Back in 2018, I reviewed Iain Matthews’ excellent autobiography, “Thro’ My Eyes” and, in many ways, “In Search of Plainsong” can be seen as a companion to that book. When Iain Matthews wrote his memoir he turned to writer and broadcaster Ian Clayton, for help in bringing it all together. Now it’s author Clayton’s turn to step into the spotlight. With this book, he shines a forensic light on one of the great bands, and great enigmas, of the English Folk Rock boom of the early 70s and, with the keen eye of a musical historian, shows exactly why Plainsong were such an important band at the time and, equally, why they couldn’t stay together beyond their one, near perfect, studio recording.
Let’s turn attention to the record in question for a moment. For those that know it, and it is an album that should be in every discerning listener’s collection, “In Search of Amelia Earhart” is one of the outstanding albums of the early 1970s. As quoted on the book’s cover, a young Cameron Crowe wrote of it, “In Search of Amelia Earhart is, and let us not mince words, the finest display of gentle, sometimes liltingly so, English folksiness and rockabilly to surface in a long while”. This book is being published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the album’s release and it’s a timely reminder of just what a good band Plainsong were.
Officially formed early in 1972, though they first convened in the December of the previous year, Plainsong brought together four superb musicians and singers in an almost magical combination of talents. Instigated by Iain Matthews and musical close friend, Andy Roberts, it also included David Richards, a London born guitarist and keyboard player, and New Yorker Bobby Ronga, a guitar and bass player who had spent time in New York’s songwriting factories. All four were in their mid-twenties and all had been around the music scene since their teens. Iain Matthews had, of course, seen success with Fairport Convention and then with his own Matthews Southern Comfort, while Andy Roberts was the musical genius behind one of John Peel’s favourite acts at the time, Liverpool Scene, alongside established poet, Adrian Henri.
Ian Clayton has written the book with the full support and co-operation of the remaining members of the band and many of the more prominent figures around them, including Manager and Producer, Sandy Roberton, who has since passed away. There are also some nice, early comments from Richard Thompson, who always seems to have remained reasonably close to Matthews; but it’s really Matthews and Roberts who supply the bulk of the input to this book and that seems only fitting, since it really is their story above everyone else’s.
As detailed in this book, which really is a fascinating read, the band came together and recorded and released an album that was widely critically acclaimed, and yet, within a matter of months of the album’s release, the band would fall apart and in some acrimony that saw most of the members at each other throats at one point or another. The story of Plainsong is one of the great tragedies of the British music scene of the seventies; a band that had the potential to be a British CSN&Y ended up on the scrapheap because of poor management, fragile egos and record company shenanigans. All too familiar ingredients in such a story but played out particularly sadly in the case of Plainsong. Credit needs to go to the author for getting Matthews and Roberts to open up to such an extensive degree about the parts they played in the failure of the band. Matthews, in particular, is almost brutally honest about his own failings and the fragility of his ego that led to his insecurity within the band and his willingness to be convinced his better future lay in quitting the band for a solo career in the U.S. A decision he would bitterly regret in later years, “A lot of it was my fault. It was who I was at the time, selfish and driven. I knew that I was the cash cow for a number of people, but I didn’t always consider how what I did might affect the others. At that time, I left behind a trail of tears wherever I went. When it came to Plainsong, you just knew that it wasn’t going to end well.”
Both Matthews and Roberts do a fair bit of soul-searching through the course of this book and one of the heart-warming aspects of the whole story is that they do, eventually, rescue and rekindle their friendship. Sandy Roberton, the manager of Andy Roberts and Producer and de facto manager of the band, though not of Iain Matthews, comes across as someone who tried to keep the band on track but, by his own admission, often turned a blind eye to the personality problems that emerged in the band, usually as a result of promoters and press referring to the band as ‘Iain Matthews and Plainsong’. That’s significant because what this book highlights is the damage that can be done to a group of musicians by the wrong type of management and record company interference. Iain Matthews was the main ‘name’ in Plainsong and this skewed the dynamic of the whole band. On paper, and in the minds of the musicians themselves, at least originally, they were four musicians working together to create a whole but, in the minds of the record companies involved, Iain Matthews was where the money lay. This attitude extended to the management around the band. Matthews was managed by songwriting duo Alan Blaikley and Ken Howard who, being from the older school of 60s pop bands, wanted him to pursue a solo career and not dilute his (and, more importantly, their) earnings by working with other, less known, musicians as equal partners. Sandy Roberton fell into management almost by mistake and was, perhaps, naïve about some of the more avaricious aspects of the industry.
In writing this book, Ian Clayton has shed a lot of light on why and how a band that promised so much would, ultimately, fall so far short of what they could, and should, have achieved. It’s an often sad tale, with a surprisingly positive conclusion in the survival of the friendship between Matthews and Roberts and it’s a fitting tribute to that one released Plainsong album, from the original band, that celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. The book’s publication also coincides with the release of a new box set from Cherry Red records, “Following Amelia – The 1972 Recordings And More”, released on the 21st October.
The book itself is available from all the usual outlets but there’s also a deluxe edition, available directly from the publishers, Route Books (route-online.com) which includes a copy of the book signed by the author and a CD of a very good live concert recording of Plainsong, recorded at Folk Fairport in Amsterdam, in April 1972, when the band were at their height, along with some bonus tracks recorded by Matthews and Roberts at a later date.
Ian Clayton has written the book this outstanding band have always deserved. The full story of what happened to Amelia Earhart may never be fully resolved but “In Search of Plainsong” finally dispels the myths and mysteries around one of the great bands of English Folk Rock.
A great review of a great book, Rick. We can only hope it prompts potential listeners to search out ‘In Search Of Amelia Earhart’. Ian Clayton effectively brings out the potential damage band member and management’s inappropriate attitudes can do to even the most talented group of musicians. A lesson for anyone who is a member of or a manager of a band.