Mick Softley – Songs For Swingin’ Survivors (on ‘Eve Folk Recordings’) (1965/2014) review

January 18, 2015

Mick Softley – Songs For Swingin’ Survivors (on ‘Eve Folk Recordings’) (1965/2014) review

   Mick Softley’s
rare first album has been reissued as part of the double CD Eve Folk Recordings
(Retro D597) on the wide-lens RPM label via Cherry Red Records. Since 1991, RPM
have steadily issued rare psych such as The Artwoods, Bo Street Runners, The Mindbenders,
and The Five Day Week Straw People. Eve Productions (Peter Eden and Geoff
Stephens) first signed Donovan when supporting Cops And Robbers in Southend in
1964 but he left less than a year later (they won the court-case but only a
derisory pay-off). Rumour has it that he recorded a 10-track demo tape,
including ‘Catch The Wind’, but no mention of it here. They went on to produce
or manage The Fingers, credited by some—rightly or wrongly—as Britain’s first
psych band, GT Moore, Bill Fay (a parallel to Softley), Duffy Power, and The
Crotched Doughnut Ring, but surprisingly missed the local Paramounts, later
called Procol Harum. They also wrote hits for Manfred Mann, The Hollies,
Herman’s Hermits and many more.
    Mick Softley soon
after adapted his distinctive brand of folk—a bohemian mix of protest, travel
and love in one of the boldest voices of the era—into a rare brand of
folk-psych cross-over, mostly solo live but with a band in the studio. This
development has been surprisingly overlooked by some psych archivists since.
From folk’s boom year of 1965, even his title Songs For Swinging
—issued on EMI’s Columbia as part of a four-album deal with
Eve—suggests the new coming scene. This reissue features the first-ever British
anti-Vietnam protest song, ‘The War Drags On’, and Donovan covering his
‘Goldwatch Blues’ (about the exploitative workplace years before the Careers
Opportunities and Zero-Hour so-called Contract), lifted without permission from
his five-year older guitar tutor. It also features Donovan’s A-sides ‘Catch The
Wind’ and ‘Colours’, the traditional folk-singer Bob Davenport with The Rakes,
and the only LP by Vernon Haddock’s Jubilee Lovelies, a rare English jugband
years before Mungo Jerry and McGuiness Flint popularised the style (Justin
Hayward actually started the same way, before Moody Blues fame).
    Softley lived the
renegade-maverick life from the beginning. His mother came from Irish Catholic
farming roots, his father from generations of East Anglian tinker ancestry but
worked as a mechanical engineer. She qualified as a nurse and also assisted the
famous Pankhurst family, the pioneers of the British Women’s Suffragette
movement. (Young Michael started his first stamp collection thanks to them,
even from the Emperor of Ethiopia, but swapped it precipitously for a tuck-shop
drink.) Perhaps his life-long volatile sensitivity to injustice had its roots
here. His first school was run by nuns but he preferred to ramble in his “playground”,
the local Epping Forest, though he did take up the trombone. An avid swimmer,
the lifeguards at the pool worked as club bouncers in the evening so he was
able to get to see Ken Collier and skiffle. Jazz was superseded by blues,
however, when he bought 78s by Big Bill Broonzy which completely changed his
attitude to music. He bought a guitar on mail-order and taught himself to play.
    Jesuit College in
Tottenham didn’t result in the priesthood—he was more interested in girls he
later recalled. Probably under his father’s guidance, he began an engineering
apprenticeship but was sacked after a year due to absence. A brief stint in a
factory ended when spraining his wrist while clocking in, so at 18, inspired by
James Joyce and the Beatniks, he took his £50 savings and a friend to explore
Northern Spain and France on a motorbike in 1959. It broke down in Barcelona,
so they hitched to the mountains, and by Christmas were in Paris. Staying above
the Mistral book shop in the Latin Quarter, he met Burroughs and Corso (soon
tired of, he says) and “real people” among the buskers such as Alex Campbell,
Clive Palmer (before founding the Incredible String Band), Wizz Jones and
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. A shifting British colony was earning a crust there that
way, like Roy Harper, Ralph McTell, Davy Graham and Bert Jansch.         
  In Paris, 1960.
    After three years
on the Continent, he opened his own club at The Spinning Wheel in Hemel
Hempstead, later featured in the Pie In The Sky T.V. series. The raucous, tiny
basement was open to the small hours, its barrel-raised stage hosting Donovan
and a young Maddy Prior before Steeleye Span. There was quite a local scene:
just up the road in St. Albans were two clubs, one preferring traditional folk
and the other open to visiting American bluesmen like Dr. Ross (one of
Softley’s favourites then was the one-man band Jesse ‘Lone Cat’ Fuller), as
well as being within striking distance of the burgeoning London clubs. His
friend of that time, Terry Cox, recently recalls Softley’s “rambling ways and
roving eye…his biting political songs [and] anarchic attitude were the bench
   But Softley was
looking further afield than the folk “cult”, as he describes it on his debut’s
uncompromising sleeve-notes (written by himself), with his cover shot on the
bleak, smouldering Two Tree Island rubbish tip. It tells of the hirsute 24
year-old’s refusal to accept that individual responsibility should be
subjugated to any organisation, political of course but also suggestive of the
music scene generally. Forty years later he said that one of his songs was
stolen and recorded by another who issued him with a contract as if he’d
already agreed to them recording it. No royalties came from the first album,
only from Donovan recording two of his songs for his albums and the charting
Dave Berry’s B-side ‘Walk Walk, Talk Talk’.
    Alongside three
covers (Pete Seeger, Billie Holiday, Woody Guthrie) there are suggestions here
of his later psych style. His distinctive rich-toned voice and guitar style
alternating between percussive and intricate finger-picking mixes protest with
travels and love: ‘Jeannie’ is a melancholy letter written by a drug-addict
who’d left him. As Arash Torabi puts it on the Louderthanwar blog-site. “While
the Beatles were hinting at drug use in their songs then denying it when
questioned, Mick Softley was singing the hope that a lover would find a man not
addicted to cocaine”.  
    A welcome bonus is
the single released on Immediate a few weeks later, in November 1965: ‘I’m So
Confused’ (a dig at organised religion, later reprised on his third CBS album
in 1972) backed with the bluesy ‘She’s My Girl’. It’s his first material with a
band, taking him further away from his origins into the electric music of the
time. (It later appeared on the Virgin label’s The Immediate Story in 1980.)
The style was continued a year later with the Summer Suns for CBS: ‘Am I The
Red One’ / ‘That’s Not My Kind Of Love’, the A-side a pure swirling psych
classic. He must have had some clout as he produced it himself; certainly he
had a higher profile in his recording days than later icons like Jackson C.
Frank or Nick Drake. He was independent enough to record what he liked, he
fondly remembers. He had a market-stall selling foam plastic, but a wine-making
business was a disaster: one day he locked up the shop and never returned.
    He briefly joined
his friend Mac Macleod in the locally-based Soft Cloud, before the latter went
to form the Danish psych heavyweights Hurdy Gurdy (he is the Hurdy Gurdy man on
Donovan’s song). It also featured Jim Radford, later of Argent, on bass. While
staying with his two children on Donovan’s Scottish island in 1969, Donovan
encouraged him to record again, so there seems no animosity. Softley often
played the flower-child’s ‘Poke At The Pope’ live, as well as uproarious pop
hits of the time mischorded on purpose; his gigs were full of laughs and
spilled beer.  Derek Everett, who he knew
from the Columbia recording, offered the singer a full-control contract for
three CBS albums, this time with the well-known producer Tony Cox. Previously,
he says, recording hadn’t been a positive experience: “a lot of hells and no
heavens, a terrifying amount of personal pain,” but this proved different. CBS
hoped he would be the English Bob Dylan to take Donovan’s title.
    He was backed by a
stellar cast of two dozen musicians including Richard Thompson, Lesley Duncan,
Fotheringay, Trees, and Gringo among others, the producer also contributing
piano and synthesizer. As adept at penning pop tunes as he was folk songs, the
albums sit well with the period in a variety of styles from folk, rock, psych,
Eastern with its sitars to jazz and even skiffle. He toured in a beaten-up van
(his “fornicatorium” after gigs!) featured on the first CBS album’s cover; it
must have been parked round the corner when I met him, somewhat bemused, in a
tiny olde-worlde pub on Wimbledon Common around that time. He was like a human
internet, spreading news about music, festivals, gypsy gatherings and much
more. Music financed his lifestyle, that was its point, he told Record Mirror
in an interview titled ‘Philosophy Of The Road’. His base was still near Hemel
Hempstead, parking on a vacant plot in sleepy Flaunden or sharing a cottage in
the winter with friends.
     Sessions on Sunrise (1970) were strictly
professional. He told Zigzag, in its inaugural edition in April 1971, that he
had nothing against drugs and alcohol but not during the recording: “I’ve been
through all that stuff, and I know for certain that any form of art is a
natural gift, it’s not something you can induce by drugs, alcohol or anything
else—they won’t make you any more artistic”. Softley always saw music as a
by-product of his reading and writing: “I like to think of myself as a
craftsman, particularly when working with words—writing is one thing I hold in
the highest respect”. Always adventurous, he is never introspective like Nick
Drake, more a beguiling innocence like outsider literature with its barb in the
    Period vignettes
appear among the saxophones, sitars, strings and moog. The mellow ‘Eagle’ and
‘Waterfall’ (also on the CBS sampler Together in 1971), the rocking ‘You Go
Your Way’ with a fine solo reminiscent of Gary Moore’s on Dr. Strangely
Strange’s second album; a trippy ‘Caravan’; a varied instrument exploration
amounting to a psychedelic-folk epic with surprising twists (‘Ship’), jazzy
social-commentary (‘If You’re Not Part Of the Solution You Must Be Part Of The
Problem’), closing with the over-eight-minute sitar-swirl of ‘Love Colours’.
The most famous song is probably ‘Time Machine’ about reincarnation, a spacy 45
issued in picture sleeve in various countries and on the popular double CBS
sampler Rock Buster (1970); it was apparently in the set-list of Soft Cloud
too. Softley also featured on the French live compilation C’est La Fête à
    In December he
told Melody Maker that his mostly new songs were to include blues on his next
album, which is closer to him than folk. The interview is his usual blend of
surprising frankness and modesty. “I do a lot of my writing after walking in
the wood,” written quite quickly but takes at least a couple of months deciding
if they’re any good. “I can’t think of anyone I like or admire in the world of
pop. Maybe Richie Havens. The rest are incredibly sick, just singing about
themselves in a life that just ain’t real. The pop business is a bloody great
cardboard pyramid, and they live in it…It’s so banal it’s absurd!” It was the
heyday of singer-songwriters like Cat Stevens, Jackson Browne and James Taylor,
but in some ways the spotlight of their huge popularity overshadowed more
demanding contemporaries like Roy Harper, John Martyn, and Kevin Coyne, who all
contain some elements found in the equally original Softley.
    The following
year’s Street Singer is more down to earth than its predecessor. Here his
‘Goldwatch Blues’ finds its natural home, a more moving rendition. A little
more jazz and even ragtime too surfaces among the stories of ‘Going Down The
Road’, ‘People Talkin’ ‘Bout Hard Times’, ‘I Seen Good Times, I Seen Bad’, and
‘Gypsy’ featuring the harmonica of Steve Hayton of Daddy Longlegs. ‘New Day,
New Way’ is another long closer, an experimental mix of psych-folk and
progressive with backing vocals by Doris Troy, an uplifting climax to the
    The final CBS
album, Any Mother Doesn’t Grumble (1972), was the most lavish with decorated
lyrics and a beautiful illustrated inner-sleeve. It returns to the style and
atmosphere of Sunrise, with elements of the Incredible String Band in their
children’s lullaby mode (‘Hey Little Flower’; ‘If Wishes Were Horses’),
bird-like flute on ‘Lady Willow’, worldly wisdom (‘Sing While You Can’;
‘Traveller’s Song’) and a reprise for his Immediate single ‘I’m So Confused’.
But there is something else here, first hinted on ‘Sunrise’, which a few
reviewers picked up on: “A majestic feel, creating images of some awe-inspiring
vastness”, which is not going too far. ‘From The Land Of The Crab’ and ‘Great
Wall Of Cathy’ would have been huge if done a few years earlier, an intense
beauty that suggests we’re illicitly overhearing someone’s soul, also felt in
‘Have You Ever Really Seen The Stars’. He had one of the most strident but also
melodic voices of the era, and his emotional storytelling of experiences and
insights can carry a song to its own place that couldn’t be imagined to be by
someone else. It achieves a rare high point here. The delivery isn’t always
pure freakbeat—the styles always surprise—but the sentiments and ‘feel’ are of
the same background.
    This period saw
him at the forefront: the CBS samplers but also Super Pop Session #3 in
Germany; regular appearances at the famous Friars Club (headlining its first
birthday bash over Wishbone Ash and Roger Ruskin Spear) and on Radio One’s
Sounds Of The Seventies; the French T.V. show Grande Affiche; sharing top-bill
at one of the first Roskilde Festivals in Denmark which still continues today;
and an interview in the first-ever ZigZag magazine. In Disc (June 1972) it’s
pointed out that he appeared a couple of times on the Steve Miller Band tour
(and also Mott the Hoople), and he says he prefers that experience to folk
gigs. He compares being the opening act to a road-sweeper, clearing the ground
for the main act, “a similar kind of interesting job”! He likes the idea of an
electric band backing his acoustic, but the format has to have structural
harmony between the people to make it work musically. He returned for two vinyl
LPs and then a cassette on Doll Records, a Swiss company where his French knowledge
shows: Capital (1976, recorded in Germany and mastered in Holland), Mensa
(1978), and War Memorials (1985), often overlooked by fans and criminally never
released on CD.
    So Mick Softley’s
last recording was a cassette, symbolically and in the spirit of the
Phenix/Moore mockdoc on Youtube with its suitable schoolboy misspellings. Or
even Peter Frame’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Landmarks of the UK and Ireland (1999).
Occasionally a letter surfaces, signed Michael F.P. Softley “the very same as
Mick Softley”. He was living with travellers when the County Court made it
illegal for them to travel public highways and told to leave. (How Britain
still needs a Shelley, Cobbett or Tom Paine!) He moved to Northern Ireland just
before War Memorials, perhaps partly because of his mother’s background
(recently researching his genealogy he discovered that a grandfather had been a
missionary in London’s East London, writing to the society for further
details). He prefers not to live in England, where neighbours don’t speak to each
other for 20 years but want to know your business. Occasionally he performed at
the Belfast Folk Festival.
    Twenty years later
the equally-hirsute free-spirit told a local interviewer that he was
indifferent to locals’ criticism, riding around Enniskillen on a bike because
didn’t wish to pay tax for a car. He still didn’t like authority (the police
for example “but not against law and order”), or what happened in Iraq (“a war
about oil and money”). “I cannot tolerate fascists. America is fast becoming a
fascist state with a small-minded fascist puppet in charge”. He wouldn’t be
surprised if they did the September 11th atrocity themselves to gain world
leverage. Softley became interested in science—he greatly admires Einstein—and
spends most of his time gardening and writing on his four computers, publishing
three volumes of poetry: Etruscan Stone; Phonetic Values; Naked In Antarctica.
Then, sadly, three years ago he had a mild stroke while on his bicycle and now
lives in a nursing home. Friends have set up a social media site for worldwide
fans to keep in touch.
    He always lived
modestly and was self-effacing. When a journalist asked him at the height of
his fame what he thought his IQ was, he replied “Not that much different from a
tree”. Living the bohemian life of his songs and never wavering from an
anarchic anti-establishment viewpoint, he epitomises the spirit of the 60s. Rob
Young’s Electric Eden in 2010 calls him “one of the most unjustly forgotten
figures in the British 60s folk boom”, but neglected would be a better term as
he remains a cult figure far and wide. He appears on that author’s soundtrack,
but never saw himself as part of that somewhat insular world. Nigel Cross notes
in the first re-release of Softley’s debut (Hux, 2003) that he was “far too
original to be categorised and barcoded by the faceless suits that run the big
record companies”.
    The maverick is
integral not only to that boom but also what it became in its various offshoots
including psych, perhaps a contributing factor to why CBS’s hope of a British
Dylan failed. Record Collector (Jan. 2009) rates his single ‘Am I The Red One’
as #5 in their 100 greatest UK psych records, and regarding this reissue Kris
Needs there believes that “Anything that gives recognition (and hopefully
royalties) to the criminally overlooked Mick Softley has to be worthwhile”. It
is surely long overdue to put his later output onto CD too, and a best-of
compilation would compare well with anyone anywhere from the 60s. Mick Softley
was always original, at no matter what personal cost, and his music displays
the same originality deserving of wider appreciation. 
Review made by Brian R. Banks/2015
© Copyright http://psychedelicbaby.blogspot.com/2015
One Comment
  1. Rob

    Many, great thanks for your very interesting article about Mick Softley.
    The first time I met him, I was busking the streets of Haarlem (Holland) and singing his songs as well. All of a sudden a long-grey-haired, long bearded man stood in front of me, asking whose song I just sang. I recognized him from the cover of "Any mother doesn't grumble", so I answered: "It's yours!". He mentioned that apparently I was making good money. I asked if he doesn't busk anymore. He said he was working in a chips factory to pay for repair of his van.
    "Do you do gigs sometimes?" "Not too many" he answered.
    As I was doing gigs myself, organising everything myself, I proposed to look for gigs for him as well. He agreed. So I managed to organise several evenings where I played the supporting act and he did the second and main part of the concert. I loved (and still love) his music a lot at was very pleased to hear and see him doing his thing 'live'.
    After some time a misunderstanding put an end to our 'collaboration' and I lost sight of him, never seen him ever since.
    Shortly after that I found myself in Konstanz, Germany, still busking singing also his songs. There I met Clemens, a German guy who had lived in Freiburg in Breisgau a know Mick personally. He was delighted to hear sometimes playing songs, I found a few interesting gigs through him.
    Now - many years later- I'm still a busker, mainly playing and singing in Switzerland during the fair season. From November until May I live in Bali, in a tiny village, there I film a lot and don't make a lot of music.
    That's all for today. If interested, you are welcome to visit my youtbe.com/robvanwely 6 youtbe.com/robvanwelyAtBali channel
    https://youtu.be/UDzGjqkkdr0 (Magdalene's Song).

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *