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In Search of Nic Jones
- by Dave Emery
Issue 28 August/September '98

In Search of Nic Jones

In a previous article about Nic Jones, we hinted that there was more of the story to unfold. We were aware of plans for the release of some 'new' Nic Jones CDs but were sworn to secrecy. Even more frustrating we were treated to a sneak preview of some of the tracks but despite some strong hints, couldn't get an advanced cassette copy! Imagine the thrill just a week or so ago when the first CD arrived in the post. This article reveals the background to the project and in a limited way reviews this album.

As Nic says "Under different circumstances this album would not have been the natural successor to 'Penguin Eggs' and it certainly wouldn't have been a 'live' album recording for posterity my bum notes, mis-remembered words and sore throat. It is, however, an honest performance of a collection of songs and tunes which I thoroughly enjoyed doing."

The reason why the follow up to Penguin Eggs could never be a studio album was the serious car accident which happened to Nic on the way home from a folk club booking. The accident left Nic in a very bad state and he was to spend several months in hospital in intensive care. His wife Julia, realising the seriousness of Nic's condition, asked the Folk world to pass on any recordings of Nic to act as a stimulus to help focus Nic's memory. When Julia asked for tapes to be sent, her only aim at the time was to bombard Nic's unconscious being with all that was familiar. She played him everything from Bob Marley to the dog barking and the kids playing.

In retrospect, it was indeed fortunate that Dave Emery rescued them several years later when noticing that Nic's daughter Helen was about to record her and her brother Joe's impersonations of Cupid Stunt and Sid Snot over one of them - her justification being that she'd heard them all before anyway!"

Now, in 1998, we have a new album 'In search of Nic Jones', live recordings of Nic made before his accident. It is not titled 'Volume One' but should be the first of several - in search of Nic Jones.

Nic Jones turned professional at the end of 1968 and went on to make his first solo LP 'Ballads and Songs' for Leader's Trailer label in 1970 which established him as a performer of the highest quality. There followed four more albums, each one cementing him as an individual and outstanding force at the very forefront of revivalist and contemporary performers. His last studio album 'Penguin Eggs' (1980) became Melody Maker's Folk Music Album of the Year.

The driving force behind this current recording is Dave Emery. Dave knew Nic initially when he worked with Bill and Helen Leader and Janet Kerr at Leadersound. Nic was the best selling of all Leader's artistes and he and Dave became great friends. He moved in with Nic, Julia and baby Helen for a year when they moved to the Fens. "People who saw Nic perform also got to know him. He was very approachable and people who know him well will understand that we played almost constant chess, tennis and went swimming a lot before typically he and I would set off for a club, concert or as I remember fondly, the BBC sessions at Maida Vale to record for John Peel's 'Top Gear'. Producer John Walters was always delighted that 'it was Nic this week' because Nic just walked up to the microphone and down through the cables to the recorders Nic's flawless music flowed and everyone would be in the pub by 10.00 pm. No overdubs, no mistakes for the engineers to struggle with here."

Dave remembers that "The earliest part of the revival saw Nic performing in cheap but intimate rooms in pubs, clubs and coffee bars which typically adopted a relaxed decor, cracked walls adorned with posters and album sleeves and where people were encouraged to play and express themselves. It was best I feel when left wing values were prevalent and when songs of social conscience found a stronger platform. You sat almost touching the performers, you were right inside the music."

"Nic and I took it in turns to drive en route to and from gigs. We sang, played mind games, had a few adventures and laughed a lot. It helped keep sleep at bay. It was February 1982 when I guess he didn't keep sleep at bay and was hospitalised for six months following a late night road accident. Ironically he was very close to home."

Not everybody who will buy this album will be familiar with the history leading to its release but those who know Nic's work, whether from records, clubs, concerts or on radio, will always remember the experience and have subsequently felt the loss of acoustic music at its most excellent.

The accident happened on the way home from a folk club booking, his car crashing into a fully loaded lorry which left Nic in a very bad state. Julia was told that had the accident happened a couple of years earlier, the technology may not have existed to keep him alive. Nic was to spend several months in hospital in intensive care.

At a very early stage of Nic's period in hospital Julia, realising the very seriousness of Nic's condition, asked the Folk world to pass on any recordings of Nic to act as a stimulus to help focus Nic's memory. There was no doubt that these tapes were effective and there was no doubt too, when Dave Emery scanned through the tapes a few years later, that there was a strong possibility that these recordings could be re-mastered for release on record.

Dave took the tapes up to his studio and set out to catalogue and create what turned out be a sizable library of recordings from which to draw. It consists of some five hundred tracks or more of variable sound quality and the initial release is a mix from that collection.

"Nic has made a good although not complete recovery but possesses still a great left hand and a sharpness of mind which has my king on its side after twenty moves or less. Part of Nic's appeal is in satisfying people who want a more mature, intelligent and honest lyric. He also has the gift of imagery and humour. A live performance of Nic's took us through the full gamut of emotions and with this record we deliberately set out to produce an album reflecting that, rather than a collection of shiny, crisp titles, i.e. 'The Best Recordings'. Instead we have selected twelve tracks in a specific order to produce a piece of work which for us, and particularly, Nic, hung together to everyone's satisfaction."

In the studio, every effort has been made to remain faithful to the original recordings, with only a limited amount of sound enhancement which, if used wrongly, might have coloured the performance.

Dave Emery and Nic are happy with the results of their efforts. "We have, I believe, produced an honest and hopefully rounded picture of Nic in concert. This is an album of previously unreleased material, the content of which derives from Nic's repertoire at the time of his road accident. This is an album of traditional content, contemporary music and Nic's own social comments. It has been a happy album for us and an experience which has been uplifting and very satisfying to have, a collection of wonderful music, our own favourites, your favourites, saved forever just as it always was."

In Search of Nic Jones

In Search of Nic Jones - Mollie Music MMCD01
The intention in putting together the album was to recreate a typical Nic Jones concert set and in this respect the album gets it spot on including Nic's legendary 'anti false-encore' last song. Whereas most performers would finish off with a crowd rouser, Nic would do the opposite and choose a quiet song. 'Thanksgiving', a song written by Rick Lee, closes the album leaving you satisfied yet looking for more.

The choice of songs on the album is interesting. Most of the songs are traditional but three by modern writers show that Nic had an ear for a good song. 'Texas girl at the funeral of her mother' is a new one on me and of the two instrumental tracks, 'Teddy Bears Picnic' may not be what you would expect. It was very much part of Nic's repertoire though and is a grand version.

For me the highlight of the album is Nic's version of 'Lord Franklin' which is sure to result in a new lease of life for the song. When Paul Brady sang 'Arthur McBride and the Sergeant', his treatment was so different that it became a definitive version. 'Lord Franklin' was not normally in Nic's repertoire, it came as quite a surprise when he heard the tape of it - recorded during a concert in Italy - as he doesn't remember having sung it in public. Perhaps he had some spare time that day and ran through it with the idea of introducing it into his set for variation. Whatever the reason, the result is a performance that sets a new standard.

'Ruins by the Shore' is another highlight. There can't have been too many songs inspired by a scene from Planet of the Apes - this song, I suggest, is a gem. Nic wrote a lot of songs, at one time he set himself a target of writing one a week, but just as he was critical of his own performances which if he didn't get right first time he moved on - most of his songs did not match up to his own exacting standards and he moved on to the next one. 'The Rose of Allendale' is given the Jones treatment which provided the inspiration for Mary Black's version.

Every time you saw Nic there was some noticeable variation in style - he was never one to stick rigidly to an arrangement and his guitar style changed over time. I have yet to sit down and listen to this album alongside Penguin Eggs or The Noah's Ark Trap, or to a muffled live recording we have of Nic at The Kilmarnock Folk Club. For the time being I am not analysing it, I am enjoying it.

The CD is 'album length', about 40 minutes. Since it was released everybody seems to have told Julia that they were disappointed that their particular favourite song was not chosen from the tapes. There are times when more can be less and my reaction when I got to the end of the album was to immediately play it over again. There are yet more gems to follow and because this CD is not a 'best of', future releases are likely to be just as strong.

For Dave Emery, the album was a labour of love. In the sleeve notes he gave his own opinion on the importance of Nic Jones. "When trying to analyse more closely I think that a combination of strengths collaborated to produce the most individual of acoustic music performers. It is his maturity as a singer and guitarist and as a portrayer of a story or message, and his sensitivity which drew in all the strands, together with an almost effortless skill and energy and whose breathtaking performances mark him to this day as one of the most influential and respected performers of his time."

Pete Heywood

Links, further information and recordings:

Nic Jones Guitar style