18 September 2020

Podwireless Village Thing 50th


(This playlink is to Mixcloud streaming: you can also download the podcast from Podomatic )

The celebratory tale of the slightly legendary independent folk label that released its first albums 50 years ago in September 1970.

Scroll down for the Playlist.

It was late 1969 and, licking my wounds after losing two rounds with major record labels, I’d made a tactical retreat back to Bristol from whence I’d exported myself in 1968. I was inhabiting the notorious flat above the Bristol Troubadour with the club’s then manager, bassist John Turner, and – briefly – fellow songwriter/guitarist Al Jones. The 5 nights a week coffeehouse in what we’d christened Clifton Village was in its heyday as one of the country’s leading ‘contemporary folk’ venues, sharing an axis with London’s Les Cousins. Artists from all over Britain were being attracted to live in the city by the local scene’s reputation. Over small-hours brainstorms and late breakfasts in early 1970, we came up with the idea to launch a record label and agency, taking control of our own destinies from the music business. The Village Thing was born.
I eventually moved to a nearby basement flat in then run-down Royal York Crescent which I shared with Maggie Holland, and we initially ran the new organisation from there, including recording some of the albums in the living room or bedroom. Later, as it grew, we moved into offices in Park Street that we shared with local graphics company and rock promoters Plastic Dog. As well as the artists on our label, Village Thing also acted as agents for other locally-based musician friends like Keith Christmas and Shelagh McDonald.
Subtitled ‘the alternative folk label’ (decades ahead of the coining of ‘alt.folk’, let alone ‘psych folk’, ‘acid folk’ and all the other bewildering terms that get showered on it these days), Village Thing released two dozen albums and a few singles between 1970 and 1974. With immediate strong national press and radio support, we initially prospered with our unique and hard-to-pin-down mix of established names and newcomers, original singer/ songwriter/ guitarists, a few visiting Americans, and folk entertainers. It was essentially the contemporary folk scene’s complement to the more traditionally-based recordings being simultaneously released by Bill Leader’s wonderful Trailer label, and soon both were manufactured and distributed by the folk ‘major’ of the day, Transatlantic.
Over the years, many of Village Thing’s releases have gained cult status amongst collectors of ’70s contemporary folk, blues and songwriter/ guitarists, often changing hands for high prices. Alongside them – and indeed providing some of the label's best sellers in the first two cases – were popular folk club entertainers like the late Fred Wedlock, the anarchic Pigsty Hill Light Orchestra, much-loved Irish singer Noel Murphy and jug band superstars Tight Like That.
Village Thing was literally a cottage industry: its official headquarters were at Inglestone Common, a tiny hamlet in the wilds of South Gloucestershire where business partner Gef Lucena of Saydisc lived and some of the initial recordings were indeed done in Gef’s cottage. Later, we were able to set up in a Quaker meeting house at Frenchay on the outskirts of Bristol. Equipment was good but basic – at least one album was recorded with a pair of mics plugged straight into a Revox tape recorder, and the maximum was a pair of tape machines, multi-mics through a small mixer and a simple reverb unit. Anything more complicated than that, on the few occasions when it was needed, we took over to record at Rockfield near Monmouth. It was also very much a family of artists and musicians, as will be apparent from the way that names crop up on each other’s recordings.

The first releases were 50 years ago on September 18th 1970: the launch gig was the night before the very first Glastonbury Festival, to which many of us trooped off the next day. We kicked off with the aforementioned Pigsty Hill Light Orchestra who’d been a smash hit at that summer’s Cambridge Folk Festival and were embarking on a frantic schedule of folk club gigs, with a chest full of improvised instruments (most famously Andy Leggett’s ‘ballcockophone’, heard here on Sweet Miss Emmaline) and a zany repertoire of 1920s jazz classics. Their debut PHLOP (“Pigsty Hill Light Orchestra Presents…”) was studio recorded and in retrospect maybe didn’t capture the full essence of the band, so we followed it up the next year with the live Piggery Jokery.
Immediately highlighting the intended diversity of Village Thing, the other in the label’s first pair of LPs was the sole album made by a couple from Cardiff, Graham & Anne Hemingway, who went under the name The Sun Also Rises. They clearly inhabited the same musical zone as the Incredible String Band and Dr Strangely Strange and had impressed us with gigs in South Wales and at the Bristol Troubadour. They briefly blazed, with Sounds calling their self-titled album “the most original record of the year” and claiming they’d “opened up a new dimension into which British music can blossom,” before they slid into obscurity. They eventually separated but are still good friends and as far as I know still in Cardiff. Their LP can be found on CD from Saydisc.

My own Village Thing debut Royal York Crescent came shortly after, in our second pair released on 13th November 1970. In order to differentiate myself from an irritatingly well known namesake, I'd added in my middle initial (in authentic sci-fi author style) to become Ian A. Anderson. I’d eventually make three albums for the label – following it up with the unwieldly-titled A Vulture Is Not A Bird You Can Trust (1971) and Singer Sleeps On As Blaze Rages (1972) while I went through my obligatory singer/ songwriter/ guitarist years, an era sandwiched between my becoming a 65 year old Mississippi blueser by age 19 and emerging from the Tardis as a more conventional (and much younger) English folk/ blues/ roots person from the post-Village Thing mid ’70s on. They were interesting times… Tracks from my three VT albums can be found on the recent CD compilations Onwards!, Onwards Vol.2 and The Time Is Ripe, available from Ghosts From The Basement. [EDIT: and now they're all on the 4CD boxed set Please Re-adjust Your Time on Cherry Red, see footnote for link]]
Coinciding with my first release on the label was the arrival of folk blues guitar legend Wizz Jones. Wizz, a contemporary of Davey Graham, was a major influence on ’60s artists from Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Ralph McTell to Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Rod Stewart. Wizz, like me, had previously been on United Artists and we were very happy to put out his self-mockingly titled The Legendary Me. He then nipped off to do an album for CBS before returning for his second VT album When I Leave Berlin featuring his group Lazy Farmer. The title track was covered live, years later, by Bruce Springsteen of all people. Many consider those two to be among Wizz’s finest works – they were re-issued on CD by Sunbeam.
It was either Wizz or Ralph McTell who recommended Steve Tilston – originally from Liverpool and by then in London after some years around Loughborough – to point himself in our direction. A very talented 21year old guitarist and songwriter, he impressed us mightily, moved to Bristol and produced the simple but striking debut An Acoustic Confusion that the Daily Mail, of all things, promptly made one of its records of the year (and Rod Stewart bought a box of them to give to all his mates for Christmas that year!) The album is available on CD with extra tracks from Saydisc.
Tilston’s debut served another purpose: it introduced us to the amazing Dave Evans who – again via time in Loughborough – came to Bristol to play on Steve’s sessions and stayed. Dave, with his totally unique and often mind-boggling guitar playing, self-made instrument, utterly delightful songs and madcap tunings, became a great friend. With his own debut The Words In Between (recently re-issued by Earth) he produced one of Village Thing’s towering treasures, a criminally under-acknowledged classic of the day. He followed it up a year later with the excellent Elephantasia. [Update edit: sadly, Dave passed away in Brussels, where he'd lived for many years, in April 2021.]

It took a fair bit of persuasion to convince local folk club hero Fred Wedlock to make an LP. We recorded his debut The Folker in my living room: it went on to reputedly sell 20,000 copies, easily the label’s biggest! That debut featured a few of the traditional songs that had been a regular part of his club repertoire – on this podcast I’ve included his version of the Copper Family’s Spencer The Rover, with Stackridge’s Mike Evans on fiddle. By his second LP Frollicks (like the PHLO’s second, also recorded live to more capture the essence) he’d completely concentrated on his inimitable comedy, which stood him in great stead from then on, culminating in his top 10 single a decade later, long after Village Thing had expired. He died in 2010, but his two VT LPs are still available on one CD from Saydisc.
Apart from the albums, Village thing released a handful of singles: the only one which wasn’t from an existing album was by an energetic bluesy duo – Pete Keeley and Keith Warmington, known as Strange Fruit – who’d suddenly materialised in Bristol in 1971. Pete’s long gone, but Keith remains a popular musician around Bristol and regularly works to this day with Steve Tilston.
VTS 10 was the lost Village Thing album. We had begun to record singer/ songwriter Dave Mudge, originally from Devon and until then playing in the popular folk duo Mudge & Clutterbuck. In spite of strong support from Al Stewart, they had somehow not quite managed to complete recording deals with several majors and finally chucked in their towel. Our initial sessions in my Royal York Crescent flat had featured guests like Keith Christmas, but petered out. The album never got finished and the tapes vanished down the years, but we never re-allocated the catalogue number. So to give you a taster of the one that got away, I’ve included a Dave Mudge demo recorded by local musician Tim Webb in Trowbridge in 1973 or ’74 – of one of Dave’s most popular songs Memory Book. Dave Mudge died in 1998.

The always well-dressed Ian Hunt – ‘the handsome Mr Hunt’ as he was affectionately known on the scene –was the nimble guitarist of choice for many around Bristol at that time. He’d been strongly featured on my first two VT albums and we’d appeared as a duo on the very first Glastonbury Festival. When Village Thing’s house double bass player John Turner decided to leave the Pigsty Hill Light Orchestra for more serious musical pursuits, the two teamed up as Hunt & Turner and produced their one album Magic Landscape which was well received. Over recent years it has attracted re-issue on labels from South Korea to the USA, including on Saydisc CD.
Jug bands had been a popular staple of folk clubs in the 1960s, and towards the end of that era one of the best emerged, Tight Like That. Led by bouncing blueser Dave Peabody, they were a skilled packet of good-time energy, and we took them into Rockfield to record their one LP – maybe the only jug band to ever record in that iconic rock studio. Sadly, they disbanded not long after, so right at the end of the Village Thing years the label released the first of Dave Peabody’s many solo LPs down the decades, Peabody Hotel. It was a clever title, that establishment in Memphis being the field recording location of many classic early blues and country 78s.
By 1971 I was regularly touring in Belgium and Germany and on those travels I met a couple of Belgian-based American exiles. One of those was Tucker Zimmerman who had come to Rome on a scholarship, and ended up in England in the late ’60s where his first album was produced for Regal Zonophone by Tony Visconti. After moving to Belgium, he’d built a strong following in Germany, where they called him a ‘song poet’. His second, home-recorded album had been released on a small German label and we were happy to pick it up for UK release, the only Village Thing album we didn’t originate.
As was the fashion of the day, we put out a couple of budget-priced compilation LPs. Us was the obligatory label sampler, everything on it from existing LPs except for a Sun Also Rises track recorded for an intended 2nd LP that never happened. The cover art was the illustration that had been created for the unfinished Dave Mudge LP – waste not, want not! The other sampler, Matchbox Days, was an anthology of tracks by artists from the mid-late 1960s UK country blues boom – Dave Kelly, Jo Ann Kelly, Mike Cooper, the Panama Limited, Wizz Jones, myself and more. That collection still lives on in an expanded CD version on Ace Records – notes here.

The other Belgian-based American was already a legend. Zen banjoist Derroll Adams had come over with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott in the ’50s and never gone back. Resident in the UK, he’d become a major guru for the young Donovan and people like Ronnie Lane of the Small Faces. Eventually alcohol had got the worse of him – as witnessed in the Dylan Don’t Look Back film’s hotel room fracas – and he’d had to get out of England, to France and then Belgium where he was miraculously taken care of and nursed back to drink-free health by a dedicated young woman, Danny. They soon married and we brought them over to Village Thing. Along with Wizz Jones, Belgian hero Roland Van Campenhout and others, he recorded his wonderful Feelin’ Fine which saw his triumphant return to stages including the 1972 Cambridge Folk Festival. Sadly, Derroll died in 2000 at the age of 74. Feelin’ Fine has been recently re-issued on CD with extra tracks from 1975.
By 1973 my great friend, early musical partner and eccentric songwriter/ guitarist genius Al Jones had endured a thoroughly disillusioning experience recording an album released on EMI Parlophone that barely registered, and then another uncompleted one for Bill Leader’s Trailer label. He’d retired semi-hurt to Cornwall but I prised him back out to record Jonesville. Sessions in the Quaker hall involved a drummer encased in a box made of mattresses! Al really was an original, both in his oddball lyrics and crafty chord structures. As with Derroll Adams, the full Jonesville album augmented with five 1974 demo tracks has been CD re-issued by Ghosts From The Basement. Tragically, Al Jones passed away in the summer of 2008.

Probably the most sought-after Village Thing album of all by collectors came from superb New Zealand singer/ guitarist Chris Thompson. He’d spent time in Ireland where he’d recorded some initial tracks; rumour and radio tapes from Belgium (again) had reached us and I eventually bumped into him in a London club where he was visiting with Wizz Jones. We got him to Frenchay with tabla player Keshav Sathe and among the tracks we recorded to complete his album was the extraordinary flight of Her Hair Was Long. Frustratingly, distributors Transatlantic ‘lost’ most of his album pressing in an insurance scam and only 101 copies were sold. It was the writing on the wall for Village Thing. Chris returned to NZ in 1974 and is still performing. The album was re-issued on CD with lots of extra tracks by Sunbeam.
Towards the tail end of the Village Thing era we ran into another couple of rambling Americans – in fact, unless memory is playing tricks on me it was at a Derroll Adams comeback gig at the Shakespeare’s Head in London’s Carnaby Street. Lackey & Sweeney were from Tucson, Arizona and doing that classic ’70s thing of seeing Europe while living in a Volkswagen Microbus full of instruments. Their Junk Store Songs For Sale was one of the last in the Village Thing catalogue before the label closed in 1974 and, as with Chris Thompson’s and for the same reasons, it never got the circulation it deserved. Both are seperately back in Tucson now after long times away on the West Coast.

The very last Village Thing LP finished it where it started, with a popular folk club entertainer. Irishman Noel Murphy had been one of the scene’s biggest audience draws, starting out as the regular allnighter MC at London’s famous Les Cousins and soon making his name nationally for his uproarious gigs. Not long before making Murf he’d had a regular duo with banjoist ‘Shaggis’, subsequently better known as Elton John’s guitarist Davey Johstone. The Old Man’s Tale, written by Ian Campbell, proved he could do serious songs too.
More reading about the era here.
Happy 50th birthday, Village Thing!
Ian A Anderson, September 2020

Note – a few little crackles will be heard here and there as some tracks had to be dubbed from original old vinyl LPs where no CD re-issues from original master tapes have been made. Thanks to Phil Beer for help with making the copies.

1. (Intro) Dave Evans : a snippet of Insanity Rag from the LP The Words In Between (VTS6) 1971
2. Pigsty Hill Light Orchestra : T'Ain't No Sin from the LP PHLOP! (VTS1) 1970
3. The Sun Also Rises : Flowers from the LP The Sun Also Rises (VTS2) 1970
4. Ian A Anderson : Hero from the LP Royal York Crescent (VTS3) 1970
5. Wizz Jones : If Only I'd Known from the LP The Legendary Me (VTS4) 1970
6. Steve Tilston : Simplicity from the LP An Acoustic Confusion (VTS5) 1971
7. Dave Evans : City Road from the LP The Words In Between (VTS6) 1971
8. Fred Wedlock : Spencer The Rover from the LP The Folker (VTS7) 1971
9. Pigsty Hill Light Orchestra : Sweet Miss Emmaline (live) from the LP Piggery Jokery (VTS8) 1971
10. Strange Fruit : Shake That Thing from the 45 single, VTSX1001-A 1971
11. Ian A Anderson : Time Is Ripe from the LP A Vulture Is Not A Bird You Can Trust (VTS9) 1971
12. Dave Mudge : Memory Book (demo – VTS10 never released)
13. Hunt & Turner : We Say We're Sorry from the LP Magic Landscape (VTS11) 1972
14. Tight Like That : West End Rag from the LP Hokum (VTS12) 1972
15. Tucker Zimmerman : Left Hand Of Moses from the LP Tucker Zimmerman (VTS13) 1972
16. Dave Evans : Only Blue from the LP Elephantasia (VTS14) 1972
17. The Sun Also Rises : Fafnir And The Knights from the Various Artists LP Us (VTSAM15) 1972
18. Dave Kelly : A Few Short Lines from the Various Artists LP Matchbox Days (VTSAM16) 1972
19. Derroll Adams : The Valley from the LP Feelin' Fine (VTS17) 1972
20. Ian A Anderson : Marie Celeste On Down from the LP Singer Sleeps On As Blaze Rages (VTS18) 1972
21. Al Jones : High And Dry from the LP Jonesville (VTS19) 1972
22. Fred Wedlock : Talking Folk Club Blues (live) from the LP Frollicks (VTS20) 1972
23. Chris Thompson : Her Hair Was Long from the LP Chris Thompson (VTS21) 1973
24. Dave Peabody : Long Time Loser Blues from the LP Peabody Hotel (VTS22) 1973
25. Lackey & Sweeney : Sparrow from the LP Junk Store Songs For Sale (VTS23) 1973
26. Wizz Jones : The First Girl I Loved from the LP When I Leave Berlin (VTS24) 1974
27. Noel Murphy : The Old Man's Tale from the LP Murf (VTS25) 1974

CD REISSUES: Ghosts From The Basement recently released the limited edition 6-track EP The Great Granddaughter Of The Great White Dap, with tracks from Wizz Jones, Ian A. Anderson, Derroll Adams, Steve Tilston & Dave Evans (previously unreleased), Al Jones and The Sun Also Rises. Sorry, it's now sold out and collectable!

They also have Complete CDs by Derroll Adams, Al Jones and Ian A Anderson at Ghosts From The Basement. You can find Village Thing re-issues from Dave Evans on Earth Records; Wizz Jones, Chris Thompson on Sunbeam Records; Fred Wedlock, Sun Also Rises, Steve Tilston, Hunt & Turner on Saydisc and the expanded Matchbox Days compilation on Ace. All of Ian A Anderson's VT output is now in a box set from Cherry Red.

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  1. I worked on a farm with Pat from Bownhill Farm, Woodchester near Stroud. We often came down to the club and fondly remember you and Steve Tilston.
    Do you or Maggie still keep in touch with Pat?

    1. Sad to tell you that Pat is no longer with us. In regular touch with her daughter Chloe though.