Does the name Mervyn Prestwick mean anything to you? How about Martyn Francis? Or Simon Breckenridge? No?
Well, upon first turning over my copy of Al Stewart’s second album from 1969, Love Chronicles, the first names to pop out at me were Jimmy Page, legendary guitarist of Led Zeppelin; Ashley Hutchings, legendary bass player from many an acid-folk band of the ’60s and ’70s (Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span); and last but not least, John Wood, the engineer who’s most closely linked to Joe Boyd and all the Witchseason roster of musicians (Nick Drake, Vashti Bunyai, Fairport…).
So who were the other players on the album? Well according to the discography at alstewart.com those players were Richard Thompson (Marvyn Prestwick), Simon Nicol (Simon Breckenridge), and Martin Lamble (Martyn Francis) all members of Fairport Convention, who, being under contract with Polydor records at the time, recorded the album with Stewart under pseudonyms.
Is it any good? Well, yes and no. The album, written apparently in a time of depression for Stewart, chronicles various love affairs in his short time as a lothario in the music scene. Side A contains four such songs, including one, “Old Compton Street Blues,” which was sung while Stewart had a terrible cold. The style of the songwriting is very personal, nearly too personal, but draws you into Al’s world of girls and women who he both uses and is used by.
The lyrics to “The Ballad of Mary Foster” are a prime example of this. A song in two “acts,” the first act’s focus is on David Foster, who comes home from work only to hear excuses from his wife about why she’s “too tired” from “doing dishes, patching pants, and making wishes.” The next verse finds the couple sending their young son, Peter, to his first day at school. Turning to his wife he thinks:
Wedding rings come with strings but love depends on the little things.
“Is that still really you?”
Is there anything time can’t do?
David Foster gets a promotion and sends the young son to public school (that’s the British term for “private” school) and hopes for the day his son becomes a magistrate.
Act two is Mary Foster’s story, in which she’s raised in London during the war, learning how to be a woman, while her mother doesn’t notice “for we’d heard daddy was missing.” Mary grows up, has an affair with a musician from which Peter is concieved. The musician leaves her with the baby, and one day, in the park she meets David, whom she marries. She promises herself she’ll repay his kindness, by doing his dishes, cooking his supper, and mending his clothes. But in the end she can’t find the love she needs, and:
There are lines on her face and her hair is a mess
And the light in her eyes it grows colder
In the morning there’s nothing will change, ah but yes
I will be just a little bit older.
Side B contains only two songs, the short and edgy “You Should Have Listened to Al” and the epic 18-minute title cut, notorious for its use of the word “fucking” (a first for a mainstream artist in 1969), in which Al tries to wrap up what he’s learned about life and love so far. It’s not entirely successful. I found myself walking in and out of the room while listening, thinking that there’s not a lot you can learn from a twentysomething folk singer. But the album has a ton of charm, and the lyrics, bombastic as they can be, are pretty great and try to show relevance with nods to the time they were written.
Melody Maker dubbed it Best Folk Album of 1969, which is saying something as this is the year of Fairport’s Unhalfbricking and Liege and Lief, Pentangle’s Sweet Child, The Incredible String Band’s Changing Horses, and Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left.
I have to agree with critics of the album that the music is “of the utmost limpness” (Scotsman) and “its poppy slickness doesn’t seem entirely suited to the subject matter of the songs” (London Oz).
But lyrically, Stewart was on top of his game and that is really what makes this album special, and in the end, timeless.
Check out a couple of samples at my blog here.