Caught by the River

Clay Pipe Music

Ian Preece | 15th April 2020

An extract from Ian Preece’s upcoming book Listening to the Wind: Encounters with 21st Century Independent Record Labels, published next month by Omnibus Press. Clay Pipe Music’s Frances Castle has made us a beautiful mix, ‘The Beginners Guide to Clay Pipe Music’, to accompany, which you can find here. We suggest you stick it on now for the perfect aural accompaniment as you read.

‘I think Clay Pipe is the example of a label that’s done everything right, and releases records with a certain visual aesthetic and a certain audio aesthetic that is very consistent. You don’t really have to search your soul very hard before going: “I want everything on that label.” That’s what labels should be like.’ – Glen Johnson, Second Language/Piano Magic

On a cloudy Saturday afternoon, I’m sitting having a coffee with Frances Castle in the back garden of the Blighty Café in Finsbury Park. ‘I would have thought it would be quite hard to get a book on small labels commissioned and published,’ says Frances. ‘But it’s great that you have,’ she adds quickly, a trace of faint doubt still audible in her voice. ‘Just running one, the amount of people you can sell to is quite small. Unfortunately, it’s a small market.’

Back in the early days, when Frances was up late at night folding and hand-printing cardboard covers with her portable press, CDs scattered all over the living-room floor, she also set about animating a couple of videos for tracks from Clay Pipe LPs. ‘Pond I’ from 52 was one: lambent fish swim in the pond, the sun’s reflection slowly traverses the sparkling water, reeds shimmer, the colours darken from 1960s green emulsion to charcoal grey to the midnight blue of the night sky. It’s a lovely 2 minutes, 54 seconds of animation. I wish my kids were 4 again (not 19) and they could look upon its beauty with a sense of untrammelled wonder. It took a full week to make. 

‘Well, initially I did some animations – for Sharron Krauss and a Jon Brooks one – but it’s so time consuming,’ recalls Frances. ‘The videos are mainly done by the artists themselves now.’

In this time-impoverished life, it’s hard to justify whiling a morning away watching music videos online, but there’s something about Clay Pipe promo-films that reels you in – both Frances’s animation and the beautiful ‘found’ footage elsewhere. Jon Brooks’s ‘Lanverec’ (from Autres Directions) is a must for fans of slow cinema. Birds tweet, the fog sits over a Brittany cottage and some muddy cabbage fields at dawn, enveloped by the low drone of the music; the lens is stationary throughout. Now and again car headlights are picked out on the main road on the horizon. Six minutes and 13 seconds in there’s a shock as the flashing orange light of a service vehicle enters the frame; a minute later the vehicle is heading down the lane towards the homestead, and the camera – it’s a tractor, pulling a trailer! It’s a bit like staring at a French seventeenth-century landscape painting – Claude Lorrain or Nicolas Poussin – and wholly apposite for an album of French rural noir, a kind of Francophile soundtrack of submerged voices, solitary church bells and occasional Ballardian samples of speeding traffic emerging from the foggy campagne before disappearing again, swallowed in misty drone. The final track, ‘Sortie’, is especially beautiful: the rumble of harbour noise, car engines and a distant ferry tannoy signifying the holiday is over.

‘Vic Mars’s video was just bits of old footage that he put together,’ says Frances, with admirable understatement. ‘The Road Through the Village’ blew me away when I first saw it. For devotees of those old BFI collections of real-life footage from the mid-twentieth century (cycling trips, transport systems, the postman’s round, pub games, daily life on the farm, etc.) this is a kind of English countryside greatest hits: boys in short trousers mucking about in rowing boats, a Salvation Army concert in a rose garden, cream teas, vibrant cherry blossom, ducks frolicking in the ornamental pond and one of those old corrugated tin dustbins for sale outside the village ironmonger’s – before, in the next frame, an old Austin A40 rights itself after taking the bend in front of the corner shop a little too hastily. Again, the cinéma vérité is congruous with Mars’s homage to the old ways and the Hertfordshire countryside of his youth: The Land and the Garden – a beautiful series of vignettes on piano, organ, glockenspiel and Mellotron – was compiled on his return to England after a lengthy stay in Japan. ‘Hedgerows and Conservation’ has a French horn parping away in the undergrowth; ‘Hiking Attire’ orchestrates the punchy teleprinter excitement of the old World of Sport theme tune, or the urgency of ‘Black Beauty’; ‘Fences, Railway Lines and Other Obstacles’ is similarly euphoric: it’s easy to imagine shire horses trudging across a field, the farmer bent double over the plough, hedgerows, windmills and wooden stiles flashing by the steam-train window in a simulacra of Frances’s actual cover for the LP, where a towering foxglove bends sinisterly in the foreground like something from Day of the Triffids. If film-maker Paul Kelly and the Saint Etienne folk were to put together an inter-war version of How We Used to Live, they have a readymade soundtrack in The Land and the Garden

However, even Mars’s monumental slice of pastoralia is surpassed on the Vimeo front by the archive bus footage acquired from Dave and Mandy Spencer and PMP Films for Gilroy Mere’s ‘Dunroamin’ – five minutes of Green Line footage shot on London County routes circa 1970. Majestic green Routemasters and modern 1960s double-deckers are captured on achingly beautiful Super-8 film splashing through puddles, picking up old ladies in headscarves from draughty bus shelters then bombing down country lanes and leafy dual carriageways to places like Reigate and Sunnyside in Hitchin – all soundtracked by Mere’s fusion of the pastoral and motorik.

Swimming baths, inter-war council housing, marbles, indoor quoits, cycling trips to the countryside, vintage furniture, village cricket or allotments . . . if anyone is thinking of recording a concept album along these lines in either a traditional folk mien or using vintage electronic equipment, Frances Castle’s label might just be the right home.

In an interview with Art & Music magazine Frances mentioned the influence of her favourite artists, Eric Ravilious, John Piper and John Minton – British twentieth-century painters with a melancholic touch of Edward Hopper about them – and how the eerie lost Englishness about their work ‘seemed to fit with the music I wanted to put out’. Although there’s plenty of lost Englishness about The Land and the Garden and The Green Line, I wonder if the music of Vic Mars and Gilroy Mere was something deliberately a bit more upbeat.

‘It’s just the music that I’ve found,’ she reiterates. ‘When I’m putting out Michael [Tanner]’s work and, say, Jon Brooks, which are both kind of ambient(y) – then I get sent a lot of ambient [laughs]. Or a lot of drone – and a lot of it isn’t particularly good or interesting. So then, perhaps, you think, “Oh, I don’t really want to put any more of this sort of stuff out. I’ve been sent all this stuff, but that’s the last thing I’m going to put out now!”’

I love ambient music, but over recent years there’s seemed no end to it – often packaged with the same grey sky or ocean on the grey cardboard sleeve.

‘It’s probably relatively easy to make,’ says Frances. ‘And there are probably a whole lot of people doing it without a whole lot of new ideas. I like it as well but I don’t know how many of those records you need. You need a couple of really good ones – and that’s it. So, it’s tricky. I’m not sure how suitable that stuff is on vinyl anyway – you probably don’t want to have to turn the record off after 20 minutes and turn it over. I think it may be more suitable to CD.’


Listening to the Wind is published 7 May by Omnibus Press. You can order a copy here.