Tom Welham Comes Full Circle - the Story of Forest
This interview originally appeared on The Unbroken Circle in 2006. This website has long since gone, which is a great shame - it was a wonderful and pioneering resource for anyone wanting to explore the incredible first wave of psych-folk from the late sixties and early seventies, as well as being an enthusiastic supporter of the musicians involved in the turn of the century revival. Happily, with a bit of judicious poking around, you can still access many of the pages via the Wayback Machine. It's worth making the effort.
Forest were one of the most important groups to come out of the first wave of psych folk. Schooled in the traditional folk movement, influenced by the Incredible String Band and the earliest blossoming of psychedelia, and contemporaries of Spirogyra, Dr Strangely Strange and Dando Shaft, they released two long-deleted landmark albums before disappearing into the mists of obscurity. Both albums were out of print for many years, but now, not only are they available again, but are cited as key influences by many of the singers and musicians who make up the current wave of folk-inspired artists. If that were not enough, Martin's new project with his son Tom, The Story, have just released an album, Talespin, which, whilst having its own sound, has strong echoes of the best of Forest’s output.
1965 – 1967: Straight Out of Grimsby
The earliest incarnation of the band had a very simple impetus for getting together, when a love of the music coincided with the opportunity to play in front of an audience. Martin and his brother Adrian, who was to join the band in 1967, had both played guitar since their early teens, and like hundreds of teenagers up and down the country, had immersed themselves in the music of Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers and the early Beatles. All three future Forest members attended Wintringham Grammar School in Grimsby, and Martin and Dez Allenby, alongside fellow pupil, Kendrick Tompkin, had made their live debut at a local youth club in the autumn of 1965, not only surviving the experience, but eager for more. When a sixth form folk club was started at Wintringham and the adjoining girl’s grammar, Martin and Dez seized the moment. Martin recalls, ”We got together with Rory Greig, a guy in the year above us at school, who played an extremely loud banjo, and Andy Sutton who had a guitar. We rehearsed the few songs we all nearly knew a couple of times and ended up playing ‘The North Country’, ‘The Bailiff’s Daughter of Islington’ and a couple of instrumentals. We survived that ordeal and Rory, Dez and I decided we would continue.” Rory chose the name for the new band – The Ranting Lads – and convinced Martin and Dez that they could play in the pub-based folk clubs scattered across Lincolnshire for beer and expenses.
Martin continues, “From there, Dez and I began rehearsing folk standards. Dez played harmonica and whistle and I played guitar, but we were both comfortably drowned out by Rory’s amazingly loud banjo.” Before long, they were gigging most weeks, and quickly became used to playing and singing in pubs without amplification. Even at this early stage, elements of the approach Forest would later make their trademark were starting to fall into place: “We were searching for and getting a feel for the more interesting melodies amongst an awful lot of sanitised, chromatically strait-jacketed melodies that had gone through the popularisation process, where they had been given an entirely inappropriate piano accompaniment by unknown music publishing lackeys in the early decades of the 1900s.”
The Ranting Lads came to an end in the summer of 1966, when Rory left to go to university. Martin and Dez decided to continue as a duo, and began to investigate folk music in more depth. Neither were from a folk background. “There was no particular folk tradition within my family. My Dad was a trained cellist and violinist, though he would never play in the home, for reasons that I never discovered. Dez had a growing record collection of early R&B and folk, including The Watersons and Dylan, and was instrumental in opening our ears to less mainstream folk music. And, of course, in those days there was a hunger to hear everyone else’s albums.” Martin and Adrian had also been introduced to Joan Baez, Paul Simon and Bert Jansch, via their older siblings’ record collections, and for some years had been soaking up huge quantities of contemporary pop via Radio Luxembourg and Ready Steady Go. “We also used to visit our uncle’s family in Suffolk as youngsters. He ran a pub, where we were given free rein with the juke-box and our cousin played the piano in the bar in response to shouted requests from the punters.”
Martin and Dez combed through books of traditional song collections, particularly those of Lucy Broadwood and Cecil Sharpe. They also raided their local music library, which had an excellent folk selection, not least because it was run by John Connelly, who was also involved in running Grimsby Folk Club. They started to attend the club regularly, and were impressed that the knowledgeable audience included a growing number of young people. Martin remembers: “John was always very generous in giving new performers a chance to sing. The revelation for us, in contrast with our experience of the little pub gigs we’d done so far, was that here the audience remained hushed while anyone was singing and the atmosphere generated was electric. This made the experience all the more intimate and the magic created all the more compelling.”
Martin has affectionate recollections of this time. “I remember hearing Jayne Clark, a friend of ours, who couldn’t have been more than sixteen years old, singing ‘Bonnie Boy’ in her beautifully faltering voice, filling the stunned silence that accompanied her rendition. She sang with such sincerity and touching naivety, that generations of lovesick girls would have recognised the emotions she so poignantly expressed.” The Watersons were just across the Humber and the music scene in North Lincolnshire was thriving. Martin and Dez were able to hear and exchange ideas with plenty of folk enthusiasts, and in the process, increase their knowledge not only of traditional songs, but also their connections to folklore and social history.
In 1967, when Adrian joined the group, they adopted the name The Foresters Of Walesby. This name was a reflection of the nature of the music and of the place where their rehearsals of unaccompanied harmony singing would take place, Walesby Church. The group discovered this church when the Welhams had moved to Walesby, a small village in the Lincolnshire Wolds, earlier that year. The church was at the top of a steep winding path up a hill above the village, the same path referred to in ‘Gypsy Girl and Rambleaway’ on Full Circle, and featured in Joan Melville’s haunting sleeve illustration for that album. As it was only used once a year for a Christmas service, the Foresters were able to put its acoustics to good use. Martin declares, “It was ideal for singing three-part harmony – the windswept location, the architecture, the feeling of the spirit of past lives having had a connection to the building, all these things fitted with the vibe of the songs and their medieval provenance. This feel within the music had a continuing effect on our approach to choice of material and, later on, our writing.”
The addition of Adrian to the line-up opened up new possibilities. Martin enthuses, “It’s an open secret that three voices can do so much more than two. Pairs can harmonise with the lead vocal, contrapuntal melodies can be intertwined and tension and release can be built into the arrangements far more readily. We decided that we would concentrate on unaccompanied vocal interpretations of the most melodically interesting songs dealing with love, folklore and social history, but would also try to bring a minimalist approach to instrumental accompaniment where it would add to the mood.”
The Foresters used guitar and whistle very sparingly on just a handful of songs. Dez and Martin wrote a couple of songs in the traditional mode, including Dez’s ‘The Grimsby Fishermen’, which they would sing in the clubs without accompaniment.
Shortly after this, the Foresters played their first gig at Grimsby Folk Club. The songs they performed included ‘Bridgwater Fair’, ‘Rigs Of The Time’, ‘The Two Magicians’, ‘Famine Song’ and ‘Hares On The Mountain’. Martin confirms that the version of ‘Famine Song’ on Full Circle, with the exception of the instrumental intro, is an accurate indication of how the Foresters would have sounded. Of this debut gig, he declares, “We went down well, particularly with the younger element in the audience. We actually had a group image at that time: cloth caps, jeans, Chelsea boots, donkey jackets and, inevitably, long hair. Not a beard or sandal to be seen! This ensured that people would at least remember having seen us, as in those days the stereotype of the folk singer was amply justified.”
The band continued to appear at Grimsby Folk Club on a regular basis. However, they were about to experience a revelation that would cause them to reassess their sound and raise their game. Martin takes up the story. “We did our twenty minute set, which was well received, and went to the bar to have a beer in the interval. Three colourfully dressed, ludicrously long-haired classic hippies came grinning up to us, introducing themselves as Pete, Roy and Heather and informing us that they were The Young Tradition. Pete was convinced that I was the younger brother of Norma Waterson, as he claimed the resemblance was uncanny. I later checked out an album photo of The Watersons and had to agree there was a likeness.” He continues, “We sat back to hear The Young Tradition’s set and immediately realised just how much work we still needed to do. They were stunning: their lines were delivered with impeccable timing and sincerity and their choice of songs and their arrangements instantly created a timeless, mysterious world that we listeners were transported to for as long as they wanted the spell to last. It’s safe to say we were beautifully and willingly humbled.”
The immediate effect on the Foresters was a realisation that more intense rehearsal was called for. This didn’t prevent The Young Tradition telling the band that they’d loved the set and that they considered the Foresters the most promising new vocal group they’d heard. They invited the group to play The Troubadour Club in London, giving them the chance to perform in front of the people at the centre of the folk movement, and promised to introduce them to their friends in the music business.
A few weeks later, The Foresters of Walesby played their London debut at The Troubadour. The audience included Ewan Macoll and Peggy Seeger, Roy Harper, The Young Tradition and various other luminaries of the folk scene. Their half hour set went down well. The group rounded the night off back at Pete Bellamy’s Islington flat, where they talked music till the early hours. Martin reminisces, “Pete was in his element, playing selections from his great collection of folk, blues and jazz. It was here that we first heard recordings of The Copper Family, Harry Cox, Robert Johnson and Billy Holiday. Whenever we gigged in London in the future we would make a point of visiting Heather, Roy and Pete. They were truly great musicians and good friends and over the years we spent many a wonderfully anarchic musical day and night with them, not always in a fully sober state.” In fact, the two groups remained friends even once Forest had moved away from the traditional folk world.
Away from the capital’s bright lights, the group were still based in Grimsby and still attending school. They continued to add songs to their repertoire and regularly played Grimsby Folk Club, until it closed for the 1967 summer recess. When they weren’t rehearsing or performing, the group would gravitate to the Friday night Jazz Club, the local rock venue, where they saw the likes of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, Ten Years After and The Artwoods, still paying their dues on the club circuit. Martin refutes any idea that the group were folk purists: ”Our musical tastes were always eclectic and included blues artists such as B. B. King, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Muddy Waters; R&B groups like the Stones, the Yardbirds, early Manfred Mann and the Spencer Davies Group; protest folk such as Dylan, Baez, and Paul Simon and the quality pop of the Beatles, the Kinks, the Small Faces and the Byrds.”
Their first love, however, remained acoustic music. “The use of finger-style guitar to sympathetically accompany the tune and to colour the ambience of the song was starting to filter into our world. Bert Jansch and Davey Graham had become well known in folk circles and everything was set for a radical change in the way folk music was presented. The Summer of Love had started and our ambitions soared, in keeping with the ‘anything’s possible’ mood in the air.” By the summer of ’67, the Foresters had decided that they were getting so much fun out of what they were doing, they would aim to make their living writing, playing and, hopefully, recording music.
The Foresters were becoming conscious of the social and cultural revolution that was taking place, and were already beginning to construct their own world within a world in their lifestyle and music. Martin remembers seeing the music as the prism through which the group, and an increasing number of the people they were coming into contact with, viewed and made sense of society’s changing nature. He develops his theme: “Music, literature and the arts reflected these changes in society. It was easy to feel the sense of freedom in the atmosphere. Being part of that movement was a buzz: it was as if a giant bucket of multi-coloured paint had been poured over the drab concrete official buildings, as well as the grey flannels and white shirts of their occupants. Someone in the sky - God? Lucy? - had decided that life would be broadcast in colour from now on. Well, we were dreaming musicians and proto-hippies!”
1967 – 1969: The Ballad of Birmingham
It may have been the Summer of Love and limitless possibilities may have been in the air, but Martin and Dez managed to spend the summer of ’67 shovelling titanium pigment into sacks at a factory on the Humber Bank. By October, as Adrian began work at a printing press near Walesby, Dez and Martin, student grants in hand, moved to Birmingham to begin degree courses at the University of Aston. “We found digs in Kings Heath with a landlady who would send us off to Uni each morning with a packed lunch and would lock the front door at 11 o’clock at night.” The two Foresters immediately began investigating the music life of Brum. Soon they were playing weekly at the University folk club and spending much of their time writing songs using traditional folk structures and modes. Dez had acquired a mandolin and set about learning how to play it. Martin recalls, “These were strange days, when during the week we’d attend lectures, make copious notes, put them into a folder and then promptly forget them while we got on with the music.”
Most Friday nights were spent at The Jug of Punch Folk Club in Digbeth, hosted and run by Ian Campbell. The group soon began to play short sets at the club of three or four songs. The local acts who played tended to be traditional, but visitors – such as Al Stewart - were from the wider acoustic singer-songwriter field. They befriended local performers Dave and Sue Edwards, who hosted informal musical gatherings at their house. It was there they first met many local musicians, including Dave Panton (sax and piano) who would, a few years later, join Forest on their Dutch tour and Tea & Symphony, who like Forest, would record on Harvest. Martin recalls, “It was at one of these musical evenings that I first heard one of my own songs ‘Spirit Song’ played by Dave and Sue, who had taken a fancy to it and favoured it with their own treatment. At these gatherings we would jam with whoever turned up and hear each other’s songs in a friendly environment with just a trace of competitive spirit in the air.”
By the end of ’67 Dez and Martin had written 'Spring Saga', 'Everything Was Different', 'Monday Morning' and 'Come To My Fire', which they recorded on to cheap tape on an equally cheap tape recorder. They would send tapes of new material to Adrian back in Walesby, where he would work out his vocal and instrumental contributions. This meant that on his occasional visits to Birmingham, they could gig as a trio with a minimum of rehearsal. After spending the Christmas of ‘67, back in Walesby, Dez and Martin returned to Birmingham and continued to gig as a duo, playing the smaller folk clubs dotted around the city, as well as regular performances at the University and The Jug of Punch. Martin noticed that “Some of the traditional clubs were, at this time, becoming more tolerant of contemporary music singers and we began to hear many a Dylan impersonation amongst the traditional fare.”
The group were, however, becoming increasingly frustrated by purist tendency in some of the clubs. Martin feels, “This was often born out of ignorance of how folk tunes had always been altered, added to and interpreted by generations of singers, adapting them to a particular time or location. This music isn’t owned by anyone and doesn’t have to be preserved in aspic.” They shortened their name to The Foresters and in the spring, Adrian joined them in Birmingham, where they were now renting a rambling Victorian semi on Church Lane in Handsworth Wood. Here, they concentrated on writing songs that they felt truly expressed their own individual and collective personalities. Martin explains: “All the artists we admired had their own sound because they didn’t try to be anyone else. This seems obvious, but the majority of music in all genres is derivative of that genre’s pioneers and rarely has enough individuality to retain interest. Right from the outset we aimed to find our own sound. Of course, it’s easier said than done to truly express yourself in a way that hasn’t already been done - but that’s the challenge for all writers and artists.”
Meanwhile, they kept their ears open to the revolution in new music that was taking place around them. Martin enthuses, “Can you imagine hearing, for the first time, Revolver, Sgt Pepper, ISB’s 5000 Spirits, and Floyd’s Piper At The Gates of Dawn, at the same time as taking in the continued output of The Watersons, Young Tradition, Shirley Collins and Bert Jansch?” The Foresters were also listening to relatively obscure albums such as Pearls Before Swine’s debut and Country Joe and The Fish, along with the emerging West Coast bands like Jefferson Airplane. They also took note of the Indian classical ragas of Ravi Shankar, recognising parallels with British folk song modes and exploring the possibilities of borrowing drones and scale intervals from Eastern music, reflected to some extent in ‘Don’t Want To Go’ from the first album. However, Martin insists that, “Of these greats, it was Incredible String Band that we most closely identified with. Like us, they had come up through the folk clubs, but they had found their own voices with wonderfully innovative song structures and accompaniments, using acoustic instrumentation and bringing in folk elements from Africa and India as well as the British Isles. And of course they produced wonderful music that was quirkily their own.”
A key turning point came in the summer of ’68, when the band made their first outdoor appearance at the Cannon Hill Park Festival, playing to a non-folk audience and sharing the bill with Roy Harper. Dez and Martin had left university in May, after taking their first year exams, and were surviving by doing a succession of manual jobs, whilst gigging further and further afield. The Foresters had also recently recorded a demo of early songs at Haynes Studio in Birmingham. The tape included ‘Monday Morning’, ‘Come To My Fire’, ‘Spring Saga’ and ‘Everything Was Different’, all of which were original songs. Martin thinks they may have also recorded ‘Bridgwater Fair’ in three-part harmony. Although Martin now feels that the tracks are primarily of curiosity value, Terrascope Magazine put out ‘Monday Morning’ and ‘Spring Saga’ on a compilation CD in 2002.
In the audience at Cannon Hill was Mark Williams, co-editor of the underground paper International Times, who enjoyed the set enough to offer to manage the band. Equally importantly, he sparked the interest of John Peel, who the band met for the first time when he stayed with them at Church Lane, following his regular gig at Mothers Club in Erdington. John became not only a firm supporter of the band, but also a friend. Martin warmly describes a time that John stayed with the band at Church Lane, after compering a gig they had just performed with Joe Cocker’s Grease Band: “We played him our latest songs and had a laugh parodying various pop acts. At one point we got John to record his own parody of a Eurovision Song, which started something like ‘With a Ding and a Dong and a Billabong, that’s why my baby says she loves me…’ We shared a dry humour and a dislike for showbiz pretence. Peel was a lovely guy - we were friends enough to gently lampoon our respective places in the musical firmament - a struggling band doing patently un-chart worthy material and a cultural icon who never fitted in with the norms of the culture at the Beeb.” John’s support for the band went as far as attempting to sign them to his new Dandelion label, which only fell through because of the delays involved in setting the label up.
Mark Williams started promoting the band in London and, in the process, shortened the name to Forest. Record companies were beginning to sign acts from the ‘underground’ movement, albums were outselling singles, and for a brief period the major companies started to lose control of the industry. Young bands were moving beyond the three-minute pop song and building up followings outside of the traditional pop market. The majors realised they needed to harness this new energy, but didn’t always understand what they were getting into. Martin illustrates the point: “Phillips invited us to record some demos at their London Studios around Christmas 1968. We recorded three songs for them including ‘Bad Penny’, and ‘On Dropping Out’. The engineer clearly had no idea how to record acoustic music and a simple request to give equal volume to all instruments and all vocals was met with incomprehension. We ended up with a poorly recorded demo, but nevertheless, the label manager deemed it good enough to offer us a contract there and then.” Forest were not impressed and went back to Brum telling him to put his offer in writing so that they could “think about it”. Martin remembers, “It was definitely a case of ‘don’t call us, we won’t call you’. It was all too evident that they were just looking to jump on to the underground bandwagon without any knowledge or appreciation of the music.”
Mark Williams interested Pete Jenner of Blackhill Enterprises in Forest. Blackhill asked the band to play a gig at All Saints Hall, Notting Hill where Malcolm Jones, the label manager of EMI’s progressive music label, Harvest, would be present. The gig was a success: “We played our songs to an audience of young people, very like ourselves - all of us sporting colourful clothing and flowing locks - who gave us a great reception and seemed to like the music enough to want us to play on and on.” This reaction confirmed to Forest that their decision to concentrate on our own music was the right one. More importantly, Malcolm Jones offered them a recording deal and Blackhill offered them a management and agency deal that night. Martin recalls, “We knew our future would be in the burgeoning underground movement, where we felt we’d at last found our home as musicians. Consequently, we politely declined Philips Records offer and signed with Harvest.”
Blackhill booked the band into the college and club circuit, where they soon found themselves gigging with John Martyn, Van Der Graaf Generator, the Edgar Broughton Band, Bridget St John, Gordon Giltrap, John Fahey and Third Ear Band. They shared festival bills with Procol Harum, Fleetwood Mac, Family, Renaissance and Brian Auger. As Forest left the folk scene behind and joined the new wave of albums oriented artists, they remained unfazed. Martin explains, “There was a general eclecticism in the air. There was no reason why a rock musician couldn’t be interested in acoustic music and vice-versa. I felt some kind of kinship with all the artists, regardless of genre, who like us were never in the mainstream, never likely to make it on the grand scale but who were driven to play their music regardless.” In any case, by now the band were only playing a smattering of traditional material, which meant the folk clubs were no longer their natural habitat. They were becoming known to an audience outside of the folk world, were playing to large crowds at the open air festivals, and were starting to earn money, which was, Martin jokes, “Mainly spent on vehicle replacement as van after van broke down and died.”
John Peel was responsible for Forest’s first radio appearance, when he booked them to play a session for his Night Ride programme. The band recorded five or six songs for broadcast in March 1969. They were frustrated by their experience of the BBC’s recording studios. Martin explains, “They tended to treat all bands as if they were early pop groups with lead singer, lead guitar, barely audible rhythm guitar and subdued background vocal harmonies, which was not what we were trying to achieve.” The band were allocated so little time they were unable to monitor the recordings. Overdubs were out of the question. But, as Martin readily concedes, “At least we were getting our music out to large audiences. Our live concerts and Top Gear sessions were a huge boost in getting us known further afield.”
Forest now decamped to Church Lane to write the first album. They rehearsed Adrian’s debut compositions, ‘Fading Light‘ and ‘Mirror of Life’, Dez’s ‘Bad Penny’ and ‘Do You Want Some Smoke’, and Martin’s ‘A Glade Somewhere’ and ‘Pools of Memory’. The rest of the songs were completed in a burst of writing over the next few weeks. The band were booked into Abbey Road Studios, which they found an exciting if surreal experience. The Beatles and Pink Floyd, both of whom Forest greatly admired, were in adjoining studios. Martin says, “We would do no more than exchange nods as we saw each other in Abbey Road’s corridors, as if to say ‘We’re all doing our respective things aren’t we, lads, and isn’t it great!’”
Unlike their most famous neighbours, Forest’s tracks were recorded in only twenty hours of studio time, plus a little more for mixing. Martin recollects, “We recorded the songs on the first album just as we played them at gigs. On listening to the playback, we would decide there and then what additions, if any, were needed and would look around the studio for a suitable instrument. It was a case of, ‘Great, there’s a harmonium over there - we can use that to layer the instrumental passage on Rain.’ Or a cello would be borrowed on which Adrian would quickly work out his part and add it to the mix.” There was a further short session, when Harvest decided a single should be released just prior to the album. Forest recorded ‘Searching For Shadows’ which would be coupled with ‘Mirror Of Life’.
Apart from the tracks that ended up on the album they completed a further four songs that had featured in their early gigs – ‘Spring Saga’, ‘Spirit Song’, ‘Rigs of The Time’ and ‘Come To My Fire’. Martin’s ‘Pools of Memory’ was recorded as far as the final vocal track, but not completed, as he had laryngitis on the day of the recording session, and no further studio time could be allocated. Of the unreleased tracks, Martin now says, “I used to think that these tracks - which were unplanned natural stereo, unmixed renderings of songs that we had by then stopped gigging - should remain in the vaults, but now I think they would be interesting to hear.” He adds, “Incidentally, when we played the acetate of our first album to the Young Tradition, they were surprised that it wasn’t full of traditional songs and said they’d hoped we would have made such an album before doing our own material. So did we, but we never received an offer from a trad folk record company.”
The first album was a profoundly collective endeavour from the initial working up of each new song a band member presented to the final recording. The ‘arrangements by Martin Welham’ credit on the album was only included because it meant fees could be paid. In reality, the music was arranged jointly. Looking back, Martin reflects, “I’ve always preferred Dez’s and Adrian’s songs on the first album - I remember them when they were newly written and how they developed as we worked on them which was, and is, one of the most fulfilling aspects of playing in a group of like-minded musicians. It’s in the enhancement of the writer’s initial conception that the collective group spirit infuses the song – an instrumental counter melody here, a harmony line there – it didn’t always work, but more often than not, we were happy with the final outcome.”
Martin now finds difficult to be objective about whether the first album has a cohesive overall sound. “To me, a song like ‘Sylvie’ sounds quite different from, say, ‘A Fantasy You’, both in mood and treatment – but since the three of us are producing the sounds for both, maybe there is more cohesion to the listener than I can hear.” He believes the three band members’ individual styles of songwriting were connected by a shared appreciation for melodies that could meander through a changing soundscape defined by the lyrical context. He adds, “I’m not saying that every song was some kind of transcendental experience – ‘While You’re Gone’, for instance, displayed no arcanity either lyrically or musically – but where a song moved into a different rhythm, modulation or mood, it was fun to colour the passage accordingly. This, I think, worked best on songs like ‘Fading Light’ and ‘Do You Want Some Smoke’, which seemed to embody our worldview in an appropriate musical context.”
The marvellous, faerie-like images on the album cover were by Joan Melville, an illustrator of children’s books who also provided the cover image for Full Circle. Martin recounts, “We were introduced to Joan by Mark Williams, who I guess knew her through his journalism. We hit it off from our first meeting. I think she saw us as expressing musically similar images to those she loved conjuring up pictorially. She was like the kind of aunt you wish you’d had – a visit to her for tea and talk of mythology and poetry between playing a few songs, surrounded by walls of books and strange artefacts brought back from her travels to Egypt, was a wonderful experience. She lived within walking distance of Church Lane, so we played her a concert in her front room as she sketched away, coming up with the wonderful imagery, which perfectly reflected the vibes of the music.”
Forest were becoming acutely aware of the cultural context they operated in. Martin believes, “The background to our musical lives was the emerging counter culture which we felt we were very much a part of. We lived in what was to become a commune in all but name, pooling our resources and living in a kind of open house where people would appear, stay for a while and disappear. As we began to build up a small but loyal following, people, usually female, would bring food and cigarettes to share around and sit in on our rehearsals with beatific expressions and genuine appreciation of the music. They saved us from malnutrition in the lean times!”
The band’s output was not overtly political. The members all subscribed to an ethos of ‘live and let live and harm no-one’, alongside socialist and liberal tendencies. However, Martin also asserts that being in the midst of the underground movement, as far as the music was concerned, was liberating in itself. “I think many musicians at that time felt they had been let off the leash and could go wherever the mood and music took them. A lot of very weird music was played and recorded in the late sixties and early seventies and a surprising amount of it has stood the test of time. We felt boundlessly confident in our approach and whether the results would be appreciated or met with indifference, didn’t seem to matter.”
A further aspect of the counter culture was the general currency of dope. It wasn’t uncommon for Forest audiences to be listening to the music surrounded by a haze of marihuana smoke. Martin recalls, “Most musicians of our acquaintance partook of the weed and we were no exception, but apart from the occasional LSD trip, we were never tempted to experiment with harder drugs. It was important that we played our gigs in a state that enabled us to at least do the songs some justice!” Martin describes one occasion where a fellow artist gave Forest some extra strong resin, which they sampled while he played his set. “By the time we shambled on to perform, we were in that hysterical state on the edge of hallucination. We giggled our way through a haphazard set, in which at one point I swayed from the high stool I was perched on into the audience - who promptly pushed me back on to the stage - all the time still playing! Dez, meanwhile, was busily re-tuning his mandolin, unaware that the song was already halfway through. The audience in Swansea loved it, but we never let that happen again!"
1970 – 1972 - Coming Full Circle
1969 had been a good year for Forest. They had a record label, a management company, an album out and were more or less making a living playing their music. They were established on the college and club circuit and although they would go on to play some college folk clubs and the Cambridge Folk Festival, at this stage they were deeply immersed in the alternative music scene. They began 1970 with a tour of Germany, where they played to enthusiastic audiences, performed two live radio concerts and even secured a TV spot. When they returned to the UK, it wasn’t to Birmingham but to London. John Peel put them up till they found a flat at East Dulwich.
The band continued to record for the BBC. In total, Forest recorded around thirty songs for the Beeb. Martin confesses that he has not heard many of the band’s sessions, because they were gigging when they were broadcast. He now says “Considering the fact that we were never as busy gigging as we thought we should have been, this was, from our point of view, bad luck. I would love to hear all the sessions we did – particularly those that featured the songs that never got on to record, but the BBC either destroyed or lost all the tapes except the last live concert which was pretty much the last gig Forest did.” Martin warns, “A bootleg of this is floating about, but don’t get it - the sound quality is poor.” This concert soon may be officially released on CD, along with the single ‘Searching For Shadows’. Martin thinks there may also be various recordings of gigs made in Germany and Holland that could surface one day, including videotape of the band’s TV appearance in Germany.
Maybe surprisingly, Forest did not particularly feel part of a specific scene with other bands and artists ploughing a similar musical furrow. Playing the same circuit didn’t necessarily mean that there was much social interaction. The nature of the live circuit, where most venues put on music once a week, meant it was inevitable that similar artists to Forest would have played in the weeks before or after, so they would follow each other around but rarely meet. Martin says, “We followed the progress of other acoustic/folk groups via their radio sessions and records. Most of our fellow acoustic acts were handled by folk-based agencies that presumably booked them into a different set of venues than those we tended to play. In the college folk clubs we would often be preceded by solo performers – people like John Martyn and Mike Cooper - but it was only at somewhere like the Cambridge Folk festival that we would have a chance to hear acoustic/folk artists like Trader Horne. If I’d known then that the music industry would make a U-turn in the 1970’s, I’d have spent more time checking out the lesser-known artists.”
The summer of 1970 saw the release of Full Circle. Martin feels this was a more organised album than Forest. The band had learned from their previous studio experience and were more prepared for the recording process. Harvest label manager, Malcolm Jones, was happy for Forest to co-produce and, despite still being limited to a maximum of thirty hours for recording and mixing, they were able to get the sound they were looking for. This time round, the arrangements had been worked out by the writer of each song to a much greater extent than with the first album. For example, Martin recalls, “The whistle harmony passages in ‘Graveyard’ were played by us note for note as Adrian had heard them in his head at the writing stage. There was still group input in many parts of the arrangements but each writer usually decided the instrumentation itself. The result, I think, was that the songs on the album worked better as individual pieces and the production was better, but at the same time, to me it sounds less integrated as an album, because of the range in style of the songs themselves.”
Joan Melville was called upon again to illustrate the album sleeve. Martin recollects, “She had completed the first draft of the artwork without having heard the music, but told us that she had divined the imagery when she had gone to Walesby to sketch the hillside church. She had hesitated to include a gallows on the inner sleeve picture at the time, only finally including it when we played her the acetates for the album. I remember that she smiled to herself as ‘The Midnight Hanging of A Runaway Serf ‘ played, which confirmed her instinct to put a gallows into the picture in the first place. She was a gifted artist with a gently mystical air who fully understood our music and like us, seemed to be happily dwelling in a nether world of musical and pictorial imagery.”
Full Circle was a strong album, but as with Forest, sales were relatively disappointing. Martin says, “When we signed with Harvest, Malcolm Jones gave us complete freedom to record what we liked in any manner we wished. While he remained at the helm we were happy. And their policy of gatefold sleeves for the albums and co-operation with us on the design concept was a bonus. We had signed with a three album option and, had Malcolm stayed on for just a few more days, we would have recorded a third album - Malcolm had a good understanding of our music.” A new, more commercially orientated attitude was taking root at Harvest. When Malcolm was replaced, the initial openness to underground music and encouragement of experimentation was swept away.
At the same time, the gigs in the UK were starting to dry up. Blackhill concentrated on their bigger artists and never really understood what to do with Forest. Blackhill and the band parted company after it became clear that Harvest weren’t prepared to commission a third album. Meanwhile, government cuts in education affected the funding on the college circuit. This accelerated the tendency for promoters to go for established big name artists in bigger venues to maximise profits. Martin also notes that, “The trend towards stadium rock and Glam was already squeezing out artists from the folk/acoustic world. It became clear that trying to make any sort of living playing our kind of music just wasn’t a viable proposition.”
Dez became increasingly frustrated with the band’s lack of progress and, in 1971, left to return to full time education. Although the split was amicable and he has always remained friends with Martin and Adrian, it marked the beginning of the end for Forest. Adrian and Martin continued to play for a while, recruiting Dave Panton and Dave Stubbs for a tour of Holland in ‘72, which culminated at the Pink Pop Festival. They recorded one final live concert for the BBC, before reluctantly deciding to call it a day.
It wasn’t quite over for Forest’s members, though. All three have continued writing and performing to varying degrees. Dez and Martin got together with friends in London and played for their own amusement in the mid to late 70’s, performing a very occasional gig. Later, Dez played in a folk band called Prism when he moved back to Lincolnshire. He now makes music with his wife Cathy in Southernwood. Martin enthuses, “Have a listen to ‘Harvest Were You There?’ on their first album to hear a beautiful song with some characteristically haunting whistle played by Dez.” Adrian and Martin played in a duo called Acoustic Truth in the 90’s and did a few gigs including the Beaumaris Festival. Martin jokes, “I don’t think the world was ready for our blend of augmented and diminished chordal offerings!” He adds, “Adrian has continued to write songs over the years and I count myself privileged to have heard many of them in my own living room.”
Asked about Forest’s legacy, Martin is modest. “This is a tricky question, because if the music had any worth when we recorded it, whether it is heard today, or in the future shouldn’t be important. But since we’ve had such nice feedback from – let’s be honest - a very small but enthusiastic number of listeners over the years, I can say that for them, at least, the music has endured.” He is more effusive about his contemporaries, admitting, “I listen to a great deal of music from that era now. I love its inventiveness and the strong melodic content of both the traditional and contemporary songs. There was a playful quirkiness to some of the music that is just beginning to make a re-appearance in the work of people like Josephine Foster and Joanna Newsom.” His current playlist is a broad and eclectic mix of strange folk, ranging from Dr Strangely Strange to Anne Briggs, from Mellow Candle to Shirley Collins and from COB to Vashti Bunyan. He remains enthusiastic about new music, and enthuses about recent discoveries, The Finches and Belly Boat. He saves his most fulsome praise, however, for Sandy Denny. “For sheer mastery of melodic interpretation, for me, she remains the exemplar both in her traditional and her contemporary output. The North Star Grassman and The Ravens album sounds as inspired as ever.”
Back to the 21st Century
A man with Martin’s enthusiasm for music could not remain in the shadows forever. In the late 1990s he began to play music with his son, Tom. “Tom and I have always shared the same musical tastes and outlook,” Martin explains. “We first collaborated on an informal set of stream-of-consciousness unaccompanied two-part harmony pieces, where we let the melodies go where they would.” From these beginnings, they began to add instrumentation and vocals to each other’s songs, culminating in an unreleased album of acoustic songs entitled Joy Ride. Martin describes it: “It has a primitive bright acoustic mood that we like, and sounds like a natural, lighter pre-cursor to Tale Spin – so we may put it out yet.”
Tom grew up with a keen awareness of his father’s music. He admits, “It’s hard for me to listen to Forest objectively as I feel so close to the music. That said, I do enjoy the Forest albums: at the core of the songs is strong writing and melodic interest. There is a spirited abandon to Forest that shines through throughout the LP. Full Circle is a more accomplished if less consistent set and includes some of my favourite Forest songs. ‘Graveyard’ and ‘Autumn Childhood’ are both wonderful. I think the vocal attack and lack of tweeness to the Forest output gives it an edge and idiosyncrasy within the 60s psych-folk scene, too.”
Tom himself started writing songs in the late 1990s. Making music with Martin was a natural progression. “I’ve always loved 1960s music and, as a boy, would spend my days listening to my dad’s great record collection and I felt then - and still do - that the best music of 1965 to 1972 betters that of any other era.” He adds, “I’m lucky enough to have heard many of dad’s self-penned songs from the early 1960s to the present day that were never released. These include '68’, which is a cracking psych-pop song from the early ‘70s. ‘Running Out of Time’ is an achingly beautiful finger-style song written in the late ‘80s and ‘Merry Go Round’, is a stunning, haunting song from the mid-70s that still runs through my head to this day. A lot of these songs still exist on old tapes at odd speeds, and if I ever get hold of a suitable tape player, I think I’ll put them together as a collection.”
Tom’s enthusiasm for the Incredible String Band is another musical trait he shares with Martin. For Tom, the ISB’s instrumentation, vocals, song structures and subject matter fit together to create the ultimate psych-folk experience. He recounts, “I’ve had the odd lost weekend listening to nothing but 1960s psych-folk, which is remarkably easy to do. On one such occasion, after immersing myself in many an ISB album, the weekend somehow stretched through to Monday. The next day, my boss asked, ‘Where were you yesterday?’ I told him, only half tongue-in-cheek, ‘I was listening to the String Band and lost track of time.’ I didn’t last long there!”
The Story’s first release came about as a result of a chance encounter between Josh Alper of Whysp and a copy of the first Forest album in a San Francisco record store. Martin says, “Josh told me he saw the album and loved the cover artwork, as well as the look of the three hippies sitting in woodland. Although tempted, he didn’t buy it. His girlfriend, though, could see he still had the LP on his mind and she persuaded him to go back and get it. He did, and from the opening bars of ‘Bad Penny’ he said that he felt at home, and a changed musical perception followed.” Josh got in touch with Dez and subsequently contacted Martin. “He asked to hear the music I was doing now and explained that he was in an alternative folk band. Tom and I both felt an affinity for Whysp’s music and consequently we all agreed to put out a split release album of both bands. Josh did all the work to get the album out in California on Good Village Recordings as a limited edition vinyl.”
That release, The Dawn Is Crowned, explores the psych-folk side of the Story. The feedback Tom and Martin have received suggests the songs resonate with lovers of late ‘60s strange folk. Martin suggests, “People seem to connect deeply to our sound world. One favourite response was from a Velvet Underground freak from Denmark, who seemed to have convinced himself that ‘Floating Box’ gives the answer to ‘the big question’. We never found out what the question was though…”
This side of The Story’s output was in part influenced by Tom’s decision, in 2002, to opt out of society for 18 months, both as a social experiment, to see if it was possible in modern life, and to reconnect with the more natural elements. Tom explains, “I reclusively existed just writing, recording music with dad and venturing around the local countryside taking in the environment. This resulted in songs such as ‘English Oak’ on The Dawn Is Crowned and helped contribute to the band’s Pagnostic vision.” The band hope to further explore the more arcane aspects of their work on the next album. As Martin explains, “I think that there is a sort of pagan gnostic symbology and imagery that lies just beneath the surface of all our psyches and we have delved into this darker world with songs like ‘The Wicker Man’ and ‘All Hallows Eve’, the song we contributed to the Unbroken Circle to mark Halloween. The album will reflect other themes of this kind.”
In February 2006, The Story’s first full-length album, Tale Spin, was released on Richard Morton-Jack’s Sunbeam Records. It came about as a result of Martin meeting Richard at Abbey Road when remastering the first Forest album for re-release on Radioactive Records. Martin describes Tale Spin as a collection of accessible, loosely psychedelic songs reflecting The Story’s love of harmonies and melody. The album is an accomplished set of bucolic, pastoral songs. The writing has echoes of The Beatles’ and The Kinks’ late 60s output and Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd. Unexpectedly, there is also a nod towards the Canterbury scene, with Tom’s writing in particular bringing to mind elements of Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayers and the Sinclairs. Closing track, ‘Between the Lines’, is a four-and-a-half minute prog-folk epic, which many bands would have spun out to fill an entire side of an album. For died-in-the-wool Forest fans, songs like ‘Down to the Trees’ splendidly feature Martin’s trademark vocal flourishes.
The album has a very cohesive feel, with Tom and Martin sharing both vocal and instrumental duties. Martin elaborates, “If someone comes up with an idea for any part of any song we’ll try it out. The Story sound has come about in part due to limitations of instrumentation - we don’t own a drum kit, so use other forms of percussion; we don’t use electric guitars so even the bass is acoustic; we only have a basic keyboard, so we make do. We both love the organic natural sound of acoustic instruments and it seems to fit the music.” Martin and Tom have a cottage-industry approach to the music, and see the songs through from the writing to the recording, producing and engineering stage. Martin believes, “This gives the songs unity and hopefully one hundred per cent our own sound - so we only have ourselves to blame! We both write in a mixture of styles – from light-hearted acoustic pop to darker folk modes and all in between – the song always governs the treatment. At heart, I think we like strong melodies in any vein of music.”
Despite only just having release their first album, The Story are already looking to the future. As well as the pagan gnostic album they have in the pipeline, they are also finishing off a stream-of-consciousness album that will see the light of day soon. Martin reveals, “Tom and I often have sessions where we will switch on the recorder, sit down with a guitar each, clear our minds of everything and compose off-the-cuff, reacting to and anticipating each other’s musical and lyrical forays. This process taps into our joint sub-consciousnesses without the usual self-censor taking over during the song-writing process. It’s an extremely freeing, almost magical happening, leading to areas that we wouldn't otherwise get into. Upon listening back for the first time, we can almost hear the music as if it had nothing to do with us! The songs seem to compose themselves but at the same time we uncover previously untapped areas within us.”
Martin describes The Story’s existence as one of contented oblivion. He says, “We don’t find ourselves part of any specific scene, but obviously have an affinity with our contemporaries in the field. It is pleasing to hear so many artists playing in this area of folk-based music and the current resurgence of interest is heartening.” He admits he cannot really gauge in what way The Story relates to Forest or any other music he’s done, but says, “It’s great to be recording again. I love writing songs and working in the studio and it’s a real bonus to be playing and writing with Tom, whose songs I love as much as Dez's and Adrian's.”
Finally, The Unbroken Circle asked Martin what he felt about the near legendary status of the albums he produced with Forest. He told us, “'If legendary means old enough to have gathered some mystique over the years, which is probably true, yet were obscure in their own time - undoubtedly true, then that's fine. If people can get pleasure from the music and it sets them on the road to investigating the huge number of artists who follow their own intuition, to sing and play what they know to be true, I’m more than happy to settle for that.”