Caught by the River

Caught by the Reaper: Michael Chapman

13th September 2021

Bob Stanley pays tribute to the celebrated singer, songwriter and guitarist, who died last week aged 80.

Michael Chapman backstage at Port Eliot 2016, photographed by Wendy Barrett

When the British folk revival struck at the turn of the century, with Bert Jansch going from playing to thirty people at the Twelve Bar on Denmark Street to selling out the Festival Hall, Michael Chapman was notably left out in the cold. It wasn’t that people didn’t talk about albums like Window and Millstone Grit; he just didn’t fit. He always sang with an American accent for a start; much of his catalogue was a bit too ‘rock’; and there was an edge, almost an ugliness in his songs that didn’t sit comfortably alongside either Vashti Bunyan’s bucolic simplicity or Pentangle’s folk-jazz witchiness. His music sounded more like the flatlands of East Yorkshire, with suggestions of transport cafes, denim jackets and axle grease that wouldn’t have chimed with the spirit of 1999.

Michael Chapman sang about Scarborough and its tasteless food, about memories that were only Kodak ghosts. He was not a romantic. On the beautiful ‘You Say’ from his 1969 debut Rainmaker, he interrupts a series of beautiful images for his partner’s response: “You say that nothing ever touches me at all, and I don’t know what it is to be broken.”

He wasn’t easy to pigeonhole, was admired by but never a part of the early seventies British folk scene, and he seemed to enjoy upsetting preconceptions of his downbeat bluffness. The harmonics and drones that end the ever-shifting ‘New York Ladies’ anticipate the late eighties of My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth (Thurston Moore was his loudest latterday champion), and post-rock beyond. 1979’s Life On The Ceiling included both ‘Babe’, a windswept duet with Lesley Duncan that could have been a Radio 2 turntable hit, and ‘Lescudjack’ — with its floor-friendly rhythm and squelchy synth bass, a potential theme for a cop show set in Goole. 

I drifted slowly into Michael Chapman’s work. Saint Etienne pinched the title of 1976’s Savage Amusement for a line on ‘Avenue’, though truthfully I wasn’t much taken with the album at the time. I remember picking up Fully Qualified Survivor in Reckless in Islington in the late nineties, and that was my way in. Moving to Yorkshire only made more sense of his music. I hadn’t been aware that 1973’s stellar Millstone Grit was named after the stone that makes up most of the mill towns of East Lancs and West Yorkshire, between the red brick of Manchester and Leeds — it naturally darkens, but looks like it has become blackened by soot. Glyn Hughes wrote a fine book called Millstone Grit about buying an abandoned mill worker’s cottage for £50 in the mid-sixties and re-building it, giving it back some dignity; he then felt aggrieved when other people did the same and prettified the houses with flower baskets. I think Michael Chapman would have got on with Glyn Hughes. 

I only saw him play twice — in Bradford and at the Green Man festival — and he was a mesmerising player with some excellent anecdotes (dinner at John Fahey’s house, with his host becoming gradually more wrecked, until he was naked save for a flag from the Nuremberg rallies). He never stopped. Maybe if he had taken a year off he could have played bigger venues, done a one-off selling out Cecil Sharp House or the Jazz Café, but that didn’t seem to be in his make-up — he’d play every night of the week if he could and so the venues always remained small. Michael Chapman was a working musician, and as a result he has left behind a huge catalogue that you can lose yourself in. That’s some consolation right now. 

Michael Chapman, 24 January 1941 – 10 September 2021


Bob Stanley is a writer, film producer, and a member of the band Saint Etienne, whose album ‘I’ve Been Trying to Tell You’ has just been released via Heavenly.