Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music, by Rob Young, Faber RRP£17.99, 500 pages
Syd Barrett: A Very Irregular Head, by Rob Chapman, Faber RRP£14.99, 448 pages
Under the Ivy: The Life and Music of Kate Bush, by Graeme Thomson, Omnibus Press RRP£19.95, 346 pages
Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, by Wesley Stace, Jonathan Cape RRP£16.99, 352 pages
Apathy for the Devil: A 1970s Memoir, by Nick Kent, Faber RRP£12.99, 416 pages
Each year Stonehenge hosts a peculiar British ritual when thousands of nature-worshippers gather at the ancient monument to welcome the dawn on the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. Among the estimated 20,000 this June were assorted druids, pagans, hippies, ravers and Wiccans. Arranged against them, as each year, were the police, playing the Romans to the nature-worshippers’ ancient Britons: baton-wielding forces of modernity itching to bash some sense into shaggy neo-pagan heads.
These are two competing visions of Britain’s landscape, one bureaucratic and enforced by law, the other mystical and historically questionable (the concept of the druid, for instance, is largely a 19th-century invention). It’s easily mocked, but belief in Britain as a magical paradise suppressed by centuries of invasion and regulation, from Romans and Normans to enclosure and industrialisation, runs deep.
Traces of the hippy Arcadian back-to-nature ethos remain in the popularity of summer festivals such as Glastonbury, the vogue for camping currently raging among the metropolitan middle-classes and a reviving interest in classic 1960s/1970s folk-rock, as well as the rise of a new generation of folkies such as Laura Marling and Mumford & Sons.
The theme connects with a traditional challenge facing British pop: to find its own voice in an art form invented in the US. Borrowing the forms and imagery of folk music has been one way of doing so, a route linking pop to ancient visions of Britain. Those visions may owe more to poetic licence than historical accuracy, but that doesn’t lessen their power. As Syd Barrett sang: “Isn’t it good/ To be lost in the woods?”
The Pink Floyd founder is one of the hordes of dreamers in Electric Eden, Rob Young’s sprawling overview of British folk’s mutations in the 20th century, which argues that fantasies of Albion, Arcadia and other such legendary realms are a defining feature of the nation’s modern music. Syd Barrett is also the subject of Rob Chapman’s fine biography, Syd Barrett. The similarly mystically inclined, though far more balanced, Kate Bush is the subject of Graeme Thomson’s Under the Ivy. Meanwhile Nick Kent’s memoir of 1970s rock journalism, Apathy for the Devil, taps into another, more urban strain of visionary British culture: the druggy London fantasias of Thomas De Quincey.
Raised in a left-leaning, academic environment in Cambridge – his father was an eminent pathologist – Syd Barrett was imaginatively drawn to stories of lost Arcadias, often focusing on themes of childhood. A key influence was Kenneth Grahame’s Edwardian children’s book The Wind in the Willows. One of its chapters, in which the Greek god Pan makes an appearance, was used as the title of Pink Floyd’s first album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Its mix of spacey futurism, fairytale imagery and Hillaire Belloc-style nonsense rhymes (“I know a mouse/And he hasn’t got a house/I don’t know why/I call him Gerald”) brought a very English sensibility to bear on US west coast psychedelia.
Barrett’s downfall came with a severe mental breakdown, apparently triggered by LSD but never properly diagnosed, which led to him being expelled from Pink Floyd at the age of 22 in 1968. His solo recording career over two years later, he withdrew to Cambridge where he lived quietly until his death aged 60 in 2006. A cult grew up around him; to his fans, Barrett remained the fresh-faced 1960s visionary, not the paunchy middle-aged burnout shuffling around Cambridge in jeans and a T-shirt.
With David Gilmour the only member of Pink Floyd to co-operate with the book and records of Barrett’s own public utterances few and far between, Chapman, a music writer who used to contribute to a Barrett fanzine, has had to work hard to flesh out his portrait. He succeeds through impressive attention to detail, insightful writing and a restrained approach. Barrett’s LSD use isn’t hyped up. One co-tripper remembers a quiet evening with an acid-infused Barrett playing the Japanese board game Go and reading Psychedelic Review: hardly the stuff of rock legend.
Tellingly it was during a disastrous tour of America that Pink Floyd decided to ditch the increasingly disturbed Barrett. Without their wayward leader, they went on in the 1970s to become one of the biggest bands in the US. Barrett’s dreamy brand of Englishness was the catalyst, but it was too parochial for Pink Floyd’s purposes in the long run.
“I must say it’s never really worried me that I’ve not been big in America,” Kate Bush is quoted saying in Under the Ivy. In her homeland it has been a very different story. The Kent-born singer was a hit in Britain from the moment she first appeared in 1978 as a 19-year-old, singing “Wuthering Heights” in a wild swooping voice and performing stylised dance routines in a leotard. It was as if some eerie banshee spirit had merged with the master of musical theatre, David Bowie, whom Bush idolised as a teenager.
Themes of English pastoralism and Celtic mythology run through her music, from the shot-down Spitfire pilot rapturously contemplating his homeland in “Oh England, My Lionheart” to the folktale nightmare of being chased by a pack of dogs through a forest in “Hounds of Love”. “It has a mystical, bardic quality, part of our ancient British tradition,” says a musician who played on the Hounds of Love album. Yet Bush’s take on folklore is accompanied by an equally powerful love of artifice. She only toured once in her career; music videos are her natural element, not the spontaneity of live performance.
A prodigy discovered at 15 by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, Bush ranks among the most influential stars in British pop, with every female singer with an untamed voice and crazy dress sense (Björk, Bat for Lashes, Florence and the Machine) automatically compared to her. Prone to enigmatic absences from recording – her last album, 2005’s superb ode to the English pastoral mode, Aerial, was her first in 12 years – she has a madwoman-in-the-attic reputation, with the tabloid press caricaturing her, in Thomson’s words, “as either the screeching sexpot or, later, the dotty recluse”.
Under the Ivy presents a different portrait. Although the privacy-loving Bush hasn’t authorised the biography, a plausible picture emerges of a hippyish, perfectionist individual, single-minded in her artistic vision and unaffected by fame (“I’m Kate, I’m making the tea,” a collaborator remembers her saying by way of introduction). Like Barrett, the myths surrounding her – such as an unfounded rumour she once offered her record company homemade biscuits in lieu of a new album – have threatened to overwhelm her music. But she’s amassed a far more durable, weighty body of work than Barrett, channelling folkie dreams of magical Britain into the era of MTV and synthesisers. As she chanted on her 1982 album The Dreaming: “We let the weirdness in.”
Electric Eden is all about letting the weirdness in. “The ‘visionary music’ invoked in this book’s title,” writes Rob Young, a former editor of the experimental music magazine The Wire, “refers to any music that contributes to this sensation of travel between time zones, of retreat to a secret garden, in order to draw strength and inspiration for facing the future”. Britain, an ancient land yet also the first modern industrial nation, is particularly prone to these temporal slippages. Folk music, according to Young, is one such portal linking past and present: a kind of occult musical wormhole, like Dr Who with flutes.
It’s an intriguing concept, but Young’s survey gets off to a turgid start with a dutiful tour of Edwardian musicologists and folk-influenced composers: the same setting, coincidentally, as Wesley Stace’s inventive black comedy, Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, whose twisty plot of jealousy and murder unfolds with Nabokovian precision during Britain’s early 20th-century folk and early music revival. The result is a far more imaginative exploration of the era than Young’s jerky, list-laden narrative.
Electric Eden comes into its own as folk-rock capers over the horizon in the mid-1960s: a time when pop was in a dynamic state of flux and self-invention. There are excellent accounts of the rise of bands such as Pentangle, The Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention, alongside pen-portraits of a stream of neglected figures; either ones who later became cults, such as the ill-fated singer-songwriter Nick Drake, dead at 26 of a tranquilliser overdose, or ones who remained lost in obscurity, such as Bill Fay, a “lesser-spotted troubadour of the late 1960s”.
Just as folk became musically fused with psychedelia, jazz and progressive rock, so too hippy dreams of a new world of peace and love in the Age of Aquarius tapped into fantasies of magical Britain. The Glastonbury festival opened near to the supposed site of the legendary Arthurian island of Avalon, with one of the founders of the 1971 festival, the forerunner of today’s mega-spectacle, choosing the spot for the main stage by dowsing the ground to locate a ley line connecting Glastonbury and Stonehenge. The aim, he explained, was “to stimulate the Earth’s nervous system with joy, appreciation and happiness”.
By the time the film This is Spinal Tap parodied this sort of mystical gobbledegook in 1984, folk-rock and the hippy counter-culture had become a laughing stock, made to look hopelessly archaic and self-indulgent next to punk’s savage nihilism. But Electric Eden makes a persuasive case for folk-rock’s essentially liberating nature, and ingeniously links it with the utopian dreams of Britishness of earlier generations of 20th-century folk-revivalists. Folk purists abhorred rock for its artificiality – the newly electrified Bob Dylan was famously heckled as “Judas” by a British folkie at a Manchester concert in 1966 – but ironically it was through folk that British rock found its voice.
Nick Kent did much the same for British rock journalism in the 1970s, though the pastoral mode wasn’t his idea of fun: his memoir Apathy for the Devil memorably likens Canadian roots-rockers and Dylan backers The Band to being “about as sexy as kissing a tree”. Instead the NME staffer cultivated an image as a rock romantic poet: black clothes, tumbling hair, smouldering cigarette, frenzied bouts of writing. “So you’re Nick Kent. Aren’t you pretty!” says David Bowie when they meet. Kent, entertainingly immodest, doesn’t demur.
Before the mid-1970s, rock journalism was dominated by American magazines (Rolling Stone, Creem) and writers such as Lester Bangs, whom Kent worshipfully visits in Detroit as a tyro hack. Kent’s variety of “kamikaze journalism”, as he calls it, gave a British slant to the New Journalism of Tom Wolfe and the gonzo style of Hunter S Thompson. His own “shtick” was to be “the Zeitgeist-surfing dark prince of 1970 rock journalism”, a witty, egocentric writer who describes himself as feeling “a strong mystical bond” with Confessions of an English Opium-Eater writer Thomas De Quincey. Kent, in other words, became a heroin addict.
Apathy for the Devil is a richly enjoyable read. As a Cardiff schoolboy, Kent experienced a dubious epiphany at the sight of the Rolling Stones’ doomed hedonist Brian Jones, leading to a lifelong romanticisation of rock’s bad boys. It’s a tarnished echo of De Quincey, but in Kent’s voice – arrogant, funny, self-mocking, prone to wild infatuations and equally wild bouts of vitriol – we see the stirrings of a tone that has dominated the febrile world of British music journalism ever since.
Yet out of all these books, Apathy for the Devil most resembles a museum piece. Kent’s beloved punk rock – which he anachronistically claims achieved the “long overdue de-Americanisation of rock” – has grown as dated as the primitive rock ’n’ roll it aped. In an age of global warming and ecological anxiety, hippy fantasies about unspoilt ancient Britain no longer look so absurd. It will be no surprise to see more and more nature-worshippers flocking to Stonehenge for the solstice over the coming decade, growing increasingly strident in their demand to let the weirdness in.
Ludovic Hunter-Tilney is the FT’s pop critic