Saturday, 15 December 2012

"Beau - Tale of a Modern-Day Yorkshire Minstrel" - Ugly Things #34

The latest edition of the US magazine "Ugly Things" includes an in-depth piece by Chicago journalist Scott Wilkinson under the header "Beau - Tale of a Modern-Day Yorkshire Minstrel".

For those who don't already know, "Ugly Things" is a very highly regarded print-only mag that appears twice a year. Get your copy here! "Ugly Things" is truly essential reading for heritage music fans needing to scratch that rock 'n' roll itch! 

Mike Stax, the publisher, has kindly agreed we can reproduce a transcript of the new article here. Many thanks Mike!

by Scott D. Wilkinson

The late 1960s and early 1970s was a time associated with nonconformity on both sides of the Atlantic. Among the figures identified with such iconoclasm, there are perhaps no better representatives than the musicians of this period. Nevertheless, going against the cultural grain quickly became the new orthodoxy, which caused a large number of worthwhile performers who did not embrace the latest rapidly emerging trends to slip through the cracks. In the UK, there were many who fit into this category, with singer-songwriter-guitarist Beau (nee Christopher John Trevor Midgley) qualifying as one of the most notable. This incomparable but quintessentially northern English musician is probably best-known for the two LPs that he recorded for John Peel’s celebrated if short-lived Dandelion label. As extraordinary as these albums are, they represent but one chapter in his intriguing life story.
            Born in Leeds, West Yorkshire in 1946, Midgley entered the world during the immediate aftermath of World War II, which made him just the right age to be at the forefront of the sweeping cultural changes that were starting to impact Britain and the rest of the world in the 1950s.  Although it would be an exaggeration to say that he came from a truly musical family, a piano-playing aunt and a gramophone-owning great uncle nevertheless served as important early influences.  Indeed, the latter relative provided Midgley with his first vinyl listening experience.  “This was a revelation!” he recounts.  “In particular, he had one record – Elgar’s ‘Pomp and Circumstance March No. 4.’  I was absolutely entranced!  That Elgar tune was the first that really stuck with me – despite thinking for years it was called ‘Pom Pom Circumstance’!”  The influence of classical composers would continue to have a profound effect on Midgley throughout his life and helped set him apart from many of his peers.  On the other hand, the recordings of a less surprising inspirational figure proved to be just as important.  Midgley explains, “The song that hit me between the eyes – changed my life, actually – was Elvis’s ‘Jailhouse Rock.’  I’d heard earlier stuff, of course – ‘Hound Dog,’ ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ – but only as snippets on BBC’s The Light Programme.  Then, in 1957 between Christmas and New Year, my parents and I went to visit some friends for the evening.  The two daughters were a little older than me, and they had a record player.  And they had ‘Jailhouse Rock.’  I must have listened to that record a dozen times that night!”  The year 1957 was significant for the musician in another way since it marked the beginning of the sobriquet by which he is better known.  Leeds Grammar School’s French instructor cryptically chose “Beau” as an ersatz cognomen to differentiate him from another Midgley in the same class.  In addition to sticking as a nickname, Beau also became the identity under which most of his recordings came to be released.
            Before his exposure to Elvis, Midgley had already demonstrated something of a musical aptitude as a child when he would “enthusiastically hammer” on the family’s upright piano.  The work of Presley’s lead guitarist Scotty Moore, however, was the decisive factor in the young Yorkshireman’s ultimate choice of instrument specialization.  Typical for a musically-inclined student with a rebellious streak, Beau found a constructive outlet in performing and formed his first group, the Raiders, with some of his school friends in 1960.  The initial practice session found him playing accordion, although he would soon occupy the drummer’s chair for the next two years.  At first, the band operated as an instrumental unit in the stylistic mold of the Shadows, with other members including bassist John “Tarm” Armistead in addition to guitarists Robin White and John Allen.  In 1962, White went on hiatus, which gave Midgley the opportunity to put his recently-acquired rudimentary guitar skills to good use.  This move necessitated the recruitment of a new percussionist, Alan Petch.  By this time, Beau had also assumed singing duties after the Raiders realized that featuring a vocalist would significantly broaden their appeal.  The timing of their transformation from an instrumental group to a vocal one was perfect in light of the Beatles’ commercial breakthrough in autumn of that year.  Allen’s Bruce Welch-derived chops were suddenly passé, which contributed to his eventual departure.  Meanwhile, White stepped back into the fold to reclaim the rhythm guitarist’s spot, Ralph Sims relieved Petch as the new drummer, and the increasingly proficient Midgley took on the role of lead axeman.  With the exception of one last change in personnel, this version of the Raiders endured for a period spanning nearly three years.
            During that time, the band enjoyed a respectable amount of local popularity and success by performing for teenage audiences in dance halls and community centers throughout their native Yorkshire while featuring a repertoire that was heavy on Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Kinks covers along with interpretations of “Apache”-type instrumentals and early rock ’n’ roll standards.  One particularly memorable regular gig was at the US Air Force base at Menwith Hill, where they benefitted from the Beatlemania that was just beginning to sweep across America.  Describing what the Yank servicemen thought of the Raiders’ music, Midgley recalls, “They loved it!  We had the obvious advantage of being British at a time when Brit music was really taking off in the States.  Also, we were reliable, security cleared, and gave them a good show,” while coyly adding, “What was not to like?”  The group’s prime period also found them winning a competition at Leeds Town Hall and doing a recording session for a BBC Radio program that was unfortunately cancelled before the material could be broadcast.  In 1964, White once again relinquished his position in the band and was replaced by Paul Marshall.  Afterward, Beau’s interest in the ensemble began to wane as his musical tastes continued to evolve, and he quit the Raiders the following year to focus on being a solo performer.
            Midgley’s metamorphosis from northern English beat group frontman to broodingly literate twelve-string guitarist and folk singer remains one of the most remarkable if underacknowledged artistic reinventions to take place in the UK during the 20th century.  While many musicians were following Bob Dylan’s lead by ditching their acoustic instruments and going electric in 1965, Beau did just the opposite after falling under the spell of proto-bluesman and songster Lead Belly.  A chance purchase of a budget compilation LP by the legendary twelve-string guitarist inspired him to purchase the same kind of instrument, a relatively affordable Hoyer model.  Desiring to be more than a mere Lead Belly copyist, Midgley endeavored to develop his own signature style.  “Even from the start,” he says, “I realized I had to have different rules if I was going to play twelve.  Otherwise, after five minutes things can get very boring indeed! Aside from the fact that I down-tune to C (the lowest string – the 11th – is a full octave below Middle C), use ultra heavy-gauge strings, and concentrate on letting open strings ring, I developed my own ‘pick and strum’ style.  When the box is warmed up, this produces an almost orchestral fullness that really emphasizes the harmonics.”
            During the second half of the 1960s, the contemporary musicians who made the greatest impact on Midgley included those who were affiliated with Elektra Records, especially American folk singers Tom Paxton and Phil Ochs.  (Indeed, Beau has sometimes been referred to as “England’s answer to Phil Ochs.”)   Although partial to prewar blues guitarists such as Blind Willie McTell and Blind Lemon Jefferson, the genre’s latter-day practitioners and white interpreters didn’t do much for him.  “The blues revival a la Clapton – indeed, electric blues in general – never really floated my boat,” he clarifies.  “I was always more into original acoustic blues from down south.”  Regarding the mind-expanding sounds that came to define Swinging London and Haight-Ashbury, Beau declares, “Pure psychedelia passed me by; mainly because I never took drugs and found it hard to relate to a music form which seemed to have to rely on distorted perception.  I prefer my avant-garde to be rational!”
            For the next couple of years after his departure from the Raiders, the musician concentrated on further developing his twelve-string guitar technique and writing his own material.  He also put in a few solo appearances at small venues during this time and felt sufficiently confident to search for other ways to broaden his exposure.  Opportunity presented itself in 1968 when the BBC began to implement its plan of creating a network of local radio and television stations throughout the UK.  Midgley requested an audition with the newly-established Radio Leeds, resulting in an offer to host two limited-run programs, Beau and The World of Beau.  He describes the broadcasts thusly:  “The formats were simple – an instrumental intro segment, then as many songs interspersed with chat and introductions as it took to fill the allotted time.  Usually half-an-hour, I think.  I played mostly my own songs, though there were a few others slipped in.  I distinctly remember including Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’ and ‘Edelweiss’ from The Sound of Music, and I’m sure there will have been others.”   These shows also brought him to the attention of Yorkshire Television, which asked him to perform his radio series’ signature piece, “The White Rose Song,” on the August 29 installment of an early evening news program called Calendar.  In this fashion, Beau had become something of a local legend.
That same year, he recorded a four-song demo and sent it to the London office of his beloved Elektra Records.  After an agonizing months-long wait, Midgley received an invitation from UK division head Clive Selwood to come down for a studio test in November.  He has fond memories of the session and recalls providing the engineer with thirty-three first takes of self-penned compositions in addition to receiving assurances that the tapes would be forwarded to label CEO Jac Holzman in New York City.  Afterward, the day concluded on a sour note when thieves made off with Beau’s Hoyer guitar after breaking into his van at Reading University, where he had been slated to perform an evening gig.  Nevertheless, the loss was tempered a few weeks later by his acquisition of a new and superior twelve-string, a Harmony Sovereign H-1270, which remains his preferred instrument for performing and recording to this day. 
Once again, Midgley waited for a response from Elektra.  Finally, in March 1969, he received a letter from London informing him that Holzman would not be offering him a recording contract.  That was the bad news.  The good news was that there was another label interested in signing him.  Selwood had also been working as the business manager of highly esteemed disc jockey John Peel, and the pair had just established their own company, Dandelion Records.  The letter went on to inquire if Midgley would like to join their roster of artists.  After accepting their proposition and completing the requisite paperwork, he returned to London the following month for two days of recording sessions at CBS Studios on Bond Street, which yielded a sufficient number of tracks for an album.  Although the material was of a uniformly high quality, one song in particular stood out as having the best potential to be released as a single.  With lyrics recalling the works of Mikhail Sholokov, the historically-themed “1917 Revolution” remains perhaps the best example of the “orchestral fullness” that his uniquely-tuned instrument could achieve.  “John Peel wasn’t in the studio when we recorded ‘1917 Revolution,’” Beau remembers,” but when he heard the playback with that touch of reverb, he was sure there were other instruments in the mix besides ‘Big Twelve.’  We only convinced him otherwise by doing a quick live performance.”
Following the release of his eponymous debut LP (complete with striking cover photography featuring a black-clad Midgley seated on the summit of Otley Chevin in the Yorkshire Dales) in August 1969, the singer-guitarist bore the distinction of being the first Dandelion artist to have a charting single, the aforementioned “1917 Revolution,” which reached the number one position on the charts in Lebanon – of all places – toward the end of the year.  Although the song also received a significant amount of airplay on BBC Radio One and Radio Luxembourg – in addition to the album being played in its entirety by Radio Hilversum in the Netherlands – it did not duplicate its commercial success in the more conventional markets of these countries.  Nevertheless, Beau’s music generated sufficient interest to warrant publicity-generating performances at smaller venues on his home turf as well as larger-scale events including an international folk festival at the Theatre Royal in York and what he describes as a “particularly weird affair at the ICA Gallery in London.”   Perhaps the most illustrious of these promotional shows, however, was a concert at Amsterdam’s famed Paradiso Club in 1970, which also included Dandelion stablemates Bridget St. John and Medicine Head.
Back in the UK, plans were underway for a second album.  Selwood approached Midgley with an idea to record him accompanied by a backing band on the follow-up effort, Creation.  Enter the newly-signed The Way We Live, a duo consisting of guitarist Jim Milne and drummer Steve Clayton.  A seemingly odd combination at first glance, the three musicians nonetheless quickly meshed after their introduction in early 1971, and their compatibility helped create a unique work that combined folk, rock, and avant-garde elements.  Beau elaborates on the recording process:  “Creation was markedly different, though again we recorded quite quickly; to be precise, over three days at Hollick & Taylor Studio in Birmingham.  I played my Harmony twelve-string.  Jim used a Gibson SG as his main instrument and a home-built bass.  Steve used his Ludwig kit.  Everything was done live – either just me on four of the songs, or with The Way We Live on the rest.  While I was doing my solo pieces, they were in the control room.  There had to be some overdubbing of course; there were only the three of us around!  I overlaid clavioline on ‘April Meteor’ and Farfisa organ on the title track.  Jim dubbed his acoustic lead on ‘Spider’ and also second guitar on ‘Release.’  Jim’s wah-wah guitar on ‘Ferris Street’ was also overdubbed, as was that monumental lead solo on ‘Silence Returns.’”
Released in June 1971, Creation took some listeners by surprise with its unusual mix of musical ingredients, even if the LP was a logical next step in Midgley’s development.  With the record’s different approach in mind, Peel and Selwood suggested that he change his performing name to something that was more in accord with its harder-edged sound.  Ultimately, they decided upon using his two middle names, and Dandelion had themselves a new recording artist in the person of John Trevor.  Under the guise of this latest alter ego, Midgley continued his work in the studio, both in a solo capacity and with the accompaniment of the band formerly known as The Way We Live, who had recently been rechristened as Tractor.  They completed an album with a working title of High Mass, but the only track to see the light of day at the time was “Sky Dance.”  As fate would have it, this song appeared on There Is Some Fun Going Forward, a 1972 sampler that ended up being Dandelion’s final release.  The demise of such a nurturing label might have been a death blow to the creativity of some musicians.  In the case of Christopher John Trevor Midgley, however, the contrary proved true.
Unlike many of his associates, he was not a musician who made his living strictly from performing and selling records.  Midgley, in fact, had been working at more prosaic day jobs ever since completing school in 1962.   Two years later, the Halifax Building Society (the British equivalent to an American savings and loan association) offered him a position, and this financial institution continued to employ him until his retirement in 1996.  Despite being relocated and taking on increased professional commitments after Dandelion’s dissolution, the singer-guitarist always made the time to continue with his artistic pursuits by performing at local folk clubs and hosting programs on BBC Radio Sheffield.  In terms of songwriting, the first half of the 1970s was Midgley’s most prolific period, with nearly 400 compositions to his credit at the decade’s midpoint.  It was at this juncture that he returned to the studio to record material for another album, Twelve Strings to the Beau.  Although the LP remained unreleased, these sessions from 1975 yielded “The Roses of Eyam,” which became his best-known song and a modern-day UK folk classic by virtue of Roy Bailey’s live and recorded interpretations. 
While taking stock of the balancing act between his career and music, Midgley remarks, “Oh, I’m lucky.  I’ve had total freedom!  No-one’s ever said to me, ‘Come up with a hit or we drop you!’  The roar of the greasepaint has never been important.  I’m so pleased when people like my work, but audience reaction isn’t the reason I’m here.  I was never in it for the sex and drugs; only the rock ’n’ roll!  Music has been my therapy.  It’s helped me rationalize who and what I am, even when I had to appear to be something very different.  I’ve used music much more than it’s used me.”
“I have few illusions,” he continues.  “I’ve done the 9 to 5, seen – lived – the pressures and hypocrisies of business and commerce.  During my working life I helped many people buy their own homes and become more prosperous.  I also threw people out of their homes.  All this concentrates the mind.  I don’t need poxy political idealists telling me there are absolute rights and absolute wrongs.  There aren’t!  The Halifax could have made life very difficult.  There were rules which said employees weren’t allowed to have any other occupation.  Well, OK, a few people did little things on the side, but what I was doing was out there in the full glare of publicity.  But so long as I did the job, they were happy.  They did what they could do to make things work out for me.  I somehow doubt that could happen today!  Everything was helped, of course, by the fact that I was Beau or John Trevor, and not Trevor Midgley.  Beau could appear on TV in his black sweater toting a twelve-string guitar whilst conventionally-suited Trevor happily and anonymously carried on earning his daily crust. But the media can be mischievous! I was once doing a live Q&A on BBC Radio Sheffield’s lunchtime magazine program on the weighty subject of mortgage interest rates or some such. We finished the chat, the audience was still in place, and the presenter decided to wind up the program with a John Trevor song we’d put down a few weeks earlier in their studios. No one said a word!”
The 1990s marked the beginning of a resurgence of interest in his recordings.  Since then, both of Beau’s albums have been reissued twice, with the current editions featuring numerous bonus tracks of contemporary and later material.  Edge of the Dark, released in 2009, collects previously-unavailable songs recorded between 1972 and 1985, while this year’s The Way It Was vinyl LP shows that his newer compositions continue to feature the inimitable lyrics and overall timeless quality that have made Midgley such a distinctive musician.
These days, when not busy in his home recording studio, he devotes himself to Web-related projects such as a page devoted to the complete recorded works of singer Dame Clara Butt, which is but one small part of his own engrossing and informative site.  He has also written a definitive book on Bob Dylan’s bootleg CDs as well as co-authoring a musical on the life of Andy Warhol with old friend Steve Clayton from Tractor.  First and foremost, however, Beau-John Trevor-Trevor Midgley will always identify himself as a musician:  “What’s so bizarre is I’ve released more material in my sixties than I did in my twenties.  Interesting times – and they’re not over yet.  Watch this space…”

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