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Michael Chapman

Once a teacher of art and photography, who would’ve thought that Yorkshire lad Michael (born 24th January 1941, Leeds), would’ve made the grade as one of England’s top folk troubadours? In what seemed no time at all (although he was 27 or 28 at the time), he was signed up by EMI’s fledgling rock imprint, Harvest Records.
With augmentation from noted session players Rick Kemp, DANNY THOMPSON, Barry Morgan, Clem Clempson, Norman Haines, Aynsley Dunbar and Alex Dmochowski (with production by Gus Dudgeon), RAINMAKER (1969) {*8} established CHAPMAN as a rockier counterpart to the likes of RICHARD THOMPSON, RALPH McTELL or indeed, BERT JANSCH (example the instrumental title track and/or `Thank You P.K. 1944’). From the solo electric guitar licks on bittersweet love ballad/45 `It Didn’t Work Out’, to the autumnal DONOVAN-esque `You Say’, the LP expressed a degree of emotional release, while the driving blues-folk beat of `No-One Left To Care’ was awesome without being derivative. Every track on the set exuded class, the menacing, gnarling delivery on `Not So Much A Garden’ or `Small Stones’ was worthy of admission price alone. The lighter textures on `No Song To Sing’ (a precursor to LOU REED’s `The Kids’, anyone?) managed to show another reflective side to MC, while `Goodbye To Monday Night’ came from the same magical bag.
The critical success of his debut led to commercial fruits (and a UK Top 50 place) for CHAPMAN’s sophomore album, FULLY QUALIFIED SURVIVOR (1970) {*7}. Opening with his 9-minute northern requiem for hardship and unemployment, `Aviator’ (featuring Paul Buckmaster on cello and Johnny Van Derek on violin), the adventurous record was interspersed with JANSCH-like instrumentals such as `Naked Ladies And Electric Ragtime’, `Andru’s Easy Rider’ and the short ’n’ sweet `Fishbeard Sunset’. It would also see former Rats axeman MICK RONSON lend a hand before he opted for a career backing BOWIE (check out `Stranger In The Room’, etc.), while other session spots went to the aforementioned bassist, Kemp, and drummer Morgan. Other songs to grace the LP included `Postcards Of Scarborough’, the lilting `March Rain’ and the haunting `Kodak Ghosts’.
WINDOW (1970) was not without a little mishap along the way, Harvest Records mistakenly releasing the obviously adequate demo-stage cuts when CHAPMAN was busy on tour, resulting in considerable backlash on tracks such as `Last Lady Song’, `Among The Trees’, `A Scholarly Man’ and the medley `Lady On The Rocks – Song For September’. The hangover and after-effects of album four, WRECKED AGAIN (1971) {*6} saw the departure of two things, stalwart Rick Kemp leaving to join STEELEYE SPAN and Michael’s contractual divorce from EMI-Harvest, while the set itself – showcasing Albert Hammond on some backing vox – boasted beauties like `Shuffleboat River Farewell’, `Polar Bear Fandango’ and `Indian Queens’.
CHAPMAN’s distinctive drawl was further displayed on two LPs for Deram, MILLSTONE GRIT (1973) {*7} – sample `Sea Of Wine’, `The Hero Returns’ plus the 9-minute `New York Ladies’, and the not-so magnificent DEAL GONE DOWN (1974) {*5}. Along the proverbial corridor to Decca Records, SAVAGE AMUSEMENT! (1976) {*6} and THE MAN WHO HATED MORNINGS (1977) {*6} were above average, the latter attempting to drift against the musical tide of the era and juxtapose CLAPTON-like leanings on covers of DYLAN’s `Ballad In Plain D’ and Danny O’Keefe’s `I’m Sober Now’.
The independent but short-lived Criminal Records reconciled CHAPMAN’s folk-rock credentials by way of three fresh albums, PLAYING GUITAR THE EASY WAY (1978) {*5}, LIFE ON THE CEILING (1979) {*7} and LOOKING FOR ELEVEN (1980) {*7}, the last of these (including the 11-minute `Spain One To Four’) found the LINDISFARNE alumni of Rod Clements and Ray Laidlaw superseding retainer Kemp and former FAIRPORT drummer Dave Mattacks.
The 80s were a testing decade for Michael and his mountainous task of keeping in line with the fickle and transit world of rock; sporadic albums of the period included the self-descriptive and acoustic ALMOST ALONE (1981) {*6}, the collaborative Rick Kemp piece ORIGINAL OWNERS (1984) {*5} and the “new-age”/concept set HEARTBEAT (1987) {*7}.
STILL MAKING RAIN (1993) {*6}, NAVIGATION (1995) {*7}, DREAMING OUT LOUD (1997) {*6} and THE TWISTED ROAD (1999) {*5} all continued CHAPMAN’s ability to stay the course in an almost independently-minded manner, while post-millennium-wise AMERICANA (2000) {*6} and AMERICANA 2 (2002) {*6} reached out to what might’ve been had he opted for a Stateside, cactus-rock route. At an age (67) when most folk(s) are grinding out a meagre pension, folk-blues purveyor CHAPMAN was back at the helm courtesy of the rich and textured PLAINDEALER (2005) {*6} and TIME PAST TIME PASSING (2008) {*6}; WRYTREE DRIFT (2010) {*6} was self-published.
A folk style more akin to the likes of BASHO, JANSCH and FAHEY, the glowing drones of THE RESURRECTION AND REVENGE OF THE CLAYTON PEACOCK (2011) {*7} went virtually unheard outside his elite and Blast First Petite circle of friends. Comprising of two side-long exercises in instrumental guitar and percussion suites, CHAPMAN connected into the inner sanctum of his soul. In a similar pattern to his previous set, PACHYDERM (2012) {*5} once again stretched out two, side-long, FAHEY-type instrumentals.
Approximately twenty-four months on, Michael – with assistance from THURSTON MOORE on the mind-blowing and loud `Six, Two, Thirteen’ – otherwise proved that lo-fi, experimental folk was back in vogue for the 8-track THE POLAR BEAR (2014) {*7}; the third in the series.
series. Still a favourite among the rootsy Pitchfork fraternity, umpteenth solo set FISH (2015) {*8} was a remarkable twilight years record that displayed his instrumental, finger-picking prowess fully. Aged 74, Michael had become a more than a dab-hand at presenting quasi-improvs to delighted listeners; the atmospheric `Plain Old Bob Has A Hoe Down’, `Lament For Nepal’ and `March Rain’, tasty cuts that’ll resonate with anyone looking for an alternative to today’s so-called rock.
Chalking up a landmark ambit in the music business, 50 (2017) {*7} seemed a simple and appropriate title for CHAPMAN’s next pick ’n’ mix dispatch. Many of the songs were re-workings of past haunts (albeit with in-session Stateside/Americana cohorts Steve Gunn on electric guitar, BLACK TWIG PICKER Nathan Bowles, James Elkington and Jimy SeiTang), but its the long-awaited return of one-time John Peel associate BRIDGET ST. JOHN on backing vox that marked out this set to be extra special; check out `The Mallard’, `Memphis In Winter’, `Falling From Grace’ and the engaging opening salvo, `A Spanish Incident (Ramon And Durango)’.
In stark contrast to his previous Americana effort, 2019’s TRUE NORTH {*7} stripped away any wild western approach for simplistic back-to-basics – only Steve Gunn remained as side-kick guitarist and producer, whilst ST. JOHN was on the guest list next to cellist Sarah Smout and pedal steel veteran, B.J. Cole. From best bits `It’s Too Late’ and `After All This Time’ to the almost horizontal `Truck Song’ (plus instrumentals `Caddo Lake’ and `Eleuthera’), CHAPMAN almost whisked the listener back to his heyday forty years ago.
© MC Strong 2010/GFD // rev-up MCS Aug2013-May2019

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