Pressing only 99 copies of an album back in 1972 to avoid paying taxes would seem a bit on the extreme side of music distribution, even for a relatively obscure British folk act, but that is exactly what Tony Caro & John (aka Tony Dore, Caroline Clark, and John Clark) did when their debut All On the First Day was released. Blending pastoral folk and gentle psychedelics, they sketched out their own template for what seemed, at the time at least, to be a thoroughly mined section of music. There was no shortage of bands they would have considered musical peers. Fairport Convention had ridden the highs of their past few albums, and Pentangle were just experimental enough, though still traditionalists of a sort, to be liked by both the LSD-soaked crowds and the more mainstream folk attentists. So 99 copies it was then—plenty to place them alongside the ranks of experimental folk bands like The Incredible String Band and Pearls Before Swine. Granted, neither of those bands were British but I’d say the comparison still works.
Like most diehard DIY artists, Tony Caro & John were less concerned with the method of distribution and chart positions and more so single-mindedly obsessed with the music. Even for the time, All On the First Day was recorded simply. The band used Clark’s own 2-track Ferrograph recorder to set every song to tape; the album seemed created as far away from any label-affiliated studio as you can imagine. And it shows. The album had a calm, unadorned sound, which complimented the bands’ own adopted simplicity. Whether it’s the delicate flute on “Bye Bye I Love You” or fuzzed out electric guitar on opener “Forever and Ever,” these flourishes feel complimentary and never forced, never arbitrary. And what could have come across as fey—or simply seen as just another hippie folk album—became engulfed in folk history and known for its near cult status as a desirable, and wonderfully realized, slice of British folk.
Drag City seems to be making a concerted effort at shedding light on these kinds of overlooked releases, as they also recently re-issued the 70’s debut by folk band These Trails—and before that Red Hash by Gary Higgins—and so in a similar fashion, Tony Caro & John seem poised for a critical reassessment. And it’s long overdue. Indie darlings, Beach House, also covered their song “The Snowdon Song”—though it was given a different title—for their eponymous debut. The band was getting more exposure than they ever had in the previous 40 years.
But instead of reissuing All On the First Day, which would seem to be the logical choice, Drag City has compiled a series of rarities and outtakes from the sessions that produced that record and have released it as Blue Clouds. Sounding less like a collection of throwaways and more an in-depth introduction to the band—ala Way To Blue by Nick Drake—Blue Clouds manages to shed light on a forgotten band and makes a case for their relevance alongside notable British folk stewards like Richard Thompson and Bert Jansch.
From the opening chug of electric guitar on “Forever and Ever” to the flute accompaniment on follow-up “Bye Bye I Love You,” the band places one foot firmly on the traditionalist side of folk and one on the more varied, experimental side. There is no shortage of recognizable markers—Jackson C. Frank readily comes to mind—as the group rushes headlong through songs that probably have already soundtracked more than a few Wes Anderson dreams. The acoustic guitar and echo-laden vocals on “Sally Free and Easy” even remind me a bit of Frank’s “Blues Run the Game.” The album takes a left turn on “Where the Elephants Go to Die,” with its warbling electronics and apocalyptic lyrics. Lines like “this is where the apocalypse grows” seems to stand in stark contrast to the previously low-key folk songs that opened the album, but it definitely shows the band treads their musical path seriously.
And then there’s “Ton Ton Macoutes,” a searing mishmash of country rock, psych rock, and trilling synth ancestry. Blues harmonica and ragged guitar solos run wild, stop suddenly, and then pick up just as quickly. It’s almost eight minutes long, and I wish it went on for another eight minutes. It’s certainly one of the high points on an album with no shortage of memorable songs. Almost as a counter to “Ton Ton Macoutes,” the lovely ballad “Pretty Saro” utilizes graceful harmonies and an echoed acoustic guitar to maintain a sense of longing and heartfelt regret. Cribbing from Dylan, “Children of Plenty” makes liberal use of the blues to spout righteous indignation at society and to proclaim the need to “tear your order down.” The lyrics may be fairly dated but the sentiment never really changes and the band’s fervent passion never fails to impress.
Once again coasting through the forgotten ruins of civilization, “The Road To Avalon” sends scorching guitars and raucous vocals tearing across the desert in search of just one more person, one more commiserate soul. The elastic electronic touches on “Fountain of Snow” add a sense of strangeness to a song already steeped in the experimental aspects of folk. The closest musical relation would probably be “A Very Cellular Song” by The Incredible String Band. The album ends simply and somewhat curiously with “My Grandfather’s Clock,” a swinging shanty that details the associations between the singer’s grandfather, his youth, and the titular clock. Amid sounds of winding clocks, alarms, and a simply strummed guitar, our odd trip through the forgotten world of Tony Caro & John comes to an end. It seems that 99 copies may not have been enough after all.