❉ Half a century later, a welcome reissue of one of the rarest albums of the Brit folk era.
In retrospect, I was probably ruined musically the first time I heard Cello Song. I was 18, pretty new at this whole modern music thing, for reasons too complicated to go into here, and had taken out the Nick Drake compilation Way To Blue from my town’s music library on a whim. And within seconds I had pretty much found my musical thing. Everything about it – the instrumentation, the lyrics, the vocals, the production… EVERYTHING seemed to have been designed purely for me. I had found my obsession and, probably, my downfall.
Because once you have found something so aesthetically perfect so early on in your interest in music, there’s going to be a lot of time spent trying to find things that match it. And I have discovered glorious music in folk rock and its many wayward offshoots like wyrd folk or acid folk or psych folk or whatever it’s being called this week. I’ve become obsessed with British baroque pop music like Honeybus and pastoral eccentrics like Spyrogyra and Stackridge. I’ve done the whole Island folk scene and Fairport Convention family tree many times over. But still I want to find something else as beautiful as those three records that Drake released in the seventies. It’s a permanent itch needing to be scratched.
Eventually, if you’re a big enough fan and dedicated enough at putting the time in, you’ll come to the obscure stuff. A world where C.O.B. and Mellow Candle seem a bit, I don’t know, mainstream? The private press lot, bands who released one ridiculously rare album in a run that barely brushed the upper double figures. This is the world where bands like Caedmon, Water Into Wine Band, Shide and Acorn and Courtyard Music Group are things of rumour and legend, with dodgy reissues on needle drop labels proliferating eBay and banned for sale on Discogs. A man could lose his mind trying to find another treasure in these deeper woods. And I should bloody know having spent too much time and money doing just those things.
But I still search because I know treasures are still out there. You finally get to hear an album like Stone Angel’s debut and you realise, yes, this hunt is absolutely worth it. And so you keep on looking. And by god, Oberon’s A Midsummer Night Dream (not the easiest album title to google these days, I must say) is one of those total treasures. It fulfils all the needs of the private press folk album: harmonies, a slightly ham-fisted tribute to Tolkien, a couple of covers, some traditional folk songs and an ambience closer to church hall than a modern recording studio. The big revelation of Oberon’s one and only album though is that it’s not just great for a private press album. It’s just a bloody great album in and of itself.
The story is a familiar one to many of these private press records. A group of public-school kids from Radley College near Abingdon, Oxfordshire, decide to put their mutual love of prog, Pentangle, Fairport, Nick Drake, Leo Kottke and a handful of classical inspirations towards creating a record all of their own. They sound pretty much what you imagine Nick Drake’s less mercurially brilliant schoolmates would sound like: intelligent, thoughtful, musically adept and sincere about what they’re doing.
What’s genuinely surprising is a grasp of group performance and dynamics that is incredibly mature for a band so young. The contemporaneous live performance on the second album here is not even remotely stilted or awkward: these are young people who are passionate about what they’re doing and the music they are recording, with a real musical skill and confidence (sadly there’s no record of their performances with future poet laureate, Andrew Motion, although a poster for one of these gigs is shown in the sleeve notes!)
A lot of these private press records are musically primitive performers shining through their limitations because of the seriousness of intent. There’s a certain degree of ramshackle charm involved in your appreciation. As mentioned above, Stone Angel are a good example of this. Their album is lovely, but part of the beauty comes from a certain naivete of performance and a primitive production that makes it not feel dated and instead almost a little lost in time.
Oberon’s production isn’t wildly complex but neither does it sound wildly primitive. Their youth is occasionally evident in a certain level of gauche naivete in the lyrics of songs like The Hunt and Minas Tirith (there’s your Tolkien!), but they are charmingly teenage rather than, say, Neil from The Young Ones level of earnestness. Their performances together are frankly brilliant for a band so young.
The band are obviously fans of Pentangle’s blend of folk and jazz, with Nottamun Town a nod to the style of the former and a cover of the Gershwins’ Summertime a nod to the latter. They don’t sound very Pentanglish, as it were – although Time Past, Time Come makes a pretty decent stab at the Jansch/Renbourn sound – although the slightly mysterious Jan Scrimgeour (as in both sleeve notes and the band’s webpage reveal little about her, other than she was the only non-Radley College student involved) does a nice line in Sandy Denny/Jacqui McShee style harmonies on all the songs.
Occasionally there’s a slight sense of a band determined to make the most of what they know is probably their one shot at tentative fame. There’s an enjoyable, if slightly jarring, drum solo towards the end of Minas Tirith which feels like an excuse for the drummer Nick Powell to have his own showcase on the album (one that is impressively replicated on the live album).
Similarly a charming if slightly pointless version of Debussy’s Syrinx sounds entirely like what I suspect it is, namely an opportunity for Charlie Seaward to show off his not inconsiderable flute chops (similarly Scrimgeour’s version of Summertime). They do not in any way spoil the record, but they do seem to be the moments most obviously demonstrating a band very aware of getting their legacy down on record.
As ever, Cherry Red sublabel Grapefruit do a stellar job with the reissue. As someone who owns probably far too many dodgy needle drop reissues of obscure records from slightly legally iffy labels, this sounds like a whole layer of muffled production has been taken off. On headphones you can tell the production values were low but not in any way that distracts you from enjoying the record. It sounds sparkly and lively and definitely feels like one of the sprightliest private press albums of the era. The sleeve notes are also fascinating.
It may not be one of the absolute classics of British folk rock, but it’s definitely high up on my list of minor classics already. For someone who finds endless beauty and oddness in this genre, it’s going to be one of your new favourite records. It’s a beautiful thing.
❉ Oberon: A Midsummer’s Night Dream, 2CD Deluxe Edition (Grapefruit CRSEG090D) released 23 April by Cherry Red Records, RRP £11.99. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.
❉ Chris Browning is a librarian but writes and draws comics and other strange things to keep himself out of trouble: he can be found on Twitter as @commonswings but be warned he does spend a lot of time posting photos of his cats.