ANDY ROBERTS - Urban Cowboy (Elektra Records K42139, 1973)
Born in Hatchend, London, in 1947, Andy Robert’s father was a devotee of Music Hall comedy and his mum an afficionado of classical music. Both involved Andy in their enthusiasms from a young age and consequently, from formative exposure to slapstick and symphony concerts, Andy took up the violin at nine (taking lessons for nine years) and simultaneously dived into the skiffle boom that was sweeping Britain in the late 50s, owning his first guitar circa 1959. He got a music scholarship to a public school in Essex, he explained, in an extensive interview with Ptolomaic Terrascope in 1992. When Roberts went there, there was already a band called Flash Sid Fanshawe & The Icebergs. This was in 1959. They’d got guitars which they’d made in the school workshops and played very simple stuff which he thought sounded fantastic. By the time Andy Roberts left the school there was half a dozen quite good bands there. You could plug in and just make as much racket as you wanted. Andy’s school band, foreshadowing his long involvement with the wacky and the surreal, was known to its friends as Monarch T. Bisk & The Cherry Pinwheel Shortcakes, or, at least, would have been but nobody could remember it all. The band went through several stages, from a Shadows sound to Chicago Rhythm'n'Blues, but he never thought of doing it for a living.
It was becoming embroiled in providing live music for a revue, written by a Shortcakes’ associate, at the 1965 Edinburgh Festival which led to the real beginnings of Andy’s path as a professional musician. The show ran for two weeks at the Traverse Theatre, and one of the acts following the play was Vivian Stanshall, who had recently formed the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, doing mime, playing the tuba and generally camping around. The theatre was also playing host to The Scaffold, a Liverpool comedy troupe comprising Roger McGough, John Gorman and Mike McGear (ne McCartney, Paul’s brother). Andy was really impressed with their show, and by a bunch of poets, including Adrian Henri, playing the venue during afternoons. Many strands of Andy’s career over the next decade and beyond would be interwoven with all of the above, all focused on this one venue in August 1965. Andy returned to London and accepted an offer to study law at Liverpool University, almost immediately bumping into Roger McGough at a bookshop as soon as he got there. The ‘jazz and poetry’ movement was at its peak, and Roger invited Andy to dive in: "February 1966 was the first time I did a thing with him and Adrian Henri, at the Bluecoat Theatre in Liverpool. It just took off from there. Within a couple of months I was doing poetry events at The Cavern and playing with a band at the University. There was loads going on".
Soon, on the back of a 1967 poetry anthology entitled The Liverpool Scene, Adrian Henri, Roger McGough and Andy, along with jazz saxophonist Mike Evans and songwriter and guitarist Mike Hart, were taking bookings as ‘The Liverpool Scene Poets’ Andy was also recording with McGough’s music and comedy outfit The Scaffold, on a series of singles which included their breakthrough hits "Thank U Very Much" and "Lily The Pink". Roger consequently had to drop out of the poetry gigs, leaving Andy to suggest to the charismatic Adrian Henri that all they needed was a bassist and drummer to become a bona fide band. Percy Jones and Bryan Dodson (later replaced by Pete Clarke) filled those roles respectively and The Liverpool Scene was born. An album for CBS had already been recorded, prior to the band’s formation, called The Incredible New Liverpool Scene, basically Andy accompanying Adrian Henri and Roger McGough, recorded over a couple of hours in Denmark Street, London. BBC Radio’s champion of the underground John Peel took a shine to it and regularly booked the now fully-fledged band (or, as a duo, Roberts & Henri) for his show and for his own live engagements. He also nominally produced their first full-band album, "Amazing Adventures Of" (RCA, 1968), in a recording deal secured by their new manager Sandy Roberton, a key figure in the careers of many now legendary acts at the progressive ends of folk and rock music of the time.
In 1968 Andy graduated in Law, having somehow found a way through a degree course in between singles with The Scaffold, concerts with the Scene and helping out on the Scaffold spin-off LP "McGough & McGear", the other guitarist being Jimi Hendrix and the producer Paul McCartney. "I wasn’t professional at the time" says Andy, "but I was doing jobs that many professionals would have envied. I’d get calls to do a bit of recording in London, and I’d stay at Paul McCartney’s house, walk up and ring the doorbell and there’d be 85 girls hanging around outside. I didn’t even think twice about it. But 1968 was really when the working life started". The following year saw the Liverpool Scene at their peak, delivering their second album "Bread On The Night", touring the UK on a three act bill with Led Zeppelin and Blodwyn Pig, playing to 150'000 at the Isle of Wight Festival (on the day of Bob Dylan’s much-heralded comeback performance) and touring America for a gruelling, and revelatory three months. "Absolute disaster" is Andy’s verdict on the tour. "We suddenly came up against the utter reality of it. With a British audience, given this poetry and a band that were never rehearsed, we got away with it through being so different and through our verve and irreverence. None of which worked in America".
The American experience would nevertheless inspire the band’s best work, the lengthy "Made In USA" suite, one side of their last LP proper, "St Adrian Co, Broadway And 3rd" (1970) and which would filter into Andy’s own work for the next few years. It also forced him to re-examine his own direction: "Before America I was stupid enough to still think I could be Jimi Hendrix. I wanted to be a star. You do when you’re young, you don’t realise that everybody has their role, and that wasn’t mine". Andy still recalls some sage advice he received around this time from folk-baroque guitar hero Davy Graham: "You only person you should be in competition with today is yourself yesterday". The first Andy Roberts album, "Home Grown", was recorded in late 1969, and built upon the quirky solo tracks he had to date peppered among the jazz/poetry workouts on Liverpool Scene albums and radio sessions. "The Raven", featured on 1968’s "Bread On The Night" and heard here in a superior unreleased version from 1969, was one such; "Home Grown" itself was another. Those two tracks conveniently represent the poles of Andy’s writing: the profound and the purely comedic. Making these parameters sit well together on one piece of vinyl was the question which would quickly colour Andy’s own view of the album or, at least, in its original form, as released by RCA (under a production deal with Sandy Roberton) in March 1970.
Infinitely listenable and beautifully arranged, with excellent guitar work from Andy. A lovely, peaceful album. That was Disc’s judgement on this mesmerising and atmospheric rough-hewn debut, on which Andy was backed on some tracks by the rhythm section from Mighty Baby (another of Sandy Roberton’s charges), with brass arrangements from future Jethro Tull man David Palmer. An eclectic album, punctuated with brief bursts of violin and organ noodling, the key tracks included the ragtime/country flavoured comedic songs like "Home Grown" and "Gig Song", the impressionistically autobiographical "Moths And Lizards In Detroit" (first of the "American" songs) and "Queen Of The Moonlight World" (inspired by a visit to London Zoo), and the altogether gothic "Applecross", inspired by a weekend in a village of that name in north-west Scotland. The spooky vibe was continued on the traditional "John The Revelator" and a funky cover of Spider John Koerner’s "Creepy John". Andy performed several items from "Home Grown" on John Peel’s Top Gear radio show, plus the driving non-album track "You’re A Machine", on which he was again backed by Mighty Baby. A previously unreleased rehearsal of the track, recorded shortly before the BBC session.
The Liverpool Scene finally split, onstage at a London gig, in May 1970. In Andy’s recollection ("Adrian attacking Mike Evans with a mike stand") it had been building up for a while. Soon after, Andy crashed a motorcycle and was out of action for a couple of months, but recovered well enough by July to accompany Adrian, along with Dave Richards on bass, Alan Peters on trumpet and John Pearson on drums, to Norway for a couple of gigs booked as the Liverpool Scene. The trip would inspire Andy’s "Sitting On A Rock". Regrouping with Adrian had been Andy’s hope, but it wasn’t to be. Despite the Scene’s perceived success, as Andy explained to Record Mirror, "nobody really made any more than about £20 a week. I was going to form a band with Adrian after the Scene split, but he backed out. You’ve got to remember, he’s 39 and £20 with the Scene wasn’t much". As Adrian went on towards becoming, in tandem with his poetry, a well-regarded visual artist and college lecturer, Andy pressed ahead with his new band, now titled Everyone. Retaining Richards and Pearson from the Norway trip, he added John Porter, on guitar, and took Porter’s recommendation to bring in Bob Sargent on keyboards which, he now says, was probably the worst of several moves.
Nevertheless, the picture that emerged from the band’s debut music press feature, in Disc, September 19, 1970, was one of a bunch of happy campers, ready to take on the world. Having played one gig, the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, no less, and on the cusp of their debut album, Andy declared, "We’ve reached the stage now where we’re over-rehearsed and under-performed". In retrospect, he prefers to sum up the period with a rejoinder worthy of Spinal Tap: "Rented a house near Stonehenge; took lots of drugs; didn’t rehearse enough". The resulting album, Everyone, released in January 1971, while well-recorded was, in Andy’s view, "frankly, a bit of a mess, there was Bob’s stuff and my stuff and it didn’t really meet in the middle". The album included four songs fronted by Andy: another Koerner cover, "Midnight Shift", and a beautiful trio of originals in "Don’t Get Me Wrong" (a reflection on recent US student uprisings against the Vietnam war), "Sitting On A Rock" and "Radio Lady", the latter being another memoir of the Scene’s US tour. All three originals are included here, with "Radio Lady" appearing in the form of a superior mix first released in October 1971 on an US Roberts compilation, on the Ampex label, confusingly called "Home Grown".
Whether Everyone could have found the common musical ground to continue is academic, for the band were effectively destroyed by a tragic accident involving their two road crew and a friend on the A33 in November 1970. The group’s van and gear were written off and Paul Scard, Andy‘s loyal roadie, lost his life. Andy saw out some contractual obligation gigs as a three-piece with Richards and Pearson but ‘come December 1970 that was it. "I didn’t want to do anything". By the time the group’s first (and last) album appeared, on B&C, there was no wind in its sails. Shortly after the crash, Andy and Dave Richards had rented a house for a month on the outskirts of Northampton. This brief period would yield the material that found its way onto Andy’s next solo album proper, "Nina And The Dream Tree", a year later. As Andy explains, "We played a lot of Bezique, and played Neil Young and Grateful Dead records. I was visited by Polly James, actress in the popular TV sitcom The Liver Birds, with whom I was seriously involved, and who is the subject of the whole of the first side of Nina . Polly and I spent New Year’s eve at Tommy Steele’s house". Andy was back in London by January ‘71, living with his folks and wondering what to do, when he got a call out from Paul Samwell-Smith, ex-Yardbirds bassist and now a record producer. He was looking for a guitarist to work on a debut solo album by former Fairport Convention and Matthews Southern Comfort vocalist Ian Matthews, hot property after MSC’s September 1970 No.1 hit single with "Woodstock". Andy and Iain hit it off together, and the new association with himself and Samwell-Smith put him into seven months intense studio work Iain and Cat Stevens and so on. Then Sandy Roberton was saying I hadn’t done a solo album for a year and should do something.
Work on the Ian Matthews album "If You Saw Thro’ My Eyes" spanned January to March 1971 (April to May ‘71 would see further studio work with Ian Matthews, which became his next album, "Tigers Will Survive"); during March he also worked on the Mike McGear LP "Woman"; and he was also, as a Melody Maker feature of March 27 put it, experimenting on a solo album, using vocal backing from three West Indians (but no flash guitar). Those backing singers, who played a crucial part in the magical sound of "Nina And The Dream Tree" (recorded sporadically during the next few months and released on Pegasus Records in October 1971), were Mike London and Mac and Kathy Kissoon. Three pieces of Nina’s jigsaw had been debuted on a BBC session for Bob Harris earlier that month,"Keep My Children Warm", "I’ve Seen The Movie" and "Welcome Home", although the listing of musicians involved, essentially a reunion of Everyone, as given in Ken Garner’s In Session Tonight (BBC Books, 1993) strikes Andy in retrospect as hugely unlikely. During the early summer of 1971 Andy was certainly enjoying himself playing shows with a proto-Grimms outfit billed as the Bonzo Dog Freaks. If this was a blast of the future, Sandy Roberton had engineered a blast from the past: a new lease of life for "Home Grown". The "Home Grown" re-release provided an excuse for Andy to perform, supporting Procul Harum, at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, backed by Dave Richards and Mighty Baby’s Ian Whiteman and Roger Powell. It would be the stage debut of the Nina material, and led directly to Andy getting the support slot on a Steeleye Span UK tour later that year.
During July ‘71 Andy was able to tell Melody Maker’s Karl Dallas that: "For the first time I’ve got a coherent direction. Now I have personal statements I wish to make, though I don’t want to knock them in with a sledgehammer". Dallas was given a preview of the new recordings and was rightly impressed: "There is a great deal of warmth in his work" he wrote, "a fellowship for his kin which brims over. His singing voice has matured incredibly and his use of the electric guitar is haunting, reminiscent sometimes of Richard Thompson on top form". Andy was often telling the press that it was only during the McGear and Matthews sessions earlier in the year that he found his voice on the instrument, and the quality of his electric playing, a master of texture and atmosphere, was one of Nina’s revelations. Then again, spending August-September 1971 on an Ian Matthews tour of the States as a trio with Richard Thompson himself can’t have done any harm.
As before, Andy’s US tour experiences would be a rich seam for his song writing. Time spent with one Karen Goskowski at the Poison Apple in Boston would yield three songs, first heard on his country flavoured "Urban Cowboy" LP in 1973: "Poison Apple Lady", "Urban Cowboy" and "New Karenski". The first of these is heard here in a demo version recorded in November 1971. "Urban Cowboy" was recorded piecemeal during sporadic 1972 sessions, yet emerges as a true gem of an album. Working with his Plainsong colleagues Ian Matthews, Dave Ronga and Dave Richards and guest musicians like Richard Thompson, BJ Cole, Martin Carthy, Neil Innes and Dick Parry, Andy Roberts explored a series of beautiful original songs and a powerful cover of Jim Hall's barroom classic, "Elaine".