Of late it has been easier to source cover versions of many of the 12 songs on Bright Phoebus than the originals, a fact that has done nothing to hinder the growth in influence of an album that was available for only a short time before the demise of the label that released it in 1972.
Champions of the record include Arcade Fire, Jarvis Cocker and Richard Hawley, while the Waterson clan’s spiritual heirs number among them James Yorkston, King Creosote, Adrian Crowley, Trembling Bells and Alasdair Roberts. For them and many others it will be all their Christmases and birthdays rolled into one finally to see the album granted a conscientiously directed remaster (part-overseen by Lal Waterson’s daughter Marry) and reissue, with the deluxe CD and vinyl editions also featuring demos of songs written for Bright Phoebus besides extensive and engrossing sleeve notes from Pete Paphides.
Bright Phoebus emerged after the demise of the first iteration of vocal group the Watersons – siblings Elaine (known as Lal), Mike and Norma and family friend John Harrison, a quartet from Hull whose singing style exhibited what Rob Young in his history of modern folk music Electric Eden deftly called “polyphonic austerity”. Three albums in two years and a Stakhanovite commitment to live performance had brought them a measure of success but insufficient financial security to compensate for the vagaries of touring the British folk circuit in the mid to late 1960s.
Norma moved to Montserrat with her boyfriend while Lal and Mike fell into the humdrum rhythm of everyday life, both siblings becoming parents and Mike working as a painter and decorator. Though living in separate cities – Lal in Leeds with her husband George Knight and Mike in Hull – both separately began to compose songs, having only sung traditional songs or music written by other people until this point.
Lal was a poet first and a songwriter second, her godhead being the 19th-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud, and had what guitarist Martin Carthy, a key figure in the birth of Bright Phoebus, describes as an “idiosyncratic way of playing the guitar”. Her brother, in contrast, was more comfortable on the instrument and at least once composed the bones of a song – the title track, unconnected to the 18th-century hunting song of the same name – while up a ladder with a brush in his hand, dashing home to work out the chords before returning to his job.
In due course the songs Lal was writing came to the attention of Carthy, then playing with Steeleye Span, who alerted bandmate and ex-Fairport Convention bass player Ashley Hutchings to Lal’s gift. Hutchings in turn corralled two of his fellow ex-Fairport colleagues Richard Thompson and Dave Mattacks as well as folk stalwart Bill Leader, producer and owner of the Leader and Trailer record labels, the goal being to commit these songs to tape. A homesick Norma returned to the UK in late 1971, further bolstering the potential for the recordings to come.
For one week in May 1972, a temporary studio in the basement of Cecil Sharp House in London became the crucible in which Leader oversaw the successful commingling of the core elements of Bright Phoebus – unearthly songs that frequently followed singular structural paths from beginning to end; Lal’s dynamically unwavering yet irresistible voice; the Waterson siblings’ densely plotted harmonies; the juxtaposition of Mike’s sprightly compositions and Lal’s eerie, mesmeric ballads; adroit acoustic guitar performances from Carthy and Thompson (often with each panned hard to separate channels of the stereo picture); and an unsettling sense of otherworldliness, rapture and sorrow.
Although chapters of Bright Phoebus are palpably downbeat (death is a recurring theme), the sessions were anything but, an open-door policy seeing the core group augmented variously by Tim Hart and Maddy Prior of Steeleye Span, jazz clarinettist Sammy Rimington, Geordie singer Bob Davenport and others.
That convivial atmosphere is most apparent from the off, with Rubber Band – the sole single to be released from Bright Phoebus, sung with gusto by its writer, Mike Waterson – waddling out of the blocks with a whimsy redolent of Sgt Pepper that, if not initially then later, sits uncomfortably with the bulk of its parent record. Perhaps its placement as the opening song was a sop to commercial objectives. Whatever the truth, it is a feeble start to a record that deserved better.
In cahoots with his sister, however, Mike Waterson redeems himself in a matter of seconds, making a strong case for the highlight of the album in The Scarecrow, an ominous inquiry into how far mankind is willing to go to appease nature for the sake of a good harvest, at its core a “bag of rags in an overall” tied to a pole. It isn’t until the third verse that the song’s most chilling lines are delivered over spidery guitar work from Carthy and Thompson: “As I rode out one fine spring day/ I saw 12 jolly dons dressed out in the blue and the gold so gay/ And to a stake they tied a child newborn/ And the songs were sung, the bells was rung, and they sowed the corn.”
Having skirted psychedelia and pagan folk, Mike later takes the listener down the road of rock ’n’ roll with Danny Rose, a Brylcreemed picaresque which ends with the car thief of the title perishing in a ball of flames. Later, he leads a six-strong chorus line through the folk-meets-country rock pastoral Shady Lady – the voices so thick they blur the joins – before the closing title track, in which the two siblings inhabit familiarly folky territory before the band and ad-hoc choir kick in for the climax of a rudimentary but bewitching paean to the mood-enhancing power of the sun, its optimism long overdue.
While Mike Waterson’s role in Bright Phoebus is nothing less than central, what sustained this album during its four and a half decades in the shadows – and will ensure its endurance for years to come – is the contribution of Lal Waterson, both as a songwriter and a singer. Twine the two skills around each other and you have in your hands something unbreakable, something permanent.
On Bright Phoebus Lal’s lead vocal parts are free from fuss or dynamic complexity: the words and melodies were so acute there was no need for them. Her shortcomings as a guitar player were irrelevant – her harmonic sense, as Martin Carthy noted while helping develop her songs in Hull during the album’s gestation, was astonishing.
Lal was also blessed with an instinct for song structure that bucked convention, guiding her often mournful but never maudlin narratives and melodies down untrodden paths to their conclusion. She sidestepped a linear method of uncovering the truths at the heart of her songs in favour of abstract or impressionistic approaches.
Such is their consistently high quality it would be folly to choose between Fine Horseman, Never the Same, Winifer Odd, Red Wine Promises (sung by Norma Waterson), Child Among the Weeds and To Make You Stay. Within these six songs are expressions of fantasy, despair – at losses past and future – and unapologetically drunken contentment, while there is also a strand of storytelling as succinctly poetic as the melodies that carry it, Winifer Odd taking all of four short verses to deliver a compressed chronicle of the titular character’s 34 years on Earth.
While not an unqualified success, particularly in its sequencing, the overwhelming majority of Bright Phoebus warrants every ounce of the reputation the record has spawned during its absence from the world at large. Where it sags, it recovers quickly, and where it rises, it rides upon thermal after thermal, scornful of gravity.
Given the cross-pollination of music genres in the 21st century it seems ludicrous that Bright Phoebus was hobbled upon its initial release by being neither rock enough for one potential audience nor sufficiently folk for another, but it’s as incongruous now as it was then, albeit for different reasons – namely the heft and spirit of these songs in an age where music is as ephemeral as the latest viral phenomenon.
While its creators didn’t live to enjoy the plaudits the remastered edition of their masterly work will undoubtedly attract, the rest of us can give thanks for the efforts of those who kept the flame alive.