Wednesday 15 September 2010

Electric Eden review

Rob Young
Electric Eden

Electric Eden is subtitled ‘unearthing Britain’s visionary music,” and the back of it promises that Young “investigates how the idea of folk has been handed down and transformed by successive generations.” All of which would be nice if it was true.

It’s a hefty volume, and at £17.99, not a cheap one. Still of the basis of all that, and the good reviews it’s enjoyed, it should make for an interesting read. However, when the opening chapter covers Vashti Bunyan’s 1960s hippie journey and her music as emblematic of visionary English folk it all becomes a little worrying. Her first album was a pleasant enough piece of hippie music making. But it didn’t tap into any deeply British spirit, or at least no more than plenty of other bands of the period with Utopian dreams.

It’s a book that throws a lot of information at the reader, talking about musicians famous and obscure. It’s not just everything except the kitchen sink; it’s everything including the kitchen sink, taps, plug and water pipes. Young some clever turns of phrase, and some areas he knows very well. But if this book is supposed to be about the folk process, it quickly shies away from that central idea to the point where it seems to have little real thesis at all.

If anything, it seems designed to give Young a chance to talk about people he admires. So there are sections on Nick Drake, Fairport, the various stages of Ashley Hutchings’ career, Led Zeppelin, Julian Cope, Comus and more. He impressive and insightful when discussing the early 20th century composers, several of whom collected folk songs (although Percy Grainger barely warrants a mention, curiously), and he offers a reasonable look at Ewan MacColl and his do as I say, not as I do idea of folk music. A.L. Lloyd is a recurring presence for part of the book.

It’s true that with Liege and Lief (and “A Sailor’s Life,” recorded before it) Fairport Convention upended folk music, bringing new people to folk music. Those who’d sung folk songs in primary schools suddenly reconnected to it in a different way. And with the folk revival on the 1950s folk had made its real comeback after being placed on a dusty museum shelf.

It’s after that where Young seems to really lose his way. Nick Drake was a great singer and songwriter, but was he really part of folk music? And what about Black Sabbath, who get a page of two? A long section on the Incredible String Band makes perfect sense, but there’s no mention of John Tams, whether in his early Derbyshire career, in Home Service or since. You can make a good case for the inclusion of Julian Cope and discussion of the film The Wicker Man, but not so much for some of today’s underground – especially when the folk music of the last 20 years gets little more than half a page near the end.

It’s arguable that since, say, 1990, there’s been an even great connection between the folk tradition and music making than at any time before. People are pushing folk in new ways, and they’re not just the Imagined Village (who do crop up on Young’s radar). Where, though, are Bellowhead or Jim Moray, or any of the other dozens of acts who are working new magic in the tradition?

This book promised a lot and tries to blind with its deluge. However capable and well written it is (and there are plenty of factual errors in there), ultimately it doesn’t deliver on the promise. Oh, and by the end you'll be sick of the name Mighty Baby, which seems to run under everything like a subtext.

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