So it’s time to move on to the second half of the seventies and the early eighties and we start off with the P-word.
AM – How did you react when punk came along then?
PB – Loved it; I actually loved it and weirdly I wanted it to do what it wanted to do because up to that point my heroes were not punk at all and the very antithesis of punk. I wanted it, because I would have been about seventeen then, leaving school, and just starting to think about playing music in pubs and got a band together; well, actually, I got a duet together with Martin Gore (yes, that Martin Gore) and we were trying to write songs. He liked, I don’t know who he liked, I think it was Simon and Garfunkel at the time and he did like Sparks and David Bowie. I liked David Bowie but I wasn’t sure, I didn’t trust him which now, I think, was probably wrong, but I didn’t get the idea that superficial and chameleon-like was his theme. At the time I thought ‘I don’t believe he really means this’ and at that time it had to mean it and that meant a lot to me and I was probably wrong and Gore was probably way ahead of me on that. So we wrote songs which I tried to make melodic and soulful and he wanted to make strange and weird. I taught him how to play guitar and he was a better guitar player than he is, well, what he’s ended up as. We were writing some interesting songs at the time and we went out as this strange band and the punk happened, halfway through this band.
I had hair like Marc Bolan at the time and he had a bubble-cut but we found ourselves on these punk bills. I’d started writing a few songs as well, so I found myself as a solo person on these punk bills for no reason whatsoever because I had nothing to do with punk musically but I liked the fact you could play somewhere and there was energy there and I started listening to other people who were playing and I thought I’ll have a listen to this, so I went along to see some bands. I saw The Buzzcocks, The Ramones and The Talking Heads when they first came over, I saw The Clash once and there was a big fight so I didn’t hear much of The Clash, but that wasn’t the point in a way. I tended to like a what went on afterwards in the post-punk era; I got really well into that because there seemed to be room for bands like Television and The Fall with some of their lyrics which, at that point, were suddenly taking over for me and I went from trying to write songs like James Taylor with three words in them to two chords and “War and Peace” over the top of them; “Ulysses” or something like that, but then there were bands that that was feeding into at the time like The Fall. I certainly got heavily into The Fall and the more experimental bands but I would still listen to “The Modern Dance” by Pere Ubu and then go home and listen to “Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon” by James Taylor because I think that’s what it’s about; they’re not dissimilar in the sense that the person who’s responsible for the music does what he wants it to do. There’s too many categories, in a way.
AM – I know Television, “Marquee Moon”, everybody claims now that it’s always been their favourite album and at the time…
PB – They’re fucking lying; I tried to get everyone into that and a couple of people got it, but for once the rabid NME press was right about this.
AM – For me it’s still one that I’m happy to get the vinyl copy out and stick it on the turntable.
PB – It is actually an album I can listen to at any time and that’s a rare thing. Sometimes, even your favourite albums you think ‘I’m not in the mood for that’, but I can be depressed, I can be happy, I can be whatever, but when Television comes on, that’s it.
AM – So, that was punk, what about what came after that.
PB – Punk was exciting and I was involved in the energy of it; everywhere you went there were gigs. I sounded like Leonard Cohen at that time but anything went and that was the beauty of it. I wore flares and had long hair at the punk gigs I did and it was, sort of, ok. You’d get comments, but that was sort of the point; wait until Dexys Midnight Runners sing about ‘you’re so anti-fashion, wear flares”. You could do anything you liked, it was sort of Dadaist spirit. It was very early on when the fashion thing kicked in, the Kings Road punks, and it was weird because I felt like I’d transcended that because I hadn’t changed. I didn’t even cut my hair so I was like David Crosby amongst the punks.
AM – So presumably when the synthesisers kicked in that wouldn’t really have been your thing.
PB – When the post-punk thing happened, I used to like some of the bands that became known as Krautrock, Can, Neu and the newer ones as well, Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft and Einsturzende Neubauten who were pure noise and distortion and the English versions of that like Cabaret Voltaire; I loved all of that. I thought there’s a synth thing going on and Martin got into it, so he buggered off and did Depeche Mode. Suddenly it turned into this really twee pop with no substance. I don’t hate pop music but I thought, with everything he knew, and the stuff he liked, I thought he would have gone towards Throbbing Gristle rather than this thing that happened, which seemed like it was going to be over in five minutes. For all I know he’s now a multi-millionaire and I’m sitting in a pub in Leigh.
AM – It’s a general thing that innovations like that come along, people make really good music and then somebody grabs bits of it for the mainstream and just dilutes it.
PB – That’s always happened. Bob Dylan wouldn’t have been anywhere if it wasn’t for The Byrds; fabulous as that was, I’d rather hear Dylan. I’m probably alone in the world in preferring “All Along the Watchtower” by Bob Dylan to the Hendrix version, even though I like Jimi Hendrix. I’m alone, even Bob Dylan said it’s a better version.
AM – Dylan’s songs have been interpreted by a lot of people; are they better versions or are they different versions?
PB – They’re different versions. Sometimes you can say they’re better versions but the thing I always try to get away from is ‘Dylan’s a fabulous songwriter and an icon of the twentieth century but he can’t sing’. So that means that if Judy Collins or some such does a version of “Idiot Wind”, it will be better, de facto, because she can sing. I could not disagree with anything, outside of UKIP, more vehemently than that. Bob Dylan and Sinatra are probably the best vocal stylists of this millennium. The reason I say that is because you try to play a Bob Dylan song and sing it and not sing a bit like Bob Dylan, not phrase it like him. The same with Sinatra, once you’ve heard “You Make me Feel So Young”, you try and sing that differently. Put your own slant on that; you can’t.
AM – I play and sing badly but I try Dylan songs like “I Shall be Released” and it’s always going to sound like Dylan.
PB – The Band did that; they’ve got some great singers in that band, and it sounded like Dylan; they couldn’t change the phrasing at all. You can sing it in a bland way or you can over-sing it; my worst nightmare is that I’ll wake up and “Positively Fourth Street” is covered by Mariah Carey. She would do it and you can guarantee you would have a queue of people saying ‘Oh, at last this song has been realised by a true singer’, but I would hunt her down and you’d see me on the Six O’Clock News if that happened.
What a great start we’ve had to 2014. We’ve already reviewed some cracking albums in various genres and now we’ve got another. “Dunfearing and the West Country High” is Phil Burdett’s first album to be released on Twickenham-based Drumfire Records and it’s very, very good. If you’ve seen Phil Burdett play live, you’ll know that he has a powerful, rich baritone voice and is an accomplished acoustic guitar player. He learned to play at the age of six, was in a pre-Depeche Mode band with Martin Gore and has pursued a winding and sometimes messy path through the music scene in the south-east of England ever since.
It’s obvious from the first listen that Phil isn’t just a songwriter; he’s a true poet. You can find any number of musical influences listed in previous reviews but you should probably add James Joyce and Dylan Thomas to that list. A quick word of advice here, don’t download this album, buy the CD; the packaging, designed by Fish Inton, is gorgeous and contains a booklet full of evocative photos and all of the lyrics.
It’s usually a pretty easy job to explain the subject of a song, but it can be a real challenge on “Dunfearing…” as Phil slips sinuously between the mundane and mystical. Even a song as seemingly grounded as “Small Talk at Sullivan’s Diner” descends quickly from the simple narrative to a deeper and darker examination of tortured souls struggling to cope with real life. The songs with a clear narrative thread are inspired by the history of Cornwall and the West Country, “Gothic Miner” and “Fate of Pirates”, for example, while “New York City Call” and “Columbus and Hope” emphasise the area’s historical links with the New World. There’s a batch of songs (“First and Last”, “Song of the Lamp”, “See the Sunset Slow and Beckon True”, “Rimbaud’s Ghost, Chapel Street & Union” and “Winter Halls”) which take inspiration from Phil’s recent Cornish sojourn, and the fatalistic “It’s Where ye Have to Go”.
Which leaves the album’s closing song, “Night Horses of the Wireless Road” to take all of these strands and pull them into an epic, mythical, stream of unconsciousness. The entire album is lyrically dense (both in volume and meanings) and the final song typifies this with references to art, music and fables, before moving abruptly into harsh reality with the news of the death of Jackie Leven, to whose memory the album is dedicated. Musically, “Night Horses…”, has echoes of Neil Young with Crazy Horse at their most laid back or maybe even John Martyn at his best. It has the same unsettling, alienating effect as The Afghan Whigs’ 1996 album, “Black Love”, particularly the closer, “Faded”.
I’m not saying this is an easy listen, but it’s worth putting in the effort. You might even have to do a bit of research on phrases like “mise-en-abyme” (you can look it up for yourself) and some of the more obscure references. Phil’s rough-hewn baritone voice and acoustic guitar (with a hint of Johnny Cash at times) are sympathetically supported by John Bennett (guitars), Steve Stott (mandolin/fiddle), Russ Strothard (bass guitar), Jack Corder (drums), Dee Hepburn (piano), Colleen McCarthy (backing vocals), Wag Porter (fiddle) and Mark Elliott (percussion) throughout the album; the playing isn’t particularly showy, but it creates a perfect backdrop for the modern folk and slight country leanings of the songs.
If you want a particularly geeky fact to impress your friends with, there are nearly thirty drinking references in the album’s lyrics, including pub names, drink names and general drinking terms, including one reference to rehab; you can take what you like from that, but I’m guessing that Phil enjoys a beer. This is an album which visits some very dark places, but closes with a heartfelt farewell to a fellow troubadour as part one of the proposed “Secular Mystic Trilogy” closes.
Out Monday March 3rd on Drumfire Records (DRMFR016).