‘Swarb & Carth’: An appreciation

10 June 2016

Posted by Kevin Boyd, 10 June 2016

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“My wife calls me Spider-Man… because I can’t get out of the bath”. Dave Swarbrick

It’s been a week since the passing of Dave Swarbrick and social media has been filled with celebrations of his life from some of the thousands of people whose own lives were touched by his music, kindness and wit. I never really knew Swarb but I saw and heard him more times than I can remember over the last 30 years: guesting with the late-80s Fairport lineup at Cropredy; leading the brilliant acoustic quartet Whippersnapper; as a virtuosic solo performer, but by far the most frequent guise I witnessed, maybe not surprisingly, was his duo with Martin Carthy. So whilst the wider media may, perhaps rightly, heap praise on his more commercial achievements with the likes of Fairport, it seems more appropriate for me to pay tribute to his partnership with Carthy.

My best guess is that I saw ‘Swarb and Carth’ 17 or 18 times in nine different towns or cities between October 1988 and September 2015. You never quite knew what you were going to get at one of their gigs, perhaps because they rarely rehearsed and both relished the challenge of ringing the changes and equally abhorred the idea that their music might become staid, petrified, a beautifully preserved fly in Jurassic amber. If you saw them on the first date of one of their annual September tours it’s likely that their first song would have been the first time they’d performed together in anger since their last gig, which could conceivably have been the best part of a year ago. On that basis you might have forgiven them for playing safe when they had the opportunity but that was never their style so that opening number might well have been suffixed by a sly look between the pair and maybe a chuckle, as if to say, “We made it!” and the last gig of a tour could differ vastly from the first as they tweaked and generally mucked about with either the repertoire, specific arrangements, or both.

Right up to the last time I saw them, on what transpired to be their last full tour about nine months before Swarb’s death, they were tinkering with some of the oldest pieces in their repertoire – the likes of Sovay and Byker Hill – as well as some of their more recent work. Occasionally (usually at Swarbrick’s insistence) they would wing it completely, such as the occassion when Swarb insisted on playing a set of tunes they’d not yet fully learned. Carthy was not entirely enamoured of the idea but they did it nevertheless – just about – and in the process displayed not just their musical chops but a collective fearlessness and confidence in their own abilities that is perhaps the greatest clue to the puzzle of how and why they continued to innovate and experiment up until the end.

Despite Swarb’s passing we still have their recordings – their innovative and occasional controversial sixties albums and their all-too infrequent post-reunion CDs from the late-eighties onwards – but these never really reflected anything but the briefest of snapshots of what they were doing at the time they were recorded. Their union really came alive on stage, in front of an audience, and in many ways Carthy and Swarbrick were the ideal partnership. Each was equally the other’s teacher and pupil and the respect with which they held each other was evident whenever they played together. Ask Carthy now who taught him the most about music – not just ‘folk music’ – and the odds are he’ll not hesitate to credit Swarb, perhaps quoting him as saying, “You can do anything to music, it doesn’t mind”. It’s a simple enough phrase but one which, when acted out in the hands of two masters of their craft, resulted in some incredible, diverse and often boundary-breaking, music.

They were the first to admit they didn’t do ‘happy’, but despite the often bleak, if not downright heartbreaking, nature of much of their material, their live shows were scattered with humour and good natured banter. Not for nothing was Swarbrick labelled ‘the world’s first sit-down comedian’. They would often end shows with My Heart’s In New South Wales – Swarb’s beautiful, plaintive paean to the time he spent living in Australia – which would invariably be introduced through a hilarious catalogue of the various ways in which you could be killed by the country’s indigenous wildlife. It may be this incorrigible streak of humour, often as self-deprecating as it was wicked, that I’ll miss as much as the music about those regular September dates with Carthy and Swarbrick.

My thoughts are with Swarb’s wife Jill, his regular touring companion in recent years and sitter to Ruby, the most widely-travelled dog in the folk world who has no-doubt slept through more Carthy and Swarbrick gigs than I could ever hope to have seen.

Kevin Boyd, 10 June 2016

Here are a few personal favourites of my photographs of Carthy and Swarbrick. The shot above was taken in Bury in September 2011 and is one that Dave asked if he could use for publicity – he thought it made him look almost presentable! I was happy to send him a copy and have been pleased to have seen it used frequently over the last few years. The rest are from subsequent gigs, with the exception of a couple of early shots from their ‘first farewell tour’ in 1988.

 


Photo Gallery: Carthy & Swarbrick, 11 September 2015

11 October 2015

Posted by Kevin Boyd, 11 October 2015

A little bit later than I would have preferred, but here are a few shots from Martin and Dave’s gig at the Met Theatre in Bury on 11 September.


#MC50 : 50th Anniversary Record Store Day release

5 April 2015

Posted by Kevin Boyd, 5 April 2015

Topic Records are to release a limited-edition version of Martin Carthy’s debut album for UK Record Store Day. The edition will carry the catalogue number 12TS2015 and will be limited to 750 copies with audio remastered for 180g audiophile vinyl that has been pressed at Optimal in Germany. It will be available initially in-store only at participating record shops on Saturday 18 April but it’s likely that Topic will make any remaining copies available via their website in the following weeks, as they have with their previous RSD releases.

Previous Topic RSD releases have reproduced the original sleeve notes, artwork and production techniques (foldback sleeves, etc). So far I’ve been unable to determine if that is the case here although Topic have released this cover image showing that they have finally made a decent job of dealing with the old Fontana logo that appeared in the top-right corner of the original release. I’ll post more details once I get my hands on a copy.

MC50 Cover1

View Martin Carthy in DISCOGRAPHY

View list of #MC50 posts in Come Sing It Plain…


Photo Gallery: Carthy & Swarbrick, 4 Sept 2014

6 September 2014

Posted by Kevin Boyd, 6 September 2014
Updated: 8 September 2014

Another September; another Carthy & Swarb tour. Here they are at the Met Theatre in Bury a couple of days ago.

Update: Here are a few more different edits in colour of Martin from the same gig:


Happy Bonny Black Hare Day

14 May 2014

Posted by Kevin Boyd, 14 May 2014

Every year on 14 May a handful of my Facebook friends post “Happy Bonny Black Hare” messages with links to videos of the song by assorted folkies. I got fed up of searching for Martin and Swarb’s version and not finding anything so I decided to make my own. Enjoy… and Happy Bonny Black Hare Day!


How To Buy: 1960s Fontana Albums

10 March 2013

Posted by Kevin Boyd, 10 March 2013 (edited 16 March 2013)

This is the first of a series of posts describing what to look for when buying rare Martin Carthy records, CDs and memorabilia. The posts are designed to give you a better idea of how to identify harder to find examples and what you should expect to pay. The valuations I suggest are purely subjective so it’s worth shopping around and remembering that any item is only worth what you are prepared to pay.

This first post concentrates on Carthy’s 1960s albums on the Fontana label. To avoid complicated explanations and in common with the standard across this entire site I consider ‘solo’ releases to include both Carthy’s purely solo issues and his duo albums with Dave Swarbrick. In terms of collectibility these releases can broadly be grouped together as they share a number of common characteristics which I’ll discuss here but there are also a handful of less common variations which distinguish the original issues from later pressings.

How To Buy 3

Packaging design and construction
The standard packaging method for vinyl albums from roughly the mid-1950s onwards was the ‘wrap-around’ (or ‘flipback’) sleeve. The front cover is printed in colour and laminated but the back cover is unlaminated with black text on a white background. The laminated front section wraps around the printed back panel which tucks under and fixes to three exposed ‘flaps’. In some cases the back card panel is blank and a single printed paper sheet is pasted over the entire back section, partly covering the laminated flaps. By the late ’60s fully laminated sleeves were more prominent, consisting of a single component part, printed in full colour and completely laminated. The back section was fixed outside the flaps allowing the use of seamless full-colour printing across the entire sleeve. This was the method generally used for all subsequent releases in the vinyl age.

Identifying original pressings
Examples of Carthy’s 1960s releases utilising all these construction methods exist and understanding them can be useful in determining when a particular pressing was produced. Carthy’s first album, Martin Carthy, issued by Fontana in 1965, was pressed in both mono and stereo versions and original examples have the wrap-around sleeve with a single paper sheet pasted over the back cover. Second Album (1966), Byker Hill (1967) and But Two Came By… (1968) were all originally issued with wrap-around sleeves without the pasted paper section (i.e. with the back cover info printed directly onto the card sleeve) and Prince Heathen (1969) was the only example to have originally been issued in a fully laminated sleeve.

How To Buy 1

I discussed matrix numbers in a previous post and all original Fontana releases have the first section of the matrix number printed under the catalogue number on the back sleeve. The number also appears on the record label under the 33⅓ and stereo (or mono) symbols and the labels themselves are all printed in black and silver on original pressings. Matrix numbers for the stereo releases all begin with 886 whereas my 1965 mono copy of Martin Carthy has a number beginning with 687 as does the mono copy of Second Album in Reinhard Zierke’s collection (see the relevant scans on Reinhard’s website).

Later pressings
In my collection I have what I take to be a later pressing of Second Album with a fully laminated sleeve and blue and silver Fontana labels. The matrix number doesn’t appear on the back sleeve but it is on the printed label. Fully-laminated versions of Byker Hill and Martin Carthy can also be found and although I’ve never examined copies in detail I do know that the labels on Byker Hill are black and silver. I don’t know when these versions were issued but I guess they date from the later ’60s or very early ’70s. Two other distinguishing features of these issues is the lighter vinyl which again suggests a pressing date some time after their original 1965/66 releases and somewhat lighter card used in the sleeve construction but these difference may only be apparent when compared directly with an original pressing.

How To Buy 2

Valuations
As a general rule the value of collectable records, as with any collectables, is dictated by a combination of rarity and availability. A number of years ago it would have taken some effort, and the occasional stroke of luck, to track down decent copies of Carthy’s Fontana output and prices reflected this. With the recent ubiquity of eBay, Amazon and other online retailers these releases are now much more widely available to the average collector despite being technically no less scarce, but prices remain relatively high. Personally I would be reluctant to pay more than £25 for a mint condition stereo copy of any of the Fontana albums, with the value decreasing by degrees in line with the condition of the specific copy. A cursory review of eBay on any given week reveals prices for original pressings (rarely in mint condition) ranging from around £15 up to £50 or more with the majority sitting at the upper end of this scale. This general overpricing seems to be most common with Carthy’s first album, which is rarely offered for less than £25 and often starts at twice this price, which seems odd as its constant availability on eBay suggests that it is the least scarce of the Fontana releases.

Perhaps the rarest of the Fontana releases is the mono version of the first album so if any release warrants a value at the higher end of the scale it is this. The highest price I’ve seen quoted for this release is €100 (around £85) which seems excessively high and I’d suggest a more realistic value would be somewhere between £35 and £50.

How To Buy 4

The later reissues with laminated sleeves and blue/silver labels may in fact be scarcer than the original black/silver label releases with wrap-around sleeves. But a combination of the laminated sleeve, the ‘wrong’ colour label in some cases, lighter vinyl and (most crucially) the simple fact that they are not the original pressings are likely to make them less desirable for most collectors. This will be reflected in the price, which I would expect to be anything up to 40% less than the original pressings.

Grading vinyl
Prices quoted are for mint condition copies only. The industry standard Record Collector grading system describes mint as follows: “The record itself is in brand new condition with no surface marks or deterioration in sound quality. The cover and any extra items such as the lyric sheet, booklet or poster are in perfect condition”. Lower quality copies will clearly warrant lower prices by relative degrees and since Carthy’s Fontana releases are now over 40 years old you’re unlikely to find many mint copies so this should be borne in mind when considering how much to pay.

How To Buy 5

Summary
Here’s a checklist of characteristics to look out for on original 1960s Fontana pressings.

Martin Carthy (1965)

Sleeve: wrap-around / pasted paper back cover
Label: black & silver
Catalogue number: STL 5269 (stereo) TL 5269 (mono)
Matrix number: 886 752 (stereo) 687 355 (mono)
Later re-issued with fully laminated sleeve (label colour unknown)

Second Album (1966)

Sleeve: wrap-around / printed card back cover
Label: black & silver
Catalogue number: STL 5362
Matrix number: 886 759
Later re-issued with fully laminated sleeve and blue & silver labels

Byker Hill (1967)

Sleeve: wrap-around / printed card back cover
Label: black & silver
Catalogue number: STL 5434
Matrix number: 886 441
Later re-issued with fully laminated sleeve and black & silver labels

But Two Came By… (1968)

Sleeve: wrap-around / printed card back cover
Label: black & silver
Catalogue number: STL 5477
Matrix number: 886 484

Prince Heathen (1969)

Sleeve: full colour / fully laminated
Label: black & silver
Catalogue number: STL 5529
Matrix number: 886 777

Photo Gallery: Carthy & Swarbrick, 29 September 2012

30 September 2012

Posted by Kevin Boyd, 30 September 2012

Martin and Dave’s 2012 tour continued on to the Waterside Arts Centre in Sale, Greater Manchester on 29 September. Here are a few shots from that gig. 


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