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Off the Beaten Tracks: Jansch, not Yansch

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In my view there can be few better ways to spend Sunday morning than to sit back with a bacon butty and a cup of tea, read Rod Liddle then dump the rest of the Sunday Times in the recycling, appease one’s hangover with double-strength ibuprofen, and listen to Bert Jansch’s classic album LA Turnaround. (OK there are more energetic alternatives but I’m an old chap and need to conserve my strength.)

Jansch (which he pronounced with a hard J rather than a Y, as most of us mistakenly used to do), was one of the key figures of the British folk scene. He was remarkable for his innovative acoustic guitar technique and his warm, gentle voice.

Born in Glasgow in 1943 to a German immigrant family, Herbert Jansch was brought up in Edinburgh and in his teens haunted folk clubs where he met and shared a flat with Robin Williamson, who was later to form the Incredible String Band with Mike Heron.

Bert moved to London, where he met the producer and engineer Bill Leader, already mentioned glowingly in this column on August 27. Leader captured some of Jansch’s songs on a reel-to-reel tape machine and sold the recording for £100 to Transatlantic Records, who released it in 1965 as the album Bert Jansch. It sold an estimated 150,000 copies at 30 bob (£1.50) a time, so that was a slick bit of business. I don’t suppose they sent young Bert any postal orders by way of thanks.

Included on the LP was the original song Needle of Death, about the demise of a friend from a drugs overdose, plus a version of the Davy Graham guitar instrumental Angie, which inspired countless teenage boys to take up the instrument (unfortunate phrasing there but you know what I mean). It also led to Paul Simon’s effort, renamed Anji, on the Simon and Garfunkel album Sounds of Silence.

Jansch made several more solo albums in the 60s, including It Don’t Bother Me, Jack Orion, Nicola and Birthday Blues, which these days impress with the guitar work but seem a little strained in the vocal department. Then he joined forces with John Renbourn, Terry Cox, Danny Thompson and Jacqui McShee to form the group Pentangle. They achieved a measure of fame when their song Light Flight was used as the theme for the BBC drama series Take Three Girls, about ‘young chicks in Swinging London’. Some of the band’s musical interplay was delightful, for example on When I Get Home but I must confess that McShee’s high-pitched voice reminded me of biting chalk. The band split in 1973.

Now according to Jansch’s Wikipedia entry, he took a sabbatical from music and retired to a farm in Wales for some years. According to my record collection, however, he made the aforementioned LA Turnaround album in 1974, followed by Santa Barbara Honeymoon. The former was recorded in Sussex and California, and produced by the ex-Monkee turned country singer Michael Nesmith. It might not sound an ideal marriage but this was an album made in heaven. From the first track, Fresh as a Sweet Sunday Morning, it is a mellow classic. Needle of Death is given a reprise, and justifiably so, revealing how Bert’s singing has improved immeasurably. Santa Barbara Honeymoon is less of an achievement but has its moments, including Love Anew. Quite why these records should be expunged from history is a mystery to me.

In 1977 came A Rare Conundrum, which lacks the atmosphere of its two predecessors but is well worth a listen. Try the traditional The Curragh of Kildare.

Two years later came the curio Avocet, an instrumental album on the theme of birds. Kingfisher is my favourite.

Much more of dubious quality was to follow, as Jansch struggled with health problems caused by alcohol and nicotine, while also trying unsuccessfully to run a guitar shop.

The highlight of his later years is probably The River Sessions, a live album from 2004 which conveys his humour and charm. It includes Travellin’ Man, which he confesses is an amalgam of every folk music cliché he could think of.

Jansch died of lung cancer in a London hospice in 2011. He is sadly missed, by fellow musicians as well as us mere fans.

Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin is quoted as saying of the first album: ‘At one point, I was absolutely obsessed with Bert Jansch. When I first heard that LP, I couldn’t believe it. It was so far ahead of what everyone else was doing.’

And Neil Young apparently said: ‘As much of a great guitar player as Jimi [Hendrix] was, Bert Jansch is the same thing for acoustic guitar . . . and my favourite.’

Not a bad epitaph.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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