Unless you've been living under a rock for the past few years, you'll know, ad nauseam, that after an unsuccessful career in late '60s folk-pop and despite being championed by everyone from Andrew Loog Oldham to Robert Kirby and the Incredible String Band, Vashti Bunyan retired from the music industry in 1970.
While she lived in blissful hippiedom on the Isle of Skye, across various seas her one and only album Just Another Diamond Day was slowly influencing an entire generation of singer-songwriters from Devandra Banhart to Joanne Newsom whose gentle, pop-tinged and string-drenched melodies would spawn entire genres of nu folk, folktronica, twisted folk ... even the Magic Numbers owe something of a debt to her.
When her new century musical progeny sought her out and welcomed her back into a mainstream ready to appreciate her, it seemed the music industry went wild. A female Nick Drake, alive and well and only too eager to give us new tunes, she was a folk-pop phoenix risen from the ashes of the Haight-Ashbury via Canterbury dream.
All well and good but, on the back of one unsuccessful 1970 album and a few equally unsuccessful 1960s singles, can she possibly warrant a 25-track, double CD package of singles, outtakes, demos and rarities? Remarkably, the answer is a resounding yes.
From CD 1's polished singles, released by Decca and Columbia and shelved by Immediate, through hi-quality unreleased demo tapes found in an attic by her brother John to the sparse, pared down acoustic demos that appear on CD 2, you may find it genuinely difficult to understand how, even when they had Bob Dylan to distract them, the counter-culture hippies of four decades ago could have tossed this music aside.
There are some genuinely amazing songs here, not least Girl's Song In Winter and 17 Pink Sugar Elephants. Their titles alone conjure up the scene. They also highlight perhaps the most important quality of Bunyan's work - there is a coldness about her music which is diametrically opposed to the summer sunshine that is meant to shine over folk.
Listen to the pained, spoken Leave Me at the beginning of the song of the same name, for a start. There is a creeping frost in Bunyan's music, a black dog of the soul at a time when youth culture was about to explode in a rainbow soaked psychedelic wonderland. And then remember that CD 2's demos were recorded in 1964 - 18 months before Rubber Soul was released. She had tuned in and dropped out years before the phrase even existed.
Keep that in your mind as you listen to this music. It look the record buying public the best part of 20 years to understand Nick Drake, and Vashti Bunyan had a 10-year head start on him. She was singing to people who had only just realised it was okay to have hair that covered their ears, and she was singing from the midnight of a winter that was at least ten years away.
Of course they had no chance of understanding her. Andrew Loog Oldham did, but he saw the potential in the Rolling Stones before anyone else did, too. Song titles such as Coldest Night of the Year, Don't Believe, Go Before The Dawn and Girl's Song In Winter were not made for the summer of love and certainly not for the spring leading into it. Just thank a combination of fate and the musical visionaries of today that they were kept on ice long enough not to melt away completely.
- Jenni Cole - Oct. 2007
Back before she recorded with Devandra and Joanna, before the remarkable resurrection of Diamond Day, even before her legendary late 60s horse-and-cart trek from London to the Isle of Skye, Vashti Bunyan was a figure from an older, weirder England: she was a would-be star at the very birth of British Pop.
This charming new compilation of lost singles and early demos makes plain what Bunyan has always insisted on: she wasn’t a pre-Raphaelite folk princess, or roving contemporary of Anne Briggs, but rather an aspiring singer-songwriter, an early, ambitious recruit to Andrew Loog Oldham’s “Industry of Human Happiness”, and, as photos from the time show, a dead ringer for Kate Nash. Maybe that’s not such an unlikely comparison: but while Nash in 2007 can take her sweet, strange, slightly gauche songs to the top of the charts, in 1965 Bunyan could only be a kind of singing doll, and ALO evidently saw her as the next Marianne Faithfull, setting her up with the title track, a winsome Jagger and Richards number.
The single failed, Oldham’s attention turned elsewhere, and Bunyan’s career faltered in the face of industry indifference. But this anthology, compiled from mouldering old acetates and tapes, rescues several songs that hint at the kind of pop writer she might have been, and show the beginnings of the singer who recorded 'Diamond Day'.
“Winter Is Blue”, an unreleased single from 1966, is an eerie, baroque number that might not be out of place on early Joni Mitchell album, while “Coldest Night Of The Year”, recorded with Immediate label mates Twice As Much, is a deliciously frosty British take on the Beach Boys. And the second disc, a whole set of 1964 demos, recorded straight through in an hour, reveal an oddly determined, genuinely peculiar talent. Now that Diamond Day inescapably rings out during every ad-break, perhaps, after a long detour, Vashti Bunyan has finally become the pop star she always meant to be.
- STEPHEN TROUSSÉ - Oct. 2007
Vashti Bunyan never regarded herself as a folk singer, and the release of Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind provides clear evidence for her case. This remarkably consistent two-disc set collects her early singles and demos, rare home recordings, and her first-ever recording session, (the tapes of which were recently discovered after 40 years in her brother’s shed and attic). Several of the songs here should have been massive pop hits, and there’s even a duet that could be mistaken for that extremely rare beast: a half-decent winner of the Eurovision Song Contest.
The undeniable purity of Bunyan’s voice and her use of imagery hewn from nature have led to the folk tag, and also to some people overlooking the darkness in her material. Anyone concentrating on the prettiness in this collection will miss themes of regret, death, contradiction, desire, revenge, freedom, defiance, and emotional numbness though the record does include some of the most superb humming ever recorded, (“Train Song”, “Find My Heart Again”).
The shoulda-been pop hits start with the Jagger/Richards-penned title track. Bouncy, sad and socially conscious in equal measure, it has the feel of Lee Hazelwood at his most sprightly. “I Want to Be Alone” strikes a poptastic balance somewhere between a Leonard Cohen lament and The Seekers’ “Georgy Girl”. The marvelous “Love Song” is a clever ode to aspects of a lover’s attraction (eyes, hands, hair) with a twist in the tale. It is mystifying that such high-quality singles were either unreleased or that they just flopped.
The quasi-Eurovision duet with Twice As Much on “Coldest Night of the Year” is an ever-so-slightly-steamy dialogue piece. It’s hard not to smirk as the male voice runs through a litany of reasons why he should be allowed to spend the night: “But I haven’t been well/ I might catch the flu/ Or a cold in my nose.” It’s no “Summer Nights”, but given the stellar arc of Bunyan’s fortunes it’s not too late for this track to become a Christmas smash. Also included here is the fabulous “I’d Like to Walk Around in Your Mind”, a song which, had it been done by Velvet Underground and Nico, would be considered a classic dark counterweight to the Summer of Love.
The second disc features Bunyan’s first ever recording session from 1964. She paid for an hour in a studio to make a demo and ran through 11 songs. I’m guessing the microphone was close to her mouth, as her guitar is sometimes so quiet that she seems to be singing unaccompanied. The material was mostly written when she was just 18 years old, and it’s impossible to know whether the gentleness in her quiet delivery or the assurance and sophistication of her lyrics reflects the real teenager. “Girl’s Song In Winter” is especially intriguing, due in part to our not knowing for sure if she refers to a dead lover or to their child. The sound quality of both discs is fine and the occasional crackle heard when listening via headphones is as exotically attractive as listening to the country blues on vinyl.
Many people are now aware of the story of Vashti Bunyan’s remarkable journey by horse and cart from swinging 1960s London to the Outer Hebrides. Disillusioned with her lack of success, she and her companion Robert planned to join a commune with Donovan. By the time they arrived two years later, he had already returned to the capital. Still, the songs she wrote along the way became her stunning debut album Just Another Diamond Day. Initially a commercial failure, its reputation as a lost legend made possible her extraordinary returns to recording and performing. After 30 years during which she did not pick up a guitar, (or even sing around the house), her songs and her voice retain a bone-chilling and spirit-warming power. But don’t take my word for it, go and hear her sing in person. You will never forget it.
The monochrome photograph on the cover shows Bunyan leaning against a wall on Lot’s Road, London. Her light-colored short coat and tights contrast with the dark brick wall and make her look like the statue that, in terms of musical output, she remained for three decades. While we’ll never know what would have been different if her dream of making the 1960s charts had come true, the opportunity to look back at these magical early shots at pop-stardom is a risk-free treat. Some songs can pass through generations like cultural DNA, and it is possible that, (unlike many of her disciples in the so-called psych-folk movement), the conviction and simplicity of Vashti Bunyan’s will assure she is still adored in 400 years. Just don’t call her a folk-singer.
- D.M. Edwards