A Voyage Through Jack the Lad's Albums

From the opening haunting riff of "Boilermaker Blues" to the last wobbly chord of "Take Some Time", Jack the Lad drove a meat truck through the barn door of Electric Folk music, and placed themselves indelibly on the map of 70's Festival Rock.

The debut album "It's... Jack the Lad" is full of commercial sounding pop songs and traditional arrangement folk music that somehow brings an atmosphere of progressive musicians blending their roots with their own commercial creativity to produce something rather special.

It's not that surprising, when you look at their background; Laidlaw, Cowe, Clements, had just split from Lindisfarne, one of the most influential and loved acoustic acts of the early 70's, with the latter two showing occasionally that Alan Hull was not the only songwriter in the group. Add to that the ebullience and cheek of Billy Mitchell, and you had yourself a band who hit the ground running.

Boilermaker Blues is typical of Jack the Lad, distinctive Simon Cowe electric and acoustic guitars, banjos, fiddles, frenetic Laidlaw drumming, and an understated vocal delivery. The introduction of a horn section on "Plain Dealing" and the progressive "Fast Lane Driver" add tremendous value to the layers of guitars and other instruments already there. Both these tracks also enlist the help of a keyboard rather than obligatory guitar solo and this adds variety and unexpected twists in the plot. By the time we get to the end of Side One with "Turning into Winter" we are grateful for the change of pace and soft delivery of a slow haunting ballad on the passing of summer.

Side Two of "It's Jack the Lad" swings in with one of JTL's most commercial offerings, "Why can't I be satisfied" and then with Si Cowe's songs adding a further dimension to the album, Maddy Prior (yes, she of "All around my hat" fame!) and the band going almost jazz with the other (containing a preposterous impersonation of Louis Armstrong). The band then move back to their roots with an acoustic song "Promised Land" followed by a medley of traditional folk dance instrumentals. "Lying on the water" closes the album, and by the time the 40 minutes are up, you feel you have had your money's worth.

That was that. Rod Clements left, and was replaced by two musicians, Walter Fairbairn and Phil Murray and a specific change of direction. The band decided to move further down the traditional folk route, presumably getting them more work on the folk festival circuit. The change in sound from the previous album is so vast that you'd think it was a different band. There is the odd self-penned gem amongst a plethora of obscure Trad Arr offerings. "3rd Millenium" is a Si Cowe classic showing his wit and wisdom and "The Wurm" is Billy Mitchell attempting to do Jackanory to music, a epic tale of dragons witch queens and heroes.

Rough Diamonds was the third album, and the band moved back towards the sound of the first album, still peppering the album with Trad Arr songs, but also leaning towards more conventional pop songs. Mitchell's Rocking Chair is a great album opener with the unmistakable harmonica of Ray "Jacka" Jackson. This album is certainly Si Cowe's finest hour, with a number of quality songs, the pick of which are "The Gardener of Eden" a song of such delightful imagery and excellent production, it really ought to have been a single. 'Jackie Lusive" is a real oddball song about card games, but to be frank, by side two of album three, you kinda expect the unexpected anyway.

And so to Jackpot, my favourite of all the albums. Again there was a conscious effort, it seems to me, to deepen the sound of the band. It's as if United Artists grabbed hold of them and pulled them kicking and screaming out of a freezing field at a hippy festival and sat them down in a warm studio and said 'Make a good pop record, you know you can'.

So they did, and with Mitchell left to shoulder the songwriting with Cowe having left, there are sprinkles of all of his musical influences throughout the album. Jacka pops up again on the Andy Fairweather-Low cover, "8 Ton Crazy", but it's the variety of song styles and the quality of production that wins me over. The tongue in cheek "Heavy Rock" of Amsterdam, the fiddler's elbow in Walter's drop and the 70's pop sound of "We'll give you the roll". And that's only side one.

Side two is a triumph. "Trinidad", an excellent pop song about a man who steals money and flies off into the sunset is cheeky and even has added steel drums. "The Tender" is the most remarkable piece of folk rock I have ever heard (Amen to that! - Webmaster). Blending banjo, heavy guitar riffs and vocals delivered in such a strong Geordie accent, you think you've tuned into "When the Boat Comes In" The pace and drive of the arrangement is quite astounding.

The side continues to flow with "You You You", a slush love ballad, heavily influenced by the Beatles with an unexpected violin solo and spooky calling vocals at the end. "Let it be Me" should have been written by the Everly Brothers - and then, the ideal song to end an album, and, as it turned out, the studio career of Jack The Lad. "Take Some Time" is a retrospective glance back at the good old days sung with such nostalgia and given a real full production sound that is brings a tear to the eye.

There you have it, Jack The Lad in less than a thousand words, and I didn't even mention "Home Sweet Home", now what the hell was that all about?

Stuart Mills, September 2001