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.
~ Available from Talking Elephant Records ~
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.
Album now available from Talking Elephant Records.
Ashley's new epic double-album Paradise and Thorns has been released by Talking Elephant
Records. The sub- heading to the album is Gloucester Docks Revisited (disc one) and Other Tales
of Love (disc two).
Ashley thinks this is possibly his finest album and this view is supported by what the media and people in the know are saying about Paradise and Thorns, and it's companion album released in 1987, By Gloucester Docks I sat down and wept.