If you are about to listen to On The Shore for the first time, then you are to be envied.
In an era of mass communication and commercial misappropriation, there are few genuinely lost treasures left to be discovered. But On The Shore, the second and final album from the English folk rock band Trees, may yet be approached and appreciated in innocence, free from unwanted associations. Trees formed in London in 1969, and spluttered to a halt in 1972, barely a footnote in musical history. Since then, On The Shore’s legend has grown slowly underground these last thirty-five years. In the Spring of 2006, the track ‘Geordie’ was sampled by a chart-topping pop group called Gnarls Barkley after a recommendation from the proprietor of Ladbroke Grove’s Minus Zero record store, and the album was given a final push back into the sunlight. On The Shore’s re-emergence is timely. “Folk is the new rare groove”, declared the London listings magazine Time Out in June 2006. But the raggle-taggle troubadours of the Nu-Folk movement are retro indie-rockers in disguise, whilst On The Shore’s psychedelic-folk fusion was all but unprecedented, and its tone of strange, otherworldly, almost sinister ambivalence has remained impossible to counterfeit.
Trees formed through a network of friends and acquaintances. The first time the folk guitarist David Costa met the lead guitarist Barry Clarke they immediately got out their instruments, played together, and, it being 1969, decided to form a band. Bassist and songwriter Bias Boshell lived in the same house as Barry, and he’d been at the famous Hampshire non-conformist school Bedales with drummer Unwin Brown. Celia Humphris, the singer, was the sister of a workmate of David’s. “David asked her if she knew any female singers for a new band,” Celia recalls, “She suggested me and made me go to the audition. I was totally involved in my studies at drama school and really had no interest in leaving but I went anyway, had never heard of any of the songs they wanted me to sing, like The Incredible String Band’s October Song, so I sang Summertime and left saying “thanks, but…” and then changed my mind overnight!”
Given the arbitrary nature of its genesis, how did Trees settle on such a distinct sound? “I was a nice north London Jewish boy who grew up inexplicably fascinated with the folk scene in and around the Hampstead folk clubs,” David remembers in the design studio he now heads, “The Chalk Farm Enterprise, The Hole In The Wall, one in Flask Walk in Hampstead that I can’t remember the name of, one in Harrow, and Les Cousins in Soho. We were all down there, hanging out, in our black polar necks being terribly beatnik, terribly cool, assumed it was French and always called it Lay Coozan. It was only a couple of years ago I found out that the guy who owned it was actually called Les Cousins.” The 15 year old folk fan befriended Martin Carthy, today viewed as the godfather of modern English traditional music. “I was hugely influenced by Martin but my real love was for the Americanisation of the basic British folk ballads, like a Xerox of a Xerox. When the received tradition becomes that convoluted, it folds over itself so many times you get very surreal, distorted lyrics and wonderful aural accidents simply as a result of mis-hearing.”
“David introduced us to the wonderfully rich, exciting and vibrant world of traditional music,” Bias admits, “to songs that were, and are, so extraordinarily brilliant and moving that anyone would kill to put their name to them.” Celia is characteristically direct. “I certainly wasn’t a folk fan! But it suited my vocal limitations. I had trained as an opera singer and I totally pissed off my singing teacher when I joined Trees. ‘Two years wasted,’ she said. I’d have loved to have sung blues or jazz but I had too light a voice. That said, I came to enjoy what I was involved in, just as the others did.” David almost seems to suggest that Trees became a folk rock band by default. “I don’t think there’s any mystery to it. If you think of what was available in the fifties and sixties to the listening population of students, beatniks, and jazzers, there was jazz, there was skiffle, there was rock and roll, and blues, and there was folk. These were the building blocks. Basically we did what we could do and we all brought different things to the table. I brought the folk thing. Barry was a phenomenal lead guitarist. Bias was writing his own material. Celia had particular purity to her voice. It was all we could do, we couldn’t be anything other than what we were, we couldn’t do anything other than what we did. We were never engaged in a dialogue about the authenticity of the tradition, and what’s interesting about Gnarls Barkley is they’ve done pretty well the same thing today (albeit a lot better!). They’ve looked at a body of music that’s available to them, and there’s forty years more music available as a resource now than there was when we were young, and in a sense they’re doing what we did. We were only sampling, too. I’m not a great folk musician. What I loved was those aberrations and those weird things that could happen when the tradition was working really hard and when it was subject to all these other influences.”
Trees’ first album, The Garden of Jane Delawney, from the Spring of 1970, snuggles nicely into contemporary nu-folkies’ idea of the genre, and shares some of the pastoral-whimsy that characterised The Incredible String Band or Donovan, offset by some stunning interpretations of traditional material and Bias’ own songs, which somehow seemed to be a part of the tradition Trees had adopted. “David was the driving force behind the folk influences,” Celia confirms, “but Bias was writing songs anyway and was able to bend his stuff around the folk thing.” David again emphasises the group’s hybridised nature; “It was when I first listened to Bluebird by Buffalo Springfield that I realised you could have an acoustic and electric lead together, and that we could marry that with the writing skills of Bias, who understood the threads of what folk music could offer and could weave them very conveniently into Trees.” The album’s title track actually pre-dated Bias’ joining the group. “I wrote Jane Delawney at Bedales in about1965. I cannot explain anything about it,” he confesses, “I don’t know who Jane Delawney is, what it means, or what influenced me in writing it. It just appeared as if from nowhere.”
Once you’ve succumbed to Trees, you’ll need to seek out The Garden Of Jane Delawney, but it is overshadowed by On The Shore, which followed later the same year. There’s a definite shift between the two records, the second being darker and more ambivalent. Here Trees don’t tell you what to think. You’re left to formulate your own response to this odd, opaque music. Bias explains the difference with a metaphor drawn from William Blake. “First come songs of innocence, or naivety, and secondly, songs of experience, or, possibly, cynicism.” “Generally,” agrees David, “interest seems divided between the naivety of the first album and the dark, arcane Englishness of the second.” Apart from the occurrence, in the closing sections of Fool and the middle of While The Iron Is Hot, of the kind of rock soloing that Trees kept up their sleeves for tough crowds, On The Shore is performed largely without unnecessary accents. Even Bias’ original compositions find Trees sounding like a conduit for material that is somehow passing through them. At times, Celia approaches a tradition of English female folk singers exemplified by Shirley Collins, who avoid overwrought interpretations and allow the songs to speak. Was this something she was consciously aiming for? “No, not really. I was simply being the fifth lead instrument. The words were less important than their sound. I rarely actually listen to the words of a song, rather instead to the vocal as a part of the whole, the sound, the rhythm, the style.” Was the actress turned front-woman taking on the character of a folk singer? “Well, I did used to stick my finger in my ear,” she jokes, “but that was more out of necessity than affectation. I simply couldn’t hear the pitch because the band always played so loudly. I was unable to step up the volume for certain songs. That’s why I started to sing in my chest range which is much stronger but totally different to the head voice. I couldn’t move from one to the other without a yodel.”
Three and a half decades later, On The Shore remains a captivating item partly because it cannot be understood. The product of an era characterised by clunky polemic, Arcadian sentimentality or English fuzzy-felt surrealism, the album is fascinatingly unknowable, and like all classic records, it’s somehow so much greater than the sum of its parts. On The Shore even survives the negative gravitational pull of the occasional deeply flawed track. “We put our emotions and lives into that record,” says Bias, “with the possible exception of Little Sadie.” “The second album was so much more elegant than the first,” Celia agrees, “apart from Little Sadie, of course; God that was awful…”
The album opens with a strident traditional tune, Soldiers Three, learned from Dave Swarbrick before he joined Fairport Convention. Bias describes Murdoch, written at his mother’s house, in Arthog, North Wales, in the shadow of Cader Idris, as “the only song that I’ve ever remembered that I heard in a dream. I still find it somewhat disturbing. However, anyone who has gazed up at Cader Idris in a bleak Welsh twilight will know the feeling.” Murdoch’s lyrical complexity marks it out as contemporary, but with its black beaked crows and mountain shrouds, it also exemplifies the ‘pagan’ element that David Costa felt defined Martin Carthy’s take on English folk. Bias explains; “I had, at that time, an almost religious conviction that with lyrics, it didn’t so much matter what you said as that it should sound good, it should ‘sing right.’ I’ve written a few songs in my time, most only known to me, where the lyrics make perfect sense but they do not ‘sing’ well!” Celia and her future husband, the Radio 1 DJ Pete Drummond, ended up buying the house where Murdoch was composed, the same house where many of the tracks were learned or rehearsed for stage or studio.
Polly On The Shore, another traditional tune, was assimilated from the repertoire of Martin Carthy. It’s one of the definitive moments of English folk rock, with Barry’s exquisite, needlepoint lead picking out perfectly chosen notes that blossom and fade over the opening bars. Celia’s restrained performance gives the song a dispassionate, deeply affecting, matter-of-fact quality, but it’s not a performance she personally looks back on fondly. “My voice was not strong enough to give any more emphasis, especially in the refrain when it comes around. I feel I just couldn’t give it what it needed, and no-one else would sing on stage.” A contemporaneous radio session version of the song added massed male backing vocals to the main theme, but at the expense of the album version’s sense of muted resignation. “The guitar work was superb,” Celia concedes, “but the ‘plodding’ nature of some of our work is obvious.” Maybe this ‘plodding’ feeling is the song’s strength? It feels like Trees, described affectionately at the time by the journalist Karl Dallas as being a collection of people all playing lead, are pushing the song towards exploding, finally overwhelming the stately rhythm during the 4th minute. Hitchcock said a couple could be filmed kissing on a bed as long as you liked, so long as there was a bomb underneath it. Polly On The Shore is suffused with a delicious tension.
Adam’s Toon, written in the 13th century by the troubadour Adam Dela Halle was learned from an album of medieval music. Fool, a co-write between Bias and David, is the most contemporary sounding track on the album, despite its arcane lyrics. “All the Trees tracks that I wrote were just written with nothing else in mind apart from getting whatever song it was out of my system,” remembers Bias, “apart from Fool which David and I wrote together. I believe that we had enormous fun doing this, but neither of us has any idea who ‘Oswald the smith’ is or was, or shall be.” While The Iron Is Hot was another attempt by Bias to write in a traditional idiom. “I knew something about the Tolpuddle Martyrs, and then read about a strike in the 19th century where ‘they broke the shears at Foster’s Mill.’ The phrase had a rhythm to it that became a tune in my head. And we used to go down to Cecil Sharpe House, the headquarters of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, and trawl through stuff and listen to so much modal music that it became the norm. The one thing I would dearly like to change in the lyric is the line ‘I think it was in 1890…’. It should have been ‘1819.’ There weren’t a lot of Luddites left near the end of Victoria’s reign!”
Geordie and Streets Of Derry are two more superb interpretations of traditional tunes, both characterised by the same controlled passion that defines Polly On The Shore. Geordie was learned from the folk circuit and everybody’s repertoire, and it’s strange to think of the song’s convoluted progress into the Gnarls Barkley sample arsenal. Barry’s lead guitar work is again characteristically brilliant, and seems to anticipate Tom Verlaine, Robert Quinne and the guitar heroes of the mid-seventies New York scene. Streets Of Derry would have been familiar to folk fans at the time from Shirley Collins’ version, and offers the band an extended coda to improvise over, which again sounds more like an anglicised version of Crazy Horse or Television than the fag-end of flower power. Celia admits to falling asleep on stage during one especially lengthy reading of the song; finding things to do through the band’s extended instrumental sections seems to have been a recurring problem for her. “I used to ‘wiggle,’ or dance on the spot, during the long breaks. I’d turn my back on the audience so that it should have been obvious that I was not the important bit. But when we played at Wellington College Boys’ School, one of the masters asked me to stop wiggling as it was ‘upsetting’ the boys. That was when I started to lie down onstage instead.”
Trees’ reading of the Bristol folksinger Cyril Tawney’s Sally Free And Easy is the centrepiece of the album, and its finest moment. Fairport Convention had delivered English folk rock’s first extended psychedelic workout in the shape of A Sailor’s Life, in July 1969, but next to the Trees track’s quicksilver fluidity it sounds as rigorous and earthbound as a piece of on-beat German techno. Arranged basically as-live in the studio, complete with tempo surges and moments of telepathically sympathetic collective mood shifts, Sally Free And Easy remains as fresh today as the moment it was first performed, and is one of the greatest recordings by any British band ever. The problem of the folk rock rhythm had been addressed by Danny Cox, of Pentangle, with jazzy inflections, and by Dave Mattacks, of Fairport, with mighty thwacks. Here Unwin Brown drives Sally softly forward, picking choice moments to increase the thrust with propulsive martial fills, David holds down a modal drone, and Barry, Bias and Celia a free to shine.
David has fond memories of the session: “Sally Free And Easy was the closest we ever got to delivering what we wanted to deliver, because it went down live. We had never played it before and we toyed with it in rehearsal, decided we were going to do it and I said “ok let’s give it a go”. Bias was on keyboards, which opened out the band tremendously, and Tony Cox our producer went on bass. We began to run it and it became completely apparent that it was going to work – so we went for it, did it in one take and it became our defining moment. We had time on our hands so Celia put on another vocal and we couldn’t decide which one we liked best, so we double-tracked them both.” “Sally Free And Easy was brilliant,” remembers Celia, “It happened after an all night recording session. The guys were fiddling around with a tune they’d always liked, and Bias moved to the piano. It was around five in the morning and we felt great afterwards. It’s my personal favourite. That was indeed a turning point, I feel, but one that we seemed unable to build upon at that time.”
Sally Free And Easy exemplifies David’s earlier theories, of the power of existing material folded in on itself and transformed by accidents and unforeseen circumstance; “I’d seen Cyril Tawney play the song in a folk club in Hampstead – from memory – with a nylon strung guitar and I was always lead to believe that that tremolo was representative of the hum of a submarine. He’d served in submarines and the throb of the diesel engine came through into this lovely tremolo. I was playing a chord configuration that was all tuned to D with a capo which is partly why my fingers gave up, which you can hear in the second verse. We had to double the tempo because I couldn’t keep on doing it. I went into a different style, everybody kicked in, the build just picked up so well. None of us expected Sally Free And Easy to happen the way it did and it took the wind out of our sails. We couldn’t quite believe what we’d done and we knew it was a defining moment. Sadly it was one which we were never able to re-find because it just worked by accident.”
But On The Shore wasn’t the breakthrough it should have been. Eighteen months later Trees limped to a close with a depleted line-up, having made no further commercially available recordings. Celia returned to acting and subsequently became a sought-after voice over artist, subliminally familiar to London Underground commuters as the disembodied ghost-woman announcing upcoming stations on the Northern Line. She now lives in France. David went on to become Elton John’s art director and now runs his design studio Wherefore Art?, working with some of the world’s major artists. After coming in first place with Capricorn at the 1972 Tokyo Yamaha song contest, ahead of Abba’s Bjorn and Benny, Unwin went on to become a teacher, now in a pre-prep school in Kensington. Barry can be found selling pearls and jewellery at a well-known West End antique market. Bias wrote Kiki Dee’s hit ‘I Got The Music In Me’ and remains a professional musician. Over the years of exile, Trees were momentarily sighted in effusive fanzine profiles and in out-there versions of Sally Free And Easy by underground acts such as Magic Hour and Flying Saucer Attack, that acknowledged their debt to the group’s own version. But, from where he’s sitting, David doesn’t see Trees’ rediscovery as the end-point of a gradual process. “It hasn’t been a thirty-five year build up, it’s been more like a ten year build up, because God knows we were in utter obscurity for twenty-five of those years. It’s the archaeological nature of the internet and the effect of Amazon, where the reviews of us have always been pretty extraordinary, that finally enabled people to beat a path to our door.”
There’s talk of some dates, and of the re-recording of forgotten tracks. But David understands that Trees’ mystery survives partly because their book was closed, and unlike say, Fairport Convention, the sheer power of Trees’ legacy hasn’t been compromised by subsequent, deteriorated versions of the original.
“When the impact of the Gnarls Barkley sample began to sink in my sons said to me, ‘Dad, don’t forget if there’s anything of value about what you did, it’s in part because it stopped and it didn’t continue.’ They both went very pale when I said we might do it again. ‘Be careful,’ they said. ‘Part of what people love about Trees is that as a band you were in, and out, and then gone.’ ”