Country Idylls in English Music

Last night’s broadcast of Stuart Maconie’s ‘The Peoples’ songs’ was not one of the best, as it was not very focused and I am starting to think the series is running out of ideas, though there were some good bits to it.

It started out mentioning the 1970s when rock stars were buying huge lear jets, had lots of drugs and groupies, and for the first time, they went to the country to do their recording. This happened at Muscle Shoals, and the first UK group to record there were also the first to record in the English countryside, Traffic. It was not a deliberate escape to a pleasant environment but Steve Winwood claimed they were just fed up with having complaints from the neighbours when they practiced, so, in a way this was a response to the electrification of folk music. This gives us a historical sense that whenever things go in one direction, things swing back in the other direction, as when the industrial revolution happened, there was an interest in romanticism, of painting and writing poems about the countryside. Traffic’s retreat in Berkshire proved to be popular with other musicians, with people like Stephen Stills, Leon Russel and lots of others taking breaks from tours and hotel rooms, and I’m sure they just sat around drinking lemonade and discussing the weather whilst there. The place was so good for them they spent 2 years recording their 1st album.

It soon became de rigeur for rock stars to go on rural retreats, perhaps the most famous being that of Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, who went to a cottage in Snowdonia, where they got to know each other, and experimented with a lot of new sounds, so they changed from being a blues band to being far more mystical and experimental in their albums Houses of the Holy and Physical Grafitti, so the wildness of Wales turned them from good musicians to the giants they are now known as. They even wrote two songs that namechecked their cottage, Bron y garth.

After the huge worldwide success of tubular Bells, Mike Oldfield was overwhelmed, and needed to escape his fame so headed to the border of Wales, to Hergest Ridge, in Herefordshire, which became the name for his second album which he wrote there.

The band Yes, famed for their trippy prog rock epics, couldn’t decide whether to head for the country or stay in London, so they opted for a rather odd compromise: they recorded ‘Tales from topographic Oceans’ at Morgan Studios, but they decorated it like the countryside, complete with bales of hay and a fake cow.

Paul McCartney was always the most country leaning of the Fab Four in terms of his lyrics, and moved his family to the wilds of Scotland, which inspired the massive hit, ‘Mull of Kintyre’, and the cover of his album ‘Ram’ had him holding one. Lennon mocked him by having himself photographed holding a pig.

Some rock stars took the whole country scene so seriously they invested in property. Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull at one stage owned a large part of the Isle of Skye and was a major fish farmer; the who’s Roger Daltry still has a trout farm. Blur’s bassist Alex Cox, pal to Jamie Oliver, is now a mass producer of cheese.

But while millionaires – rockers and others, were buying up estates, there was of course a handful of voices raised in opposition. Recent decades have seen a major folk revival, begun by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Cecil Sharpe who travelled the country about a century ago collecting the old songs of ordinary people before they were lost. Cecil sharp House is now the centre for preserving and researching English folk traditions. Sharpe was insistent that the songs had to be from the countryside; songs by urban workers were of little interest to him. Folk singer Chris Wood sings of the price paid by the soaring prices of country houses and the effect on locals, here with The Cottagers Reply:

the broadcast ended with Peter Gabriel’s first solo effort on leaving Genesis. He was living at Box, a village just outside Bath, and was struggling with his touring schedule and commitment to the band whilst dealing with a sick daughter. He sought inspiration by climbing a nearby hill, to engage with nature, and the result was he moved to Devon, where his family came from,  and this song. I recall so well when it was released. for some reason it always came on the radio when our house was racing to pile into cars to get to our university lectures, but we all loved the song, so we were always held up, listening to it. Here is Peter Gabriel’s ‘Solsbury Hill’:

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