Thursday, 21 April 2011

Principal Edwards Magic Theatre - Soundtrack

Hitching a Story

A number of my posts on this blog have been 'prompted' by some catalyst from here or there. With this album being one of my favourite favourites, I am a little surprised that it has taken such a nudge for me to post this now.

Today's prompt has been reading a best friend's nostalgic story about seeing PEMT in performance which involves a hitch-hiking episode as one narrative device, and reality. Up until today I always felt I had my own great hitch-hiking tale - the time when a school mate and I aged 15 met up early one morning on the A12 out of Ipswich to try and get a lift to the 1969 Rolling Stones Hyde Park concert. Having thumbed unsuccessfully for a long long time, a Bedford van filled with hippies from Harwich and going to the concert pulled up to coolly and amiably offer us a ride. These were men and women and we were boys and I think they felt a care and concern for the two of us in addition to any inherent hippie code of sharing and help. This was confirmed - and the potent point of my hitch-hiking story - when they insisted that we meet up after the concert so they could take us back to Ipswich, which they did.

In my friend's story, he and his then prospective girlfriend not only got a lift in the Principal Edwards Magic Theatre tour bus, they also went to their gig, helped unload equipment, watched the performance, shared an Indian meal afterwards with cast and crew, and were then taken back to the PEMT farmhouse to spend the night - and in the romantic denouement that presages their relationship for well over the three decades I have known them - well, you'll have to read the story, but the narrative requires little in terms of device or imagination. Needless to say, this hitch-hiking event trumps mine, and if I wasn't so enamoured by the endearing story of the incipient love of two wonderful friends, I'd be peeved rather than prompted.

The album Soundtrack is unique. Championed and produced by John Peel on his label Dandelion it is a rich mix of folk, rock, spoken word and, in performance, dance and recital. Vocalist Vivienne McAuliffe has that pure folk voice of the time, but the distinctive sound, different to both obvious comparisons like Pentangle and Fairport Convention, has the rock elements interrupt the folk narratives in at times heavy metal snatches rather than structured accompaniment [plainsong meets Black Sabbath]. That does rather simplify, but it is part of the band's unique take on the folk/rock marriage. Root Cartwright, who writes/co-writes all the material, engages in longish guitar solos that give it a more progressive sound at times

The gatefold album cover has the 14 ensemble members posing in front of Exeter Cathedral, and the velvet and scarves and floral patterns establish the sound before it is even heard. Inside has lyrics on the left to song titles like 'Enigmatic Insomniac Machine', 'The Death of Don Quixote', and 'Third Sonnet to Sundry Notes Of Music' [with credit to Shakespeare, thus establishing the learned roots as well]; and on the right there is a photo montage of facial close-ups, on-stage footage, Stonehenge and more flowers.

The music is brilliant. There is a raw and live sound at times. The singing is, as I've said, simply beautiful, or it can be punctuated by sudden screams or more unrefined occasional male vocals [Martin Stellman?]. I love this album but imagine that seeing them live will have been the perfect and intended experience - reading the members' credits that cite 'choreographer, writer, dancer, arranger, designer, lights, spoken voice' and so on you are reminded of the theatrical nature of this group.

Of course my friend and his then prospective girlfriend did get to see them live. And hitch a memorable ride. Have their shared curry. Sleep on that single mattress. Begin that partnership in the context of a love for music we both share.


  1. I love the stories in this blog and the music sounds like it's worth a listen. Have to say, though that the hair n flares are utterly spectacular!

  2. Glad you enjoy the stories Trish, and, as ever, I appreciate you stopping by to read and comment. Yes, PEMT are a cool looking lot, and I recall the same sartorial sensibilities!!

  3. Thanks to Mike, I have now caught up with the musical base of the memoir my story builds on. Haven't heard "Soundtrack" in 41 years. It wears well. Didn't spot you at the Stones in the Park though.

  4. My recollection is arriving to hear King Crimson playing, which was pretty far out. But we were late, as I said above, and it was packed to say the least, so that's exactly what happened: we heard but didn't see any of the music! But, like you, we were there...