer Richard Coughlan Mellow Candle produced a number of demos and got signed to Deram, the progressive arm of Decca records. Pat Morris left and was replaced by bass player Frank Boylan. Realizing how critical a drummer was for the band, they recruited Will Murray, who will have a major impact on the material they will soon record for their sole album. The band moved to London and started opening for better known bands such as Lindisfarne and Steeleye Span. This frenzy of activity kept the band busy and got a few small notices in music magazines, but did not produce a source of income. Alison Williams recalls an amusing episode from that period: “I remember Clodagh and I once went to sign on the dole — 1970, the only time I’ve ever done it — ’cos we didn’t have any money. We had to sign on for six weeks or something and in the last week, as we got to the counter, somebody came and said, ‘Excuse me, can you come to the manager’s office?’ So we went in there and on his desk, open, he had an article from New Spotlight magazine. ‘What is the meaning of this?’ he said. ‘You’re obviously earning some money,’ — although we were actually barely getting by! — ‘If I ever see you in here again I’ll call the police!’ So that was the end of that! We scarpered from that place with our tails between our legs.”
And we come to Swaddling Songs, the album that is the topic of this article. As the needle drops on the first track on side 1, the immediate thing that grabs you after the cool bass groove is the harmonies. Of all the wonderful moments on this album, it is those harmonies that keep coming back in different shapes and variations that make the record truly unique. Clodagh Simonds: “Alison and I had been singing together for some time, so we had an intuitive understanding of each other’s voice, and both of us were very interested in harmonies.” The track is Heaven Heath, written by Alison Williams: “A lot of my work has religious references, i.e. Heaven Heath, something I am still doing in recent songwriting. It’s difficult to get away from the Catholic influence.”
Bring snowy lady with the laughing
Spread your sailing angels over me
Tell a tale of old sinfuls
Look for you to change their face
Do not cry, for all your leaden tears
Graced a lorded man whose gift was all too free
He came to fall upon a faithless smile
Leaning eyes towards the clay
Compared to the stripped down demo version, it has a rich arrangement with Clodagh Simonds playing on harpsichord. Alison on Clodagh’s skill as a keyboard player: “The only track we had trouble with was Heaven Heath because it has a harpsichord on it — and Clodagh had never played one. It’s got a delayed action and in those days you couldn’t shift it around half a second with an edit button. There were 23 takes. We ended up playing it live, with her playing slightly ahead of everyone else.”
The second track, Sheep Season, reminds me of early Renaissance (the band) with its piano accompaniment and melody line. The long instrumental passage starting at 2:10 is a great example of the band’s ability to work out an arranged section, and it features a rare guitar solo by David Williams. From the liner notes to The Virgin Prophet: “Guitar solos were a rarity in the Mellow Candle songbook and the songs were all very tightly structured and they weren’t a solos band.”
Silver Song, a sorrowful piano ballad written by Simonds, has a nice string accompaniment sounding very much like a cello. There are no credits for musicians outside of the group, so I have to assume it is a mellotron, although it is not typically played to mimic an individual string instrument but a whole string section. The piano accompaniments on the whole album are one of the things that sets the band apart from their folk contemporaries, who usually leaned on guitars, fiddles and flutes. The song was covered 20 years later by All About Eve. A nice effort with a similar string arrangement, and I like Julianne Regan’s vocals on that, but it does not compare in my opinion to the original.
They take my time without question
And fill my days with all their emptiness
And in their drawing rooms they beg my sympathy
But if I weep to solve their silent misery
They save my tears to sell for silver
Messenger Birds is a lovely and simple ballad by Alison Williams, who said this about the song and her writing for the band: “I was surrounded by songwriters in Mellow Candle so I didn’t write much to begin with. The first song might have been “Messenger Birds”. I remember reading a newspaper item about a woman and a child and a tragedy at sea.”
She sat thinking under a black sky
With a white child, a white child on her knee
Leaning to the dim, grim grey sea
Into a silent sleep
There is something in the atmosphere of this song that reminds me a little of Sandy Denny’s Late November from her album The North Star Grassman And The Ravens, released three months before Mellow Candle recorded Swaddling Songs. Alison Williams wrote the songs years earlier but maybe something about Denny’s vocal delivery caught her ear before the recording of the song.
Dan The Wing was the single that Deram tried to capitalize on from the album with Silver Song as its B-side, both tracks written by Clodah Simonds. Both also failed miserably as a commercial attempt and did not chart. But the song is great, and reminds me at times of Steeleye Span of that period, especially the bass line. Steeleye Span’s lineup on their first album, recorded the previous year, also included two female singers. Their vocal harmonies were very different and unlike Mellow Candle they did not typically sing the lyrics together in close harmonies. A good example of that contrast is The Blacksmith.
Before we flip to the second LP side, a few words about the rest of the team that worked on this record. The album was produced by Decca’s house producer David Hitchcock, who in May 1971 decided to go independent and left the label with Neil Slaven, with whom he co-founded the production company Gruggy Woof. That company produced many great albums in the early 1970s for, you guessed – Decca. A smart move to make more money on something you do already. Some of these albums included Waterloo Lily by Caravan, Space Shanty by Khan, Foxtrot by Genesis and Mirage by Camel. Slaven, who was more in tune with the bluesy side of music, produced albums for Chicken Shack and Savoy Brown. Years later Simonds still appreciates the producer’s role on the album: “David Hitchcock deserves a medal for getting such a cohesive album out of a bunch of spaced-out teenage hippies. The first sessions were pretty rough, but rather than just dump the project he suggested changes in the line-up and lots more rehearsals, staying patient, tactful, encouraging and calm until we finally got it finished. Buy that man a drink!”
Principal sound engineer on the album was Derek Varnals who worked on many albums for Deram, starting with the 1967 milestone recording of the Moody Blues, Days of Future Passed. He continued to engineer the streak of all the Moody Blues albums in their first run between 1967 and 1973, and other classics from the period including In The Land Of Grey And Pink by Caravan and Amaryllis by Bread, Love And Dreams. Mellow Candle recorded the album at Decca’s Tollington Park Studios which the label acquired just before the recording of Swaddling Songs, to handle the increasing load on Decca’s main studio in Broadhurst Garden. The cover illustration of the album is by David Anstey, who also drew the front cover of Moonmadness by Camel, the topic of a previous article on this blog. Simonds recalls: “It was a take-off of W Heath Robinson [one of his drawings below as an example]- I remember going to see it when it was still being completed, we all liked it a lot. I was never too sure about the goofy sleeve notes though, I think Willy wrote them.” Anstey, who worked as cover artist for Decca, also designed one of the sole ads that Decca put together to promote the album.
Side two of the LP starts with Reverend Sisters, a haunting melody by Clodah Simonds, written when she was in Italy after the break in Mellow Candle’s first phase: “I wrote the song when I thought I wasn’t going to be working with Alison anymore. It was written for solo voice, but when we came to record it, we thought it wouldn’t really be one for me to take a lead vocal, so we both sang it in unison.”
Break Your Token, another Clodagh Simonds composition with a complex arrangement and a driving piano accompaniment, reminds me of the way Jacqui McShee sings, weaving her voice around Pentangle’s excellent instrumentalists. Light Flight from Pentangle’s album Basket Of Light is a good example. McShee’s mastery of double tracking a harmony may have been an influence of Mellow Candle.
The most rhythmically complex song on the album is Buy Or Beware, written by David Williams who was a major influence on Simonds as arrangements go. Simonds recalls: “Our pieces quickly became complex rhythmically. I discovered I had an aptitude for quite complicated time signatures. Dave was always very keen on that.”
Vile Excesses is a somewhat similar tune and a highlight of William Murray’s drumming. Aside from the vocal harmonies and piano accompaniment, the drums on Swaddling Songs are another aspect of the band that distinguishes them from the British folk scene they were associated with. The intricate drum patterns that Murray plays throughout the album definitely puts the band in the progressive folk category. Murray played in Kevin Ayers’ Whole World band in 1971, the same year Swaddling Songs was recorded. Simonds said of Murray: “Willy’s influence was massive. He introduced us to lots of music we hadn’t known before. It wasn’t really until I was about 18 and had moved to London, and met Willy that I began to hear more experimental music again. He’d been playing with Kevin Ayers Whole World and hanging out with the so-called Canterbury set, and introduced me to music by Soft Machine, and Hatfield & the North, Henry Cow and Gong”. Simonds and Murray would both guest on Mike Oldfield’s masterpiece Ommadawn in 1975, with Murray also writing the lyrics to the lovely ‘On a Horseback’ from that album.
Lonely Man is not my favorite track on the album, but it is remarkable for being written by Simonds at the age of 12. I don’t know what inspiration she tapped into at that age to generate that level of maturity, but the song sounds very much like Californian hippie fare from the late 60s.
Lonely man looking for the day
damns the night whose stars have left him cold
lonely man doesn’t know they’re watching
shouting all his questions to the sky.
The last song on the album is also one of its highlights. Written by Simonds, Boulders on My Grave is a mostly instrumental tour de force that summarizes all that is great about this album. The piano accompaniment, complex arrangement, vocal harmonies, driving rhythm.
Swaddling Songs was recorded during the month of December 1971. Alison on the time in the studio: “I do remember we had to record it in a very short space of time. It was all done very fast. But having said that, the circumstances were very conducive: dimmed lighting, plenty of dope probably. Because we were tired when we did the vocals at the end there’s a couple of places where the intonation’s a bit off. But it’s simply because we were absolutely exhausted — recording from ten o’clock in the morning ’til three in the morning. You just can’t sing for that long.” The album was released in April 1972 and spare a few short reviews in the music papers, went unnoticed and fell off the face of the earth. Some of those notices, mind you, displayed their questionable music critics’ ability to recognize great music with sorry-ass reviews such as the NME in March 1972: “It’s difficult to say whether this album is seriously intended to sell or whether its been issued as tax loss.” Lovely.
The band had its own turmoil of business and management woes that resulted in too few opportunities of live performances. The band’s eclectic style was detrimental to their success, too folky for the rock audience and too rocky for the folk audience: “we were 100% at the mercy of the music industry—booking agents, who told us we weren’t engaging enough as performers, and the marketing department at Decca, who did nothing at all to help us promote it. That lack of enthusiasm from the ones in charge really eroded our confidence. We weren’t selling any records, and we weren’t getting much live work. Also, Thin Lizzy were suddenly taking off, and our shared manager wasn’t able to give us as much time and energy as before.” Add to that the band’s awkwardness on stage, an affliction that the more successful female-fronted groups such as Steeleye Span and Pentangle learned to overcome. Alison described it well: “we were a bit precious on stage. Ted Carroll used to say to me, ‘Alison, you look like a fishwife with your hands on your hips.’ But that wasn’t put on — we were just so focused on the music.” We can only guess what the band would have achieved if they had a chance of a second album, but that single album they left behind is one for the ages.
Interview bits come mainly from two sources:
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