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Mick Softley

Born 1939 in South Woodford, Essex to Irish parents from County Cork, Michael was raised near Epping Forest, his main musical inspirations stemming from R&R icons ELVIS PRESLEY, BILL HALEY and BIG BILL BROONZY, while the litterateur in him pined for arty beat-poets/scribers Ginsberg and Kerouac. Having spent five years in Paris, SOFTLEY returned to English shores in 1964 to run a folk club in Hemel Hempstead (The Spinning Wheel); this would see the intellectual troubadour befriend the likes of young performers DONOVAN, MAC MacLEOD and MADDY PRIOR (later of STEELEYE SPAN).
With the aforementioned DONOVAN already on his way to the top of the pops (and a Newport Festival touring for Mick’s `Gold Watch Blues’), Columbia Records took an option on SOFTLEY; the resulting LP, SONGS FOR SWINGIN’ SURVIVORS (1965) {*6} – a play on a certain Frank Sinatra set – was impressive in a wistful and intimate sort of way. Harnessing a voice and song-line comparable to DYLAN, GUTHRIE or JACKSON C FRANK, Mick’s nasal-note declarations of love and peace came via his own `The War Drags On’, `After The Third World War Is Over…’, `All I Want Is A Chance’ and his pseudo-cocaine-fuelled lovelorn ode to a girlfriend, `Jeannie’. His earnest attempts at three pieces of Americana came courtesy of PETE SEEGER’s `The Bells Of Rhymney’, GUTHRIE’s `Plains Of The Buffalo’ (the longest track here at 4 minutes) and an autumnal, DYLAN-esque reading of jazz cue `Strange Fruit’. The LP would soon set back a three-figure sum.
In the following half-decade, Michael only managed to release a couple of flop 45s, although he would work alongside another cult Brit-folk act, MAC MacLEOD, in the short-lived psych trio Soft Cloud Fiery Dragon; a demo of `Time Machine’ later surfaced from these recordings, while SOFTLEY would use it again in the 70s.
Duly augmented by folk musicians Jerry Donahue (guitar), Pat Donaldson (bass), Gerry Conway (drums) – all of FOTHERINGAY – plus producer Tony Cox (keyboards) and Lyn Dobson (flute, sax, etc.), SOFTLEY returned with his long-awaited sophomore set, SUNRISE (1970) {*8}. Fusing funky folk, jazzy R&B and trippy, post-60s lyrics, the LP boasted a number of classy numbers including the NICK DRAKE/TIM BUCKLEY-ish `Can You Hear Me Now’ and the high-soaring `Eagle’. Ditto `Ship’. Other musical lines could be drawn through CAT STEVENS (`Waterfall’), The INCREDIBLE STRING BAND (`Julie Argoyne’), DONOVAN (`Caravan’, `Love Colours’ and `Birdie, Birdie’) and BERT JANSCH (`If You’re Not Part Of The Solution…’ and `On The Road Again’). It was easy to see that all these folky traits would lead to poor sales, although power tracks such as `Time Machine’ and `You Go Your Way, I’ll Go Mine’ gave Mick some needed identity. All in all, and on reflection, a timeless album.
With virtually the same backing on board (including a spot for RICHARD THOMPSON), STREET SINGER (1971) {*6} pressed alternative musical buttons. A tad bluesier, and moving away from the psychedelic down-surge (example opener, `Goin’ Down The Road’), the set utilised the simpler approach on such songs as jazzy honky-tonker `Ragtime Mama’, the embarrassingly nostalgic `Hey Mama’ and the bluesy `Shucks Blues’. The pseudo-narrative and apocalyptically tree-hugging `Water Sister, Water Brother’ and the folk-revivalist, HAMISH IMLACH-esque `Goldwatch Blues’ came out best – but Mick couldn’t shake the sound shackles of his peers on `I Seen Good Times, I Seen Bad’ (TIM BUCKLEY), `Hope’ (DYLAN), `Gypsy’ (JANSCH) and `Just Flew In On A Jet Plane’ (DONOVAN).
SOFTLEY’s fourth LP, ANY MOTHER DOESN’T GRUMBLE (1972) {*6}, saw Mick lose momentum in the singer-songwriter stakes, although some would identify this as his most beautiful and sensitive set. Augmented by his usual team (plus percussionist/drummer Barry De Souza), the majesty of the songs is exemplified by opener `The Song That I Sing’, `The Minstrel Song’, `Great Wall Of Cathay’, `From The Land Of The Crab’ and the single, `Lady Willow’. What’s puzzling is the delay to release the CD equivalent, a sort of mishap in today’s must-have-everything society.
Sadly, Michael dropped out of the folk-rock scene, although he issued two fine sets for Swiss label Doll: CAPITAL (1976) {*6} and MENSA (1978) {*6}, plus a cassette-only album in Ireland: WAR MEMORIALS (1985) {*6}. Poet Mick now resided in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, where his characteristic beard had now turned white!
Sadly, at the grand old age of 77, Mick died on 1st September 2017.
© MC Strong 2010/GFD // rev-up MCS Sep2015-Sep2017

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  1. Neil Russell King

    I worked for on his foam rudder market stall in 1967through “the summer of love“ he was a great guy to work for as a 18 year old hippie.
    He got me to do some backing singIng at a studio in Tin Pan Ally. I have no idea what album or track it was on owing to the use of marijuana.
    Mick partied hard and worked hard . I left Hemel Hempstead for India ended up in Mid Wales and lost track of my old boss.

    1. Martin Strong

      Hi Neil,
      Good to see it wasn’t all just smoking pot back then. Maybe looking at Mick’s discography will jog your memory of the track you appeared on. Bet you it was something from 1970’s Sunrise; I’ll look for your name in the credits. It’s a great album. Best of…

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