‘Separate Paths Together’ reviewed

Grapefruit’s all-male companion to 2017’s Milk Of The Tree is an unexpected delight, writes Stephen Porter.

Separate Paths Together is a tremendous collection, beautifully compiled, curated and described by David Wells. This three-disc set has opened up an almost hidden world for me and has given me an insight into a British musical heritage that has fallen into decline and abeyance..”

In 2017, Grapefruit released Milk Of The Tree, a female-only compilation of singer-songwriters from roughly the same era (1965-75), and so we now have an all-male version of the concept to complement the distaff original. Separate Paths Together is an unexpected delight (and on many occasions, simply superb) and a fitting tribute to myriad musicians who have drifted off into obscurity or are simply unheralded by all but the dwindling minority of hardcore music fans who still carry the flame.

Kicking off Disc One of the three-disc set is Duncan Browne’s tremendous and very poppy Journey, a number 23 hit (and there are very few hits, major or minor here) from 1972. RAK producer and label owner Mickey Most’s brilliant production should have led to Journey being a top ten hit, but debut performance nerves got to the very pretty Duncan on his only Top of the Pops appearance, and maybe – just maybe – it’s the reason why the song isn’t a staple of one of those terrible commercial radio nostalgia stations that seem to have commodified a version of the past that seems very different and very crassly homogenous to the one I remember. Journey’s biggest influence is George Harrison’s early solo work, and along with Dylan, The Quiet One’s influence can be felt throughout the entirety of Separate Paths Together’s ten-year span.

I knew few of the tracks found on this collection, but the dilettante-y Kevin Ayres’s haunting and beautiful Girl on a Swing has long been a favourite of mine. Most people who know of the former Soft Machine singer’s solo work will undoubtedly be aware of (and love) the enchanting May I?, but if you don’t know Girl on a Swing, stop reading now and get YouTubing.

Former Traffic drummer Jim Capaldi’s splendid single It’s All Up To You (No.27, 1974, chart fans) has a number of chord changes which bring to mind Kate Bush’s underrated Mrs Bartolozzi from her ‘difficult’ Ariel album, while other Peel favourite Kevin Coyne’s Mad Boy highlights the performer’s days of working in Preston’s Whittingham Mental Hospital (it’s not my capitalisation, nor my chosen nomenclature) and is the most deliberately discordant track in the collection.

Elsewhere on Disc One, there are splendid contributions from Keith Christmas (who played on David Bowie’s second eponymous album in 1969), Eddie Hardin (the beautiful California Sun) and forgotten Liverpudlian singer Dave Ellis, whose fabulous I Don’t Know evokes yet more memories of George Harrison, and conjures up so many images of 1970s student/’young professional’ bedsits, where all focus in the room is directed towards the record player.

This early 1970s pinnacle of the singer/songwriter era is wonderfully described in David Hepworth’s A Fabulous Creation – a book which lovingly crafts the history of the vinyl album, and is also the sort of brilliant chronicle of the 1970s that ‘look at me, LOOK AT ME!’ TV historian Dominic Sandbrook could only dream of. Disc One ends with the joyous pop of Phil Cordell’s superb Warner Brothers single Red Lady, a chart failure, but no doubt treasured amongst his ‘selective’ coterie of fans.

Disc 2 gets off to a great start with Dave McWilliams’ fantastically odd and Jacques Brel-like The Days of Pearly Spencer, a minor hit in 1967,  and a much bigger hit for the Brel-obsessed Marc Almond in 1991. It’s a fantastic record, and its occasional (literally) telephoned-in vocals, and its general sense of ‘what on earth is he singing about?’ made this a genuine cult classic before Marc A reintroduced it to Joe Public (on Wogan of all places!).

John Martyn’s May You Never is a great addition to the collection and was the sort of thing you’d expect to find on The Old Grey Whistle Test during its imperious (but fucking boring) phase of 1971-76.

Also included on Disc 2 are Murray Head’s plaintive Say It Ain’t So, Joe, and charming contributions from John Howard, Dave Cousins, Andy Roberts (the former Liverpool Scene guitarist), Gary Farr and guitar legend Bert Jansch. The rest of Disc Two pans out with offerings from Michael Chapman and Ralph McTell (the salutatory and genuinely harrowing Daddy’s Home), along with offerings from one of the many John Williamses of the music industry (but neither of the famous ones), Richard Digance (indeed – and it’s a surprisingly nice song), before ending with a contribution from Gilbert O’Sullivan.

Opening up Disc 3 are some excellent, reliable folky pop tracks from Steve Gibbons, Marc Brierley and Bryn Haworth, but it was Stephen Jameson’s Thought of You Instead which really caught my ear/eye – a terrific record! Other highlights  of Disc 3 include Bob Bunting’s Toni Visconti-produced Soliloquy, Phillip Goodhand-Tait’s Reach Out For Each One (featuring a young Roger Taylor on drums) and Jona Lewie resurrecting the riff from his earlier Seaside Shuffle for The Swan; and by the time I reached the (almost) penultimate track – Dave Morgan’s So Weary, God was evidently trying to send me a message. The bitch.

The final track of this collection, Turquoise, arrives courtesy of Britain’s mom and pop-friendly Bob Dylan, Donovan. It’s the earliest track in the collection, and is sort of OK if you can remember that other Dylans are/were available. I’d never be too harsh on Donovan Leitch however, because anyone who had Shaun Ryder as a son-in-law deserves a medal the size of an old-fashioned bin lid. I mean, imagine what your toilet and bedding would be like after Shaun’s ‘weekend stay’ entered its fifth month?

There are so many highlights on this collection that I can’t do justice to them all. The accompanying booklet is an absolute joy (well done curator/writer David Wells) and I learned so much from this fantastic little work of love. For example, I had an idea that Leo Sayer was actually Gerard Sayer, but how did I get to such an age without knowing that the epithet ‘Leo’ was coined due to his (apparent) leonine mane of hair? Sayer’s The Bells of St Mary’s (his take on growing up in the seaside town of Shoreham-by-Sea) is a more than decent little song which would have benefited from being farmed out to a less histrionic singer.

Separate Paths Together is a tremendous collection, beautifully compiled, curated and described by David Wells. This three-disc set has opened up an almost hidden world for me and has given me an insight into a British musical heritage that has fallen into decline and abeyance. Wells’ choice of music is inspired, and the ennui, fatigue and sense of sameness I used to feel when listening to (or being forced to listen by an earnest old girlfriend) a whole individual album of singer/songwriter-dom was never really apparent here because of the sheer variety of the collection, and (to be truthful) the fact that it’s one track per artist.

Part of the problem with the singer-songwriter genre (particularly of the era represented here) is the lack of magic/pizzazz (be it aural or aesthetic) which elevates pop/rock above the quotidian world of most people’s everyday lives. Nobody in their right mind wants Elton John-like ‘showmanship’, but when seemingly everybody looks like a grubby minor player from The Sweeney and sports a bloke next door/geography teacher name (Mike Cooper/Dave Ellis/Mike Heron/Dave Cousins etc), there’s a certain… something missing. But there are so many pop gems and sparks of tiny genius on this collection that the omnipresent brown/beige threads and man from the pub nomenclature pale into insignificance.

Separate Paths Together is yet another triumph for the brilliant Cherry Red/Grapefruit collective – and well worth four and a half hours of anyone’s time!

❉ ‘Separate Paths Together: An Anthology of British Male Singer Songwriters 1965-75’ (Grapefruit CRSEGBOX 096) was originally released on 30 July 2021 by Cherry Red Records, RRP £20.99. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.

 Cherry Red Records have been releasing and reissuing the most innovative and independent thinking music since 1978. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

Stephen Porter is a poet and spoken word artist who performs as Saint Vespaluus.

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