Daughters of Loneliness

Red Amber

This is a wonderful record of songs sung by four women (Janice Lock, Kim Fuller, Lesley Smith and Jill Tipping) with beautiful singing voices. It happens to have been recorded in the early 1970s, a time perhaps when there was still such a thing as good craft in song-writing, and old-fashioned ideas like honesty, meaning, and expression in the way that you sing, rather than the distanced irony so many contemporary singers have chosen to cultivate. It also happens to have been released jointly on labels associated with Byron Coley (Forced Exposure, The Wire, Mojo) and Nigel Cross (Bucketfull Of Brains), a winning combination of expert curatorial talents.

I’ll have to declare a bias up front. One of the members of Saphron was Jill Tipping, a personal friend of mine of many years standing. I was fortunate to be handed a copy by her personally over the Easter hols in 2023, and even got one of the Saphron badge collectibles drawn by her husband Savage Pencil. I know that Jill is a talented singer and musician, able to sight-read music, perform complex madrigals and shape-note singing, but I honestly had no idea about this music from her past. The story of that past history has been told in some detail elsewhere; will the reader forgive me if I don’t reiterate all of it? The takeaways for me are that the group were talented amateurs, they never signed a record deal and never had a recording contract. Come to that they never made an album; this LP has been assembled from demo tapes recorded at the time, so they’re of “home recording” quality. And when I say amateurs, I mean that they did it for the love of singing; their talent was recognised to the extent that they appeared on The New Soundscape on TV, part of ILEA’s Educational Television Service (which is when the cover photograph was taken).

For these “showcase” recordings, made on a reel-to-reel tape recorder in the front room of Janice’s aunt, Saphron drew from their repertoire of English folk music, blues, gospel, cover versions of pop songs and prog rock songs; any list that includes Steeleye Span, Pentangle, and King Crimson is bound to get my excitement nodes lighting up like a Christmas tree. Likewise any listener who wishes to hark back to, say, 1971 as a lost golden age in UK music history will cherish this time-capsule from that more innocent period. But leaving aside check-boxes and shopping lists, anyone with a pair of ears will be enchanted by these singing voices as soon as the stylus touches the grooves.

Why? Well, the arrangements and harmonies are beautiful, but more than that it’s the sound of honesty, of emotional truth, of a simplicity of intent and a true clarity of expression. There’s vulnerability, loneliness, even down to the occasional hesitancies in the singing. We don’t get this kind of directness very often on vocal recordings, of whatever genre. The voice of Barry Dransfield, for example: “In every performance there is clarity of intention and execution,” wrote Shirley Collins in 2005, in a sentence that could easily apply to Saphron too. Listen to his version of ‘Be My Friend’, where there’s not a single wasted syllable nor an ounce of sentimentality to distract the listener. I find the same qualities here on this record. It’s grand to hear them take on blues and gospel traditions, and what they do to simplify King Crimson’s ‘Moon Child’ is exemplary; but it’s when you get to ‘Love Song’, their version of the famed Lesley Duncan tune, that is the moment when I start weeping.

If I can be pompous enough to attempt a proposition, it’s that Saphron were very lucky to have escaped the press and grind of the “music machine” factory. If nothing else, a professional recording studio with expensive microphones and – shudder – a producer sitting behind the console might have tended to diminish the honesty of the music, not enhance it. What we get here on this record is the unvarnished, “pure” version of what this group were capable of, and for a glorious 30 minutes, it shines. Jill Tipping has an interest in “naive” painting and Outsider art; would it be too much of a stretch to suggest that here is a “naive” record, made by Outsiders? Outsiders because they didn’t quite pass through the doors of “professionalism”, naive because they stayed true to their simple vision of how the group should sound. However….given that Jill cites a long list of gigs, record collections, radio shows and other musical tastes / influences in the insert, this is all just wishful thinking on my part. My model doesn’t really hold up, but I hope you get the spirit of what I’m trying to say.

So let’s put it another way: the title Red Amber (one of the possible names of the group, because they couldn’t settle on one) suggests they never got the “green light” from a Gus Dudgeon or a Joe Boyd. What if they had? Imagine seeing a full-page advert in Melody Maker for a record released on Island or Transatlantic, recorded at Morgan Studios, and hopefully with the repertoire widened to include covers of Incredible String Band, Magna Carta, The Strawbs…