WHEN, in September, I wrote a tribute to the incomparable Sandy Denny,, I somehow managed not to mention that during her early days with Fairport Convention the band contained another excellent young singer in Ian Matthews, who would also go on to great things in his own right. (And no, all you Richard Thompson fans, I haven’t forgotten about him).
Matthews, who co-wrote and sang the delicate Book Song on the What We Did On Our Holidays LP, jumped ship in 1969 as the band began to concentrate increasingly on traditional English folk.
His tastes inclined to the other side of the Atlantic and he went on to enjoy several amazingly prolific years including a number one single with his version of Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock, plus some of my very favourite album tracks.
Ian Matthews MacDonald was born in Barton-upon-Humber, Lincolnshire, in 1946. When he began performing in the 1960s he was billed as Ian MacDonald but he changed to Matthews to avoid confusion with the multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald, of King Crimson.
He joined Fairport in 1967, when they were heavily into American songwriters, and stayed for three albums until their transition to folkies, when he jumped ship. It is claimed that he saw the writing on the wall when they held a recording session without inviting him along.
He wasted no time in laying down his own material on 1969’s Matthews’ Southern Comfort solo album and showed there were no hard feelings by enlisting the services of, among others, his former Fairport colleagues Thompson, Simon Nicol and Ashley Hutchings along with steel guitarist Gordon Huntley and guitarist Mark Griffiths. Highlight is a lovely track, Thoughts for a Friend. The Southern Comfort part of the title comes from a song by the Canadian folk duo Ian and Sylvia rather than the alcoholic beverage.
A working band was then formed under the name Matthews (no apostrophe) Southern Comfort and they produced two albums in 1970, Second Spring and Later That Same Year. My chosen track from Second Spring is a cover of the James Taylor song Something in the Way She Moves. Later That Same Year features mainly cover versions including a sweet rendition of Neil Young’s Tell Me Why. Woodstock, which topped the singles charts in October, was not on the album although it was included in the US release. Joni is said to have told Ian she preferred his radical rearrangement of her song.
For aficionados, there is a fascinating short DVD available of a 1970 performance by the Fairport Full House line-up and MSC in Maidstone, Kent. It was made for cinema release and directed by Tony Palmer. The music is great and the crowd shots terrific. Some truly abominable haircuts.
Matthews left the band after Later That Same Year, but they carried on without him and made three albums as Southern Comfort.
In 1971 his hectic schedule continued with two solo LPs on the Vertigo label, If You Saw Thro’ My Eyes and Tigers Will Survive. The former includes my favourite Matthews song, and one of my all-time all-artists top ten, Never Ending. This short, beautiful number couples Ian’s light yet rich voice with delightful piano from Keith Tippett.
Next came another band project, Plainsong, with Andy Roberts, formerly of the Liverpool Scene. In 1972 they released the album In Search of Amelia Earhart, which is themed on the American aviatrix who disappeared mysteriously on a flight in 1937, although most of the tracks are nothing to do with her. It opens with For The Second Time.
By now Matthews was really motoring and the next two US-recorded albums are as good as it gets. Valley Hi, produced by Mike Nesmith, came out in 1973. It opens with the tremendous self-penned Keep on Sailing and includes his version of Jackson Browne’s world-weary classic These Days. In 1974 came Some Days You Eat The Bear And Some Days The Bear Eats You. Starting with Tom Waits’s Ol’ 55, Matthews goes on to revisit Keep on Sailing and manages to outshine the original. So good he made it twice. I have mentioned in a previous blog David Lindley’s masterly lap steel on a cover of Jesse Winchester’s brilliant Biloxi but make no apologies for repeating myself. An old buffer’s prerogative.
Also in 1974 an older UK recording, Journeys From Gospel Oak, was released after a spell in the vaults. There are some nice tracks including Tim Hardin’s Tribute To Hank Williams. Matthews was not yet 30, yet he had reached his peak.
Perhaps in despair at his lack of solo commercial success, he adopted a poppier approach and had a hit in the US with the 1978 single Shake It, from the album Stealin’ Home, but it was a flash in the pan. He went on to work in A and R and continued to perform with little success. In 1989 he changed his first name to Iain, which unaccountably failed to change his fortunes. Some time this century I caught up with him by investing in a five-album box set covering his more recent career. I thought he sounded upsettingly like Cliff Richard.
So, Iain Matthews. Not a million-selling album artist but, at his best, a superlative singer and songwriter.
Footnote: a Tippett snippet. I had always assumed that the aforementioned jazz pianist Keith Tippett was a relative of Sir Michael Tippett, the 20th century classical composer. In fact he was born Keith Graham Tippetts, son of a Bristol policeman, but decided to lose the final ‘s’ on his rise to fame. Just to complicate matters he married the singer Julie Driscoll, who called herself Julie Tippetts thenceforth.