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Formed summer 1967 in Canterbury, England by Bolton lads Martin Cockerham and Mark Francis, SPIROGYRA (not to be confused with American jazz-pop outfit Spyro Gyra) really got under way at the turn of the 70s when Kent University student Cockerham recruited newcomers Barbara Gaskin (vocals), Julian Cusack (violin and keyboards) and Steve Borrill (bass). When B&C came knocking (at the request of university entertainment officer-turned manager Max Hole), the band was further handled by producer/manager, Sandy Robertson. Inspired it seemed by The INCREDIBLE STRING BAND, CURVED AIR and acid-folk legends COMUS, Cockerham’s songs (with future girlfriend Gaskin right at his side) were showcased on their much-lauded debut LP, ST. RADIGUND’S (1971) {*8}, named after a street student housing.
The violent violin of Cusack was prominent throughout (example `Island’ and `Magical Mary’), while the vocal harmonies of Cockerham (on the COHEN-esque `Captain’s Log’ and `At Home In The World’) were unique and effective; drummer Dave Mattacks (of FAIRPORT CONVENTION) was basically their 5th member. It’s fair to say this eclectic LP went amiss with the buying public, although most prog-folk fans (willing to spend a pretty penny) would’ve once bit one’s hand off for a decent copy. When Gaskin reaches her crystalline high notes on `Time Will Tell’ and `Love Is A Funny Thing’, or both singers (Cockerham with his Lancashire-lad approach) go hippie-prog on opener `The Future Won’t Be Long’ and `We Were A Happy Crew’ (segment two very Floydian!), the band were the complete acid-folk article.
Kicking off with the commercial pop tune `Dangerous Dave’, OLD BOOT WINE (1972) {*6} slightly disappointed in its attempt to find a nigh-impossible new glam-folk audience. While fiddler Cusack partly concentrated on his university schedule, the nearly man Mark Francis returned on guitar and keys. Mellower and balladeering, songs suffered by SPIROGYRA’s mainstream diversion, although there were exceptions such as `Van Allen’s Belt’ (very MIKE HERON), the SYD BARRETT-ish `Runaway’ and the pop-stabbing `Wings Of Thunder’.
The Cockerham/Gaskin partnership continued on the third album, BELLS, BOOTS AND SHAMBLES (1973) {*6}, a record that pushed the prog-folk boundaries a little further. Gaskin was never far from perfection, lilting cuts such as `Old Boot Wine’ (an outtake from their previous LP, no doubt), `An Everyday Consumption Song’ and the short ‘n’ sweet `Spiggly’ quite endearing without being thrilling. Cockerham’s songs, like the STRAWBS-meets-glam-BOWIE `The Sergeant Says’ and `The Furthest Point’, were somewhat overshadowed by the 13-minute, 4-piece tour de force finale, `In The Western World’. Fusing JETHRO TULL-like winds, INCREDIBLE STRING BAND-esque interplay and song endurance and FAIRPORT pop-sensibilities, it was a fitting end to their brief, 3-album career.
1974 saw Cockerham and Gaskin regroup (with newcomers Rick Biddulph and Jon Gifford on board), their epic 20-minute mini-opera `Sea Song’ premiering at a concert at London’s Roundhouse. But that was it. Gaskin would subsequently perform with HATFIELD AND THE NORTH, and later had a chart-topping 1981 UK hit (alongside H+TN’s Dave Stewart) with an updated rendition of LESLEY GORE’s `It’s My Party’.
Cockerham, meanwhile, travelled around the world, exchanging a horse and cart in Ireland for Hare Krishna walkabouts in India. His subsequent recordings – and there are a few awaiting release (including work with SPIROGYRA/Mark Francis) – just might see light of day under his Faery King moniker: recorded in London in the mid 00s, the 2008-issued CHILDREN’S EARTH {*5} was one such example; others included another Cockerham solo CD-r `Rainbow Empire’ (2009).
Then, just as interest was growing among the freak-folk fraternity, the Cockerham, Francis congregation – including trumpeter extraordinaire Henry Lowther – were back with the vinyl-only SPIROGYRA 5 (2011) {*6}. After surviving a flood which destroyed 300 copies of its limited-edition 1,000 pressing, their Noah’s Ark appeal was maintained in a rather arty sleeve design and its underground-folk motifs within (`Govinda Gopala’ and `Ship Ahoy’).
© MC Strong/MCS GFD 2010 // rev-up MCS Nov2016

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