When you think of Ashley Hutchings, chances are you’ll think first of the folk rock pioneer,
the scholarly reinvention of the English tradition for the electric age, and those irresistibly
propulsive bass lines. But then there’s the rocker, the balladeer, and the multifaceted Musical
Director at the National Theatre: the polymath always searching for the essence and making it
At this point in his distinguished career, Ninety-Nine. Impressions is both a surprise and the most logical album one could expect, being a sequence of poems and prose pieces set to minimal musical accompaniment. Spoken word has been a part of Ashley’s work since Steeleye Span, perhaps most notably on Rattlebone and Ploughjack and An Hour with Cecil Sharp, but this is the first album to be centred entirely upon the voice. While a long way from folk rock, what connects it to his most celebrated work from the past half-century or so is its historical and cultural depth reframed for the immediate present.
Making virtue of lockdown necessity, the album was initially conceived as a collage or conversation constructed from quotations Ashley had gathered in a treasured notebook over recent years: from books, television and radio, writers, artists and filmmakers sharing wisdom and bons mots over a soundtrack provided by Blair Dunlop and Jacob Stoney with Ruth Angell and Sid Peacock. At Blair’s suggestion, though, Ashley’s own poems and lyrics were added to the mix, and the project took on a whole new complexion.
The set begins with the possibly apocryphal quotation attributed to Camus: Don’t walk behind me, I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend, which sets the tone for what follows. It’s a record which privileges neither Ashley nor the gathered voices; rather, it’s a conversation amongst friends – at times profound but always playful – in which the listener is invited to join. Recorded from Ashley’s sofa with no studio effects, with intuitively sympathetic arrangements, it’s that rare thing: a spoken word album to be listened to over and over with new discoveries revealed each time.
Playfulness is definitely an element, confirms Ashley, and one of the games is to guess which of the illustrious cast of characters said what, while another is to make your own connections and interpretations. I can confirm that I think in heaven we should eat nothing but ice cream is from Angela Carter and nods towards Ashley’s legendary love of gelato, though any connection with the 99 of the album’s title is purely coincidental or, at least, subconscious.
Striking in its originality, Ninety-Nine. Impressions nonetheless feels like a record Ashley was always going to make and, as has so often been the case since those early Fairport albums, it brims with both intelligence and feeling. Ashley’s status as a pivotal figure in British folk and rock remains unassailable but as well as that: well, Shoot – that boy can write!
Back in 1969, when Ashley Hutchings - a young British rock’n’roller with a literary bent – was
poring over ballads in Cecil Sharp House and working out how the hell one could apply electric bass
and a rock sensibility to the likes of “Tam Lin” and “Matty Groves,” fellow London lad Pete
Townshend was doing his own bit to reconfigure popular music as The Who toured in support of their
magnum opus, a self-styled “rock opera” by the name of Tommy.
While there may not be a lot of mileage in comparing Liege and Lief to its more bombastic
contemporary, both records explore new possibilities for rock music. Equally significant, they are
both records that focus on story. Over the following half-century, Hutchings’ status as “the most
important figure in English folk rock” (Bob Dylan) has cemented itself through his work with Fairport
Convention, Steeleye Span and various Albion Bands, and rightly garnered awards as diverse as an
EFDSS Gold Badge and an MBE.
Impressive though this is, it is still only part of the story, and if Pete Townshend can claim to have invented the rock opera, I would like to posit another genre right out on the edges of folk rock – the “rock novella” – of which Ashley Hutchings is the originator and 1987’s By Gloucester Docks I Sat Down and Wept: A Love Story is the most perfect example.
By Gloucester Docks is an album that wears both its heart and its influences on its sleeve. The title echoes Elizabeth Smart’s novel from the year Hutchings was born, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, an intense and controversial story of an affair written in a style verging on prose poetry, which imbues the personal with an allusive, universal, and metaphysical quality. Likewise, although Hutchings acknowledges the genesis of By Gloucester Docks in a personal relationship, the album reaches beyond specifics through its bricolage of literary and musical styles, and through the decision not to name the central protagonists, lending them the status of both everyman/woman and archetype.
On opener “I Dreamed a Dream,” Christine Collister sets the scene with a song that draws on numerous traditional sources to create a context of timeless love and loss accompanied by an organ which underpins the lyric’s devotional qualities. It is a motif which is picked up again at the album’s conclusion, neatly closing the narrative.
In between, the album tells the story of an ultimately doomed love affair, told from the alternating perspectives of the man and woman. Each is given two voices: their songs are sung by Hutchings and Polly Bolton respectively, while each also has a narrative voice outside the moment, spoken by actors Michael Pennington and Marilyn Cutts. Lyrics are by Hutchings, though Smart is quoted in “Love, Stuff and Nonsense,” and elsewhere Shakespeare, a number of traditional songs, and Brief Encounter – Noel Coward’s study of English romantic tragedy par excellence – are acknowledged.
While this is an album best enjoyed in an uninterrupted sitting, there are some fine standalone tracks throughout. The good-time rock-and-roll of “Ring on her Finger” is balanced by the melancholy torch song “Brief Encounters”; the swaying, Celtic-inflected “Dancing Under the Rose – again” is offset by the serious electric guitar-wanging rock-out of “Don’t Look Back.” The genre- defying music is matched by versatility of the musicians – Pete Zorn, Graeme Taylor, Phil Beer, Dave Mattacks, John Shepherd, Dave Whetstone, Steve Ashley and Mick Doonan – who complement the narrative perfectly throughout.
Back in 1987, By Gloucester Docks received a fairly limited release, but its reputation has grown since. This newly remastered edition offers an opportunity to rediscover – or discover for the first time – this masterful work of poetic storytelling in words and music: a “rock novella” until a better definition comes along.
"Combines the epic with the day-to-day".
"My dear, my darling, do you hear me where you sleep?" - Elizabeth Smart.
"I am continually re-evaluating the "By Gloucester Docks" album. At present I think my favourite track is "We walked in God's country". For most people this is a fairly insignificant song and has never been singled out. The songs that register the most with people are "Brief encounters ", "To Ireland I made my way", "Dancing under the rose" or the spoken word of "My dear friend". "God's country" is important as the hinge track. It marks the end of the euphoria and the beginning of the collapse. It is economical with its words but ends with one of my most effective couplets - "The world began in Eden on high hills and low vales, but it ended in Edgeworth and the world slipped away". - Ashley, September, 2020.
In 1969 Bob Dylan topped the bill in a massive music festival on the
Isle of Wight. In August, 2019, the Isle of Wight witnessed a 50th
anniversary festival. The last act onstage was a band specially
formed by Ashley to celebrate Bob's music.
These live recordings are from this band's set that night.
"Strengthen the things that remain".
Album now available from Talking Elephant Records.