Well Kept Secrets – Sandy Roberton’s UK Folk Treasure Trove

John-Martyn-Well-Kept-Secret-518778Talk about the behind-the-scenes wonders of British folk rock as it developed out of the 1960s and into a new age of world domination, and three names rise above all the others operating at that time.

There is the American Joe Boyd, whose Witchseason Production house’s relationship with Island Records paired him with many of the most visible and (latterly) renowned performers – the Fairport family, Nick Drake and so forth.

There is the late Austin John Marshall, best remembered for just three LPs, but what LPs they were: Shirley Collins and Davy Graham’s so revolutionary Folk Roots, New Routes, produced by Ray Horricks, but schemed from start to end by Marshall; another Shirley Collins album, with sister Dolly, the epochal Anthems In Eden; and Steve Ashley’s still-breathtaking Stroll On.  All three of which routinely top, or rank high, in any Folk Rock poll you could name.

And there is Alexander William “Sandy” Roberton, whose September Productions likewise handled some extraordinarily influential albums (the first three Steeleye Span, the Collins’ No Roses, much of Ian Matthews’ 1970s output), but also racked up a well-packed shelf’s worth of albums that are constantly being rediscovered and reappraised: sets by Spirogyra, Marc Ellington, Shelagh McDonald, Andy Roberts, Decameron and so many more.

Today, Roberton lives in Los Angeles, where he heads up Worlds End, a management company for producers – a role that has changed immeasurably since the days when he was active in the studio.  Technology of course has advanced, but so has the job description itself.

In the mainstream now, most producers are the writers of the songs, certainly in the pop world. I think the best producers are those who don’t necessarily write the material, but are able to set a direction and arrange an artist’s music to bring out the best in the songs and create a mood.”

That was certainly an ability that Roberton brought to the table, as time spent with any of the 55 albums that bear his credit will declare.  “Quiet and unobtrusive,” said journalist Karl Dallas said of Roberton himself, in the liners to Clogs, a 1971 compilation that effectively acts as a Roberton best-of, “without interfering with the artist’s prerogatives in any way, he has given them a distinct unity within their diversity.”

Yet he did not launch his musical career with production in mind.

British-born but raised in Tanganyika and Kenya, after his parents emigrated when he was six-years-old, Roberton returned to the UK in 1963, intent on a music business career.  With his friend Rick Tykiff, he formed the duo Rick & Sandy, coming to the attention of Tom Springfield, following his departure from the Springfields.  With him as their manager, producer and songwriter, Rick & Sandy cut a string of singles for Fontana; a meeting with Les Reed then took the duo to Decca, where the pounding “I Lost My Girl” still puts one in mind of early (“The Kids Are Alright,” “La La La Lies” era) Pete Townshend.  Catch it on 2005’s The Beat Scene compilation and marvel at that scything guitar and drum interplay!

Such connections ensured the band received plenty of television and radio play, but none of their records was especially successful and by 1966, they had had enough.  Roberton cut one final record, a solo rendering of Neil Diamond’s “Solitary Man” for Parlophone, and then moved on.

He applied for, and landed, a job running Chess Records’ publishing company Arc Music; and another handling the Goodman brothers’ Jewel Music, his day to day duties largely revolving around either persuading artists to record songs from the catalog, or convincing the UK major labels to release the original American versions.  Any Chess record produced by the British Pye International label through the second half of the 1960s would have been a Roberton triumph, and when Georgie Fame recorded a cover of Billy Stewart’s “Sitting In The Park” – chalk up another one to Roberton’s powers of conviction.

Roberton was also responsible for landing a clutch of “his” songs on John Mayall’s breakthrough Blues’ Breakers With Eric Clapton album, the start of a great friendship with Mike Vernon, a Decca house producer then taking his first steps towards launching the Blue Horizon specialist blues label.  Hits from Fleetwood Mac and Chicken Shack had already pushed Blue Horizon into the stratosphere, but it was ultimately to be a shortlived success and by 1970, Roberton was ready to move on.

“During this time, I starting producing odd acts: the Chocolate Watch Band was first, for Decca in 1967, Martin Hummingbird, the Liverpool Scene and the Ian Anderson Country Blues Band” – the latter originally scheduled for release on Island Records, until another Ian Anderson, frontman with Jethro Tull, joined the label.  Sensibly agreeing that two players of the same name would be way too confusing to the public, let alone the royalties department, Roberton took his Anderson to United Artists.

One of the key components in Blue Horizon’s rise to success was the strength – largely untapped by the majors – of a very coherent, very loyal blues scene.  Now Roberton was noticing a similar scene around the folk clubs.  “There was a big Blues scene and that’s why we were able to put Blue Horizon on the map very quickly.  At the same time there was a huge folk scene with clubs solely booking those kinds of acts. There was a kinship in the folk world that I don’t see any more,” but which he was swift to appreciate.

In very short order, Roberton produced the first album by Steeleye Span, the band formed by Maddy Prior, Tim Hart and Ashley Hutchings following his departure from Fairport Convention; and records by Keith Christmas, Al Jones and Robin Scott.  He  discovered and produced Shelagh McDonald – until her re-emergence last year, regarded as one of the lost legends of English folk, cutting two shimmering albums in the early 1970s before disappearing from the face of the earth.  And he launched September Productions, signing artists direct and then licensing them onto other labels.

“I had an arrangement with RCA, and was taking most of my September Production acts to them.  When that relationship finished, I was approached by Lee Gopthal who was the co-owner of Trojan Records saying he wanted to get into different areas of music [Trojan was largely known as a reggae label at the time]. He’d started B&C, and was distributing Charisma Records, but he wanted to sign his own acts. I started signing and producing and releasing through B&C.

“They changed their name to Pegasus [later abbreviated to Peg] and also Mooncrest,” and thus begat one of the key players on the turn-of-the-decade UK folk scene.  Seek out, if you can find them, copies of the aforementioned Clogs and the subsequent Rave On samplers, gaudily jacketed but sonically priceless guides to the companies’ traditional catalog, and the closest to a full-on Roberton sampler you are likely to find.  Across four sides of vinyl, he produced all but four of the cuts therein.

Roberton also moved into management, handling Steeleye, Plainsong (featuring another former Fairporter, Iain Matthews),John Martyn and, Decameron, among others, although he was not September’s sole producer.  Most definitely not to be confused with the jazz-lite combo of later renown, Spirogyra, for example, “was a band I signed to September Productions, then got Robert Kirby to produce them” – Kirby being the genius arranger and orchestrator whom history recalls best for his partnership with Nick Drake, but whose lavish imprimatur is spread no less memorably across several other, Roberton-produced offerings – Tim Hart and Maddy Prior, Shelagh McDonald, Ian Matthews and more. The Esoteric label’s recent reissue of all three Spirogyra albums testifies to the band’s magnificence, by the way.

It was Roberton’s work with Steeleye that placed him on the map, of course; three albums that are quintessential English folk at the same time as a blueprint for many of the electric currents that would dominate the 70s folk scene.

True, Ten Man Mop and Hark the Village Wait, like the debut, are a far cry from the more commercially-oriented sounds that the band went on to make.  But they, like the two albums that Hart and Prior cut alone, nevertheless established the traditional folk song in the rock milieu, and probably more effectively than Fairport’s Liege and Lief before them.  That album, after all, primarily demonstrated that folk songs could be rocked up.  Those early Steeleye albums proved that you didn’t necessarily need rock instrumentation to do it.

Ashley Hutchings left Steeleye after that third album, to form the first in the seemingly endless sequence of Albion Bands, initially as accompaniment on his new wife Shirley Collins’ next album, No Roses.  Jointly credited to Collins and the Albions, it also marks a highpoint in Roberton’s early producing career.

“Obviously, I knew Ashley well through managing and producing Steeleye Span.  He was living with Shirley now, and they decided to make No Roses,  and they asked me to be involved.”  He admits, “I couldn’t have made that album without Ashley; he had the musical genius to bring in those musicians, and he and Shirley chose the material.  But I helped give it the more ‘rock’ sound.”  And today, more than forty tears on, “it’s nice to see that those albums are still getting talked about.They had a certain style and quality. Today, a lot of processed pop forgets to add the subtleties and sensitivities.”

The longest-lasting of all Roberton’s musical collaborations, and perhaps the most meaningful, was with that other former Fairporter Iain Matthews.  They worked together for the first time for Plainsong’s still remarkable debut, In Search of Amelia Earhart, and a second, even stronger set might well have followed.

Sadly, “the second Plainsong album came to a halt when Ian was encouraged by Elektra to move to the USA and become a solo act.  Some of the basic tracks ended up on the Mike Nesmith produced Valley Hi album.”  But Matthews and Roberton would soon reunite, first on the 1974 Journey from Gospel Oak album, and then across a series of great late 70s discs, and also as co-owners of a new label, Rockburgh.  Whose earliest signings included two further members of the original Steeleye Span, Gaye & Terry Woods.  Their 1978 Tender Hooks album, produced (of course) by Roberton ranks high among those aforementioned “ripe for rediscovery” albums… a poll to which Roberton unhesitatingly adds a 1973 release which was completely overlooked at the time.

“An act that I produced some tracks on, called Longdancer, was an act that I think could have gone on to do something.  I made the album for Rocket Records, and when they broke up I worked with one of the guys in the band called Kai Olsson [brother to labelhead Elton John’s drummer Nigel]; and got him a deal with Elektra.  We recorded some of the tracks at John Lennon’s house in Esher.”

Another Longdancer member, guitarist Dave Stewart, later re-emerged as one half of early 80s hitmakers the Eurythmics, although by that time, Roberton was tiring of production; tiring of that side of the music industry.  Things were changing, not least of all the schedules that bands worked on, the shift from an album and tour or two every year, to one every half-decade or more.

“I think acts toured a lot more back in the day. Universities and colleges had circuits that could keep bands working all the time.They needed to keep making new albums so they had new material to keep playing.”  As those venues began slowly to fold, so labels began to pull back, too.  Less albums being recorded meant less albums to produce.  In 1982, in the studio with John Martyn (“one of my favorite artists of all time”), Roberton oversaw his final sessions.

The album’s title?  Well Kept Secret - a name that could well be applied to so many more of the masterpieces that Roberton turned his hand to.

 

A prodigious writer, fierce music lover and longtime record collector, Dave Thompson is the author of over 100 books, including Goldmine’s “Standard Catalog of American Records 1950-1990, 8th Edition” as well as Goldmine’s “Record Album Price Guide 7th Edition , both of which are published via Krause Publications and are available at www.krausebooks.com 

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