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Monday, January 7, 2008

Plainsong - In Search Of Amelia Earhart

posted by on January 7 at 14:28 PM


As discussed in an earlier post, by 1972 Ian Matthews played in four different incarnations within three years. He’d left Fairport Convention for his own band, Ian Matthews Southern Comfort, put out two solo LPs for Vertigo Records, and then started the band Plainsong.

It is probably fair to say that Plainsong - In Search Of Amelia Earhart is the pinnacle of his work in the ’70s. Working with producer Sandy Robertson (Hard Meat, Steeleye Span, Shirley Collins), Ian and bandmates, notably Andy Roberts who shared vocals on the album ,created an a-typical British folk album conceived around the idea of the legends surrounding Amelia Earhart and her supposed demise.


Matthews had read a book by Fred Goerner hypothesizing that Earhart and her flying companion Frederick Noon had crashed around the Japanese held Marshall Island area and been taken prisoner by the Japanese on Saipan, in the Marianas, in 1937.

Their plane had supposedly been outfitted with aerial cameras and had a bigger fuel tank than anyone outside of the US government knew. After being grilled by Japanese interrogators Earhart would perish of dysentery, and Noonan was beheaded by the Japanese.


…a grave containing remains of a man and a woman were excavated by the US military on Saipan after the war in the Pacific was over. These bodies were thought to be Earhart and Noonan. Earhart’s plane Electra was found in a hangar on the island in 1945. On the highest orders it was rolled out, drenched in gasoline and burnt.

That the American government in 1937 knew of Amelia and Fred Noonan’s capture, but withheld the true story from the public to avoid political embarrassment, and an early conflict with the Japanese in the Pacific for which they were unprepared.

Not all of the songs on the album are directly about Amelia Earhart. But the album carries that somber, mellow tone that so much great folk music of the early ’70s was in touch with. Many of the songs are about seeing and reaching for light, whether they be the light of day or the light of death. So in a way the album is more about the way people felt about, cared about and thought about Amelia Earhart and her death. That she is still considered a heroine of aviation and a distinctly american hero keeps the mystery of what happened to her in the greater cultural imagination.


Matthews and mates’ album does a great job of melding the more roots style of American folk with his rockier British folk sound on the album, even including a southern gospel tune, “I’ll Fly Away.” While Matthews has five originals on the album, they all sound perfectly in tune with the covers the band performs.

I think the best cover on the album is of Judy Henske’s “Raider.” Matthews brings a distinctly British folk vibe to this American’s gothic folk tune. It is a near perfect British/American acid folk creation.

Had Plainsong truly lasted as a band, their’s no doubt they’d be known as something akin to the British Eagles. But alas, someone’s drinking problem (just whose is never mentioned) got in the way, the band argued, broke up, and never toured the album or made another.

In Search Of Amelia Earhart is all we had to go on, until 2002 when the CD with the full album, previously unreleased demos, and work for a second album that was never issued was released.

This album is a truly great find, search for it and you’ll be rewarded.

A few samples can be found here.

Much thanks to David at Jive Time who loaned me his personal, pristine, and near-mint copy for the photos.

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I LOVE this record, I found it a few months ago. So good. It's amazing how many of the "lost gems" from the 60s/70s are actually worth listening to - the cream didn't always rise to the top, or the market was just too crowded or something. That Alan Stivell record you mentioned the other week is really great too - pretty "virtuoso" but that's not always a bad thing.

Have you heard Dorothy Ashby? I found a record by her called the Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby that blew my brains out - it's like, pastoral-ish jazz harp w/ amazing Japanese koto playing (both by Ms. Ashby), weird cosmic-religious lyrics, AND these crazyyyy soul beats and basslines. And sonically it's all incredible - those perfect loose 70's drum sounds and a really clean and present vocal w/ some reverb. Every song sounds like something the RZA would sample and have a huge hit with, but in this cool semi-"psychedelic" (boo to that word) context. I was pretty shocked!

Posted by Pecknold | January 7, 2008 5:38 PM

That's a neatlooking album cover, almost like Corianton's artwork inside Every Scene Needs a Center.

My hands down fave person from Fairport Convention is Sandy Denny.
Cool post Terry, very grunge.

Posted by GrMkLSk | January 7, 2008 7:35 PM

Have you heard Dorothy Ashby?

Yes. Also check out Afro-Harping.

"psychedelic" (boo to that word)

Nah, it's a perfectly fine word. Frequent misuse has cheapened it, but that's not the word's fault.

I was pretty shocked!

Ashby was on Cadet Records--the epitome of psychedelic soul (see Rotary Connection, Ramsey Lewis, Charles Stepney, Phil Upchurch). Get on down to Jive Time or Dusty Groove and catch up, son.

Posted by segal | January 7, 2008 7:58 PM

Yeah! Cool cover. Terry always has the best album art.

Posted by trent moorman | January 7, 2008 11:12 PM

definitely digging this music. way to mine the gold, terry.

im prepping a story on citay, a band from SF playing the sunset on jan 18. "battle of evermore" by led zep + "fearless" by pink floyd=citay. 70s folk meets 70s metal in a modern studio w a lot of psychedelics. its very california and very, very good.

somehow all this stuff seems related to me.

Posted by jz | January 8, 2008 2:56 PM

Well, I just got put in my place.

Posted by Pecknold | January 8, 2008 3:00 PM

Nice Terry! I actually never knew the narrative suggestion of that record until you mentioned it, and have gotten it back out since and enjoyed it that much more.

Posted by Dougsf | January 8, 2008 4:31 PM

I love pretty much everything this guy has recorded, even the soft rock stuff like "Shake It" which kinda seems creepy when you hear it in the soundtrack for Little Darlings. Any idea why he changed his name to Iain Matthews later on?
Also, dig this:

Posted by Eric Shea | January 8, 2008 4:43 PM

I apologize for the somewhat grouchy tone of my post, Robin. Most of it was written in the spirit of what I hope was helpful guidance.

Posted by segal | January 8, 2008 8:21 PM

Excellent album. Also try Pure & Crooked (1990) and Go For Broke (1976).

I once sat by Mathews at a Sonics game, '79. Nice guy. He lived in Seattle from '78 to '84 and played local bars in the power-pop band Hi Fi with David Surkamp (Pavlov's Dog) and Bruce Hazen, most recently with Billy Moon.

Posted by jiff | January 9, 2008 10:41 AM

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