Perfect Sound Forever

Shirley Collins

Shirley in 1972

Interview, Part 5 of 5
by Johan Kugelberg of Ugly Things

JK: When David Tibet introduced me to your music ten years ago, it was something that he actually mentioned the first time we talked about you. I think the MacColl criticisms are all wrong, that they're all diametrically opposite. It's almost sort of flabbergasting. Poor guy, how could he have gotten it so wrong on such a profound level.

SC: That's very nice of you to say that.

JK: At this point, I think that the norm amongst music lovers is that that guy was just fucked. He was really deeply wrong.

SC: All this time, I was out there on my own. I had gotten the support of John Marshall and got the support of Davy for a bit, and the Incredible String Band who liked the music and seemed to be supporting it. And it was a great curve to have somebody like David Munrow willing to play for you. But it was always a struggle because the music I was doing was never that popular. For instance, if you got invited to do a gig on the BBC, you got to do three songs, and could you make two of them uptempo? It didn't matter what, you just had to break numbers and that's all they cared about, how it sounded, and there was something more profound going on in the music, I thought. It was always a battle. For instance, I got invited on television once and I was with Davy and we were going to do something like "Reynardine." And the producer said, well you can't do that. Nobody will know what the hell you're doing. Anyway, I thought you were supposed to be beautiful.

JK: You should have just clocked him there!

SC: I should have just clocked him but once people say that to you in front of the whole camera crew... Finally, I remember that day, I think Davy and I did "House of the Rising Sun" and that was acceptable. All the time it was resistance, resistance, resistance. People who liked it liked it. I mean even Burt Lloyd was being very snide about it. He called me the sweet voiced Sussex singer and I said "oh fuck off." I didn't say 'fuck off' in those days but I wish I had said it more often really. Let some of it soak in, you know.

JK: The thing to never forget is that TV producers, record executives, these are people with no true skills. They're people who are surrounded by people with skill and talent so they can parasite off them.

SC: I wish you had told me that then.

JK: At least I'm telling my kids. The very romantic meeting between you and Ashley Hutchings is documented in a couple of interviews. And you were well aware of Liege and Lief. One is obviously seeing how these things are leading up to No Roses. It's interesting to see such a seminal marriage of folk and rock. I get the impression that you didn't have the patience for rock and roll. Am I wrong? The trouble is when you've been used to listening to Muddy Waters, you're not going to want to listen to the Rolling Stones.

SC: The trouble is when you've been used to listening to Muddy Waters, you're not going to want to listen to the Rolling Stones. That's just about it. There wasn't much I was actually listening to.

JK: Did you enjoy electric blues in general? Howlin' Wolf and Magic Sam?

SC: Oh yeah, I'm very happy with all that.

JK: But white rock & roll didn't cut it compared to those fellas?

SC: No, not really. When I first went to the states I remember hearing city kids playing very flashy banjos and guitars very fast, but then when you got to hear the real thing, what was the point of it? It was just fast. It's not that I'm not in touch with stuff, I'm in touch with different stuff.

JK: Your observation are spot on. If you've heard Muddy Waters and you've heard Howlin' Wolf, you never want to listen to the Rolling Stones. ---

JK: I've read about it, but I want to hear it again. Who were the musicians for No Roses selected? How did this insane group of people actually come together?

SC: Just came walking into the studio. No, we had a list of various musicians that we wanted to use.

JK: So you did put a list together.

SC: Well, no, I don't think so, because it did sort of grow and grow as more and more happened. Nothing was planned out in advance. It sort of became organic and grew in the studio. There would be phone calls like, "oh yeah, that would be a good idea" and people would just stay and do a bit more.

JK: Even in this strange gathering of people, Lol Coxhill stands out like a sore thumb.

SC: Yes I know, but wasn't his contribution beautiful? I had never heard of Lol Coxhill and I'm not sure who suggested him, but somebody did and it was beautiful.

JK: Who was Pegasus? What label was that?

SC: Pegasus was a spin off of B&C.

JK: How did the Harvest connection come about?

SC: Malcom Young was put in charge of Harvest. That was when EMI wanted something like you were describing with Joe Boyd.

JK: They wanted a freak label and they wanted a company freak to run it.

SC: Yeah. How he got a hold of us I'm not sure. I think John Marshall must have gone and persuaded him because he used to do a lot of persuading.

JK: He was a master of the living room and the board room.

SC: He talked very well. He loved the music as well. He wanted to get more promotion for the music. He was working for the Observer then. He was sort of a... what's the word?

JK: Mover and a shaker? A finesser? A hustler?

SC: Something like that.

JK: The tour that followed No Roses that included Ashley Hutchings and Richard Thompson, that must have been pretty loud and pretty electric.

SC: The tour? There was no tour. There were only two gigs in the West country. Three gigs in the West country. With Simon (Nicol) and Richard, Royston Wood from the Old Tradition who was our roadie and sang because he was the only one who could drive, and John Kirkpatrick joined us. It wasn't that loud, it was lovely. It was ever such fun, I remember. I wish to God they had been recorded.

JK: I guess I associate Richard Thompson with some sort of extra added loudness to the entire event.

SC: Not back then.

JK: If you remember any of it, what was the material performed at those shows? Was it mainly No Roses?

SC: Some stuff from No Roses.

JK: I'm pinching at whether there were electric guitar version of Anthems or Love,Death material.

SC:No, I don't think so. I can't honestly recall. What I mostly remember about those gigs and this is probably why I don't remember anything else, is we were all introduced to something down there called bahogany, which was a rum mixture and it was absolutely delicious and we were all drinking it, and this is why I can't remember anything else.

JK: An egg cup of that would have laid me out. That's like booze with booze.

SC: It was gorgeous, it was very warming.

JK: Can you explain the concept of Morris dancing or Molly dancing to us foreigners? We gather that it has something to do with men dressing up like ladies.

SC: Have you never seen it?

JK: No.

SC: Sides of men, eight, ten, twelve. They wave handkerchiefs, they have sticks and bells tied to their calves.

JK: Are they in drag?

SC: No, chaps with britches with white socks and black shoes and white shirts.

JK: The album sleeves for Morris On and Son of Morris On were always sort of head-scratchers. I mean we know that English people are a bit twisted.

SC: I know. And Molly dancing is just another form of sides of men dancing. They say that Morris dancing is a corruption of Moorish and the Crusaders but who knows if that's true or not. It's a lovely sort of ritual dance that I love but a lot of people just deride it because they don't really understand it. And there are some very hopeless sides as well. Sometimes you get some very fat men dancing and it just doesn't look good.

JK: I'd pay to see that.

SC: When you get a really good side, it's absolutely marvelous. And if you go to Hastings, my dear old hometown, they have an entire day of Morris dancing on May Day. And then play one tune, one beautiful 17th century tune on concertina and drums and whistles and they process throughout the whole town of Hastings. It's just magical. You're so entranced by it. The same tune, lovely tune, a very minor tune. It is a ritual and by the time you've finished a day there, you feel that something extraordinary has happened to you.

JK: I also wondered about the formation of the Etchingham Steam Band.

SC:This is Martin Carthy's idea. It was during the '70's. I can't remember the sequence of it all. He'd left Fairport and becoming enamored with English music and disenchanted with electric music. Because it was going more towards the Celtic; the Irish tunes were taking over. So it was Marty's idea that we should form an acoustic band. It was wonderful. Our first gig was by candlelight. It gave him the chance to buy the earthwood bass, a huge bass and he loved it. It was a gorgeous instrument. We were living in Sussex and we wanted to keep it sort of local, because all of those bands were so unmanageable. It was even sort of complicated getting Dolly and me and the flute organ together quite often.

JK: And you're also coming off No Roses, which was getting hordes and hordes of people together and the logistics tied to something like that.

SC: That's true. So it was meant to be sort of low key, nothing pretentious, just that.

JK: How many recording sessions were there of the steam band?

SC: We didn't ever record in the studio, we did one or two BBC things. It was folk clubs, festivals and one or two radio things that formed the ESB album.

JK: Going to Adieu To Old England, you'd said before that you weren't too happy with it.

SC: I did say that, didn't I? I hated a couple of songs on it. I hated the "Sheena" song. Not my cup of tea, but I suppose in its own way its an interesting historical document. But I wasn't very happy with it. I have to also say that I didn't really enjoy singing with a mouth organ accompaniment. I'd been used to something more subtle than that and it just did feel like sort of a rumpty-tumpty kind of thing. So I'd have to say it wasn't my favorite band. We had some happy times, but there's no subtlety in the music, no finesse. It served its purpose and some people got awful fond of it.

JK: The Amaranth album. That being the imaginary flower that never fades.

SC: Ashley and I sat up in bed trying to think of a title for this new album. We thought "Albion," but we'd only got through the A's in bed. (laughing)

JK: So, the imaginary flower that never fades. I interpret that as a great confidence in your musical legacy. That even if you did give up music, the music itself would never fade.

SC: Well, once we saw the word, it is a lovely word in its own right, 'amaranth' and we saw what it meant, it just seemed like the right thing. Because it obviously did refer to the music: it is going to last forever.

JK: But it didn't refer to you moving out of being a singer?

SC: No, I don't think so.

JK: Whatever happened to the Great Smudge recordings?

SC: We've got one of them.

JK: How many of the songs did you appear on?

SC: Just the two songs. I went into the studio to record the hymn and that other song, "Thistle and Rose" or whatever.

JK: I have a very loose notion of what it was. Was it a Sweeney Todd thing, was it a horror play?

SC: No, it was a sort of ballad opera that John Marshall had written. It was anti-war, because that particular song, the "Thistle and Rose" song was anti war. But I was finding it ever so difficult to talk to John after we'd divorced. I don't really remember what it was all about.

JK: For As Many As Will. Did you think of it as a coda to the Amaranth record or to your work with Dolly? There's a finality about Amaranth, that's why I'm asking.

SC: I think when I made Amaranth, I thought that was going to be the last album I made because I'd been away from the kids so much when they were little. And I really wanted to be home with them when they were coming into their teens. I wanted to look after them and be around them. I felt the guilt that any parent feels when you know you've been away from your children. Not at crucial points in their lives. And Ashley, I thought he needed a lot more attention and care at home as well. We'd talked it all through and I thought I was not going to go out on the road anymore, I'd stay at home with the kids and Ashley was going to continue what he wanted to do. I would just do that and look after them all and I was quite happy to think about doing that. Because being on the road is quite exhausting, isn't it? And then the work had started up at the National Theater and Ashley fell in love with first one, and then several other actresses and just left over night. I wasn't sure whether this had been in the back of his mind or not. This is what's so unpleasant when something like that happens, that I had been sort of egged into making this agreement. But I don't really see what the point of that would have been because I still would've had to make a living. But it all really did fall to bits. After the National Theater things did sort of come to a halt for me because that's where my voice got damaged, where my ego got damaged and my heart and everything and I stopped being able to sing properly.

JK: Being the interviewer, it gets tricky because there's a none of my business element in asking about this time of your life.

SC: I don't mind. It was a long time ago.

JK: So, For As Many As Will came out in 1978.

SC: That was after Ashley and I had broken up.

JK: And then you started working with Dolly again.

SC: It was wonderful but we were really broke, we were hard up. We had to always hire the flute organ, which, generally speaking, took well over half the fees we got. We had to always get someone to drive us. And Dolly had a child and I was not secure in my singing anymore. I was letting my voice down and my voice was letting me down.

JK: But the Australian tour and the Italian tour must have been really hard for you.

SC: The Italian tour was lovely.

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER