1973: Spirogyra - Bells, Boots and Shambles

Easily confused with the American smooth jazz nightmare by the same name (or almost: Spyro Gyra), Spirogyra were everything that their popular 1970’s alter egos were not: long-haired, musically conscientious, fiercely independent, and politically engaged. Perhaps musical celebrity is more than just a competition between analogous Google search terms, but information about the Canterbury acid folk outfit -- like physical copies of their records, reissued or otherwise -- is notoriously hard to track down. What we do know about the group is limited to a few vital stats: founded by singer and guitarist Martin Cockerham at the University of Kent in Southeast England and featuring a revolving cast of like-minded earthmuffins (vocalist Barbara Gaskin, bassist Steve Borrill, violinist Julian Cusack, and future Fairport Convention drummer Dave Mattacks), Spirogyra produced three stunning records between 1971 and 1973, then vanished off the face of this space-time continuum.

Geographically and temporally, Spirogyra would seem to have been destined for musical stardom: the group poofed into existence at the height of the 1970’s Canterbury scene, where a gainful marriage of progressive rock and pop sensibility was spawning legends like Caravan, The Soft Machine, Kevin Ayers, and Gong. Stiff competition, yes, but Spirogyra did manage to achieve something of a cult following in this land of lengthy guitar improvisations and elaborate chromatic minutia. If they never made it onto the list of bands we now identify with “The Canterbury Sound,” it is because they were incorrigible folkies at heart, determined to pick up where Scottish psych-folk bards Clive Palmer and Mike Heron had left off in the late 1960s.

Superficial similarities between Spirogyra and The Incredible String Band circa The 5000 Spirits, or the Layers of the Onion and The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter abound: the athletic male and female vocal gymnastics, the insistence upon the purity and resonance of the analogue instrument, songs that “tell stories” -- often five at a time. But while ISB always seemed everywhere but the historical here and now -- flitting from Old England to ancient Morocco and Far-East Asia in a flick of the wrist -- Spirogyra is strikingly devoid of this sort of musical shape-shifting. Far more modest in instrumentation and approach and far less intent upon losing themselves in an estranged and more idyllic past, they seemed to reconcile the tradition of British folk with the musical climate of the present.

Bells, Boots and Shambles, their third and most breathtakingly beautiful album, offers an idiosyncratic crossover between two musical attitudes: the simplicity and wholesomeness of old-school Celtic folk and the freewheeling extravagance of ’70s prog. Flute, cello, saxophone, piano, and finger-plucked guitar juggle melancholy melody lines like hot-potatoes, sometimes getting bogged down in the intricacies of minor-key baroque counterpoint, sometimes exploding into rock ‘n’ roll refrains. Barbara Gaskin’s crystal-clear soprano, by all means a highlight in itself, alternates between medieval carols and multi-track warrior chants -- not unlike an Enya on steroids. Martin Cockerham co-narrates their tales of revolutionary upheaval and apocalyptic capitalism with theatrical flair, at times almost glam rock in his impersonations of crusty military sergeants and bleeding-heart leftist agitators.

As loosey-goosy as Spirogyra’s music may seem on paper, Bells, Boots and Shambles leaves us hanging at every turn, just as mystified as Cockerham himself as to how the ensemble could possibly sound so organic: “All of my best songs were written with the chords, main lyrics, and melody all coming to me at the same time all of a sudden.” Rather than send us reeling in all directions, Cockerham’s succession of micro-melodies registers as one long idea and is almost as hummable as that Broadway musical you couldn’t get enough of as a kid. Which is why -- despite all the militant rhetoric -- Spirogyra could conceivably have just as much mass market potential as their eponymous rivals. But the commercial history of music, even compulsively listenable music, often just isn’t fair.

Could someone please make this record widely available to everyone everywhere, and do it fast? Micro-label Tapestry Records released a gorgeous vinyl reissue of the album in 2007 -- faithful to the crystalline production of the original, but almost impossible to find, even in the most specialized niche shops. Forget its socio-historical interest or its obvious appeal to fans of New Weird America and “really obscure” psychedelic gems: Spirogyra is music that would even make your dad smile.

1. Furthest Point
2. Old Boot Wine
3. Parallel Lines Never Seperate
4. Spiggly
5. Everyday Consumption Song
6. Sergant Says
7. In the Western World

DeLorean

There’s a lot of good music out there, and it’s not all being released this year. With DeLorean, we aim to rediscover overlooked artists and genres, to listen to music historically and contextually, to underscore the fluidity of music. While we will cover reissues here, our focus will be on music that’s not being pushed by a PR firm.

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