Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music

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9780865478565: Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music
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A Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction of 2011 title

In the late 1960s, with popular culture hurtling forward on the sounds of rock music, some brave musicians looked back instead, trying to recover the lost treasures of English roots music and update them for the new age. The records of Fairport Convention, Pentangle, Steeleye Span, and Nick Drake are known as "folk rock" today, but Rob Young's epic, electrifying book makes clear that those musicians led a decades-long quest to recover English music-and with it, the ancient ardor for mysticism and paganism, for craftsmanship and communal living.

It is a commonplace that rock and R&B came out of the folk and blues revivals of the early 1960s, and Young shows, through enchanting storytelling and brilliant commentary, that a similar revival in England inspired the Beatles and Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Traffic, Kate Bush and Talk Talk. Folklorists notated old songs and dances. Marxists put folk music forward as the true voice of the people. Composers like Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams devised rich neo-traditional pageantry. Today, the pioneers of the "acid folk" movement see this music as a model for their own.


Electric Eden is that rare book which has something truly new to say about popular music, and like Greil Marcus's Lipstick Traces, it uses music to connect the dots in a thrilling story of art and society, of tradition and wild, idiosyncratic creativity.

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About the Author:

Rob Young, who was the editor of The Wire, the leading British music magazine, is now an editor at large there. He lives in London.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

ELECTRIC EDEN (1: The Inward Exodus)

The battered Austin, its fifty years clearly legible in rust and mud flecks, slowed to a halt, the motor spluttering on its empty fuel tank. The doors spread their wings and two of its three occupants emerged onto the country road, taking stock of their position among the hedgerows before rolling up their sleeves to push the vehicle, while the third, a slight female, took hold of the wheel in the driver’s seat. As the tyres bit against the rough tarmac and the car began to move off, one of them, Robert, caught sight of something glinting behind the thorny hedgerow. He called to his friend John to stop pushing for a moment, and to his girlfriend Vashti to apply the handbrake. She climbed out of the car and together they vaulted the gate.

It was a Gypsy caravan, or more accurately, an old baker’s delivery cart, constructed from tin sheets covered with fading brown paint. A curved roof crowned it, and its wheels, which looked as if they had been taken off a vintage motor car, were mounted on a buckling chassis. How many miles had this unroadworthy jalopy already travelled? The three friends could not tell, but they set off down the short path in search of its owner. He was soon found: a Gypsy, or as he himself styled it, a Romany, sitting with his pots and pans and keeping his horse, Bess, company.

His wandering life appealed to Robert Lewis and Vashti Bunyan at just that moment in their lives. Until their friend John James’s car had run out of petrol, they had been fleeing from their last home, a camp in a clearing in some Kentish woods, where they had been living for several months among piles of home-made wooden stools and tables, log fires, bivouacs and hammocks. The clearing was decorated with Lewis’s giant sheet paintings, part of the art diploma he was enrolled in at Ravensbourne College of Art, near Chislehurst on the fringes of south-east London. The land was just at the back of the college, and in 1967, with a few weeks to go before his time was up, Lewis strung up a bivouac under a giant rhododendron, hung more sections of canvas between trees and bushes, and began executing a series of paintings in the outdoors. In the late spring, his girlfriend Vashti resigned her post as an assistant in a veterinary practice in Hammersmith, picked up a blanket, a pillow, her guitar and her dog Blue, and boarded a bus bound for Chislehurst. Was he pleased to see her or did he fear that the introduction of a live-in partner in his woodland idyll would jeopardise his diploma prospects? Whatever his initial feelings, the pair made a little haven of their forest home, constructing rude furniture from felled branches and logs and singing Vashti’s simple songs around the campfire in a small and picturesque clearing. As Lewis daubed his canvases, Bunyan sat on his mildewed mattress with her feet on a patch of threadbare carpet and sewed curtains for their rudimentary bush dwelling by the light of an oil lamp. ‘We made a little heaven in the wood,’ she said many years later.

Pilgrims’ progress: Vashti Bunyan, her dog Blue, horse Bess and Robert Lewis on the road to Skye, 1969.

Vashti Bunyan’s drawing of herself and Robert Lewis camping in woods near Ravensbourne College, 1967. Note approaching bailiffs.

But the spell in the sylvan paradise did not last more than a few weeks. A banishing god appeared in the form of a suited Bank of England official, representing the true owners of the land, flanked by two policemen to enforce the eviction. They clutched a summons Robert Lewis had previously received – for taking a pillion passenger on his motorbike without a licence – and the wonk from the bank added an admonishing lecture about the breakdown of civil order if everybody suddenly decided to go and live in their wood. Frogmarched to the edge of the forest, they telephoned John James with news of their plight, and after some minutes his Austin came rattling around to pick them up.

Her name – and it’s her real one – is almost too perfect. Vashti comes from the Old Testament’s Book of Esther: a Persian queen banished for refusing to dance in front of her husband’s guests. The Bunyan family have never proved any lineage to the seventeenth-century author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, but the name is richly evocative of quests in search of paradise. Bunyan herself was no stranger to the milieu of the music business. On a trip to New York when she was eighteen, she found a copy of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and became hooked on the singer’s music, and quickly developed an intense desire to become a successful pop singer. She won a place at the Ruskin School of Drawing in Oxford, but spent a whole term skiving off her lectures, instead teaching herself to play the guitar, writing songs and becoming lost in a world of music. When she tried to pass off this non-attendance as a different and valid form of art, her supervisors were not amused and in 1964 she was slung out.

The following year, she met Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham through an actress friend of her mother’s. The svengali was practically the same age and soon developed a crush on Vashti, but could not bring himself to declare it.1 He signed her up to fill the gap left by Marianne Faithfull, who had just left his stable, giving her a song written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, ‘Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind’, as her first single on the Decca label. ‘I wanted to be a pop singer,’ she admitted later. ‘There was no way Andrew Oldham took this innocent folk singer and tried to mould her into a pop singer, that wasn’t what happened at all. I was ready and willing...’ She was a female singer with her own songbook, which, she recalls, was unusual. ‘There weren’t many female singers who wrote their own songs. Whenever I knocked on doors, they were looking for people in sequins and ballgowns, not a skinny art student with an old jumper with holes in it and a guitar slung over her shoulder.’ Vashti, however, fought against the standard practice of women singers singing other (men’s) songs, and the B-side of that first single contained a composition of her own, ‘I Want to Be Alone’.

Perhaps that song expressed a sentiment that made her unfit for massive pop stardom. In 1966, apparently shaking her head one day and looking at the predominantly sad tenor of the songs she was writing (or stung by the comments of others), she and her friend Jenny Lewis came up with a throwaway tune called ‘Seventeen Pink Sugar Elephants’. A Canadian producer, Peter Snell, surfaced out of nowhere and bought her out of her contract with Oldham’s Immediate label, hoping to sprinkle his own stardust on her. The poet Alasdair Clayre had begun sending lyrics for her to set to music, and her ‘Pink Sugar Elephants’ tune fitted the words of a piece of his called ‘Train Song’. When this found its way onto a single, it received almost no airplay and failed to puncture the charts. Some months later, Immediate co-founder Tony Calder managed to sweet-talk Vashti back to the studio, which proved to be a waste of time, commercially speaking. ‘Winter Is Blue’, despite its recording session being filmed by Peter Whitehead for his hip documentary Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London, and eventually re-recorded by Oldham himself, never came out; neither did ‘Coldest Night of the Year’, sung by Vashti with the boy duo Twice As Much; nor her own ‘I’d Like to Walk Around Inside Your Mind’, which Oldham complained needed a string section and more dramatic production, only no one could be bothered. That was Vashti’s Summer of Love; the following year, 1968, she dropped into a spiral of depression during which she walked away from the metropolitan music business. ‘That was the nosedive time, when I realised that I had to get out of London.’

She had encountered Robert Lewis in 1965 when, driving through the Suffolk countryside in the middle of the night, she picked him up as he was hitch-hiking. They kept in touch but it wasn’t until two years later that she discovered he was camping in the woods in the grounds of his art college.

Which is how they found themselves marooned halfway home with a broken-down car, with an open future, staring transfixed at this house on wheels, their minds whirring with new possibilities. Two weeks later they came up with the money to buy the cart and the horse from its Romany owner down there in the field. The cash was lent to them by Donovan Leitch, whose reputation as the Grand Vizier of the British hippy folk scene was at its height. One of Robert’s college friends knew Donovan, and they began hanging out with the singer and his circle. Once the cart was purchased, they repaired to the singer’s small cottage in Essex to make it roadworthy.

Donovan’s success after the Dylan-influenced singles such as ‘Catch the Wind’, ‘Colours’ and ‘Universal Soldier’ was in part due to some steerage by his new producer/svengali Mickie Most, who had urged the young artist to trick out his acoustic folkiness with generous helpings from the new palette of psychedelic colours creeping into pop production in the wake of such records as The Beatles’ Revolver and The Kinks’ Face to Face. In 1965 he was still immersed in the Woody Guthrie/Dylan knock-off protest folk of his first LP, What’s Bin Did and What’s Bin Hid, while on his second, Fairytale, he began to inch towards a more bucolic mode with the inclusion of ‘Jersey Thursday’ and ‘Summer Day Reflection Song’. At the time Bunyan got to hang out with him, Donovan was rich on th...

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