The Watersons: Electric Water

Posted by Kevin Boyd, 1 Apr 2011

This review of the legendary long-lost Watersons electric album was published in issue 12 of Southern Rag (now fRoots) on 1 April 1982.

Electric Water (white label)

When this eventually finds release (at the moment we only have a white label pressing as the original company for which it was intended decided it was rather too controversial for its image), this cannot fail to become the most polarising record of the decade.

In simple terms, this is the Watersons’ disco album, but that would be altogether too dismissive a description. Hot on the heels of their guest appearance on Richard & Linda Thompson’s new record, the family were finally persuaded to put on tape the kind of supremely innovative arrangements that only their closest friends have heard them working on in the privacy of their Yorkshire retreat. For the first time, we hear Mike’s complex but poppy Farfisa organ, Lal’s amazingly funky fretless bass guitar work, and biggest surprise of all, Norma at full tilt on a screaming electric violin.

The cover photos for "Electric Water" have long been lost but "Come Sing It Plain..." has commissioned this artists' impression of what we think they may have looked like.

Martin’s contributions are less of a surprise, of course, though his electric guitar is wilder than before. He’s used synthesisers on his solo albums and they are present here in copious quantities, including maddeningly compulsive multi-overdubs of drum synths. And he’s often been quoted on his desire to use brass, so the appearance of the trumpet, trombone and sax players from the Whitby ska band The Disgracefuls makes complete sense.

But none of the multi-layered studio effects can disguise the Watersons’ singing. Most of the songs are familiar, mind you, from previous recordings, but even if it were all new material, the intertwining of those powerful rich harmonies would be unmistakeable.

As I said to call it simply a disco album is barely adequate. Certainly every track is proudly danceable, from the reggae/ska treatment of Dido, Bendigo, via a hot Latin/Salsa arrangement of The White Cockade, a spacey synthesiser-rockabilly variation on Heavenly Aeroplane to a Tamla-esque fresh look at their recently recorded Young Banker. But it is the breadth of vision, roots knowledge coupled with sheer exuberance, which makes this the most exciting modern folk album yet recorded – even more of a milestone than was Shirley Collins & Davey Graham’s Folk Roots, New Routes in its day.

On the debit side, the Kraftwerk styled version of The Lyke-Wake Dirge is desperately ponderous, and I must say that Martin looks singularly uncomfortable in silver leotard on the proposed cover. But all in all, the folk scene’s never going to be the same when this one’s finally released!

Stella Washburn


One Response to The Watersons: Electric Water

  1. Jon B says:

    Wow! Sounds …err … fascinating!
    Look forward to hearing it.

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