Mandy Morton & Spriguns get their day in the sun thanks to a fascinating career overview from Cherry Red. Simon Jones smiles with satisfaction and digs deep.
“After the storm, we’ll rise again, leaving it all behind. After the storm we’ll rise again, all we really need is time…”
So sang Mandy Morton .
Time’s rolled by and sure enough after four decades Spriguns are above the horizon once more. Too long this music has been under appreciated and practically hidden away. Cherry Red who’re behind this release raised the flag a while ago by reissuing their Decca albums on CD with decent notes, but ‘After The Storm,’ is the stuff diehards and those inclined to be curious have been waiting for. The story of Spriguns and Mandy Morton isn’t well known but it should be, this fantastic box set which tells the tale in as much detail as it ever has been, presenting both the facts and the music in parallel. Mandy Morton herself had almost complete charge of shaping and organisation, after all why not, she lived the whole shooting match. She’s succeeded beyond expectation, what’s here is as close as you’ll get to living history as anything on BBC Four! Not only has she totally put the music beautifully in context but she’s also brave enough to admit the mistakes and regrets along the way.
Mike and Mandy Morton were children of the 60s and they drank deep from its wealth of musical diversity and creativity. Sampling influences from both sides of the Atlantic but leaning very heavily to the experimental side of British folk through the likes of Fairport Convention, The Incredible String Band and Pentangle. Indeed it was Mandy whose first band Simple Folk had a very ISB like attitude and atmosphere using guitars, whistle, glockenspiel and bongos. She met Mike in 1971 and married him the next year, then forming a folk duo which adopted the complicated Cornish based name Spriguns of Tolgus. (A spriggan is a Cornish pixie and Tolgus the name of a tin mine.) Initially playing student haunts they were approached by a pub landlord to run a folk night, so taking up residence at the Anchor and adding electric fiddle and lead guitar to become a four piece. That’s really where the box set begins.
They played a very softcore electric folk, almost exclusively “trad. arr.” material and first ventured into a recording studio to release the tape only ‘Rowdy Dowdy Day,’ in 1974. Here on the first CD and astonishingly out of order with their actual record debut from 1975, ‘Jack With A Feather,’ the songs are typical folk club fare, they’re finding their feet as a band. Much of the content is sourced from the bigger beasts of electric folk, Fairport, Pentangle and in particular Steeleye, but there is something in Mandy Morton’s voice and the band’s work ethic which marks them apart. She’s confident and assured, the other musicians play respectfully and tastefully and in some cases alternate tunes are given to the better known numbers. Best exemplified by ‘The Jolly Tinker,’ ‘Trees They Do Grow High,’ a long version of ‘Matty Groves,’ ‘Three Drunken Maidens,’ all which reveal a muted electric sound but solidly funky bass playing from Mike. Mandy’s singing reveals potential though on ‘Let No Man Steal Your Thyme,’ which signposts their next offering. The almost naïve rootsy feel was going to get louder, more certain and secure in its own identity, Spriguns had launched now the only question was how high they’d go.
Sales of ‘Rowdy Dowdy Day,’ were mostly at their folk club, where the band continued to thrive, after two guys in suits attended one night who Mandy assumed were from the brewery checking out pub entertainment a phone call proved otherwise. In fact they ran a small independent label called Alida Star and offered the chance to make a vinyl album. Obviously the group took them up on it so leading to ‘Jack With A Feather,’ the record with the distinction of being perhaps the most expensive folk album around today! A copy in decent order will cost you over a thousand pounds and closer to £2,000. But none of that was in the minds of the young musicians who swiftly cut all the tracks in one full session in a cottage in Leicestershire. There is some duplication of material from the earlier cassette but clearly Spriguns had matured. In terms of arrangements they’d obviously begun to think of making the songs more accessible to a wider sympathetic audience, opener ‘The Lambton Worm,’ fair bounces along on bass and electric guitar. Mandy took charge of finding suitable material and wasn’t above writing her own tunes to suit folk lyrics as on the tricksy, winding ‘Flodden Field.’ They really hit the bullseye on the gentle, bittersweet, ‘The Curragh Of Kildare,’ Mandy’s vocal filled with longing and an ache, the snaking guitars intertwining to reflect their developing sense confidence. Tellingly there was also a cover of a song by Steeleye Span’s Tim Hart.
Early Spriguns battle for exposure circa ‘Jack With A Feather.’
Span were of course masters of folk rock and at that time were experiencing a boost towards stardom thanks to a TV series and a catchy folk number ‘All Around My Hat.’ Tim Hart was – despite all his stage costumes and sometimes controversial quotes in the music press – a very canny operator who took the business side of music very seriously. He was the kind of person who if you told him something would be next to impossible he’d find a way to do it. His part in the story of Steeleye’s success should not be underestimated. A determined and experienced musician, when Mandy sent him a copy of their album, he quickly offered to be advisor and producer of Spriguns next record, handing the band a list of record companies and contacts. It was Decca who fell for Spriguns and their charms, the band were surprised at the label’s eagerness and found themselves swept into the studio with Tim H in the producer’s chair. The result was ‘Revel, Weird & Wild,’ a transitional album which showed the influence of trad folk waning, the band with a new line up of Morton’s joined by Tom Ling on fiddle, Dennis Powell electric guitar/keyboards and Chris Woodcock on drums, gradually turning up the rock and the emergence of Mandy Morton as an English writer of some quality. Press reviews were favourable, one writer thankful for a band trying to put some new life into folk rock without going OTT and rely heavily on speeded up jiggery.
In truth Mandy was such a canny writer that it was hard to separate those songs which had a folk root from those she wrote. The credits just said everything was composed, yet tracks like ‘Lord Lovell,’ ‘Laily Worm,’ and ‘The Outlandish Knight,’ bore the stamp of tradition, though the self- composed ‘When Spring Comes In,’ or ‘Trysting Tree,’ could equally have been centuries old as their author had spent long hours researching in Cecil Sharp House. Hart’s production was organised, even a little commercial yet allowed them to be themselves so that after a few listens the band emerged with a distinct identity and the listener was left with the feeling that there was far more in the tank, this was a start but what could they do if pushed harder? Decca were already marketing them through the pop department, yet if they got serious surely a more rock based future beckoned.
‘Revel’ Spriguns, Mike Morton, Chris Woodcock, Mandy Morton, Tom Ling, Dick Powell.
The best tracks on ‘Revel Weird & Wild,’ which sum up the record’s core appeal are ‘When Spring Comes In,’ with quiet bucolic atmosphere, gorgeous slide guitar work courtesy of a guesting BJ Cole and Mandy’s appropriate, romantic vocal. Then consider ‘The Outlandish Knight,’ normally a dark tale of desperate kidnap and close escape, here it has a lightness of touch with Elizabethan keyboards and careless tune which the fiddle echoes, it turns abruptly darker and stark as the turncoat knight of the title reveals his murderous intentions. The guitars crunch, the fiddle gets sonorous in response, there’s a short reel and our heroine triumphs by despatching the knight in short order. Once more the lightness returns and Dick Powell’s long guitar slides parry as Tom Ling reels to the close. Great stuff! There are other treasures to be unearthed by closer listening. As 1976 wound down Spriguns were poised whether they knew it or not to make a run of classic records that’d take them down roads with no map to guide them but sheer determination and talent to see them through. ‘Revel Weird & Wild,’ had been the next step.
‘Time Will Pass,’ was a conscious decision to write the material they’d perform and whilst there is a magnificent acid folk version of the traditional ‘Blackwaterside,’ the only folky part is the lyric, the rest of the album all came from midnight writing sessions and the rapidly developing craft of Mandy Morton. The songs are sombre, serious, themes of love, loss, mystics and the dark all sprang from experience and a deep well of imagination. They were to set the template for a signature sound and approach which would be paralleled by changes in working and financing the band. In the meantime however there was another change in personnel as Tom Ling dropped to part time status and Chris Woodcock left to be replaced by lead guitarist Wayne Morrison and drummer Dennis Dunstan. Both were Australian, both were by some distance far more rock than folk orientated, in fact their roots experience was negligible. Dick Powell took his keyboards to the front of arrangements and even the press release which accompanied the finished album noted Spriguns were moving on from their beginnings.
The choice of producer in Sandy Roberton – a folk rock veteran who’d previous with early Steeleye, Ashley Hutchings, Ian Matthews, Gay & Terry Woods – seemed and indeed was an appropriate choice, except his production and recording practice was the opposite of what the band were used to. Bringing them into the studio in smaller groups, pairs or even alone meant they’d not got the group/all-together feeling they were used to. Not that it showed in the performances, especially those with orchestration from no less than Robert Kirby, who scored ‘White Witch’ ‘Letter To A Lady’ & ‘All Before,’ with splendid arrangements by turn ethereal and bittersweet. Each enhanced the song, especially true on ‘White Witch,’ which lifted as a 45 got its fair share of BBC radio play, Mandy’s vocal delivering the numinous lyric in a gentle manner. It was a highlight of an album packed with them. ‘Letter To A Lady,’ clocked in at five minutes a song boiling with regret, loss and a mightily powerful Kirby score, it runs a shiver down your spine every time you hear it. The afore mentioned ‘Blackwaterside’ is massive in terms of setting which goes horizon to horizon and sound. The guitar solo from Wayne Morrison is magnetic and loud, it aches, rising and falling in howls and wails, Powell’s keyboards wrap around in enveloping chords, Mandy’s vocal getting under the skin of the betrayal which lies at the song’s core. ‘Devil’s Night,’ was full of lore and magic, again with a crunching rock backing as had opener ‘Dead Man’s Eyes,’ which itself could have stepped straight out of a gothic novel ‘I am as a pendulum that swings and never stays/ the death clock of this bad old world/ that cankereth away,’ goes the Hammer Horror lyric about a corpse left on the gibbet. There were flashes of tenderness, ‘For You,’ shone brightly amidst the sobriety. The bonus tracks deliver four demo recordings cut for Roberton & Kirby to hear and work on, ‘White Witch,’ ‘Blackwaterside, & ‘Letter To A Lady’ are even in stripped back form just as powerful and leave lasting impressions, in fact the box set is worth the price for these extra gems alone.
Cover of rare ‘White Witch Decca single. £45 or so to you squire.
All told it was a significant album one which Decca were more than happy to back, placing Spriguns on a tour with Roy Harper which taught them many lessons about how not to treat the support band but proved a point when they blew Uncle Roy off stage with their performance at The Rainbow in London. Decca were ecstatic. If only some had the good sense to have a tape rolling. ‘ Time Will Pass,’ stands as a flash of lightning and rumble of thunder, it’s a crucial record of considerable merit which stands the test of passing years.
Reasoning – quite correctly- that the centre of the band was Mandy, she and Mike next decided to organise in a looser and more flexible format. Naming themselves Mandy Morton & Spriguns, they persuaded Decca to let them out of their three album contract early which to their credit they agreed to. The idea was floated to start their own label and record an album using friends and hired but known session musicians. The Australians moved on, Dick Powell too who concentrated on developing his own music, the Morton’s to fill the gap whilst Mandy was writing reunited with Tom Ling and played folk clubs acoustically. The luxury gained by the new approach was time and relatively little outside pressure, as a result Mandy’s writing flourished eventually producing a batch of songs which rivalled and would in many ways transcend those from ‘Time Will Pass.’ To record them Spriguns decamped to their local recording facility at Spaceward Studios under the watchful eye of Mike Kemp, they’d already rehearsed there and liked the atmosphere of the place. With drummer Alex Cooper and guitarist Byron Giles already added to the trio for larger gigs, it was time to call in some heavyweight names, Graeme Taylor from the Albion Band added medieval lead guitar flourishes, Tim Hart recorded backing vocals and an electric dulcimer to add decoration whilst Gordon & Sarah Folkard were on strings and concertina. All was well and then came the news that Sandy Denny had passed away caused by a fall she’d taken seriously injuring her head. This floored Mandy Morton who took the timely decision to alter things accordingly. Hurriedly recording two new items ‘Magic Lady’ opening and closing, the album was so christened and the original title ‘Music Price,’ abandoned.
Music Prince’ itself is a rolling, melodic delight it sets the tone for a recording which is by turn both light and dark but shorn of the heavier elements of ‘Time Will Pass.’ Whilst you’d hesitate to call it breezy there is a more carefree element along with the sombre, deeper material. These songs sit comfortably together as a whole, Mandy Morton had found her niche, her voice and her mojo. ‘Little In Between’ has Tudor decoration from a harpsichord played by the multi-talented Tom Ling turning the song into one which almost flits and dances from the speakers, conversely on ‘Witchfinder’ that same harpsichord sounds gothic and spooky as tale of shadowy persecution unfolds, Tim Hart’s dulcimer drones long notes echo while the guitars stab in and out before Tom Ling’s violin shrieks. ‘According To Matthew,’ deals with an individual who dwells in a different reality, again Tom Ling’s fiddle lends the track a feeling of giddy insanity with a winding melody straight out of the darker side of nursery rhyme. ‘Ghost Of A Song,’ a gentle lullaby has snaking guitars and bass, it’s charm lying in the comforting lyric and double tracked vocal.
Mandy considers the impact of ‘Magic Lady,’ true independence.
‘Magic Lady,’ came out on the band’s own Banshee Records, housed in a blue cover with strange hexagonal borders, arcane images and musician’s photos: they’d taken the DIY approach which pretty soon opened new doors for them in terms of gigging. The album got an extremely favourable reaction, not only at home but also abroad, especially Norway, where audiences appeared to ignore the encroaching new wave movement in favour of melodic, well-constructed, meaningful music. Mandy & Spriguns were offered a residence in Oslo. They jumped at the chance little suspecting that the land of ice and snow was where much of their future lay.
Spriguns loved Norway, the Norwegians loved Spriguns. First as an acoustic trio who made as much money by street performance as they did for their booked gigs, then later as a full electric band. Growing their sphere of influence, they took concerts in Denmark too, lots of festival slots and a memorable gig at the hippy Christiania in Copenhagen which Mandy recalls as heavy with the smell of hashish the minute they walked through the door! With the music scene constantly shifting fashions and genres back home the band took refuge in Scandinavia, gathering a devoted fan base through a policy of blanket gigging: not just the cities but smaller towns, islands, villages, some so out of the way they crossed mountains and valleys, regularly using snow chains to reach their destination. Consequently they got acres of regular press coverage, local, regional and national, so much so someone was bound to take notice and Polydor Norway wanted a licensing deal.
Luckily Mandy had never stopped writing and had already begun laying down ideas at Spaceward in Cambridge with Mike Kemp, originally they had toyed with bringing the record out on Banshee like ‘Magic Lady,’ but with so much work in Norway having an album issued there made sense. The sessions were populated by assured contributors Tom Ling arrived with his reliable, character driven fiddle, Alex Cooper still manned the drums, lead guitarist Mark Boettcher joined Kevin Savigar Rod Stewart’s go to keyboard player, Doug Morter contemporary folk guitarist, session drummer John Lingwood along with Gordon Folkard on concertina and Gaynor Roberts once more on backing vocals. ‘Sea Of Storms,’ is a straight continuation of earlier practise in themes, focus and topic, what stood out was the assured arrangements and willingness to add textures which blended in with the lyric. One such is ‘Wake Up The Morning,’ which has Terry Cottam’s sitar and tablas echoing the work of George Harrison. Another, the opening ‘Maybe One Day,’ which uses Savigar’s piercing keyboards as both string section and stabbing rhythm, a resigned vocal from Mandy charts the dying embers of a relationship in which one person constantly wants the upper hand, Tom Ling’s violin solo is full of regret and sadness. ‘Ghost Of Christmas Past,’ again uses keyboards in a bouncing melody adding a soaring grandeur, over a bleak seasonal lyric about a Christmas that never was, in fact the song occurs again as a bonus track in single mix, both are excellent, especially the closing riff which echoes and sticks in your mind long after the track has finished. ‘Victoria By The Window,’ is a rolling hymnal evoking similarities to Sandy Denny’s forlorn Fotheringay, ‘The Sculptor,’ seems to come from a very deep place within, the words defiantly encourage individualism and being true to yourself, the long instrumental coda a seductive melodic mash up of lead guitar fiddle and concertina.
Mandy in pensive mood and fur coat perhaps on a beach in Bridlington circa ‘Sea Of Storms.’
There is a hidden strength to ‘Sea Of Storms,’ the whole record sounds complete, as if each track belongs to the whole, there isn’t a song out of place, even the links of acapella multi tracked trad ‘ Compline Anthem,’ and shot of jiggery ‘Warrior’s Grave,’ hold their own. If Mandy Morton has made her dream recording here it was and still is, ‘Sea Of Storms,’ carries wears her signature sound proudly.
Scandinavia called, so Mandy, Mike and various line ups gamely and giddily kept up the touring. By now the Mortons were growing apart, running a band isn’t easy, add in the other ingredients of curating your own label, booking your own gigs, auditioning musicians, running an agency which was opened up to local rock and folk acts, issuing albums beside your own product on Banshee… you can see where the strains might occur. Aware of having created something they stayed involved because of the music. ‘Sea Of Storms,’ was the first of their recordings to bear no mention of Spriguns beyond publishing rights which meant Mandy was now the writing and artistic focus. Seeking a steadier income Mike Morton took on some teaching commitments, that meant Mandy had ample time and energy to focus on the music. Perhaps inevitably for Mike teaching won out, after much thought Mandy pressed on leading to a sad farewell between them. She admits now that Mike’s departure took something significant from the music, maybe it was his bass playing style, his ideas and contributions or just his sure presence. Whatever it wasn’t the same and though gigs and inspiration still flowed nothing was quite the same.
A new set of circumstances and newer trends within music itself meant that Mandy moved her writing more in a pop/rock direction, songs which held more commercial potential. With a trio of young Cambridge musicians she worked up a set which became ‘Valley of Light,’ in 1983. Once more in Spaceward with Mike Kemp engineering, the budget was tight and consequently the results were sparse and basic, compared to what was perceived as their familiar style. Yet there are tracks which stand revisiting, she’d always been a fan of Jefferson Airplane, so ‘Somebody To Love,’ seemed a natural cover, the band had included it often as an encore. You could also make a claim that there were lyrical similarities between the song and some of Mandy’s in obliqueness and bittersweet subtext. The rendition here is icy and questioning with powerful guitar and keyboard figures, throughout Mandy’s vocal taut, almost angry. There are echoes of old Spriguns ‘Ice Queen,’ deals in a dark, mystic female like ‘Devil’s Night,’ and ‘The Lady,’ with just a touch here and there it might have been on ‘Time Will Pass.’ ‘Chosen Few,’ is an anti-nuclear number powerfully performed just short of a Tom Ling searing fiddle solo which’d turn it into something special, wandering as it does through various passages and moods, the middle section very much akin to Fairport’s ‘Sloth.’ You could do without the 80s sound effect synths though. She closed the current account with a simple acoustic ballad ‘Natural Born,’ which then morphs into a full swell, rock finale, keyboards to the fore and high run melody lines in the mix before the fade.
Once more to Scandinavia and smaller, often college gigs around the UK by 1985 she’d had enough and got off the roundabout, disbanding and retreating to a long, fruitful career in broadcasting. Mike sadly passed in 1995 though they’d remained the best of friends in the years since separating and he’d remarried and had a family. When I tracked Mandy down in the late 80s for an interview she was happy to chat about her long career signing an album for me and tolerating my questions which she’d probably answered hundreds of times before. Yet she was not yet through and managed to produce one more great recording before falling silent. It’s included here as a bonus track on ‘Magic Lady.’ ‘Winter Storms,’ was a 1987 charity single she cut with fellow radio presenter Chris Mills, it’s a distant cousin of ‘Ghost of Christmas Past,’ with reference to winter snows, star lit skies and innocence, Mandy’s vocal is warm and the tune rolls along on a Spriguns like rhythm, all covered with a seasonal coating of frost. Here is a fitting finale.
The box set comes with a DVD of a later Mandy Morton Band in action circa 1979 which hasn’t been included as part of this preview set but you should seek it out anyway as live Mandy Morton/Spriguns is in very, very short supply and this might be the only example. The notes hold out promise of demoes and rehearsal tapes which may contain gold and further treasure, but for the moment ‘After The Storm,’ is more than enough.
After the storm and time, Spriguns have indeed risen again. They are very welcome and deserve if any do a thorough reappraisal. Explore!