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Classic Scottish Albums: Bert Jansch

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Davie Scott Davie Scott | 11:00 UK time, Monday, 2 January 2012

Classic Scottish Albums: Bert Jansch is being repeated on Tuesday 3rd January 2012.

I recently blogged about the phenomenon of 1970s TV-advertised compilation albums, a disgraceful episode associated with one of them (theft, perpetrated by me), and the long-departed budget record labels that gave them life.

Best of British Folk lp

One label I neglected to mention was Contour, which sported a white and mid-blue centre label, a curvy seventies style logo and often released garbage like Glam Rock - Harpsichord Style. As far as I can remember the Contour record label was specific to a particular UK high street store. Or was that Hallmark? Or Pickwick? Small potatoes really, considering that what we are actually talking about here is yet another music theft (perpetrated again by yours truly). This time the album was The Best Of British Folk Music (Contour) and the victim was my dear old Uncle Ian. "That looks interesting," I said, "could I borrow and promise to return it in a few days?" "My pleasure" says he. This was around 1980 and I had cause to reflect on what is probably now a bust promise while popping said album on my turntable last week.

Truth is I held onto The Best Of British Folk Music for dear life; heavenly wonders, troubling mysteries, and oddball novelty weirdness lurked in every groove with treats that included Steve Tilston's atmospheric I'm Reaching Out, the utterly barking Gay Goshawk by Mr Fox and Hamish Imlach's gallus, galloping History Of Football. Two songs resonated more deeply though, Needle Of Death by Bert Jansch and a version of Lord Franklin by Bert's group Pentangle. If the word monochrome was ever to be applied to sound, it would have to be the sound of Needle Of Death; somewhere in between the cracks of lyric, finger picked acoustic guitar, the hissy warmth of ¼ inch analogue tape, one microphone in a makeshift London recording studio and the mournful sound of Bert's vocal, the songwriter manages to relocate you, chilling your feet under an umbrella at some scarcely populated graveside where a nameless mother weeps and a stoic father 'stands in silence'. It is one of the great immutable works of 20th Century Art and one I was advised not to mention to its creator when I first met him at East Kilbride Arts Centre in the 1990s. Instead I enthusiastically asked Bert about Lord Franklin and told him I had just recorded it with my own group. Nonplussed, he mumbled something about Bob Dylan 'nicking' it for Bob Dylan's Dream. "Oh," I said, "Dylan's just made a new album of traditional songs called Good As I Been To You." "Is he still at it, then?" came the faintly amused reply. I raved on regardless, swooning over Bert's vocal and guitar playing on Lord Franklin. "That was John Renbourn," he said kindly, "the only thing I played on that song was the squeezebox and you can hardly hear it." And still the ground refused to open up.

Bert Jansch - Bert Jansch

When we got the chance to feature Bert Jansch, the album, in the first series of Classic Scottish Albums (it was one of the first blue biro entries on our canteen-napkin wish list) I warned original CSA Head Honcho Fiona Croall that any interview with the famously shy artist might consist of me babbling desperately for the price of a few 'no's and the odd 'yes'; the seductive diffidence in Bert's performing style, his reluctance to meet the camera head-on, the out-there guitar improvisation touched on and quickly abandoned, the awkward catch in the throat was no affectation. It, he, was the real thing, one-word answers included. As it turned out Bert opened up wonderfully, describing the recording of that first album with the same eye for important detail you find in the best of his songs. He talked about Needle Of Death, too, movingly and quietly, about his hatred of the vocal performances on the album and also that monochrome world of early 60's London from which his vivid music (once removed from its Scottish roots) sprung.

I love lots of Bert music, with a sneaking sweet tooth for Nicola (1967, swingin' sounds, swingin' Bacharach-style cover art), the darker Rosemary Lane and the late-period Black Swan. The Pentangle music you can hear on the BBC In Concert performance from around 1970 (occasionally shown on BBC 4) is stunning, revolutionary and bathed (visually and aurally) in magical coloured light. Please share your own favourite Bert moments here...

For now we say goodbye to this great artist with a return visit to Classic Scottish Albums: Bert Jansch on Sunday 16 October at 1030.


  • Comment number 1.

    I heard a Bert Jansch track on Ian Anderson's show the other night and have now downloaded a couple of his albums. Although i've heard of Jansch i'm not familiar with his back catalogue, although over the past year or so i've done the same with Dylan so i'm sure i'll recognise a fair bit of it....Anyway looking forward to getting stuck in.

  • Comment number 2.

    During the power outage yesterday I had to resort to listening to my primitive battery operated radio, where I stumbled across your show on Bert Jansch...even though the room was dark...like the music, I enjoyed so much that you'll never guess what I've just re-purchased after a lifetime apart from my vinyl copy...

    ...can I still be prosecuted for nicking my original copy from Bruce's Records way back in the day? Please advise...and promise me you won't tell Mr Findlay!

    Thanks for that, Davie!

  • Comment number 3.

    Gerry - that is a great story and very good for us to hear at CSA. I think Bruce was operating the system known in Latin-derived legal terms as 'Rockisimus Rollanimus'. As I'm sure you know this means most acts are permissible within the realm of a cool record shop and in this case would actually be commended in any self-respecting court of law - being turned on to Bert a good thing full stop.
    What a great place that was in the Cow Wynd in Falkirk. I still wax lyrical about it when I see Bruce and he still has the twinkle in the eye...
    Peasfrog, how did you get on with your Bert albums?
    Happy listening...

  • Comment number 4.

    ...should I tell you about the other stuff, then?

    My mitigating circumstances would be that Bruce didn't pay us enough!

    ...one other good wee story from that time as a result of Bruce's "generosity" is that one rather portly chap, unimaginatively nicknamed "Jumbo", had a penchant for Tangerine Dream but couldn't afford the box set he so desired...I offered to "fixiit" for Jumbo IF he got me box seat tickets for the Bob Marley gig at Glasgow Apollo...he delivered. Following the support set from the I-Threes, I gave my seat up to Rita Marley, and "Zodie" gave his to Marcia Griffiths...poor Judy Mowatt had to stand alongiside myself and the wee chap! Howzabout that then?


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