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Home News Off the Beaten Tracks: Thank You For Bridget St John

Off the Beaten Tracks: Thank You For Bridget St John

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One of the most shameful episodes in my life occurred on June 3, 1972, at the Clitheroe Castle Pop Festival. Reader, I heckled Bridget St John.

The day had started well with a set from the folk rockers Trees – featuring singer Celia Humphris and introduced by her boyfriend Pete Drummond, compere for the day. They were followed by Bridget, alone with an acoustic guitar. There was a sizeable and quite threatening contingent of bikers there for the bill toppers, the Detroit hard rockers the MC5, and they made their impatience clear at a woman singing gentle, under-amplified love songs. For my part, I was keen to hear my favourite group at the time, Brinsley Schwarz. None of that justifies my mates and I joining in with the Hells Angels shouting ‘Get off’ at the forlorn figure on the rain-misted stage. Thankfully she ignored our advice and went on to receive a polite ovation though, if I remember correctly, no encore requests.

We went on to enjoy a storming set by the Brinsleys, plus an ear-numbing dose of mindless rock posing from UFO and a baffling interlude from the Third Ear Band.

As for the MC5, they were due to appear at about 10pm but managed to get a message to the organisers that their van had broken down at Spaghetti Junction. At that point we decided to take the last bus home rather than wait for a band who might not turn up, then have to hitch a lift. I later learned that Brinsley Schwarz agreed to do another set (chiz chiz) and that the MC5 arrived well after 11pm, set up and managed to perform only a couple of songs before falling foul of the local authority’s midnight curfew.

Back to the subject. In 1973 I saw an ad in Melody Maker offering four new albums for a quid apiece. These were known as cutoffs, because they had a chunk taken out of the cover to show they were being sold at a discount. They comprised Quiver, Stoneground, Siren’s Strange Locomotion (featuring the excellent Kevin Coyne) and Songs for the Gentle Man by Bridget St John. I invested, keen to hear what Bridget sounded like in the studio rather than in the soggy Ribble Valley. It proved to be a strange and beautiful LP on John Peel’s Dandelion label, produced by the one-time Pink Floyd collaborator Ron Geesin and featuring ornate, neo-classical string and vocal arrangements (including counter-tenor) against Bridget’s warm, husky vocals. The Pebble and the Man, written by Donovan, is a hippie treat while City Crazy and John Martyn’s Back To Stay are just beautiful.

Bridget’s first album, Ask Me No Questions, was already scarce despite having been released on Dandelion only four years earlier in 1969, when she was 23, but I managed to find a copy through a record-tracing agency (this was what you had to use pre-internet). It is lovely. There is an optimistic, naïve feel to it typified by the song Barefeet and Hot Pavements. Beautifully sung and a tribute to the courage of a gal prepared to tiptoe shoeless along London streets in the days before dog owners were shamed into ‘picking up’. To B Without A Hitch, Curl Your Toes and the title track, complete with birdsong recorded in Peel’s Suffolk garden, are all cosy classics – in fact there isn’t a dud.

The third Dandelion album, Thank You For, sees a new Bridget – more mainstream, more assured and at times quite sexy. Her version of Buddy Holly’s Every Day is deep, breathy and irresistible. She also covers Dylan’s Love Minus Zero, No Limit with aplomb and then there is the marvellous Fly High. It starts with echoplex guitar from John Martyn and the first two lines are borrowed loosely from Robert Louis Stevenson:

The world is so full of a number of things

and I think we should all be as happy as kings.

THIS IS A GREAT SONG !!!!

By 1974 Dandelion Records had collapsed, with Peel’s ability to spot musical talent no match for his financial lack of judgement. For Bridget’s fourth album she was signed up by Chrysalis and they, in their wisdom, assigned production duties to her labelmate Leo Lyons, bassist with Ten Years After. He made a series of horrific attempts to turn Bridget into some sort of rock chick (including an Elton John-penned travesty, Sweet Painted Lady) yet some tracks remain intact. Notably I Don’t Know If I Can Take It. Who knows how good an album this would have been had Dandelion survived.

In 1976 Bridget emigrated to New York, where she worked as a waitress. Two decades later she released an album, Take the 5ifth, a compilation of her later work which is largely excruciating with AOR arrangements and saxophone solos, yet still has the odd fine moment such as Maybe If I Write A Letter, which could happily fit on to one of the early LPs.

Since then she has toured the UK occasionally, with the guitarist Mike Chapman, and in 2007 sang with the great Kevin Ayers on his last album, The Unfairground. Their duet on Baby Come Home recalls their collaboration on The Oyster and the Flying Fish, from Ayers’s 1970 album Shooting at the Moon.

Ten years ago, anyone interested in discovering the Bridget portfolio would have been in for a thin time. Her albums were fetching stratospheric sums. Researching this post, however, I found to my delight that virtually everything she recorded has now been released on CD, notably an extremely reasonably priced box set which includes all the Dandelion albums plus her BBC sessions. There is a ‘best of’ collection, and a double CD which includes some out-takes and interviews of huge interest to nerds such as myself, as well as a terrific version of Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne.

Please lend a sympathetic ear to Bridget, and help me atone 46 years on for the shame of Clitheroe Castle.

alan@conservativewoman.co.uk

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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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