Just Some Songs at Twilight
By Cathi Unsworth.
Cardiacs collaborator WILLIAM D DRAKE makes songs from an enchanted Eden on his new album The Rising of The Lights. CATHI UNSWORTH steps into the garden.
One of the most inspirational pieces of music writing from the past few years is Rob Young’s Electric Eden, an epic tome that charts the course of ‘Britain’s visionary music’. Taking William Blake as its spiritual mentor, it opens with the fin de siècle socialist salons at the Hammersmith house of William Morris, where WB Yeats, Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw mingled with the youthful Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams; through the quests of the latter and Cecil Sharp to record the country’s folk songs and sea shanties in the days before World War I; the reawakening of those dreams in the post-World War II folk revival spearheaded by Ewan MacColl; and how the urge, as Young puts it, ‘to get back to the garden’ reached a new golden dawn in the Sixties, with Nick Drake, Fairport Convention and The Incredible String Band. Thatcherism’s Season of the Witch might have brought those visions to bloody closure in a bean field near Stonehenge in 1985, concreting over the wilds of the British imagination with the creed of consumerism and selfishness; but Young hones in on certain artists who slipped through the cracks to deflect her curse, citing Kate Bush, Julian Cope, David Sylvian and Talk Talk, concluding optimistically that, ‘the song is never over’.
It is a book written with insight, empathy and – dare I say it – love. It was with great sadness that I put my copy down; and not just because I had come to the end of its vividly rendered and beautifully written pages. But because there was one chapter that seemed to be missing – regarding the music of Tim Smith and William D Drake. Maybe that’s not the fault of Young, who is both a diligent researcher and empathetic channeller of mystic Albion. It’s likely because that music is such a secret, even to a writer as open-minded and open-eared as him.
The spate of recent publicity around the plight of Cardiacs founder Smith, hospitalised for over two years after a double stroke and heart attack, and the subsequent Leader of the Starry Skies tribute album to raise money for his care, have been the most public attention this stricken genius has probably ever received. Cardiacs, and their musical progeny, have always been a clandestine sect, flowing beneath the surface of popular culture for three decades, like rivers under pavements. To the initiated, their songs of joy are the musical expression of Blake’s Visionary Imagination, the very epitome of ‘Electric Eden’.
Unfortunately, aside from the aforementioned Leader…, noviciates to the Cardiacs cause are currently unable to purchase much of either the back catalogue of the band, or their sublime side-projects, Sea Nymphs, Spratley’s Japs, OceanLandWorld and Mr & Mrs Smith & Mr Drake. However, a new release by William D Drake, a core collaborator of Smith’s in many of these bands, offers an introduction to this enchanted realm. The Rising of the Lights is an album brimming with unforced eccentricity that taps the leylines of British surrealism, the most Fortean corners of our forgotten history and the collective unconscious of a Seventies childhood.
The title itself perfectly evokes the entwined melancholy and euphoria of its contents, the wordplay at which Mr Drake proves as dextrous with as the fingertips he casts across the piano, harmonium, melodica, phillicorder, mellotron, mini-Moog and the Cardiacs’ patented ‘television organ’*. The Rising of the Lights suggests the dawn breaking. Yet the term came from an arcane medical journal. Aficionados of traditional carnivorous cookery will recognise the term ‘lights’ as referring to the lungs, and my contact at the Wellcome Library confirms that it describes a condition akin to diphtheria and asthma, also known as the croup.
“It was Miss Duggie Parker – she who sings and plays miniature tambourine and glockenspiel – who perchanced upon the said tome,” explains Mr Drake on the origins of the journal, discovered, appropriately enough, in that most mysterious and magical of cities, Venice. “To this day its howabouts remain her singular secret. Needless to say Mr James Larcombe – he of the hurdy gurdy – pounced upon the phrase ‘The Rising of the Lights’, and the three of us christened the album later in a small dimly-lit square in Venice over some local Prosecco.”
The track itself – a piano-led instrumental, augmented with spooked Theramin and strings that suggest the distant yowling of alley cats – conjures this noirish scene of conspiracy perfectly. It is a delightfully sinister number.
“Ironically, I have had real problems with my lungs,” Mr Drake reveals. “The only thing my GP could offer was a steroid inhaler, which took away the symptoms for a while, but only a while, then began to make me feel even worse than before. Have sought quack after quack – one says to breathe deeply, another says to take small, shallow breaths. I’m currently trying the Buteyko breathing method, whatever that is.”
‘The Rising of the Lights’ is an 18th century term and Mr Drake returns to that era for the subject matter of another of the album’s standout songs, ‘Ornamental Hermit’– a fashionable practise for rich landowners to install faux mystics to live in their grounds in order to amuse themselves and their guests. This gem of forgotten history was gleaned from English Eccentrics by that great defender of the strange, Dame Edith Sitwell, who defined the condition of eccentricity as “a kind of innocent pride” and is precisely the sort of person you could imagine bumping into down the front at a WDD gig. Does Mr Drake actively seek out oddities and curiosities – or do they have a way of finding him?
“A bit of both. I am at my happiest when rummaging around old junk shops full of precious rubbish – and I do occasionally find something amazing. I think I compose in a similar way – searching for melodies, chords that have an odd life all their own. I like ugly vases. I buy them then hide them away. I’ve always liked ornaments – it’s always interesting to see what someone has on their mantelpiece. They do also have a way of finding me too.”
‘Ornamental Hermit’ is a bittersweet song, which perfectly evokes a solitary soul creeping through crumbling formal gardens at twilight, ‘overflowing with joy and pain’ inside. A similar, beautiful melancholy pervades ‘Me Fish Bring’, with it’s misty cello and piano that imitates the babbling of a brook. There is a heightened visual sense to this music – to me it lies somewhere between painting and cinema, like the fairytale quality of Charles Laughton’s moonlit masterpiece Night of the Hunter. It’s often said that music is the third dimension of cinema but The Rising of the Lights works the opposite way round, allowing the listener to start rolling visuals in response to what is heard. Does Mr Drake have images in mind before he starts composing the music; or does the music create the images?
“It’s all a bit of a mystery,” he says, “and within that mystery is colour and shape and smell and taste – and the other one. Voices and images before one falls asleep. Many of my pieces have a long gestation period – can easily be twenty years – during which time they will attract a nostalgia or sentimentality from the period that they were spawned. And creatively they are not finished until the very last millisecond of recording.”
Besides the formidable Dame Edith, are there specific authors who have had an impact on his wistfully evocative, semi-surrealistic lyrics?
“I like Dylan Thomas’s tumbling poems, so full of humour and love and warmth,” he considers. “I like Barbara Pym’s novels set in English villages, where seething passions, often unrequited, penetrate the sleepy surface. I like Samuel Beckett’s short stories, particularly First Love, which is so peculiar that it comes close to actually reflecting life accurately. I like WB Yeats’s soft and serene poetry. I like Kurt Vonnegut’s absurd realism. Iris Murdoch’s mystery and mysticism. I like William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. They’ve all influenced me in their ways.”
There is a bestiary of fantastic creatures on the album – from great dragons and mastodons to tiny ants and fish, whose peculiar characteristics are fashioned in comical musical ways, that chime with long-lost childhood memories, of programmes like Tales From the Riverbank, Mr Benn and the oeuvre of Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin. There have always been plenty of fish, horses, dogs and other beasts in the songs of the Cardiacs’ extended family and I wonder if Mr Drake is drawn back to this kind of imagery by similar recollections?
“Many of my childhood memories are of drawing and painting, and the theme was nearly always creatures, both real and imaginary,” he says. “I was keen on Beatrix Potter, Walt Disney and Tales From the Riverbank. Animal Magic was a favourite programme – do you remember the theme tune? And Johnny Morris speaking like a giraffe?”
All of these themes within his work seem to add up to an on-going exploration into the landscape of Albion and the English eccentric soul, almost a mystical musical quest, similar in its purpose to that of Sharp and Vaughan Williams nearly a century ago, riding their bicycles across country and coast to record the old stories and songs before they disappeared into the aether. The tramping of Alfred Watkins’ The Old Straight Track that seems present in the resultant symphonies of Vaughan Williams, and those of Edward Elgar and George Butterworth. I hope I am not being too wildly pretentious here, as there is obviously a huge amount of humour and appreciation of the ridiculous in the mix too, but then again, that is all part of the equation, isn’t it?
“I do have a strong sense of Englishness — and my music is a kind of quest — a relentless one, I am a hopeless addict,” Mr Drake admits. “Absurdity is vital in helping me through my life — as is a good cream tea. I do feel a connection with the three composers you mention, especially Elgar and Vaughan Williams. Even if I was never to hear their music again, the thought of what they achieved musically is fodder for the imagination.”
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Cathi Unsworth is the author of three pop-cultural crime fiction novels, The Not Knowing, The Singer, Bad Penny Blues, published by Serpent’s Tail. She lives and works in London.
* Notes Mr Drake: “It only functions with pre-1965 television sets. Don’t worry, I have three spares in the loft.”
Thanks to Ross MacFarlane and Joe McNally for their assistance on medical and Fortean matters, respectively.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 4th, 2011.