C.O.B. – Spirit Of Love: Album Review

Welcome reissue of an acid-folk classic – featuring the Incredible String Band’s founder – Clive Palmer and C.O.B. explores the Spirit Of Love

Release Date:  23rd April 2021

Label: Bread and Wine Records/East Central One

Format: CD, Vinyl

1971 was, as At The Barrier has frequently remarked, a classic year for the long-playing record – a subject we will be exploring throughout this year as the great albums of 1971 all reach their Golden Jubilee. But not every album released during that momentous year will send you into paroxysms of nostalgia. Spirit of Love, the 1971 album from Clive Palmer’s C.O.B. can probably be better described as An Obscure Curio, rather than a solid-gold classic, but, for lovers of Clive’s extreme brand of acid folk, its 50th anniversary reissue is a cause for celebration.

If the name of Clive Palmer nudges your memory bubble at all, it’s probably because you are aware that he was the founder of the mighty Incredible String Band, way back in 1965; but his contribution to the more esoteric fringes of what can be loosely branded as “folk” began long before that momentous event, and continued sporadically – right up until the day he left us in 2014.  An early student of the banjo, he started to make a name for himself in the late 50s on the Soho jazz scene, before heading off to busk around France with the legendary Wizz Jones.  In 1962, he rolled up in Edinburgh and teamed up with the young Robin Williamson to play folk and bluegrass numbers – a union that spawned the ISB.

Clive’s tenure with the ISB lasted only until the release of their debut album in 1966, after which, he headed off to India and Afghanistan and, upon his return to the UK, became a woodwork teacher in Cornwall.  Clive’s interest in music never waned. He recorded an album of Edwardian banjo music, Banjoland, that remained unreleased until 2005, worked with his old mate Wizz Jones, and formed The Famous Jug Band, playing on that band’s debut album, Sunshine Possibilities (1969).  Later in 1969, he formed The Stockroom Five with Tim Wellard, John Bidwell and “Whispering” Mick Bennett, a band that transformed in 1970 into The Temple Creatures, and, eventually into C.O.B. – an acronym, meaning Clive’s Original Band that was bestowed by the manager that Clive shared with another emerging folk superstar, Ralph McTell.

The core line-up of C.O.B. was Clive on guitar, vocals and banjo, John Bidwell on harmonium, recorder, banjo, Indian hand organ, vocals and dulcitar (a kind of hybrid guitar/dulcimer – apparently of Bidwell’s own invention – that makes a sound similar to a sitar) and Mick Bennett on organ, percussion and lead vocals.  For Spirit of Love, the band was augmented by Ursula Smith on cello, Steve Bonnett on bass and a vocal chorus of Gillian McPherson, Chrissie Quayle, Reina Sutcliffe and Christina Bonnett.  Ralph McTell handled the production responsibilities – a role he found to be fairly daunting and patience-sapping – in Ralph’s words, the band was “…. Loose and undisciplined, totally unaware of recording techniques.”

Commercially unsuccessful at the time, Spirit Of Love has become a legendary album, with a lasting influence upon generations of musicians.  The album is the subject of an entire chapter in the seminal Seasons They Change: The Story of Acid and Psychedelic Folk and the likes of Damon & Naomi and Johnny Marr have named Spirit Of Love as a favourite album and an influence.  This is the first vinyl re-release of this classic album and its reappearance is to be hugely welcomed.  As Ralph McTell says: “I guess we are all quite proud of the fact that it is to see the light of day again and I hope it will be enjoyed by a new audience as well as remind us of a more innocent, mystic and optimistic time.  Amen, indeed.

So – what about the music?  Well, Spirit Of Love is an album that is very much of its time, its era and its acid folk genre.  Aficionados of The Incredible String Band, English or West Coast psychedelia or anyone who has taken the time to study The Electric Eden and its accompanying compilation album will love it.  I think it’s fair to say that, on the other hand, there are many who just won’t “get” it.  The instrumentation is sparse yet effective and the vocals are naively and charmingly discordant.  Personally, I think it’s fantastic, from the simply strummed two-chord opening of the title track to the blissful psychedelic Indian organ and cello playout of closing number When He Came Home. 

Music Of The Ages is delightfully pastoral, evoking images of a slowly flowing river and gently gliding swans, Soft Touches of Love, with its faux-operatic vocal demonstrates how nothing was off-limits in those days, whilst Banjoland is an enjoyable foot-tapper, complete with school playground and crashing wave sound effects that provides a welcome light-hearted contrast to the softly psychedelic probing evident elsewhere.  The album is packed with songs that unashamedly take folk music to new levels; the a cappella Wade In The Water weds the gospel outpourings of the Edwin Hawkins Singers to envelope-pushing experimentalism of the ISB. The traditional Scranky Black Farmer is dominated by a druggy ooo-ba, ooo-da chant that virtually obscures the storytelling lyric, the ghostly Evening Air is elevated by its sparse dulcitar/recorder backing and the eerie Serpent’s Kiss, with its fascinating mix of cello, dulcitar and gloriously untuneful vocal harmonies is a fascinating song, an ideal accompaniment for herbal inhaling – if that’s your scene.

Penultimate track Sweet Slavery gets almost sophisticated with a bolero 12-string guitar backing before we reach When He Came Home: a lovely song with more sublime cello and vocal harmonies that could almost be described as tight!

Ralph McTell provides some wonderful reminiscences in his sleeve notes, along with a number of observations that really put the naïve enthusiasm, so evident throughout the album, into context.  As he says, “[Spirit Of Love is] an album that has enjoyed much critical praise and, some might say, embodies the spirit of hippiedom and reality at the same time.”

Sadly, Clive Palmer passed away in 2014, thankfully not before I was able to catch him, back in 2000, with the temporarily reformed Incredible String Band.  Mike Bennett continues to write music and stories and spends his time between Cornwall and Thailand, where the third member of C.O.B., John Bidwell, now lives.  I’m pleased that they’ll be able to experience and enjoy the rebirth of this remarkable album.

Listen to Serpent’s Kiss, a track from the album, here:

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