Leaving It All Behind… ‘Julie Driscoll: 1969’

Recently reissued by Esoteric, this is an album that can be called positively transformative, writes Ken Shinn.

‘I didn’t know where I was going but I knew I had to take stock and re-find me. I no longer wanted to be a puppet.’ – Julie Driscoll on ‘1969’

These days, Julie Driscoll, while still esteemed by the connoisseur, is something of a forgotten name in popular music: and she’s primarily known due to the power of the cover version. Whether it’s her take on Season Of The Witch by Donovan (one of that select group where the cover is the superior version), or her cover of Bob Dylan’s This Wheel’s On Fire, itself arguably usurped in the public view by the later version that she provided with Adrian Edmondson as the theme tune for Absolutely Fabulous. Other than that, she’s probably best known to certain types (such as myself) for her powerhouse vocal on the theme to Hammer’s Moon Zero Two, released in 1969. A significant year for Julie, it appears.

Long after 1969, in fact only about a year or two ago, I’m in the Black Horse pub in Thornbury one Saturday evening near Christmas. I’m visiting my girlfriend, I’ve done some of the last of my present shopping, and as a result I’ve decided to pause on the dark, cold walk back to hers for a warming pint or two. I’ve let her know I’ll be back soon and decide to put a few tunes on the juke box. For some reason, I wonder if Moon Zero Two is among the selections – I found it once on a Bristol juke a good few years back, so why not give it a try?

No dice: the only track of hers that I find is the aforementioned This Wheel’s On Fire – the earlier version, at least. What the Hell, it’s a good tune. I put it on and find my seat to enjoy my drink. A few tunes pass, and then it comes on.

Within a minute, a youngish guy in the classic hoodie and baseball cap combo of the urban gangsta makes his way across to me. Fight or flight threatens to kick in, as he’s moving pretty purposefully. However, I keep my cool and regard his approach with all of the cordiality that I can muster. He reaches me and doesn’t waste time with his opening gambit.

‘Did you put this tune on?’

‘Yes.’ No point in subterfuge.

He gives me a sudden smile. ‘That’s my Mum singing on that.’

I’m momentarily silenced. ‘Julie Driscoll’s your Mum? Ah…that’s great.’

He gives me an affable nod. ‘Yeah. She lives a few miles away, you know. Well, thanks for putting this on. Good to speak with you, mate.’ And he’s away back to his friends. I don’t chase him to find out more: he’s clearly out for the night with them, the last thing that he probably wants is some weirdo stranger pumping him for information about his mother. Nonetheless, it’s one of those little moments In Life that leaves you agreeing with Calvin and Hobbes that there’s treasure everywhere.

Funny word, treasure. Partly because it shares that tr- header with rather less happy words. Tragedy. Trauma. Now, those words are somewhat strong to describe the situation that Julie Driscoll found herself in as 1969 unfolded, but another one possibly hits the nail on the head. Trouble. Julie, artistically, was feeling decidedly troubled.

‘At one particular gig with Brian, we’d played a concert that I felt wasn’t really up to our usual standard because we were all so tired from the constant touring. But the audience, because of our reputation, just went potty and thought it was wonderful. I came off thinking it was ridiculous, realising that they were just idolising the image rather than the content.’

Julie’s own words of recollection reveal the situation after four years of increasingly successful touring as a vocalist with both Steampacket (alongside Long John Baldry and Rod Stewart) and then Brian Auger and The Trinity. And ironically, it was the very success of her version of This Wheel’s On Fire with the latter that had led to the hype, that had led to the reputation, that had led to her discomfort with continuing with Auger and his band, and now led to a parting of the ways. Seeking substance rather than simple style and surface flash, she was fortunate enough to meet (via manager Giorgio Gomelsky) the jazz pianist and composer, Keith Tippett.

‘I just thought I’d been waiting to hear stuff like this for years; it really touched me. Giorgio suggested we should meet up and ask Keith to do some arrangements for the record.’

To say that the two clicked with each other is an understatement, their meeting leading to both professional and personal bonds that would last – including marriage – until Keith’s sad passing in June 2020. And one of the first fruits of this partnership was an album that can be called positively transformative. 1969.

Its eight tracks comprise a veritable manifesto, and it’s perhaps best to look at each one in turn…

‘To the country in an open car/Wind in your hair, blowing torments far…’

A New Awakening kicks off the album in fine and assertive style, with a determined jangle of guitar and blare of brass, and then Julie’s voice, in immediately fine form, powering out over it all, in a battle cry of initial confusion transmuting into joyful certainty, a declaration of intent for a whole new phase of creation. This is upbeat, kick-arse, and maybe even a little bit chilling. It makes for one Hell of an opening gambit, that’s for sure.

‘But Elaine left them all, with pains to bear/And you know she only laughed to see their despair…’

In contrast to the relentless opener, Those That We Love is a gentle, reflectively played cautionary tale with a dash of venom at its heart. Its story of a ruthless woman who casually discards her lovers, only to find herself ultimately on the receiving end, is on one level a straightforward tragic love story: however, it also touches on the wider matter of Life in general sometimes being harsh to us in all of our desires and hopes, but also of how we can be tough enough to endure.

‘Now I think it’s time to wake up/Or I know that I will break up again/I’m gonna see if my mind will mend…’

Leaving It All Behind is a slow, mournful torch number of a song, all slinky vocals and smoky brass, and its lyrics once again tell a chapter of a tale of a spirit being reborn in a new and better form, of a life previously spent in pleasing everybody else while not realising how subsumed one’s own self is becoming. But there’s always the chance to pull free, and it isn’t selfish, but ultimately better for everyone – this just happens to include oneself at the head of the charge. Thoughtful and lovely.

‘People dying – sunburn and calamine/What is the reason, this is the season/Get in your bag and fly…’

As we reach the halfway track of the album, Break Out provides a useful half-time report. It starts at a meditative, measured pace, but this is to prove very much the calm before the storm. As the drums kick in and Julie’s vocals become more emphatic and powerful, including a memorable high note three minutes in, the twin drives of the work so far – awkward, slightly nervous hesitancy, and a new and powerful relish in what the Future holds, combine to memorable effect.

‘To rejoice in just living – or forever be down/We make the decision, the choice is our own…’

The longest track of the album, The Choice again stresses the importance of one’s own decisions on the Life ahead, again phrasing its main lyric in terms of a song of unrequited Love, but with its refrains having a wider resonance to living as a whole. A delicately judged flute underpinning adds to the contemplative, thoughtful ethos of the whole song, soothing for losses behind, but optimistic for choices ahead. A genuinely beautiful and humanistic piece.

‘Needn’t think of tomorrow/That will come – when it’s time to come/But for now, it’s now that I am thinking of…’

A redoubt of peace and contentment, Lullaby is a reassuring piece not just for a child, but for any person of any age. A simple song of contemplation in front of a welcoming, warming fire as raindrops dance against the windows, it’s almost deceptively simple, and for once has no deeper message to impart than that, troubled or not, we can all appreciate and enjoy the basic pleasures of a shelter from the storm. Julie’s voice on this one is downright bewitching.

‘Hold our head high as we by-pass the old road/And stick to the truth that we’ve found in our soul…’

With Keith Tippett arranging and providing a beautiful, delicate piano, Walk Down moves from its initial, shivering chords into a jaunty, almost galloping rhythm, a fond salute to the beloved Past and an eager dash towards the promising Future, propelled by guitar, drums and brass in an almost Gospel choir manner, the final, beautiful culmination of a plan well and truly coming together, a valued Yesterday giving way, as it must, to a brave and optimistic Tomorrow. One Hell of a closer!

‘Seems the older we grow, the less we seem to know/And the more steps that are taken, the further on we have to go/But that’s the beauty of life, after all is said and done/’Cause no matter how much you learn, you’ve really only begun…’

Except it isn’t the end. Not quite. (For Angie) I Nearly Forgot – But I Went Back provides a slow, contemplative coda to the whole opus, a gentle tale of reminiscence to childhood friendships shading, shifting with the passage of Time into a hopeful, maybe even quietly triumphant and level gaze straight into Tomorrow’s eyes. Here, Julie’s vocals swoop and soar like a falcon in flight, wild, joyous, beautiful. The full stop ends the piece with perfect precision and insight.

Cherry Red’s re-release of this album is a beautifully mastered resurrection and comes with informative and engaging sleeve notes from Sid Smith, Owen Keenan, and Stephen Yarwood, with invaluable input from Julie Tippetts (as she is now known) rounding it all out.

This is, as has hopefully already been made patently clear, an album about Transition. About Change, sometimes painful, but always necessary, and even to be desired. Beautiful, impassioned, intelligent, and inspiring. Okay, so it doesn’t have Moon Zero Two on it. But hey, that’s easy enough to find elsewhere, if you just go and look for it…

❉ Julie Driscoll: 1969 – Remastered Edition (Esoteric ECLEC2815) was released 28 October 2022 by Cherry Red Group, RRP £12.99. 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.

 Ken Shinn is a lifelong fan of all things cult and is a regular contributor to We Are Cult. His 58 years have seen him contribute to works overseen by the likes of TV Cream and the British Horror Films Group, as well as a whole batch of short stories of the fantastic, with his first novel on the way. Whatever the field, he intends to enjoy Cult in all its forms for many years to come.

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