Every Record Store Day there are a flood of releases that no one in their right mind needs to own. There are a dozen or so scattered titles that are necessary portions of back catalog that just get a bit overshadowed and would have ideally made great reissues given some space to be discussed on their own. Then there are the real gems. More often than not these real gems get pushed aside as well. They’re often reissues or records that appeal to a select group of collectors and aren’t flashy enough to get pre-release press. Sometimes, though, the best part of this is you can pick them up in regular distro dives once the dust settles. A few of these found some critical reception – Brett Smiley’s Sunset Tower reissue on What’s Your Rupture, the essential Alice Clark eponymous LP on We Want Sounds. This year, however one of the gems that slipped by softly came from Munster Records. The label issued an almost complete overview of the collaborative works of Peter Howell & John Fernando to little or no fanfare.
Name’s not ringing any bells? That’s not completely surprising. The pair of Sussex folk songwriters penned a series of LPs from ’68 – ’74 that were as astonishing in their quality as they were in their scarcity. They began their musical journey in high school with a summarily rag tag band The 3 Musketeers before moving on to work with a theater company – The Ditchling Players. With that outfit, the band wound up scoring their production of Alice Through the Looking Glass. For a modest, hometown production, the pair delivered a complex and nuanced take that left a demand for the record to be issued on its own. From there they’d apply the same principles to a small film Tomorrow Comes Today with a soundtrack of lush instrumental and psychedelic folk under their own names.
Following this period the pair would work their compositions into three distinct groups, each a one-off that has sustained a litany of followers. Agincourt saw the pair bring vocalist Lee Menelaus into the fold, and her voice gives the album some of the spectacularly enchanting qualities that make the album endure. The record, like the works of Curt Boettcher and Gary Usher incorporates more than just folk or psychedelia, it has a lush, dreamy quality that’s worthy of its holy grail status among collectors. This was followed closely by Ithaca, which hinges more on Fernando’s songwriting and follows the more conceptual works of The Moody Blues. The record is still folk per se, but also incorporates a more prog-leaning vision that’s missing from all of their works, save perhaps the Alice soundtrack. The record puts Howell more into a producer roll which would point him towards his eventual direction at the BBC.
The collection also includes the pair’s final project, Friends, which was produced while Howell worked as a studio manager for the BBC. The record has a more folk-rock edge and introduced singer Ruth Cubbin to their stable and while it just barely inches into their catalog due to it originally being scrapped in the test pressing phases, it has accrued a large following in later years due to independent issues of the record. The release seems to downplay the importance of this record accordingly, which I find to be a bit of an oversight. Frankly I find the Friends record to be some of the pair’s strongest material, especially the standout “Lonely Road,” which seems like both a track that Wes Anderson needs to get his hands on and build a scene around and a song that predicts the Beta Band some 30 years early. The release includes this material on the bonus CD and its a shame that they give so much space to Tomorrow Comes Today (which the band themselves thought their weakest material and Alice, which is interesting more in historical context alone.
However, this is a collection that’s more than deserved. There have been some issues of these albums on their own but most are long out of print themselves, from around 2004. So, for an introductory set and as a course correction to history, this is an essential collection of psych-folk and lush ’60 prog that should sit on the shelf of any collector even remotely interested in the genres. There are copies still widely available through shops and distro, and the double LP + CD set comes with some excellent liner notes that give insight to the pairs history and influences.
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