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Off the Beaten Tracks: The roots of Trees

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ALTHOUGH the folk-rock group Trees failed to sell many records during their short lifetime, many rail travellers will be familiar with the sound of their vocalist Celia Humphris. That’s because she is the voice of the Northern and Jubilee Tube lines: ‘Mind the gap’ and ‘This station is King’s Cross-St Pancras. Change here for Circle & Hammersmith, Metropolitan, Piccadilly and Victoria lines, and mainline, intercity, suburban and international rail services. This train terminates at High Barnet.’ Yep, that’s her. She can also be heard on the Chiltern and Northern rail networks and the Eurostar, according to this amazing anorak-style web page. Celia enjoyed a healthy career as a voiceover artist after Trees broke up and made far more money selling chocolate bars and detergent than she ever did singing.

Apart from the winsome Celia, Trees comprised bassist and keyboards player Bias Boshell, drummer Unwin Brown, acoustic guitarist David Costa and lead guitarist Barry Clarke. Son of the radio presenter Sam Costa, 21-year-old David was reading fine arts at the University of East Anglia in 1968 when he met Barry through a mutual friend who suggested they might enjoy playing together. Barry was working at an advertising agency. The two young men clicked instantly. ‘I never went back to university and Barry never went back to his office,’ said Costa.

Clarke was sharing a house in Barnes with Bias Boshell, who had been friendly with diplomat’s son Unwin Brown since they were pupils at Bedales, the co-educational independent school in Hampshire. The four began playing together and Costa suggested that since they needed a vocalist they should audition a friend’s sister, Celia Humphris, who was studying at Arts Educational. As she put it: ‘I was at drama college, loving it (I was in the same singing class as the actress Jane Seymour!) I was so immersed in the performing arts – dance, drama and musicals – that I’d rather lost touch with the music of the time. At the audition I knew none of the bands they talked about so we finally agreed on Summertime, the only song we all knew!’

Celia told Flashback magazine that overall, the audition was ‘very, very loud! I just remember singing, and then saying, “Well, thanks, guys, I don’t think this is going to be for me” and walking out with my sister. I remember them all standing in a line, looking very pissed off! That evening, it gradually occurred to me that, as a singer, I might become successful and well-known enough to go back into acting at a much higher level than assistant coffee maker! I think it was David I called up the next day and said, “I’ve changed my mind. I might actually come and join you guys, or at least try it out”.’

Bias already had a thick portfolio of his own songs, while David was keen on traditional folk and Barry liked American artists such as Tom Rush, so there was a heady mix of styles when the band played their first gigs in the summer of 1969, with David gradually gaining the upper hand. Unusually for musicians at the time, they were not druggies. ‘We were clean as whistles,’ he said. ‘We were a very middle-class band.’ To preserve esprit de corps, the four men in the group made a pact not to try to seduce Celia, who became the bride of the radio DJ Pete Drummond. By August Trees had evolved into a folk-rock outfit and signed with CBS for a princely advance payment of £125. They were recording at Sound Techniques studio in December when Fairport Convention released their album Liege and Lief.  

David told Flashback: ‘It just hit us like a ton of bricks. On the one hand, we were horrified. On the other hand, we’d just listen to it endlessly, for the sheer pleasure of it. And we’d pull it apart note by note, and drumbeat by drumbeat, and go, “Jesus, listen to that – isn’t it fabulous?” We absolutely loved it, but at the same time, we felt slightly pipped at the post, because it was a language we were exploring, and they suddenly came out speaking it fluently, you know?’

The first Trees album, The Garden of Jane Delawney, was released in April 1970. The first track, issued as a single, was Nothing Special

‘The majority of reviewers chose to endorse our choice of title,’ said Costa. ‘What were we thinking?’ In fact, this is an excellent number notable for Barry’s tip-top lead guitar. It is followed by The Great Silkie, a traditional ballad previously recorded by Joan Baez, among others. This and Lady Margaret, also traditional, were described by David as ‘definitively what we were about at the moment,’ adding: ‘Both are infused with dark and light, and the stresses and strains of our efforts in combining strengths and styles to the full extent of our varied individual abilities.’ Of Lady Margaret, he added: ‘The bones of this track are the framework we adopted as our early means of performing live. Celia’s clear and elegant vocal delivers the unfolding story with a bright acoustic guitar before the heavy mob kick in from every which way.’

The title track, a gothic tale of blood-filled streams, was written by Bias Boshell at Bedales (that’s enough alliteration – ed) in about 1965. ‘I cannot explain anything about it,’ he said. ‘I don’t know who Jane Delawney is, what it means or what influenced me in writing it.’ What a mine of information. She Moved Thro’ The Fair opens with Costa’s solo version of Blackwater Side. Road is another excellent Clarke workout but Glasgerion is a shocker. Asked what he would change about it, Bias replied: ‘Everything. Every single note! I don’t know what I was doing.’ Celia said that years later ‘David actually apologised to me and said, “I’m so sorry we made you do that!” because it was awful. When I play the album, which is infrequently, I never play that one, ever.’ I’ll second that.

Melody Maker made Jane Delawney its folk album of the month, saying: ‘There is obviously a big future for this band, who are at first reminiscent of Fotheringay, but then show that they can branch out further. Traditional folk-rock finely balanced between electric and acoustic guitars is the message.’

By this time Trees had made what they acknowledge was the most disastrous performance of all time – the Evolution Music Festival at an aerodrome outside Paris. ‘It was supposed to be a big musical equipment and instruments expo, with bands playing,’ Bias told Flashback. ‘Because it was an equipment festival, we were told, “Oh, don’t bring anything with you. Just bring your guitar.” So, we just turned up and, of course, the whole equipment thing was a complete fake. Barry and I were plugged into the same amplifier, and any time either of us played with a bit extra force it cut the other one out! It was horrible, it was absolutely awful.’ Celia added: ‘I was crying on stage. It was the worst gig ever.’

Asked about Trees’ live performances, Barry Clarke said there were probably four bad nights to every good one. ‘A normal band, you’ve got your rhythm section and you’ve got something that holds the middle section, either a piano or rhythm guitar, and then you’ve got the singer on top. We didn’t have that, because the bass player was playing lead, the drummer was playing lead, the guitarist was fiddling around, and the other guitarist – being David – was probably the closest thing we had to someone doing their proper job! Maybe I’m being a bit harsh saying one in four was good. It was one in three.’

In October 1970 it was back into the studio to record album two, On The Shore, which came out in January. Its creepy sleeve by Hipgnosis features a demonic child outside an abandoned house near Hampstead Heath. The model was Katherine Meehan, daughter of Tony, the one-time drummer with the Shadows.

After a brief version of the traditional Soldiers Three comes Murdoch, written by Bias at his mother Avril’s house in the shadow of Cader Idris, North Wales. He said it was ‘the only song that I’ve ever remembered that I’ve heard in a dream. I still find it somewhat disturbing. However anyone who’s gazed up at Cader Idris in a bleak Welsh twilight will know the feeling’.

In his notes for a 2007 reissue of On The Shore, the comedian Stewart Lee writes that Streets of Derry ‘sounds like an Anglicised version of Crazy Horse or Television’. He adds: ‘Celia admits to falling asleep on stage during one especially lengthy rendition of the song. Finding things to do through the instrumental sections seems to have been a recurring problem for her. “I used to wiggle or dance on the spot during the long breaks. But when we played at Wellington College boys’ school one of the masters asked me to stop wiggling because it was upsetting the boys. That was when I started to lie down on stage instead”.’

The Cyril Tawney song Sally Free and Easy, at ten minutes plus, is the centrepiece of the album. Unwin said it was ‘the closest we ever got to what we wanted to deliver because it went down live.’ Celia added: ‘It went down after an all-night recording session. The guys were fiddling with a tune they’d always liked and Bias moved to the piano (producer Tony Cox filled in on bass). It was around five in the morning and we felt great afterwards. It’s my personal favourite.’

The traditional Geordie and Polly on the Shore are both terrific. Little Sadie belongs on another record, preferably deleted.

Like its predecessor, On The Shore sold few copies and despite assiduous gigging the band were on the breadline, constantly suffering from comparisons with the seriously successful Fairports. There were hopes of an American tour with the Byrds. ‘That would have been lovely,’ said Celia. ‘Except that Rita Coolidge started having an affair with Gene Parsons or somebody, so she got the gig instead! And that was the end of it. It’s funny, I did meet one of them, I think it was Parsons, at a festival later on, and I said, “Oh yeah, we were supposed to have toured with you” and he said, “Oh, are you Trees?” He knew they were supposed to have toured with us, but it just didn’t happen. It was instrumental, I think, in terms of the demoralisation that it caused. But we’d already split up by then, just given up the ghost, really.’

David was the first to quit, followed by Unwin and Bias. Barry and Celia soldiered on with two former members of Mr Fox, Barry Lyons and Alun Eden, and Chuck Fleming from the JSD band. This was the line-up when I saw Trees at the 1972 Clitheroe Castle Pop Festival, on the same bill as Bridget St John and the brilliant Brinsleys. I don’t remember much about their early-day performance but it prompted me to buy both albums. The band broke up for good in 1973.

Clarke and Costa were subsequently reunited briefly for one album with the band Casablanca. Barry then went into the jewellery business while David became a sought-after art director, working with the Beatles and Stones among others. Unwin became a teacher, Celia had her voice-overs and Bias worked with Kiki Dee, writing her hit I’ve Got The Music In Me, before joining Barclay James Harvest and the Moody Blues. For many years he stayed with our reader and friend ‘Siberian’ Rhod Mackenzie and his wife Caroline at their flat in Bayswater, often bringing round friends including Gerry Rafferty. Rhod himself is no slouch at elbow-bending, so when he describes Rafferty as a big drinker he is talking ocean-like amounts of alcohol. Boshell now follows a reclusive existence somewhere in Wales.

In 2006 interest in Trees surged when the American band Gnarls Barkley sampled Geordie on the title song of their album St Elsewhere. The double-CD reissue of On The Shore in 2007 was followed by The Garden of Jane Delawney in 2008. On the back page of the accompanying booklet is a tribute to Unwin Brown, who died that year: ‘Inspired teacher, inspired drummer, consummate friend’.

David Costa admits that the Fairport comparison ‘still gets under my skin’ but adds: ‘It was the closest one anyone could practically apply. What thrills me is when anybody even faintly suggests that they hear something like an English Jefferson Airplane about our efforts. Maybe that’s the best we could ever expect for ourselves.’ 

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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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