Words by Grey Malkin
Now here is a curious, and wonderful, discovery. From an era of creative and whimsical psych and acid inflected folk, and of private press albums that now command thousands of pounds for their scratchy yet deeply inventive takes on the musical counterculture, appears a first-time release for an early 70’s sixth form, all female folk-rock ensemble, Saphron. Lost amongst boxes in various attics for nigh on half a century, these tapes were eventually tracked down by the Shagrat label’s Nigel Cross and carefully curated into the band’s debut album, first recorded by one band member’s cousin on his reel-to-reel in his mother’s sitting room all those years ago. Saphron (or The Folk Group/Red Amber/Saffron – they never conclusively decided upon a name) consisted of five London Grammar School girls who had tentatively played some small scale shows in local churches and had enjoyed a short, local TV feature as a result, and who were clearly in thrall to the prog folk underground of the times (as well as more conventional cultural touchstones), covering and recording versions of songs by the likes of King Crimson, Lesley Duncan and America. ‘Red Amber’ is a testament to these influences, providing a mirror back to what it must have been like being a teenager in the early 70s, when phones were made from Bakelite and still connected to the wall by wires, and computers were mysterious entities the size of rooms. There is a naivete to the album, as you would expect from a band so young and still amateur, and this is further heightened by the relatively sparse arrangements of recorder, piano, violin and percussion; and yet this approach perfectly fits the album’s otherworldly, acid folk stylings, making its emotive resonance all the more direct, and enhancing the sense of uncovering a magical relic or finding lost treasure.
The album begins with the dynamic and percussive ‘Sovay’, a rendition of the traditional English folk song in which a young woman dresses as a highwayman to test her suitor’s commitment – will he surrender the ring that she gave him under threat of death? Saphron’s harmonised vocals are the driving and prominent force here, adding dramatic tension and flair to an already impassioned and spirited variation on the ballad. Startling in its sparse and steady power, the song feels like it has landed from another time, or another world, which of course in many ways is exactly the case. ‘Spider Web’ follows, a more conventional piece of chamber folk in the vein of early Marianne Faithfull or Julie Covington, a melancholy mix of finger picked acoustic guitar and voice, yet still as charming and bewitching. ‘Poor Old Michael’ then elevates things substantially and is where the album truly comes into its own; replete with echoing and haunted vocal harmonies, it builds to a transcendent chorus that has strong echoes of acts such as Sunforest, Trees and other more feted psych folk contemporaries – Saphron ably hold their own within that comparison or company. It is not clear if this is an original composition; if so, it is an incredible piece of work and, if not, the powerful arrangements and performance nonetheless bely the group’s young age. A dark and epically layered cover of ‘Sinner Man’, famously and previously interpreted by Nina Simone, again shows off the delicately interwoven and complex vocal harmonies of the group, which carry the melody above galloping percussion and wired, nervy guitar. ‘Daughter of Loneliness’ follows and by turn is a more hushed and reflective affair, not unlike a baroque folk version of the Shangri Las or Twinkle in its doomed splendour. Accomplishing much with the limited resources available to them (as well as being beautifully recorded, despite the album’s homemade nature there is a warm feel to proceedings with an air of natural reverb that practically bleeds sepia and a sense of the 1970s), it would have been an incredible loss had these recordings remained boxed away in a loft, unheard or unfound.
Next, a gorgeous, skeletal interpretation of Lesley Duncan’s ‘Love Song’ reveals the wracked sorrow behind the more embellished and recognised popular version, with Saphron’s take tangibly more despairing and spectral. This quietened and choral approach continues with ‘Shepherd Man’, a late-night lament with a slight, ominous edge that works in the same stylistic manner that much of the best acid folk does; by taking what is essentially a folk song, but then imbuing this with something occult or counter cultural, and compositionally unusual replete with odd, shadowy corners. A similarly pensive and witchy version of King Crimson’s ‘Moonchild’ claims the song as Saphron’s own, with shimmering chimes and a vocal performance that sounds like it has been transmitted or conjured from across a particularly bleak and windswept moor, before the album concludes with a bold and relatively straight cover of America’s ‘A Horse With No Name’, which would have been a recent chart hit at the time of recording. Aficionados of bands such as Mellow Candle, Heron and Trader Horne will be in their element here, it makes one wonder what Saphron would have gone on to achieve had they not gone their separate ways (presumably as sixth form ended, and the individual members chose different paths). The subtle yet effective arrangements and combined performances here are mature, carefully constructed and deserve wider recognition and acknowledgement. Indeed, you can easily imagine ‘Red Amber’ being a renowned psych folk classic, feted and reissued on specialist labels such as Sunbeam or Cherry Red; this is genuinely a lost (and found) jewel.
It is therefore no wild claim to suggest that ‘Red Amber’ now joins a small club of obscure, odd but compelling acid folk albums that also number Perry Leopold’s ‘Christian Lucifer’, the debuts by Caedmon, Midwinter and Stone Angel or the recently excavated songs of Sibylle Baier; all are recordings that may have been made in more homespun circumstances and had limited releases or success (or were not even noticed in their day), but are imbued with a strong sense of the times, and a creative allure that cannot be replicated by big budget productions or expensive recording studios. ‘Red Amber’ stands as a thing of beauty in and of itself, and its peculiar history and provenance only adds to its enchanted quality.
Available on vinyl from Feeding Tube Records, complete with extensive sleeve notes/history and photographs, as well as with labels/badges designed by the infamous Savage Pencil.