Four and a half decades on albums of Spriguns and Mandy Morton have become cult favourites and hot items amongst the rarest record collecting fraternity. Some see on line sparring rise to four figure sums. With such diverting activity the actual story of the band and the music they created can get lost. Now comes a Cherry Red box set which preserves their folk rock legend in precise and careful detail. There are memories of running a folk club, DIY recordings, advice from Tim Hart, forming their own label and a deep love of Norway hears Simon Jones, from the lady herself.
You were young in the 60s, could what happened to you have had a better start? What was specifically appealing to you as a youngster then?
I had a difficult childhood, my father was a fighter pilot in WW2 and never really settled to civilian life, I guess that’s where all my anti-war songs came from. My mother was creative but regularly left home. I found solace in The Beatles, I was a huge fan and still am to this day.
When did Mandy Morton realise she was musical or that she could sing?
I was in the choir at school but never even considered becoming a singer. I loved music and preferred to listen to melodic stuff. I went on to discover artists like Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and west coast bands like The Byrds, Jefferson Airplane and of course Sandy Denny who along with Pentangle introduced me to traditional music.
You first met Mike, when, where?
In Cambridge in 1971. He was at university and I was running a boutique, it had a cafe in the basement and he would come in for his lunch with his friends. He plucked up courage one day to ask me out and the rest as they say………
What were the circumstances which led to you opening the club at The Anchor?
The landlord asked Mike and me to run a music club to attract a college audience. We had been playing as a duo around the folk clubs and he liked what we were doing.
That place became the cradle for Spriguns, tell us about that early line up.
We started as a duo and invited players from the audience to join us on stage. Chris Russon and Rick Thomas used to do regular floor spots at the club and eventually joined us as part of the early line up recording the ‘Rowdy Dowdy Day’ cassette and later ‘Jack with a Feather.’
Which recording best represents the band from that period of the album and tape?
Both, I think the material was pretty much the stuff we were playing at the Anchor, the cassette was home-made and the album slightly more professional but we were all learning at this point and had no aspirations to make a living out of the music, it was just fun at weekends.
We should mention Tim Hart here, he changed your perspective somewhat.
Yes, it was Tim who put ideas into our head that we might like to make a career out of what we were doing. We’d recorded a song of his on ‘Jack’ and sent it to him. He invited Mike and me out to dinner and suggested we do the rounds of the record companies. He told us that if we landed a deal he would produce the album.
That brings in Decca and a further move towards rockier folk. How easy was the search for replacements as there are Decca photos of different members around the time you’d joined the label? John Collins is one though he isn’t on any of the ‘Revel’ sessions. You found some great players especially Tom Ling.
When Decca offered us a deal it was time to decide who wanted to commit to the band and who didn’t. Rick and Chris moved on into professional careers, John Collins joined us briefly but couldn’t commit so we found Tom, who went to the same college as Mike, added Chris Woodcock on drums and Dick Powel on keyboards and guitar and it was that line up that recorded ‘Revel Weird & Wild.’
Do you see ‘Revel Weird & Wild,’ as where your writing took shape and purpose? Which tracks work best for you?
The whole album was fun to put together, I spent a lot of time searching out traditional ballads that Steeleye, Fairport or Pentangle hadn’t recorded. As a band we put the arrangements together and where necessary I added lyrics and tunes. ‘Sir Colvin’ is a stand out favourite, it has everything a folk ballad should have all wrapped up in magic and delivered as a theatrical experience, not just sung.
‘Time Will Pass’ was a different beast to ‘Revel.’ Was most of that down to Sandy Roberton?
No, I don’t think so. We had new members, Denis Dunstan and Wayne Morrison who brought a much heavier rock feel to the band and by then I was writing most of the material and moving away from traditional songs. We were beginning to develop a real identity of our own and Robert Kirby’s orchestral arrangements on the album certainly lifted it out of the basic folk rock culture. Sandy Roberton did a good job but we actually sounded better as a live band at that time.
Your imagination really took flight in the material from that album.
It had to as all the most interesting traditional ballads had already been shared out by the folk rock movement. Steeleye and Fairport were also writing a lot of their material and for me it was a natural progression.
Did the Decca experience influence your decision to go in the DIY direction for the band?
Decca had begun to pigeon hole us as easy listening and that was something I needed to break away from. There were big changes happening at Decca which didn’t suit the music I wanted to write and punk and new wave stuff was starting to dominate the industry. I asked to be released from my contract and luckily they agreed.
‘Magic Lady,’ must have been hard work from all angles, yet satisfying in what the album achieved.
‘Magic Lady’ was a joy to write, we disbanded briefly to form our own label, Mike ran the business side of things which left me time to write without deadlines, after Decca it was very freeing and we decided to change to session musicians rather than try and keep a permanent line up together, which had proved crippling to Mike and me financially.
With a changing music scene at home did Norway rescue the band?
It certainly extended my music career, we took on a residency in Oslo and treated it as a holiday. We quickly discovered that the music scene there was several years behind the UK, they still loved folk rock and were really engaged with us. Record companies came to see us play and we were offered a couple of deals. I had already recorded half of the ‘Sea of Storms’ album so we decided to accept a licensing deal with Polydor Norway. From then we toured almost exclusively in Norway and Denmark.
At this point you ran both acoustic and electric bands did they inform each other and the material?
It was a sensible thing to do, taking a full band on tour was very expensive so having a smaller line up for small venues made sense. By then we had accumulated a substantial repertoire of songs many of which could be performed acoustically so we alternated between full band tours and smaller line ups and so we were never really out of work and our fan base continued to grow.
Did you ever consider putting ‘Sea Of Storms’ out on Banshee Records here? You say in the box set booklet it’s your most complete recording. Can you expand on that a little?
‘Sea of Storms’ was originally going to be on the Banshee label but it made sense to accept Polydor Norway’s license deal instead as most of our gigs at that point were in Scandinavia so it saved us importing albums. For me ‘Sea of Storms’ is a stand out moment. I think that personally I hit the ground running with the song writing, the arrangements and the players. It was a very satisfying album to make and I was able to afford the session musicians I really wanted to work with and the instrumentation’s that interested me like using a sitar or exploring synthesisers.
You even remixed the single.
Yes, ‘The Ghost of Christmas Past’ was recorded in August which was totally weird for a Christmas song. I decided to remix the original adding bells etc and remove one of the more depressing verses to release as a single at Christmas.
Ghost Of Christmas Past 45 – remixed & released!
After this Mike departed. Was that a time of real hard thought about continuing?
It was hard for both of us but we had to move on with our lives. Mike returned to teaching and I took some time off before writing ‘Valley of Light.’
How do you see ‘Valley of Light’ now? You had a good band that you’d road tested but somehow it isn’t the same. There are echoes of the old approach on the album but it is more mainstream. Any reflections on it?
Not my favourite album because Mike had left a very big hole that was impossible to fill. The material was aimed at the Scandinavian market which was becoming much more pop rock orientated and to be perfectly honest I wanted to explore other things in my life so it was always going to be the final shout.
Why was there never a Mandy Morton/Spriguns live album?
Not a good thing to do in those days unless you could afford a top line recording crew to capture every night of a tour to piece together an album. Not like today with the digital gear. The DVD that comes with the box set is as close as you’ll get to a live recording, although we were a very good live band according to the reviews of the time.
Why a box set at this point in time? Can you explain a little about the bonus material?
Cherry Red records licensed the two Decca albums a few years back and got in touch with me about liner notes. I was keen to have ‘Sea of Storms’ released on CD as I was getting fed up with people bootlegging it so I asked them if they were interested in licensing. They suggested that it would be better to release the whole collection including some unreleased recordings. I thought about it and then decided that it would be a lovely project to get involved in. I spent months trawling through my tape archives and also photos and other memorabilia and put it all together along with a biography of the band. Cherry Red were brilliant and totally supportive letting me have a say in everything, which is rare. The bonus tracks were taken from extra sessions recorded at Spaceward Studios in Cambridge. Some tracks were rehearsals for live gigs and the solo acoustic songs were recorded as demos to send to Sandy Roberton and Robert Kirby to give them an idea of the material they would be working on. I was lucky to own so much of the recordings and publishing otherwise the box set may never have seen the light of day.
Looking back at the progress from Spriguns Of Tolgus to The Mandy Morton Band are you happy with the history or would you do anything differently?
No, I wouldn’t change a thing, I was lucky to be playing and recording music at that time and with a great bunch of people. I’ve had two more careers since then and I’m proud of them all, but most of all I’m proud of what Mike and I created together, I only wish he was still here to celebrate with me.