May 18, 2021

…Oberon, a prog-folk-cum-jazz-cum-rock band which was formed by its members while still at school, played a handful of local gigs, and released only 99 copies of their sole studio album, because to release 100 would incur purchase tax! Intriguing enough for you? Me too!

Under the Cherry Red umbrella, the Esoteric label has a tremendous line going in the discovery of lesser-known 1970s releases ripe for reissue and discovery. When the other CR label Grapefruit get involved, you can often rub your hands in anticipation of something so obscure as to make four-leaf clovers appear to be causing a glut in the marketplace. So it is with Oberon, a prog-folk-cum-jazz-cum-rock band which was formed by its members while still at school, played a handful of local gigs, and released only 99 copies of their sole studio album, because to release 100 would incur purchase tax! Intriguing enough for you? Me too! Let’s have a look and see what is within.

As previously stated, the band is a young one to say the least, made up of six pupils of Radley College – a boys’ public school near Oxford – along with the only girl (and obviously non-schoolmate) Jan Scrimgeour. They began rehearsing in a spare room within the school, and when they left after their final term, they stayed around to rehearse for a little longer while they prepared the material for their album. Their instrumentation consisted of four guitars (one electric), violin, flute, bass and drums, with three vocalists, and the music reflects that configuration by being generally on the gentle side, but not without its moments of controlled aggression here and there. This set contains the studio album A Midsummer’s Night Dream (note the slightly different wording as opposed to the Shakespeare play), and also a recording of a gig from around three months earlier, which we shall come to shortly.

The album’s eight tracks are a mixed bag of originals and covers, the latter comprising the traditional song Nottamun Town (already recorded by Fairport), Gershwin’s Summertime, in a jazzy form complete with flute driven coda which could have sat on Jethro Tull’s debut with ease, and lastly Syrinx, an adaptation of a piece by Claude Debussy (it isn’t too often you see a cover credited to ‘Debussy’). Along with these tracks are five originals, of which three are acoustic based pieces: Peggy is a short guitar instrumental, Time Past, Time Come a slightly longer instrumental piece which is a real highlight, and finally the closing Epitaph, a rather lovely song for acoustic guitar and vocal about a school friend who had tragically died in Africa from sunstroke not too long before. The remaining two tracks are the main reason why this very scarce album has acquired something of a reputation and demand among collectors, as they are both over eight minutes in duration and the most musically diverse pieces by some way. The Hunt is a tremendous piece of extended British folk-rock of the kind which was earning Fairport, for example, all manner of plaudits at the time. It’s experimental, subtly and skillfully played, and the best thing here. The other lengthy piece is a real oddity. It’s called Minas Tirith, yet bizarrely has little or no lyrical connection with Tolkien or The Lord Of The Rings. The reason for this is that it was originally written as Tolkien’s words set to music as a direct homage, but the publishers refused the rights to use the words, so Hugh Lupton (a non-performing lyricist member no less, in the Pete Sinfield or Keith Reid mode) wrote a new set of lyrics to the music. That’s understandable, but with the song title being retained, one would have thought a lyric directly about the city in question would have been the obvious choice. Instead, along with some references to a tree of life, giving some link, we meet a cast of characters including Davy the kite-flyer, Dick The Shepherd, the hog-riding ‘simpleton with pig’s eyes’ and lastly the black ape Satan. Wow, I don’t know what they were putting in the school dinners back in those days! It does have some excellent music within it, but is marred by a somewhat incongruous drum solo inserted as if at random midway through!

In addition to this we have the album Live Spring 1971, from tapes only rediscovered four decades later by band member Jeremy Birchall, when it was released to commemorate the band’s 40th anniversary in 2011 – this time limited to 40 copies! No point flooding the market with 99 again, I imagine – that isn’t rare enough! It’s an enjoyable performance, with five of the album’s tracks together with a short ‘Flute Sonata’ and an instrumental version of the traditional Scarborough Fair. The Hunt and Minas Tirith are both present, but not really improved upon. The latter’s drum solo is even more bizarre, as the song up to that point doesn’t feature any audible percussion, whereupon he just starts bashing away like Ginger Baker from nowhere! It is very amusing to hear whichever band member it is explaining the Tolkien situation when introducing the track, and naming and shaming the publishers, almost as if it was a great stand-off between the might of George Allen & Unwin against a teenage folk-rock band! Even better is the claim that the drum solo ‘represents Gandalf’s battle with the balrog’ – I rather imagine it represents a drummer who feels he hasn’t had enough to do elsewhere in the set, but nice try anyway! The show is surprisingly well recorded considering it was just a home tape of it, and the audience are amazingly appreciative. In one more notable fact, the support at the show came in the form of a spoken word performance by Andrew Motion, a fellow Radley College pupil who was later to become Poet Laureate from 1999 to 2009! A poster for the event reveals that it was ‘in School’, but the description in the booklet of the show taking place at ‘a hall named School’ means it may or may not be the hall at Abingdon College itself, but it is certainly a modest venue local to the band. Overall, not an essential live album, but a nice companion to the studio set.

Sometimes you come away from something like this marvelling that the band weren’t bigger. That, of course, isn’t the case here, given the very niche release and the youth of the band members. What is indisputable, however, is that the potential unfulfilled here is enormous. If they had stayed together and been able to refine and further explore their peculiar strand of ‘augmented prog-folk’, there is no reason why the could not have emulated the kinds of things for which the likes of Fairport, Steeleye Span and Pentangle were getting (rightly) praised. Sadly, we have to content ourselves with the archaeological find we have here, and wonder about what might have been.