Out of all of the many and varied strands of music exploding under the suddenly burgeoning ‘progressive’ banner in the early part of the 1970s, there are arguably two which are harder to pin down and define than others and also more rooted in the time period – firstly, the ‘Canterbury’ sound and secondly ‘folk-prog’ (AKA psych-folk, acid-folk or other similar folk-derived labels). Spirogyra were in the almost unique position of occupying both of those sub-genres at once for different reasons, something which has forever attached them, like a tiled mural on a wall, to the time period demonstrated here, in this collection of the three albums they produced in their first, and definitive, incarnation. Note that Spirogyra are most definitely nothing whatsoever to do with the similarly named Spyro Gyra, who arrived later in the decade purveying a politely safe and anodyne flavour of jazz fusion. Spirogyra may have been far from aggressive or amplified in their sound, but ‘safe’ isn’t really something they aspired to, and jazz most definitely was not!
The band were formed originally around Martin Cockerham in Bolton, 1967, but only became a real going concern and recording unit once he moved down to Canterbury to study at university. There, the band which recorded the first Spirogyra album came together, with Cockerham’s acoustic guitar and vocals accompanied by Steve Borrill on bass and Julian Cusack on violin and keyboards, with the line-up completed most significantly by the most well known member of the group, Barbara Gaskin on vocals. Gaskin went on to appear in Canterbury outfits National Health and Hatfield And The North, before finally becoming a mainstream name in the ’80s via her hit version of It’s My Party, together with fellow Hatfielder Dave Stewart (NOT the guy from the Eurythmics, as most people seemed to assume). Titled St Radigunds after the Canterbury street in which they lived in a communal house, the album shares occasional similarities with the terrifyingly dark and sinister Comus, whose own deeply unsettling debut First Utterance was released around the same time, without ever venturing into quite such foreboding areas of dank gloom and suicidal existentialism (which sounds like a great folk-duo now I think of it). It’s folk-based by way of the acoustic nature of proceedings and the violin, of course, but not in the traditional way of Fairport or Steeleye Span. The lyrics often veer towards the social commentary end of things while remaining essentially free of specific party political lines. Opener The Future Won’t Be Long features Cockerham giving free rein to his natural Lancashire accent as he recounts a tale harking back to a time between the wars, both nostalgically and yet clearly no bed of roses with worse yet to come. It’s a very impressive opener, with the next two tracks, the slightly Pink Floyd-influenced Island and the lengthier Magical Mary, also being strong. The closing track, the eight-minute The Duke Of Beaufoot, is a very interesting track to end on, though one cannot escape the feeling that a little fuller instrumentation would have lifted it, and provided some much-needed contrast. Time Will Tell (the only non-Cockerham composition, written by Cusack) is another socially aware yet apolitical song, sagely noting the fact that no regime will ever last, and all will be judged ultimately by time, and is a strong highlight. The best track on the album to these ears, however, is Cogwheels, Crutches And Cyanide which, while it might well sound like the end of a particularly robust night out, is a brilliantly Dylan-esque piece of song-story, with the same knack as Dylan himself at his peak of sweeping you along by the sheer timbre and sound of the words and the construction, even at the times when you’re not sure exactly what he means! This is also the track to feature drums most prominently, with Fairport man Dave Mattacks appearing as a guest, though he really should have had more involvement.
If the debut was a strong compositional album albeit lacking in a little light and shade, the second album, unappealingly titled Old Boot Wine (I’ve drunk worse, I suppose) redressed that issue by bringing back original Bolton-based member Mark Francis on electric guitar, with Mattacks, again as a guest musician, contributing far more drumwork. The rockier element is immediately apparent in the opener Dangerous Dave, and recurs at several points on the album, but there is plenty of the softer, gentler material still on offer. Gaskin is utilised more on this record, which is a very good thing, as her crystal-clear voice is one of the band’s real strengths, and deserves far more than harmonising with Cockerham’s adequate but far less distinguished tones. The lengthy World’s Eyes is a standout here, providing evidence of that ‘folk-prog’ tag, while Disraeli’s Problem is a powerful piece addressing terrorism and violence, particularly with regard to the then prevalent Northern Irish troubles. Quite how Disraeli gets dragged into things is something I have been unable to fathom, but doubtless there may be political historians who can provide an explanation for that far more readily than I! Great song, though. The oddest track here is one entitled Wings Of Thunder which, quite at odds with its dramatic-sounding title, actually turns out to be one of the jauntiest, sunniest pop songs you could wish to hear. It isn’t a bad song in itself, but it’s just somehow wrong – it’s a little like A-ha recording a remake of Take On Me with a different lyric and exactly the same music, and calling it Sentient Darkness or something. Most peculiar. There are four bonus tracks added, of which two are sketchy throwaways (Counting The Cars and Window) but the other two are far more interesting. Turn Again Lane, at almost eight minutes, is undeniably somewhat rambling in structure, but could clearly have been developed into something extremely interesting, while the shorter, snappier Melody Maker Man is a corking rocker cynically railing against the less upstanding members of the music press. It could easily have been a single with its catchy chorus, and without a doubt should have gone onto the album, which overall is more interesting instrumentally than its predecessor, but is plagued by some weaker songwriting. Had those two bonus tracks been polished up and replaced some of the filler material, this could have been the band’s strongest effort, but as it is it just falls a little short of its potential.
One further album was to come before Spirogyra disbanded, 1973’s splendidly titled Bells, Boots And Shambles (referencing the phrase ‘bell, book and candle’, of course, which concerned Roman Catholic excommunication, and was also the title of a film). The core line-up is by now just a duo of Cockerham and Gaskin, albeit supported by a cast of seven ‘guest musicians’, including Borrill, Cusack and Mattacks and also ranging from cello, flute and trumpet to the less crucial-sounding ‘whistle’. The album is often cited as a lost classic, and in parts it is, though in others it is undeniably flawed. The ambition of the music was never greater, with two tracks alone making up 21 minutes of music, but there is filler here. Spiggly is a short and slight instrumental, An Everyday Consumption Song is lyrically strong if just a little drawn-out and dull, while The Sergeant Says is another nice socially-aware lyric with a slightly whimsical turn of a chorus which teeters on the highwire between success and failure. Does it fall off? You decide. There is now an actual song called Old Boot Wine, strangely enough, and in fact it is a rather beguilingly melodic piece beautifully sing by Gaskin. Clearly the meat of the album is to be found in those longest compositions, though, with the eight-minute opener The Furthest Point, it must be said, being a little overlong. A lengthy opening section could easily be excised, and overall some judicious editing is certainly called for, but the closing half of the track is among the band’s strongest moments. The climactic In The Western World breasts the tape at just shy of thirteen minutes, coming in four sections, and dwarfs the rest of their output in terms of compositional ambition. Generally it carries its length off as well, with gorgeously melodic and almost traditional-sounding sections juxtaposed with a frantically-strummed acoustic guitar based passage which evokes the Moody Blues’ classic Question in a quite thrilling manner. There is also a section midway through in which Gaskin’s stunning vocal is answered by Cockerham in a fearsome tone which can only be described as a bizarre precursor of a death-metal growl. Once again, whether it works or not is up to the listener’s preference, but it sure as hell isn’t ‘safe’. The opening section is reprised in an anthemic finale which brings the curtain down on the album in quite definitive style. Once again, there is a bonus track appended, a single entitled I Hear You’re Getting Somewhere (Joe Really), and like Melody Maker Man before it, it’s a sprightly rocker which would have strengthened the album a lot had it displaced Consumption Song.
In the final analysis, the fact that Spirogyra never broke through to a more mainstream audience can partially be attributed to that peculiarly dated and niche ‘prog-psych-folk’ drawer in which they found themselves – a sub-genre which briefly spawned many highly regarded bands but has failed to produce much in the way of a lasting, populist legacy. They also perhaps suffered from the fact that while they didn’t record a poor album in any way during this period, they also never quite lined up all of the pieces to produce a truly great one. They also lack a little of the definitive focus of some of their contemporaries: Comus, for example, would happily terrify you into sleepless dread. The Third Ear Band would make you reassess everything you thought you knew about what precisely constituted ‘music’, while also terrifying you at the thought of meeting any of the people who did want to produce those sounds. Affinity and Mellow Candle conversely massaged your eardrums in a far more accessible way, with melody and mood featuring as prime elements of their sound. Spirogyra, by contrast, did all of those things to a greater or lesser extent, without specialising in any. They may, arguably, have been the best of all of those named bands, but perhaps conversely they didn’t quite have the ‘X factor’ to make the general public sit up and take notice. It also didn’t help them that their location saw them lumped in with the Canterbury scene despite them sounding nothing like that particular style.
Whatever the truth of it, with the band permanently closed for business since the death of Cockerham in 2018, this set represents the best chance you will get to make your own mind up about a fascinating band who still command a cult following devoted to their output. The clamshell box packaging and nicely designed and very informative booklet are excellent also. The early ’70s was a glorious and very different time for music. These three discs show you one very strong reason why that was.