Moyshe McStiff

Released 1972 on Polydor Folk Mill
Reviewed by volehead, 15/05/2004ce

Clive Palmer is one of the great unsung figures in British folk, and the two albums he made with C.O.B. are two of the most mysterious and moving ever made on this island.

After leaving The Incredible String Band (having contributed the wonderful 'Empty Pocket Blues' to their 1966 debut), recording a still-unreleased LP with Wizz Jones in 1967 and briefly joining the Famous Jug Band (his masterful 'A Leaf Must Fall' is the indisputable highlight of their 1969 debut, 'Sunshine Possibilities'), in 1970 he drifted down to Cornwall to have a little think.

There he fell in with fellow musicians 'Whispering' Mick Bennett and 'Little' John Bidwell - and, perhaps more importantly, Ralph McTell. McTell was under the management of Jo Lustig, who was keen for him to be a producer as well as performer. Therefore he was allowed to make an LP with his friends, who (at Lustig's behest) called themselves Clive's Original Band, the better to capitalise on Palmer's String Band connection - a galling imposition he'd presumably also had to suffer in the Famous Jug Band.

The name was particularly inappropriate given the democratic nature of their music - on their magnificnt debut, 'Spirit of Love', the songs are co-credited and they all sing and swap instruments from song to song. 'Spirit of Love' appeared on the orange CBS label in 1971, with an attractive gatefold sleeve, yet flopped. Unfazed, the group returned to Cornwall after touring with the Pentangle. There, over the summer of 1971, they wrote and rehearsed their masterpiece, 'Moyshe McStiff and the Tartan Lancers of the Sacred Heart', an album so densely referential and emotionally naked that you can never quite pin down what it's about or tire of it.

Despite the band's moniker, the album is dominated by the extraordinary heartfelt and raw singing of Mick Bennett, surely one of the most overlooked musicians in the history of modern folk. His impassioned delivery lends a tragic urgency to the songs, supported by note-perfect musicianship, that makes it absolutely compelling from start to finish. The songs are, as I have said, somewhat inscrutable - from the portentous, Old Testamental majesty of 'Lion of Judah' to the simple beauty of 'O Bright-Eyed One', the fragility of 'Solomon's Song' to the joyous refrain of 'Chains of Love' and the unbelievably moving 'Martha and Mary', it sustains an oddly medieval, resigned and sorrowful atmosphere without ever resolving itself into anything easily categorisable.

'Moyshe McStiff...' appeared on the bizarre 'Polydor Folk Mill' imprint in 1972 (somehow linked to the TV show 'Pebble Mill', it appears) in an extravagant, fragile and rather kitsch gatefold sleeve depicting St. George slaying the dragon. It too failed to sell, and is now one of the rarest and most prized artefacts of the 'acid-folk' subgenre, selling for around £300 in nice shape. Its title, incidentally, jokingly refers to Bennett's mixed Jewish and Scottish parentage - nothing much to analyse there.

'Moyshe McStiff' has been interpreted as a song-cycle concerning the emotional and spiritual trials of a Crusader, but this is certainly not clear-cut. Undoubtedly there is a serious and profound spirituality pervading it, but it's too disparate to be dismissed as a straight 'concept album'. Suffice it to say, though, that I have never heard an album of such rich and moving resignation, and I've never played it to anyone without their instantly capitulating.

Shamefully, despite many holding it in unique awe, it has never legitimately appeared on CD. Palmer is currently touring with the ISB, but Bidwell and Bennett seem to have vanished. If anyone knows where to find them, please let me know - I would dearly like to speak to them as a follow-up to my interview with Palmer in the last issue of Ptolemaic Terrascope.

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