Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Introduction - Parchment who?

Parchment's Light Up the Fire album was the first record I ever bought in my early teens. I bought it sound unseen and my older brother played it to me through his stereo.

I listened to the remarkable sounds, amazing tunes, perfect production, raucous folk club humour and sweet voice of Sue McClellan and fell in love - with the music, that is.

In subsequent years I have seen others play Light Up the Fire and rush to place orders for it. But that was because they had never heard of it - despite relatively large sales and a single that made it to a massive number 31 in the British charts (more of that sometime later). The reality was that the band was for some time the brightest star in the British gospel scene but they were distinctly uncool.

For a teenager in the 70s it was a conversation killer. "What's your favourite group?" "Uh.....I'm into folk music, a band you probably have not heard of called Parchment." Folk was a 60s thing. In the world of heavy metal, disco, punk, funk, bop and Abba, Parchment should not have had a chance - yet they nearly made it.

I bought all their albums and saw them perform three times. I organised a school coach trip to a concert in Bristol - where they supported the guitarist Gordon Giltrap.

For years my affection for the band's music was deeply personal, shared by noone I knew, not even girlfriends. It is now shared by most members of my family

Now they are on the brink of a revival. And one key member deserves recognition for her persistence.

Their third album Shamblejam was the only one released in the USA and enjoys a kind of cult status - although still Parchment fans barely talk to each other. It also has the merit of being easy to find on search engines so you can soon see what I mean in blogworld.

Last year a three CD collection of their songs was released. It's called simply...Parchment. One reviewer condemned it as "rather twee". He had a point. The band's four albums all stand alone. Listen to their songs from a ten year period mixed up on a three CD set and you miss quite a lot. So if you want to check them out for the first time try to get hold of "Light Up the Fire" the vinyl album (or CD) - but not the single - or Shamblejam.

By the 80s and the age of synthesised music Parchment sounded dated. Even I rarely listened to them. Now music has come round in a circle and the best musicians, DJs and producers are interested in mixing sounds, using great voices and making the most of simple melodies. The Beatle's Sgt Pepper was one of the first to do this and the Parchment production team were heavily influenced by this and included people who had worked with Lennon and McCartney. Parchment themselves came from Liverpool and were also influenced by the Beatles. There is some evidence of this. So a 60s style folk band ended up being ahead of their time and a stage band ended up being a studio band. Listen to the way Sue McClellan's strong folk club voice became a soft but remarkably volatile and expressive microphone voice. She was 16 when she began singing folk music, I understand.

In the year 2004 I found reasons to enjoy Parchment all over again. There is no nostalgia trip. It is simply great and timeless music. Apparently others too are rediscovering the band as Kingsway Records thought it right to release their songs on CD. Kingsway is headed by former Parchment member John Pac (or Paculabo) but seem to have kept the release low-key.

And so to the really good news. Sue McClellan, now known as Sue Mack, has been recording again and songwriting since 1998. She has an all-women singing group based at a church near London. Their work is brilliant but they totally fail to fit into the current "thrash gospel" trend of 21st century Christian music and are largely known only in the south London suburbs and, apparently, back in Liverpool.

The group is called River and it is possible to download samples of Sue's songwriting at their website http://www.cajunmoon.co.uk/rivindex.htm If you liked her work with Parchment, the song "you are there" will take your breath away. It had this effect on me when I discovered River last year.

When I first found River they were, again, a little coy about Sue's history with Parchment. Now it is fully declared and the band seem to have added Light Up the Fire, which Sue largely penned, to their repertoire. She has written most of the River songs and on the CDs is lead singer on many of them.

Their first CD Praise Him in the Streets is remarkable as it was released nearly 20 years after Parchment's last album 'Rehearsal for a Reunion' and yet sounds in many ways as if it is a sequel.

I am no expert on Parchment nor on music. I have been frustrated by the lack of information on the internet and what I post here will be gathered from a mishmash of sources and posted when I get round to it. This was to have been a proper tribute site but blogging is a good shortcut. I do not have the time to complete the research or to do the site.

Oh.. and something about Light Up the Fire, the song. It is a great song, especially when performed by Parchment, probably their greatest. It is now among the top ten school favourites in the UK and also appears in wedding books - but not in the most popular church compilation of new music, Mission Praise. And its origins, the way it came to be written and recorded, are a little controversial.


john said...

Hey guess what, think I've found a copy (on cassette sadly) of some of the tracks of the lost album, I'll send you a copy when I convert it to CD,


pf said...

That's amazing! Very much look forward to it.

Anonymous said...

You mention the origins of 'Light Up the Fire' are a little controversial... do you explain this anywhere? I was just listening to Pandora and heard 'Love is Come Again'... well, it struck me how similar that tune is to 'Noel Nouvelet', a French Christmas carol, obviously. Did they consciously or unconsciously appropriate the melody?

pf said...

Hi anonymous, Love is come again was a traditional folk song, not their melody, so it amy well be the same tune.

This posting was about the single release of Light Up the Fire and explains why radio stations refused to play it. However I heard it on BBC Radio 2 a couple of years ago.