Sunday, June 03, 2007

More Songs To Learn And Sing #3

Today's nomination - and by the way we do still have vacancies, so if this grinds to a halt in the middle of next week it's your fault, not ours - comes from Jez from Sell Your Land Speeder:

Simon Finn - Jerusalem

So there I was, strolling home one evening having finally worked out which song I was going to contribute to this series when my iPod pulled something out which trumped all my other choices and I had to pause in my tracks. And at first, I nearly discounted it because in the past few years the old "70s folksinger makes album, album disappears, singer languishes in obscurity for over 30 years, then discovers new audience" story has almost become a cliché. But stuff it, it's a great song, so put the return of Vashti Bunyan out of your mind for 5 or so minutes and let me regale you with the tale of Simon Finn.

Finn was a folk singer who arrived in London in 1967, gigging around the capital and recording Butterfly, a single, with producer Vic Keary, which was never released. Two years later and Finn reconnects with Keary who is impressed with the new material and offers to record an album. With the musical backing of experimental duo of David Toop and Paul Burwell, Pass The Distance is recorded in Chalk Farm and released in 1970. A year later it's withdrawn due to legal problems and in 1974 Finn moves to Canada. A missing singer + withdrawn album = a cult collector's album.

Toop finds this out when visiting Japan in 2000, when fans brandish bootleg copies at him - and then a trickle of correspondents asking about the album grows, with eventually David and Simon getting in touch with each other for the first time in thirty years. In the meantime, David Tibet of Current 93 has had a copy of album passed to him by a friend and decides to, firstly, get hold of a original edition and secondly release it on his own label. So in 2004, Pass The Distance reappears in record shops, and a wider audience can find out what the fuss was (and is) about.

The album's lack of initial success probably has some basis in the presence of Toop and Burwell given free reign to try out ideas in the studio. Even allowing for Finn's distinctive vocal, it's often the backing instrumentation that grabs the attention as Toop has a go with whatever's lying around, not too fussed if it's in tune or not, whilst Burwell keeps the pulse on the tablas. It's an approach which presumably kept things fresh and interesting for the musicians, and suits Finn's impassioned vocal.

The centrepiece of Pass The Distance is Jerusalem, in which the core trio are joined by Kenny Elliott on organ. It starts calmly enough but then the organ's long chords are introduced, Finn steps up the intensity of his singing and playing and we're off. When he sings "And through the sweating crowds, tears streaming down my face till I'm going insane", he really is loosening the shackles. About five minutes in, he abandons coherence and gives in to feeling. It's usually at this point when I have to stop whatever I'm doing and let the song take over. The musicians crash to a halt, at which point this humble listener puffs out his cheeks and makes sure he didn't pause in the middle of a busy road.

David Toop went on to make several solo and collaborative albums and write several books including the ear-opening Ocean Of Sound and Rap Attack. Paul Burwell continued his percussion playing, inventing instruments and creating art installations - sadly, he died earlier this year. Simon Finn, having been tracked down by David Tibet, recorded two albums for Durtro/Jnana and joined the touring Current 93. He also plays solo, and The Wire's review of a recent show reported that his playing technique breaks his guitar strings and he's still playing Jerusalem. For which we can all be thankful.

The complete collection


Colonel Knowledge said...

Sounds like matey boy out of the Levellers, hopped up on homebrew scrumpy, murdering a Leonard Cohen number.

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