BETTER LATE THAN NEVER - IAIN MATTHEWS COMES OF AGE
by Peter Grainger
Was there ever a voice as pure as that of Iain Matthews? The solo singer-songwriter, who also graced psych-popsters Pyramid, early Fairport Convention, Matthews Southern Comfort, Plainsong and the short-lived Hi-Fi, has rounded third base
in his lengthy career, sprinting towards the home-run he has always held the talent and promise to deliver. After releasing more than a hundred albums, currently Matthews is still at it, promoting a new memoir “Thro’ My Eyes” with an accompanying
hand-picked double CD compilation; then there’s “Orphans and Outcasts”, a four-disc set of demos, outtakes and other sumptuous rarities AND a brand-spanking new CD “Fake Tan”, recorded with a young Americana-styled band of Norwegians called The
Salmon Smokers. All this activity in the last two years, and this after the busiest decade of his musical life, recording and touring with revamped line-ups of both Plainsong and Matthews Southern Comfort as well as creating a slew of solo records,
almost entirely written by himself.
Matthews got a first taste of his awaited fate in the UK in 1966 with a pop trio called Pyramid; they recorded a couple of catchy singles for Deram, backed by studio stalwarts like guitarist John ‘Mahavishnu’ McLaughlin, bassist John Paul Jones, and
THE go-to-piano-player-for-hire, Nicky Hopkins, produced by Denny Cordell of Procol Harum and Joe Cocker fame. Just prior to Pyramid, Matthews had recorded a song with The Moody Blues, but it never saw the light of day. Not a bad start, eh? One of those
songs, “Me About You”, can be found on “Orphans and Outcasts”, featuring Matthews first lead vocal on record; it is a bit stiff, perhaps too perfectly annunciated, but his soon-to-be trade-mark choir-boy harmonies, show just how greatly he was influenced
by The Hollies and The Byrds, providing a tantalizing taster of greater things to come.
Matthews’ tenure in Fairport from late 1967 to early ‘69 was sadly short-lived; eventually his love of contemporary American music ran counter to the British folk traditions his band-mates began leaning into with ever greater force, especially after Sandy
Denny arrived. But early Fairport’s best known song, “Meet On The Ledge”, written by Richard Thompson, literally ‘sings’ because of Matthews winsome vocal duet with Denny. His turn on the late Emmitt Rhode’s “Time Will Show The Wiser” and his own “Book Song”
showed the Americana direction he would soon follow.
Matthews has long had the gift of knowing a good song when he hears one, so is it no wonder then that he became known more as an interpreter of others work, rather than a songwriter in his right. While in Fairport, he helped introduce many to Bob Dylan,
Tim Hardin, Gene Clark, Richard Farina, Tim Buckley, Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. In fact, Matthews biggest hit came in 1970, when with a new band of English back-up players dubbed ‘Southern Comfort’, he topped singles charts world-wide
with Mitchell’s “Woodstock”. Also on “Outcasts and Orphans” is the original 8-track demo of that song, remarkably similar to what we all heard on the radio, yet it chimes with multiple layers of acoustic guitars, barely audible in the finished version. In his
version, Matthews landed in a marvellous middle-ground between Mitchell’s own dirge-like delivery and CSNY’s over-the-top rock cop, but the demo is more immediate and spirited.
Matthews continues to salute the song, often saving “Woodstock” to end of his shows. As he announced on-stage recently, “It’s a song that has helped prolong my career beyond my wildest dreams and I feel it my duty to honour it whenever I can.” These days, Matthews
will stretch the song out to ten minutes or more.
As the 70s dawned, Matthews got very busy. He fronted Southern Comfort for three albums in just over a year—and then followed that in short order with three more solo albums in the UK. He employed many friends from the folk-rock fraternity. Including members of
Fairport, Fotheringay and Quiver. While promoting those new solo records, Matthews formed a live band with the fiery twin leads of guitarists Richard Thompson and Andy Roberts. With the tour over, Matthews thought this unit was so strong, they should stay together
and form yet another new group. Thompson bowed out to go solo himself, so Matthews and Roberts auditioned others to create Plainsong. This proved to be one of the best ensembles of Matthews’ career.
With multi-instrumentalist newcomers Dave Richards and Bob Ronga in tow, Matthews and Roberts began writing and rehearsing for what became one of the great unsung folk-rock records of them all—Plainsong’s “In Search of Amelia Earhart”. Through his connections
with former Fairport producer Joe Boyd, Plainsong were signed to the American label, Elektra, which Boyd had worked for when he first came to the UK in 1966. Elektra was the home of many acts Matthews admired, including The Doors, Love and Tim Buckley. The album
had several songs about the mysterious disappearance of Amelia Earhart—the First Lady of the Air-- who fell off the radar in the South Pacific in 1937, while taking reconnaissance photos of Japanese expansion for the U.S. Government. Both Roberts and Matthews read
the book “The Search For Amelia Earhart” by CBS newsman Fred Goerner. For six years, beginning in 1960, Goerner investigated an exhausting number of leads on numerous Pacific islands, trying to piece together what happened on the doomed flight. The book inspired my
own pursuit of journalism, with Goerner setting a fine example of the doggedness it takes to uncover often tragic truths. The book still sits proudly on the shelf beside me as I write.
Plainsong was blessed with four singers, so their harmonies were as rich as those by Crosby, Stills and Nash. They all played numerous instruments too, augmented by a few stray Fairporters for good measure. Although 3 of the 4 members were British, Plainsong
proudly played what can only be called ‘Americana’, long before the term was coined. It was equal parts folk, rock, and country. As Matthews says in the “Orphans And Outcasts” liner notes, “We were fascinated by the developing American scene in 1972 and wanted
to hear everything going. Andy was a big Commander Cody buff and I loved Gene Clark. As a band, we were all in love with the writing of Paul Siebel and wore the grooves off Nils Lofgren’s ‘Grin’ album. Mix that all in with a dollop of bluegrass, some Merle Haggard
and The Grateful Dead and you basically have Plainsong.”
They were proud of their acapella arrangements too; an unreleased demo of the old gospel hymn “I’ll Fly Away” rivals the full band version on Plainsong debut (an album that the Velvet Underground’s Lou Reed went on record to say he loved). The demo can be found
among four other unreleased Plainsong performances on “Orphans And Outcasts”, including Gene Clark’s “Spanish Guitar”, which Bob Dylan as ranked as one of the best songs ever written. Why Matthews never put this out until now, borders on the criminal.
Like so many of Matthews’ musical partnerships, the life of the original lineup of Plainsong—as good as they were—proved to be brief. Elektra was starting up a country-rock subsidiary called Countryside Records with Mike Nesmith of The Monkees. Elektra boss
Jac Holzman wooed Matthews over to the states to make two rootsy records, “Valley Hi” and “Somedays You Eat The Bear”. Matthews got to work with the hottest session guys at the time, including L.A.’s Wrecking Crew and James Taylor’s back-up band, The Section. As
this was happening, Elektra Records was swallowed up by Asylum—the new boutique label owned by music maverick David Geffen. Asylum was the home of the Eagles, Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell. Geffen favoured the artists he’d signed, so after the merger, former
Elektra artists like Tim Buckley, Judy Collins and Matthews himself, were hanging on tenterhooks, waiting to be dropped. More label-hopping would follow. That—and death-by-distribution (or the lack thereof)—would be the professional plague that haunted Matthews
for the rest of his recording career. It was a sombre cover of Richard Thompson’s “Poor Ditching Boy” that cinched Matthews’ fate. I’d like to think the music mogul blew it by dropping Matthews; if he had persevered and promoted Matthews properly, he might well
have become another Geffen golden goose. That Thompson cover can be found among the “Orphans And Outcasts” too.
Matthews move to America in the mid-70s for three more solo albums, displayed his track record yet again, for recognizing song-writing talent; you can add Neil Young, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Gram Parsons, Jesse Winchester, Paul Siebel, Steely Dan, and Hall
& Oates to the list of artists he covered. The Eagles owe Matthews an incredible debt for pilfering his arrangements of both Tom Waits “Ol ‘55” and the acapella powerhouse of Steve Young’s “Seven Bridges Road”, which Frey, Henley and the boys often opened their
shows with throughout the rest of the 70s and beyond.
This brings me to the point where Matthews seemingly sported a sad sort of unseemly inferiority, about his own worth as a song-writer. As a long-time fan, I often wondered why he came so late to the game of recording albums entirely of his own tunes. By this time,
many of the songs Matthews had written, were melodic and memorable, like “If You Saw Thro’ My Eyes”, “Tigers Will Survive”, “Even The Guiding Light” and “Rhythm Of The West”; it begs the question, why it took so long to be confident enough to release records with
only his own compositions? Certainly he was learning his craft by studying from the best, but something else was holding him back. I feel after Fairport, Matthews simply submerged himself in in the comfort of group situations, cherry-picking cover tunes for certainty
and safety, only including his own songs intermittently. Instead of flying solo right from the start after leaving the Fairport nest, he formed bands instead, like Matthews Southern Comfort and Plainsong. Over the decades, he has returned to these outfits, partly
for nostalgia but also for that safety-in-numbers feeling; it meant the discomfort of being the ‘big boss man’ could be alleviated, if not avoided altogether. Some of this can be explained by the chip Matthews had on his shoulder since childhood; he admits in his
memoir “Thro’ My Eyes”, that the man he called ‘Dad’, was not his real father, who treated him much differently than the brothers he found out later were only half-brothers. It is only now, in his mid-70s, that Matthews has finally heaved that morose mindset away,
becoming a full-fledged all-rounder, and his art is that much better for it. All one needs to hear are recent discs like “The Art of Obscurity” and “In The Now” to recognize just how fully realized Matthews has become.
Many originals from these recent releases can be found on the new memoir CD compilation, “Thro’ My Eyes”. Each of the 23 self-penned songs relates to a key experience or period in his life; thematically they are lined up in chronological fashion, to be enjoyed as
you read the book, even though some songs were written recently about his childhood, teen years and early career, while others are old performances that appear where they should in the story of his life. The CD set is complementary with the deluxe edition of the
memoir and provides a fascinating aural backdrop as you read.
The Cherry Red Records boxset “Orphans and Outcasts” is like an alternate recording history running along a parallel line to the one we know; it shows Matthews’ unerring refined taste in both the quality song-writing of others as well as his own, with only a few
missteps along the way. The box set does contain some glossy, over-produced shlock, from a time when Matthews was pressured by others to produce hits. I wasn’t a fan of some of his late 70s and 80s efforts like his other top ten single, “Shake It”. Like many
heritage artists of the late 60s and early 70s, Matthews found himself adrift in the 80s, even giving up his own career for a few years to be a talent scout for Island Records (working closely with The Long Ryders and Rain Parade, but regretfully passing on
Soundgarden) and the New Age label Windham Hill (for whom he introduced Jane Siberry and eventually making his own dreamy album of Jules Shear covers “Walking A Changing Line” for the label in 1988). Moves from L.A. to Seattle (where the brief stint with Hi-Fi
occurred) onto Austin and eventually Amsterdam, resulting in even more label-hopping. Sadly, record companies just didn’t know what to do with Matthews most of the time.
It was after a rare appearance at Fairport’s annual weekend festival at Cropredy in 1986, when Matthews was encouraged by former Led Zeppelin singer, Robert Plant, to pick up the creative torch once more. More inspired covers followed by the likes of Peter Gabriel
and Prince, but the covers soon dwindled, replaced by originals of stunning strength. Take “Ballad of Gruene Hall” as an example. It is a confident, moving mind-movie from his time in Texas.
This brings us to today, with what Matthews says could be his final album. “Fake Tan”, recorded with relative youngsters, The Salmon Smokers, pays tribute to highlights from his long career. Matthews, long reputed to be the cover-artist-of-all-cover-artists,
has taken to covering his own covers and his own originals to boot! “Ballad of Gruene Hall” is redone as a sexy shuffle, with a huskier vocal. “Same Old Man” feels like it is being filtered through the mists of time, all wet and wispy, making it difficult to
know what is real and what is synthesized. “Reno Nevada”—an old jamming tune from the Fairport days-- is redone on echoed, treated piano instead of electric guitars, with a ghostly feel. “If You Saw Thro’ My Eyes”, originally played on solo piano, is given the
full band treatment with guitars aplenty, losing none of its wistfulness.
“Woodstock” is here too, albeit it with a punchier bottom than what he did with it in 1970, embroidered with delicate electronica, with what sounds like the swishing of backwards cymbals. Despite it being the utmost in contemporary production, it still retains
the kind of timelessness that his earliest solo recordings did. If this really is Matthews’ last record, he’s going out in high-falootin’, salutin’ style. As he says in his memoir, “I’ve been fortunate to have a life in music. Music is in my blood, it motivates
me. Music is my mistress.” Given the number of times this artist has hung up his guitars, it is unlikely this is really the last music Ian Matthews will make. Long may he run.