Perhaps the least compelling thing to be said about Rob Young’s book Electric Eden is that it’s the best book about folk music you’re likely to ever read.
It’s a fair enough assessment, but ultimately lackluster and unambitious, in a way that Electric Eden never is. To belabor the point, Electric Eden is not only the best book about folk music you’re ever likely to ever read, but one of the best books about music in general you’re likely to ever read. Further, should you have an experience anything at all like our own, you’ll be likely to come away from Electric Eden with the opinion that it is simply one of the most marvelous books ever written, period.
High praise? Indeed. Hyperbole? Hardly. Mr. Young’s undertaking with Electric Eden is a work of profound scholarship and intense research, while also – it bears mention – being a really, really wacky fucking read, dude.
The pedigree of the author has some impact on this. Being a longtime member of the editorial staff of The Wire, Mr. Young comes to his book perhaps more likely to sing the praises of Throbbing Gristle over Jethro Tull (thank God for that, and thank Christ for the bomb). In addition, the author sets out not to tell a straightforward narrative tale of British folk music from point A to point B, but something much, much broader in scope – a secret (and not-so-secret) history of a country and a dream, multidimensional in scope and almost unfathomably dense.
Still, apart from the research, the uncovering of countless fascinating minutiae and the ability to make you feel a strange, unrequited love for Sandy Denny, what really makes Electric Eden come to life is, of course, the writing. Anyone who can sum up sound this way deserves our full attention: “Shades and sunny intervals dominate the lyrics, and the clouds part spectacularly for the closing ‘Bright Phoebus,’ where the the triumphant sun beams down with the full force of a spiritual awakening.”
We can recommend no book more strongly than Electric Eden and we are thrilled to offer the interview below with the author, Rob Young.
In his 2001 memoir The Jerusalem Syndrome, the great comedian Marc Maron mentions a melon-baller once owned by his grandmother and describes it this way: “I use it in the summer as a device to go back in time.” To what degree do you personally use music as a device to go back in time?
I think music is an instant signifier of different places, spaces and timezones, and its effect cuts very deep. I spent a great deal of the 90s as a professional writer covering a lot of the amazing new developments in electronica and experimental music, and found myself on all sorts of conferences and debates, or being asked to write articles, speculating on ‘what is the future of music’? This was during a period when you had incredibly rapid turnover of new ‘innovative’ styles, microgenres which briefly seemed to herald a new dawn only to be supplanted by another one six months later and then sounding obsolete. Music, for me at that time, was an incredibly powerful conduit to a brighter future. I passionately believed (and still do) in the idea of the European Union, for instance, and the incredible interconnectedness of European musicians and festivals – a vast international community linking up as you watched – seemed to be a precursor of something transformative in the European experience. A lot of that potential got thrown away after 2000, the war on terror and the disastrous economic mismanagement of recent times. Eventually I got pretty bored of music that was self-consciously trying to sound futuristic and realized that there’s very little you can actually predict about how music will SOUND in the future, and it’s a bit of a futile game trying. And I was suspicious of the fact that thinking of the future blinkers you to the present.
At the same time, as a Brit one is very conscious of the heritage industry here, there is a vast industry dedicated to preserving a sense of the past, ancestral buildings and monuments, traditions and hierarchies (viz. the royal wedding etc) and of course there are many centuries of history all layered over each other and plainly visible in the architecture of our cities and even in the topography of our landscape. Things have been preserved on these islands for a very long, uninterrupted span of history and I think there’s an innate affinity with old things in many who are born here. But I’m not sure if I use music to ‘get back to the past’ as much as bring something of that past up into the here and now – it’s vastly more useful that way. Culturally speaking, I don’t like things getting stagnant; prefer to keep the waters fresh and free-flowing.
Quite apart from the science-fiction, Trekkie-like notions that can be conjured just by using the phrase, the idea of “time-travel” is central to “Electric Eden,” beginning with the marvelous forward recounting your experience watching Cecil Sharp dance on Kinora spools, and continuing throughout the remainder of the book. How did this somewhat massive scope evolve out of the original idea of writing perhaps a more modest assessment of British folk-rock from the 60’s and 70’s? Was there one particular development or bit of learning that you can point to as most directly broadening the scope of “Electric Eden”?
Reading William Morris’s novel News from Nowhere had big impact on my way of approaching the early section of the book where I was looking at the first serious folk collecting boom in England. The novel, published in 1890, is a time-travel proto-sci-fi story where a protagonist wakes up 200 years in the future. But it’s a future which is an idealized vision of the medieval past – no government, no money, everyone’s a craftsman or artisan, the world is greener and less urbanized, and manual labor is enjoyed by all, rather than a chore set apart from the rest of life. It was Morris’s altruistic idea of a perfect society – fatally naive, but the logical outcome of his utopian socialist philosophy. News From Nowhere helped to clarify the notion that the British imagination – even in art that envisions the future – is much more attuned to the past, and a lost golden age. And discovering that composers Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams, who were among the first to incorporate English folk music themes into their own works – had attended political meetings at Morris’s house felt like being given the key to a door that unlocked a profound secret about English music, folk culture and the radical tradition.
With apologies to Julian Cope, perhaps the most fascinating “legend” presented in the book is the path of Vashti Bunyan, especially as it’s one where the larger picture may be known to some readers, but the details you bring to the chapter really helps define the radical approach of her journey. Is there a more satisfying creation story than that of Derroll Adams telling a young Vashti, “You mustn’t hide your light”? Is it too much to assert that, for all of the connection sought to the days of yore, it was the future (or at least, new generations with inspiration and internet connections) that truly brought Vashti out of the “Where Are They Now?” file (to use the phrase that once described a legendary British band known to look backward and forward simultaneously, Spinal Tap)?
Well, the future for Vashti, as it turned out, was nothing like she could ever have imagined it in 1969-70 when she was making that journey. I think for a lot of young people in the late 60s and early 70s, a strong feeling of impending doom overshadowed the more familiar notion of the happy clappy hippy counter culture … the economic downturn – oil crisis, terrorism, Middle Eastern wars – of the early 70s put paid to a lot of high flying dreams and the underground moved to private closed communes if it wanted to survive. Vashti herself kept well under the radar for the best part of 30 years, living a rural, simple existence in remote parts of Scotland and Ireland, never owned a copy of her own album and had practically let her guitar rot away. Our old friend Google taught her how the album she’d created and then forgotten had somehow, beyond her control, been given a life of its own and was changing hands for many dollars; at the same time, new advocates emerged to champion her music – Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, etc. She was one of the luckier ones. There was a large cull of bands and artists around 1971-72 when a lot of them broke up or ceased activities, largely because it just wasn’t financially viable any more and musical fashions had changed (glam into punk and so on). For them, the future would end up far from the dream.
At the risk of putting too fine a point on it … Donovan once bought an island? Never mind that – three islands (Isay, Mingay and Clett – coincidentally, I believe, also the first line-up of Blue Cheer)?!? The mind boggles. Is our world better or worse off today, in a time when we very rarely hear of folk singers investing in planting the roots of a utopian existence – especially when that investment comes from the profits generated by songs like “Starfish-on-the-Toast”?
It’s just different. It’s a more crowded world now, for sure – and perhaps harder and more expensive to decamp from the city to the country and pass the time in the leisurely creation of music inspired by nature and the landscape. In those days such retreats were often funded by the record company or management – impossible to imagine that now! But the model for producing music now is so different anyway – it’s not studio centric or city based, so music can emanate from anywhere on earth, and I’ve had music sent to me from extremely remote spots – Yorkshire, Scandinavia, American deserts, Canadian mountains, Iran … as overheads are reduced the potential becomes wider.
For you, what was the most surprising discovery that came from writing “Electric Eden”? Both from a research-oriented perspective – meaning a particularly meaningful fact of history that you would not have predicted would land within the book’s pages – and from a personal perspective, what did you learn from writing the book that has had the most impact on your life or listening habits?
Lots of them really – connections and intersections between people, music, films, etc popped up all over the place. It could be minutiae that were nevertheless revealing – like the fact that the Anglo-Irish psych-folk band Dr. Strangely Strange used to stay at the house of psychogeographic author Iain Sinclair in the early 70s, where a screen writer called Tom Baker, who co-wrote the ‘folk horror’ classic Witchfinder General with Michael Reeves, was also living … or the weird magnetism of the Cader Idris mountain in North Wales, site of Arthurian legends, setting for the eerie children’s fantasy novel The Owl Service by Alan Garner, also near Bron Y-Aur, where Led Zeppelin’s Page and Plant wrote much of their Celtic/Tolkien-infused “Stairway To Heaven”-era material, and the folk-rock band Trees also rehearsed in its shadow …
There was also the recurrent presence of musicians like Danny Thompson, Dave Mattacks, Harold McNair, etc., across a huge range of musics spanning decades … A surprising one was discovering that Henry Williamson, author of books like Tarka The Otter, Salar The Salmon, etc., who lived a fairly unconventional, salacious life (proto-hippy?) in a small village in Devon, had a son, Harry, who went on to play a small but significant role in 1970s free festival culture hanging out with Hawkwind, Gong and so on, and working with former Genesis founder Anthony Phillips.
As to what I learned which had an impact: I think writing this book helped me to “read” folk music and culture in a way I hadn’t managed to do before. It helped me to overcome notions about “authenticity” which linger around the idea of folk (in all cultures), and to understand that most folk traditions are handed down and recorded in a pretty arbitrary way, and the trick to getting the most out of them is not to get hung up at all about how “true” to some imagined original they might be (as you’re never going to find the original), but to appreciate each new iteration as something authentic, fresh and valuable in its own right. The acorn is not a pale imitation of an oak, it IS a new oak.
What are the artistic pitfalls that can arise from too much emphasis on “getting back to the garden”? At what point does the longing for days gone by become an avoidance of the here-and-now, resulting in music that’s greater parts pabulum and pastiche than anything else? Should the artist even be concerned with these questions? Should the listener?
This is a very important question and another core theme of the book. All along the line, the notion of radicalism and revolution is indivisible from the idea of restoring something – a state of being or of mind – that has been lost in the past. I think folk revivals (or any revivals really) are attempts to reclaim something when it’s at its most endangered. So the music becomes a kind of doorway through which you can step back into a time that’s envisioned as holding the possibility of a better life. In the “getting back to the garden” idea, which of course connects right back to the biblical Eden, we tap into one of the foundational myths of civilization. I think we have to recognize that while it’s literally impossible (and in many ways, undesirable – would you really like to have to plough the fields and harvest every year?), we also have to recognize that it’s important to keep the dream alive. I would rather live in an age of hope and idealism than one of despair, cynicism and pollution, and the “garden” myth, in its broadest sense, acts as a guiding beacon to living in a better world. Wow, I just got all hippy on your ass.
At least in broad strokes, can you give us a sense of your own musical evolution? How long has music been your paramount passion, and what were some of the events that signified an assumed life-long love of music? How have your listening patterns evolved over the years?
The first record I bought was “The Number One Song In Heaven” by Sparks. That was a revelation, when I discovered – what, you mean you can BUY the music you hear on the radio? So I’ve been an avid consumer and listener (occasionally player) of music since I was barely 10 years old. Reading the NME and Melody Maker from the mid-80s taught me much about the critical reception of music but also I learned a lot about politics and ideas there which I simply wasn’t getting at school. Writers like Biba Kopf, Simon Reynolds, David Stubbs, Ian MacDonald, etc., were huge influences on my musical thinking and I have been immensely fortunate to have ended up working with and commissioning many of them in later life. The Wire was the first magazine to publish my work and I have stuck with it since the early 90s, working as Deputy Editor, then Editor, now as a part-time member of the editorial team. A very interesting period to be involved, as it marked some huge shifts in the creation and consumption of music, through the electronic revolution of the 90s into the current digital paradigm shift in parallel with partial returns to ideas of acoustics, folk and psychedelia. But my musical interests have always been extremely varied and I have written about free improv, contemporary composition, jazz, all manner of electronic music and techno, Krautrock, experimental music, rock, etc. I think I have a pretty restless ear and I tend to lose interest when stuff seems to be falling into generic patterns; I generally prefer music when it’s pushing at limits or being tested or stressed in some way.
What artists have you been listening to lately? What excites you about music today? Are there any current artists not discussed in the book, that you feel could eventually wind up at least being mentioned in a future, “updated” edition of Electric Eden?
Electric Eden certainly set me off on new pathways and there were plenty of artists that for different reasons it wasn’t possible to include at length in the book. Among them was Roy Harper who I’m listening to a great deal right now and in fact am in the middle of conducting some interviews with him for The Wire. I also became obsessed with the English composers of the early 20th century – Vaughan Williams, Holst, Peter Warlock, John Ireland, Cyril Scott, Ernest Moeran and others – all of whom were pretty complex, interesting and unconventional characters whose music connects in all kinds of ways with arcane aspects of the landscape, the occult, and the English visionary literary tradition. And I’m still following those leads.
From Electric Eden: “But where ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ was saturated in quasi-Buddhist mysticism and Jungian psychology, ‘Strawberry Fields’ is the first example anywhere of what Ian MacDonald called ‘a sort of technologically-evolved folk music’: an innately English psychedelia.” Of course, this begs the question – isn’t Ringo just awesome?
Yup, plus his voiceover on “Thomas The Tank Engine” brought out the quasi-Buddhist mysticism and Jungian psychology of those mischievous locomotives, too.
What’s on the horizon for Rob Young?
On my immediate horizon are a stream of planes waiting to land at Heathrow. On the temporal horizon, I’m delighted to have just taped about 5 hours of interview with the amazing Roy Harper at his home in Ireland, which will form the cover story of the July issue of The Wire. Since Roy didn’t figure very heavily in Electric Eden, for reasons too boring to go into here, I hope this article will be like a “missing chapter of the book. Longer term, there are plans for more books shaping up at the moment but it’s still a bit too early to divulge details I’m afraid. Keep an eye on my blog!
Rob Young’s Electric Eden