Album Review

Iain Matthews – I Can’t Fade Away – The Rockburgh Years, 1978-1984: Box Set review

6-CD Retrospective of a productive period in the life of Iain Matthews

Release Date:  25th March 2022

Label: Gemini/Cherry Red Records

Formats: 6-CD Box Set

Iain Matthews has had an exciting and productive life since he decided to leave Fairport Convention during the recording of the Unhalfbricking album back in 1969.  Matthews Southern Comfort was, of course Iain’s first post-Fairport venture, one that yielded a (surprise, in the eyes of many) No.1 hit single with a country-rock version of Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock and three seminal albums, the eponymous Matthews Southern Comfort (1969), Second Coming (1970) and Later That Same Year (also 1970).  A couple of early solo albums followed in 1971 – If You Saw Thro’ My Eyes and Tigers Will Survive, before Iain got together with Andy Roberts, formerly of The Liverpool Scene, to form Plainsong.

With Plainsong, Iain struck creative, if not exactly commercial gold with the 1972 quasi-concept album, In Search of Amelia Earhart, but it didn’t last.  Plainsong fell apart and Iain was soon back amongst the ranks of solo artists.  Flitting between record labels – Vertigo, Elektra and Columbia all constituted “home” for Iain during the years 1972-1977 – he released a string of critically-lauded albums that still sound fresh today.  His 1974 albums, Journeys From Gospel Oak and Some Days You Eat The Bear… Some Days The Bear Eats You, for example, are both outstanding examples of British Americana at its very best.

But, come 1978, Iain was beginning to consider where his career was taking him – as he described in the booklet that accompanied the 2014 reissue of his Stealin’ Home album (Disc 1 in this set): “I was sitting in Seattle, wondering what to do next.  The phone rang, and it was Sandy [Roberton – founder of Rockburgh Records] offering me a lifeline.  I’d loved working with him in Plainsong, where he’d produced and managed us, and I knew that if he formed a label he would do a terrific job, without compromising my vision of who I was.”

And so it came to pass.  Iain Matthews jumped on board the Rockburgh ship and, over the next six years, he released four albums on the Rockburgh label – Stealin’ Home (1978), Siamese Friends (1979), Spot of Interference (1980) and Shook (1984) – all produced by Roberton – and it’s those four albums that form the core of this new box set from our friends at Cherry Red Records. 

And there’s more.  Lots more.  With the attention to detail that we’ve come to expect from Cherry Red, this collection is also packed with loads of previously unreleased material, culled, in this case, from Iain’s private archive and from the collections held by fans all around the world.  Perhaps most enticingly of all, there’s a whole raft of live material that has never previously seen light of day – Disc 1 includes a BBC – In Concert sequence of six songs, recorded in September 1978 during Iain’s UK tour of that year, supporting Renaissance.  Elsewhere, Disc 5 features a recording of a show at The Beursschouwburg in Brussels in January 1979 which, in addition to songs from the then-current Stealin’ Home album also includes excellent versions of several of Iain’s favourites – Jackson Browne’s These Days and Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl amongst them, and the Stealin’ Home album gets another live airing on Disc 6 with takes from shows across the USA, mainly in 1978 and 1979.  Finally, in a live sequence from a Milan concert in May 1984, we get Iain and his band working through songs from the Spot oO Interference and Shook albums, topped off wonderfully with a stunning version of Neil Young’s Mr. Soul.

Iain’s period as a Rockburgh artist was a fruitful one, particularly so in the USA – as emphasized and demonstrated by the success of his single, Shake It, a Terence Boylan song from Stealin’ Home that reached No.13 in the US charts.  Two more cuts from the album would also make the lower reaches of the chart – Gimme an Inch Girl (Iain’s cover of the Robert Palmer song) and Don’t Hang Up Your Dancing Shoes – another Terence Boylan number.  Recorded with a stellar band that included Bryn Haworth on guitars and mandolin, Rick Kemp on bass and Pete Wingfield on keyboards, Stealin’ Home is a memorable album with a sound that, according to Mark Deming of AMG “…dove headfirst into a polished pop sound that made the one-time British folkie sound like a member of the mellow LA Mafia.”  Although recorded in Oxfordshire, Stealin’ Home “recreated the meticulously crafted sound West-Coast pop with impressive accuracy.”

Stealin’ Home’s follow-up, Siamese Friends (1979) features a number of co-writing contributions from Iain’s new band-member colleagues Mark Griffiths and Bob Metzger and it’s an album that was put together with the same levels of care that were expended on its predecessor but, unfortunately, disorganization at Iain’s American record company, Mushroom Records, meant that the album didn’t really get the push it deserved.  Nevertheless, with highlights like the Matthews/Griffiths/Metzger opener You Don’t See Me, John Martyn’s Anna, Jona Lewie’s The Baby She’s On The Street and Crying In The Night, a pre-Fleetwood Mac song from Stevie Nicks, it’s an excellent album that, once again, stands up well, 40+ years later.

The third album in this set, 1980’s Spot Of Interference has probably aged slightly less well than Stealin’ Home or Siamese Friends.  80s attitudes and production fashions certainly leave their mark, but the quality of the material still manages to shine though, particularly on the old Left Banke song She May Call You Up Tonight, I Can’t Fade Away, the song from Iain and Mark Griffiths that gives this box set its title and Iain’s version of the Richard Thompson song Sunnyvista, a personal favourite of mine from Richard’s under-rated 1979 Sunnyvista album.

Rockburgh Records was wound up in 1981, so Shook, the fourth and final album of Iain’s Rockburgh phase, was licensed to Line Records and Polydor for European and American release when it appeared in 1984.  The sound is richer and warmer than that on Spot of Interference and quite poppy, and the album benefits from a number of compositions – including Indiscreet, Views (The Dance Goes On), Wish and Driver that Iain had accumulated from his sojourn with the power-pop outfit Hi-Fi in the early eighties. 

After Shook, the future was starting to beckon, reunions with Fairport and Plainsong, relocation to Amsterdam and new versions of Matthews Southern Comfort were all in the offing, exciting collaborations with the likes of The Salmon Smokers and BJ Baartmans would yield high-quality fruit and At The Barrier was sharpening its pencil to pour compliments over albums like The New Mine, Fake Tan and [distant chatter].  But let’s linger, for a while, in the early 1980s.   I Can’t Fade Away: The Rockburgh Years, 1978-1984, has allowed us to revisit a productive, successful (at least in part) and memorable period in the career of the one and only Iain Matthews and, for that, Cherry Red Records once again deserve our thanks.

As always, Cherry Red have done a great job in repackaging this set of albums.  Each disc comes in its own mini replica cover with the original album artwork; the accompanying booklet, with informative notes by Ron Yaxley (who also took on the onerous task of compiling the set), is up to the usual impeccable standard and the whole package comes in a tasteful clamshell box.  This set is indispensable if, like me, you’re an Iain Matthews acolyte.

By the way – I anticipate that the Iain Matthews reissue programme has quite some way to go.  Cherry Red Records apparently hold the rights to a goodly portion of Iain’s extensive back catalogue and, so it’s rumoured, they have BIG plans…. Watch this space!

Listen to Shake It, Iain Matthews US hit from his 1978 Rockburgh album, Stealin’ Home, here:

Iain Matthews Online: WebsiteYouTube

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1 reply »

  1. I was wondering how this box set would turn out. Glad you mentioned the session musicians on Stealin’ Home. The playing and mix of that album are impeccable, from the bass lines to the instrumentation. The intro and punchy, up-tempo treatment of Shake It is what made it a hit. One of those albums, I think, for which those who like it, really like it. Others might find it somewhat passe. Show tunes, west coast covers, a few self-penned songs, quite a unique album.

    On Siamese Friends, Home Somewhere (the Jules Shear tune) feels like it could have been a hit. The lyrics are a little too melancholy, though, to have done well in the charts. I haven’t heard the other two Rockburgh albums, but soon. Thanks.

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