Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections: Ian Preece

Ian Preece | 14th January 2019

Shadows and Reflections: the annual collection of postings in which our contributors and friends consider the events that’ve shaped the past twelve months. To close the season, Ian Preece looks back on 2018:

Fifty-one years old and I finally joined a band and made my debut on stage. OK, I can’t actually play anything, but my mate Doug decided he needed some ambient soundscaping to accompany his songs about the Fenchurch Street line, growing up in an ‘Average Town’ on the Thames Estuary, Dave Allen sketches on TV, seeing The Jam at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend, in 1981, and being a table tennis champion in Nowheresville, Essex. I dug out Ian Rawes’ recordings of the Coryton oil refinery siren on Canvey Island from his London Sound Survey LP and we were away: the South Benfleet Folk Orchestra had a fourth member, their own Bez (albeit one with cans on his head, seated behind the decks wearing reading glasses).

Rehearsals went well. Thursday nights round at Doug’s sister Janet’s flat in Walthamstow, the fridge stocked with cold pale ale. It was a hot summer; Jan, a deft bass player after only a few weeks’ coaching from her brother, opened the French windows onto a dozen back gardens. The neighbours had probably got used to Doug’s melancholic, wistful blend of The Flamin’ Groovies and Billy Bragg, then along comes some bloke routing motorcycle-revving noises through Janet’s hi-fi (Rawes’ wall-of-death recordings from Dulwich) along with a thundering pipe organ from Leeds town hall courtesy of the Touch records LP Spire Live: Fundamentalis to flesh out the opening of ‘Dave Allen Sketch’. Rolf Julius’s CD Raining, a recording mostly composed of about an hour of rain falling heavily in Berlin, worked beautifully in and around Doug’s song ‘Canvey Island’, and especially with Tim (Bradford)’s mandolin. Most weeks Tim would turn up even later than me, open a can of pale ale then improvise effortlessly along to whichever tune Doug and Jan were working on. Flecks of gentle mandolin floated above and in between the guitar lines beautifully. Tim should be the go-to mandolin player for bands in the way Terry Edwards was with his trumpet in the eighties and nineties. He should be touring with ace Kentucky duo The Other Years.

A baking hot Friday in late August. The day of the gig had arrived. Third on the bill at the Metal arts centre in a small park, Chalkwell Park, near Westcliffe-on-Sea, Southend. Jan was running late but the rest of us met for egg and chips in Rossi’s on the seafront, the late afternoon sun glinting off the estuary, the Coryton Refinery and the Thames Haven oil terminal hazy across the water. Doug had expressly forbidden me from bringing my 1967 EMI Sound Effects no.3 EP, Diesel Trains, despite my pleas that tracks such as ‘Inside Carriage, Steady Wheel Rhythm’ would supply a poignant coda to ‘Fenchurch Line’. (‘Too obvious and corny’; Tim sided with me, though.) Better still, ‘Light Diesel Train Passing, Country Sounds in the Background’, a lovely 39 seconds of atmospheric 1960s field recording. But I did manage to slip another 1960s EP, Listen, the Birds, into my record bag – a joint release between the Royal Society of the Protection of Birds and the Dutch Society for Bird Protection, recorded and arranged by Hans A. Traber and released on European Phono Club of Amsterdam records. I was worried the planned birdsong to accompany ‘Graham Greene’ – several hundred canary birds from a 1936 Gennett sound effects 78 included on Steve Roden’s crackly Dust-to-Digital collection I Listen to the Wind that Obliterates My Traces – would prove to be too faint a recording. I was right. At the soundcheck it became clear we’d have to adjust the master levels to hear the 1 minute and 4 seconds of caged Depression-era canaries at full throttle. Rather than try to make eye-contact and a series of complicated hand gestures across a darkened room to Sean and his sound guy on the mixing desk at the precise moment the canaries were to come in, I took the executive decision to go with the vinyl: either ‘the sustained and beautiful song’ of blackbirds, ‘usually delivered from a high song-post’, or a particularly fruity golden oriole going for it in an oak wood in the early sixties. I could just bring the secretive migrant bird – despite looking like a blackbird in a Wolverhampton Wanderers kit, the golden oriole sticks to high canopies, so is hard to spot, and only passes through the south and east of England in May and June – up and down with the fader as required, and I had two or three minutes of woodland wonder to play with here.

The two turntables, mixer, CD player and anglepoise lamp sat on a huge decorating table that took up two-thirds of the stage. With a bit of shifting around there was room for my notebook, headphones, box of records and a comfortable stool too. Doug, Tim and Janet were confined to a square of floor roughly the size of a bathroom mat. Janet ended up sitting down on a chair at the back, completely obscured by her bandmates. Jan and Tim didn’t put a foot wrong all night. Doug fluffed his lines on one song – something I’d never seen him do in weeks of practice – but his between-numbers patter and songwriting went down a storm in the surprisingly packed room, though maybe some members of his family were a bit overwhelmed by the strong sense of 1980s ennui. I was just about keeping on top of the found-sound effects: the submarine-like bleeping siren of Coryton oil refinery (the real thing almost visible out of the windows) sounded great, so too did Charles Matthews’s and Marcus Davidson’s rumbling organ, and especially Rolf Julius’s hissing rain. Then came the penultimate number, ‘Graham Greene’. I cued up the ‘Golden Oriole’ from Listen, the Birds. I’d either got it on the wrong speed or done something to the volume. Suddenly it was like an aviary in there: the ‘wonderful resonant flute-like call’ of a crazy golden oriole, with hyped-up chaffinch and wood warblers chirruping away in the background, were manically warbling in the room with us. I could see Doug looking at Jan with a ‘What the fuck?’ expression. Later I realised Doug’s proximity to the speaker (about 3 centimetres from his right ear) had set off his hearing aid in a sort of metallic looping howl of chirrup-induced feedback. I caught a couple of faces in the audience. ‘Umm, interesting,’ they seemed to be saying. At least the misfiring cacophony of Dulwich wall-of-death motorbike engines sounded great with the twin attack of guitar and mandolin for ‘Table Tennis Star’.

The South Benfleet Folk Orchestra seem to be on hiatus at the moment. Doug has moved on, last caught doing terrific versions of ‘Hickory Wind’ and George Jones’s ‘The Race Is On’ at a Christmas party (with Tim on mandolin). Hans Traber’s 1960s birdsong EPs may well have been a response to the brutal industrialisation of 1960s farming – sonic equivalents of J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine – but there’s no real sense of alarm in the sleevenotes, just soothing descriptions of habitat and lots of Latin names. Today, the golden oriole, the mistle thrush, song thrush and the cuckoo – half the birds on Volume 1 of Listen, the Birds (along with the marsh tit and wood warbler from Volume 2) – are listed as UK conservation status red/under threat on the RSPB’s website. I realise that’s probably news only to slow-lane city dwellers like me. From the Caught by the River Shadows and Reflections this year David Stead wondering what happened to all those bugs you got splattered across the car windscreen after a drive in the countryside in the 1970s has stuck with me. Maybe in 2019 I’ll start investigating RSPB suet punnets and winter bird mugs rather than my usual lurch to Discogs (tempting as many of the 20-strong series of EMI Sound Effect Records released between 1967 and 1968 are, especially no.8, Seaside, and no.1, Cross-Channel Car Ferry).