Of all the magical, even miraculous, metamorphoses that mark out modern… that is, the last fifty or so years… musical history, few were so remarkable, or so lasting, as that which befell English folk music.
We take for granted today its transformation from (in the popular image) a bunch of ernest arran-sweater clad beardies with their fingers in their ears singing “Lowlands of Holland,” to the vast and vibrant eclecticism of – deep breath – the Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, the Albions and so many more in the sixties and early seventies; and the even further-reaching tapestries of the Owl Service, Current 93 and a swirling universe beyond them today.
But at the time, and throughout those earliest years of adventure and experimentation, the birth and bewildering growth of “Folk Rock” marked out one of the most revolutionary evolutions of the rock’n’roll age, which is why the death, on November 3, of Austin John Marshall has hit so many people so hard. All the more so because many of those people may not even have heard from him.
It was Marshall who, in 1964, hatched the audacious concept of teaming his wife, traditional folk singer Shirley Collins, with guitarist Davy Graham, a folk player whose own refusal to follow traditional lines had already seen him combine with bluesman Aleis Korner for the 3/4 AD EP. Marshall who produced Shirley and sister Dolly’s still epochal Anthems in Eden. Marshall who nurtured and delivered Steve Ashley’s so-effervescent Stroll On; Marshall who hatched The Great Smudge, the greatest (if, sadly, largely unheard) folk rock opera of modern times.
His label Streetsong was responsible for one of the most remarkable of all Bert Jansch recordings, 1978’s “The Black Birds of Brittany,” and if Marshall himself did nothing over the years to increase his own visibility or historical reputation, still it does not diminish either his importance or his vision. In the world of fostering folk’s emergence into the rock mainstream, only Joe Boyd and Sandy Roberton can be said to rival Marshall’s impact. Or his ears. He knew unique talent when he heard it, and he refused to work with anything else.
Austin John Marshall was born in Leicester, England, on 30 March 1937. His father, a pilot in the RAF, was killed towards the end of the war, a tragedy that fired the anti-war sentiments that in turn ignited some of Marshall’s own greatest musical achievements. Schooled at Christ’s Hospital School in West Horsham, followed by studies at Slade Art School and the London College of Printing, he was a talented graphic designer who was working for Vogue (he later moved to London’s Fleet Street, and the Observer newspaper) when he and Shirley met.
Her career was already underway, buoyed by her travels around the US with Alan Lomax, and flowering with the Heroes in Love EP, recorded for Topic in 1963; they met when Marshall designed the front cover for a compilation she was appearing on, Rocket On.
Marshall conceived (but did not produce – that he left to Ray Horricks) Folk Routes, New Roots, the album Shirley and Davy Graham recorded together, and which is now widely regarded as one of the very foundations of all that was to follow, the alchemical blending of musical disciplines (Collins’s folk purity, Graham’s jazz leanings) into a brew so utterly unlike any other that the future could not help but pour through the doors it flung open. A future which Marshall continued to fascinate as he followed the groundbreaking inception of Folk Routes, New Roots with a string of absolutely seminal productions and projects.
Within the space of little more than three years, 1967-1970, he oversaw the crystalline beauty of Shirley’s Banks of Sweet Primroses album; Anthems in Eden and its follow up Love, Death and the Lady for Shirley and sister Dolly Collins; plus a 1969 album by the Wooden O, an early music group comprising recorders, harp, mandolin and double bass. Gloriously reminiscent of TV incidental music being played on utterly inappropriate instruments, A Handeful of Pleasant Delites maintains John’s fascination with blending traditional and jazz musical disciplines, baffling period critics and still astounding modern ears.
Marshall also made two films, about Jimi Hendrix and the Incredible String Band – and that despite, in the first instance, him never having made a movie in his life. He simply got a crew together and did it, and while it would be 1970, following Hendrix’s death, before he found a buyer (his footage was subsumed into the Rainbow Bridge movie), Marshall remained absolutely undeterred. Made with director Peter Neal, the Incredibles’ movie Be Glad, For The Song Has No Ending is a must-see for anybody intrigued by that band’s so subtle rending of the rock-folk fabric of the pre-Liege and Lief late sixties. (A poster that Marshall designed for an Incredibles gig, with Shirley supporting, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall is now in the V&A Museum collection.)
Marshall and Shirley Collins split in the early 1970s, and his musical attention turned now to the Canterbury folk band Spirogyra (not to be confused with the American jazzers of the same name), whose just-reissued Old Boot Wine he oversaw in 1972, and Steve Ashley, a brilliant young singer-songwriter who Shirley introduced him to in the late 1960s. Their first stab at stardom, a single for Polydor in 1969, fell by the wayside and, for many years, it seemed as though Ashley’s album would too. Recorded with the cream of the folk rock scene, including the original Albion Country Band line-up that Ashley had fronted through the summer of 1971, Stroll On searched four years for a label.
Its release in 1974, however, erased all past frustrations, as it was acclaimed the folk album of the year by great swathes of the British press (a spectacular fortieth anniversary edition is set for release next year); and again it pushed Marshall to the forefront of in-demand producers. He turned down every overture bar one… also in 1974, Marshall produced a single, a cover of “Ain’t Misbehaving,” for one of Steve Ashley’s Gull Records labelmates, Tiger Lily. Who, a couple of years later, became Ultravox.
Label machinations saw Marshall and Ashley part before work began on the follow-up to Stroll On; the producer left London for a new home in Ireland, and there he began work on The Great Smudge.
The Smudge was rooted in Marshall’s long-standing fascination with the cultural consequences of the Great War on English society, first broached by “Whitsun Dance” on Anthems from Eden. In the past, however, he had relied upon period musical settings alone. The Great Smudge absorbed contemporary sounds too, its folk roots indeed traveling new modern rock-shaped routes. The result is one of the great lost opportunities of English folk rock, a magnificent threepenny opera project that Marshall described as “like a rhyming ballad, where the story was all told in rhyme which linked songs.”
Originally schemed as The Anonymous Smudge and, later, Le Grande Smudge (the billing under which Steve Ashley remembers last learning of it) , the opera had been a part of Marshall’s life for a long time. Shirley Collins remembers it “being written while we were still together [they parted in 1970],” although the serious work began later, as he explained to New York DJ Edward Haber.
“About 1973, 1974, I began to see how I could pull all my own musical threads together into an idea for the way ahead, the idea of uniting not just traditional music and exotic guitars as Shirley did with Davy, or folk and rock as Ashley Hutchings had done, but looking more into urban forms, particularly in England, like the music hall, and I got [very] enmeshed in writing this musical idea… I fled to Ireland in 1975 and buried myself in a room and wrote this ballad, The Great Smudge.”
Reunions with Shirley Collins and Steve Ashley, both of whom sang on the project (one of Shirley’s contributions is included on her Within Sound box set), highlighted the recording sessions in London in late 1977; other players included Barry Dransfield, Dave Pegg, Robert Kirby, Lol Cohill (the avant garde saxophonist who had worked with Shirley earlier in the decade), Milton Reames-James (ex-Cockney Rebel), Russell Hunter (ex-Pink Fairies) and more.
Some one-hundred minutes in length, and genuinely captivating once one becomes accustomed to its decidedly unconventional form, the Smudge was brilliant, and it was doomed to obscurity. Perhaps the music industry had tired of concept albums; it had certainly tired of folk concept albums, particularly after Steeleye Span’s Bob Johnson and Peter Knight’s setting of Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter crashed so hard. Very early on in the project’s gestation, Marshall concluded that if it was ever to see the light of day, it would be under his own auspices, a realization that led him to launch the Streetsong record label.
Sadly, just one Streetsong single appeared, Bert Jansch’s “The Black Birds of Brittany” coupled with Shirley’s absolutely stunning version of the last four verses of Coleridge’s “Ballad of the Ancient Mariner”; Streetsong stirred no more thereafter, and The Great Smudge lay fallow alongside it.
Marshall relocated to the US in early 1981, and finally he found an audience for his masterpiece. He was already launching a radio show of his own, the religious satire Hell’s Kitchen, and making his performing debut as the poet John the Angel Fish. Now he and Edward Haber were scheming a radio production for the Smudge, broadcast in its entirety on WBAI on August 26, 1981. It was rebroadcast on January 22, 1982 and January 15, 1984, when it was appended by another of Marshall’s creations, the eleven minute GULP.
GULP was Marshall’s final major musical production. Living now in New York, he returned to the art that had been his first love and greatest passion, establishing himself firmly on that scene and enjoying a successful career until illness finally began slowing him in the early 2000s. His final years were spent in an assisted living facility in New York City, but his enthusiasm for the music he made, and the musicians with whom he had worked, never faded.
I spoke to him earlier this year, interviewing him for a biography of Steve Ashley, and was held spellbound as he reeled off the memories, stories and anecdotes that do so much to flavor that book. Other people who knew him far better than I talk of his undying enthusiasm, and unflagging belief, not only in his own accomplishments but those of the people whose own careers he so enriched.
And I’ll say it again. There is only a handful of producers in the folk world whose work truly altered the way that we listen to music… whose vision so exceeded that of their contemporaries that even today, the music they made packs the capacity to shock and awe… and only a handful more outside of those confines. Austin John Marshall ranks sky-high in both communities.