Author’s Note: This is a slightly longer edit of the piece as published. Since that time (in the early 2000s – I have no record of when) there have, of course, been several further reissues of Swaddling Songs, although to my mind the sound on the 1991 CD is (curiously) more luxuriant than later remasterings. An opportunity to add further unreleased demos to the most recent re-release fell through, but hopefully they’ll appear on the next one along… Only Alison O’Donnell was interviewed for this piece; I later interviewed Clodagh Simmonds and crafted a more detailed version of the Mellow Candle story, which both were happy with, as a chapter in my 2004 book Irish Folk, Trad & Blues: A Secret History (Collins Press).

 

BURIED TREASURE:

Mellow Candle

Swaddling Songs DERAM SDL7

Published: Mojo, sometime in the early 200os

 

Tracks: Heaven Heath / Sheep Season / Silver Song / The Poet And The Witch / Messenger Birds / Dan The Wing / Reverend Sisters / Break Your Token / Buy Or Beware / Vile Excesses / Lonely Man / Boulders On My Grave

Producer: David Hitchcock

Recorded: Decca Studios, West Hampstead, London

Released: April 1972

Chart Peak: None

Personnel: Clodagh Simmonds (kybds, vcs), Alison O’Donnell (vcs), David Williams (gtr), Frank Boylan (bs), Willie Murray (dr)

Available: On CD from See For Miles (1991). Almost all the tracks, plus five strays, are featured in demo form (with original bassist Pat Morris) as The Virgin Prophet (Kissing Spell, 1994).

 

Pure Celtic magic, this has both the virtue and the stigma of being the rarest major label release of the folk-rock era – £500 for a Decca original. Is it any good? No, it’s brilliant. Dynamic arrangements, exquisite harmonies, lyrically intoxicating and mischievously mysterious, the voices, songs and vision of Clodagh Simmonds and Alison O’Donnell are, like a wardrobe into Narnia or the sleep-induced Faerie of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the gateway to another world. Often compared, erroneously, to Renaissance – with whom there is only the superficial comparison of piano-led arrangements – Mellow Candle occupy a unique place in the prog pantheon, an Irish group with almost no Irish reference points and bearing more relation to Jethro Tull, as fronted by Siouxsie Sioux and Judy Dyble with Vincent Crane on the keys. It’s crazy but it’s true…

            The tale begins in a Dublin convent school in 1963, with three pre-teen girls (Maria White being their Pete Best) singing Helen Shapiro covers and having a lunchtime block booking on the music room. As Alison O’Donnell recalls, over coffee and scones in a suitably elegant Dublin tea-room,  ‘Those nuns gave us free rein and when we were sixteen they said, ‘Leave school, because you’ll only want to do this – do it now’.’ But even before that, as fifteen year-olds in the summer of ‘68, they had released a UK single, bankrolled by hip actor David Hemmings and Yardbirds’ manager Simon Napier Bell. How?

‘We sent tapes to everybody,’ says Alison. ‘We even sent one to RTE and they told us to bog off! I remember us thinking, ‘Well, it’s their bloody loss!’ We were very young and god knows what we looked like, dressed in kimonos and whatever. But Clodagh was very single minded about it.’ One sent to Radio Luxembourg DJ Colin Nichol, scouting for Hemmings’ production company, hit the jackpot. The girls went to London:

‘The three of us were completely overawed with how swinging it was. We thought this was the bees-knees. And then we went in to record with this twenty-two piece orchestra and the Breakways – ‘Cliff Richards backing group, backing us!’ This was just heaven! It was a great song – great for its time, very dramatic. ‘Feeling High’ it was called, with the other side called ‘Tea With The Sun’. People said, ‘How old are these girls? What are they taking?’ But it was a one-off thing – I guess they probably thought, quite rightly, that we weren’t ready to do anything with them.’

So back to Dublin and the drawing board, via a yearlong sabbatical: ‘My mother said to me, ‘What you should do is a secretarial course – I’ll never ask you to do anything else but it’s something for you to fall back on.’ She made me do it and I’m bloody glad she did! Clodagh’s mother made her go to Italy to learn Italian. This takes us up to 1970 – when the boys came in.’ Pat Morris, a huge Tull fan, came in on bass with David Williams, then undergoing a degree in Philosophy and Psychology (‘which he got through with a 2:2,’ says Alison. ‘Could have done a lot better but we were all obsessed – music was what we wanted to do.’), on guitar. Maria had drifted away and there was as yet no drummer. Not, as the stunning demos on the posthumous The Virgin Prophet attest, that this mattered: ‘We practised six hours a day – and socialised afterwards. People were now coming over to look at us because they’d heard about us. We had some very good helpers then – people like Pat Egan at New Spotlight who were behind us all the way. Maybe all they could do was write about us every week, but they did and we got noticed.’

The first gig was supporting the Chieftains, the second on a festival with Principal Edwards Magic Theatre, Continuum and Fairport Convention: ‘We were jealous of Fairport because they had it in their contract that they had to have a crate of beer at the back of the stage or something. ‘How can we get a contract like that?’ we were thinking. Not that I ever drank beer in those days!’

Ted Carroll, then managing Thin Lizzy among others and latterday head of reissue specialists Ace Records, became their manager. There weren’t many gigs around Dublin at that time but those there were would be speckled with latterday greats:  ‘Andy Irvine and Donal Lunny would come to see us a lot and so did Luke Kelly – he used to hide behind a pillar but you’d see him there, watching the whole show. And Thin Lizzy liked us – Phil asked Clodagh to do Shades Of A Blue Orphanage [guesting on autoharp] because he liked the band.’ Jamming one week with Andy Irvine and the next with Gary Moore’s Skid Row, Mellow Candle were the clergy of their own broad church: ‘In fact, the very day that Dave and I got married, in 1972, we played that night with Thin Lizzy [at the Royal Dublin Stadium] – and that was a great gig.’

So could the live Candle replicate what became the record? ‘Yes, because we were so well rehearsed. But we were a bit precious onstage. Ted Carroll used to say to me, ‘Alison, you look like a fishwife with your hands on your hips’. Nowadays, of course, I bounce around all over the place but in those days I was Miss Cool. But that wasn’t put on – we were just so focused on the music.’

Having visited London to record demos for the label, with a session drummer, Mellow Candle signed to Deram in April 1971. That summer Dave and Alison were married. Recruiting a Glaswegian, Willie Murray, as drummer and replacing Morris with fellow Dubliner Frank Boylan, the group soon relocated to Hampstead. There were tours with Steeleye Span and Lindisfarne, interspersed with periods of extreme poverty: ‘I can remember once that we had to ring up Steeleye Span’s roadie and say, ‘Look, can you lend us some money ‘cos we have nothing to eat?’ He came round and brought tons of food and gave it to us. That’s the way we lived for a lot of the time, we really did.’

Swaddling Songs was recorded in December 1971: ‘We had to record it in a very short space of time – it was all done very fast. But the circumstances were very conducive: dimmed lighting, plenty of dope probably. And the only track we had trouble with was ‘Heaven Heath’ because it has a harsichord on it – and Clodagh had never played one. It’s got a delayed action and in those days you couldn’t shift it around half a second with an edit button. There were 23 takes. We ended up playing it live, with her playing slightly ahead of everyone else. There was not much overdubbing generally, though I do contribute three voices to ‘Vile Excesses’. I’m very proud of the album but it could have been better. Because we were tired when we did the vocals at the end there’s a couple of places where the intonation’s a bit off. But it’s simply because we were absolutely exhausted – recording from ten o’clock in the morning til three in the morning. You just can’t sing for that long.’

Released in April 1972, the album, to quote a Simmonds lyric, ‘sank like a stone’. The NME murmered ‘tax loss’. Either way, Deram put no support behind it or the group. The group then left the label and, unwisely, Ted Carroll’s management: ‘Clodagh and William had decided that Ted was a bit too laid back. They wanted a mover and a shaker – someone more dynamic.’ The individual they chose ended up having a nervous breakdown and somehow blowing money set aside for a Dutch tour. By then the name had changed to Grace Before Space and, incredibly, Clodagh was grumbling about David’s guitar playing: ‘Frank thought she was off her head. But we had a debt which we had to pay back, plus the Dutch tour didn’t come off plus there were writing differences. Clodagh became, and wanted to become, much more avant-garde. I had to go with David ‘cos I was married to him! But she and I had been making music together since we were ten, forged together, and that was a very difficult wrench.’

David and Alison moved to South Africa where they recorded Irish trad as Flibbertigibbet; Frank worked with various UK bands then disappeared; Clodagh and Willie moved to New York where their new group, the Same, enjoyed a residency at CBGBs but recordings. Willie died recently, while Clodagh has recently resurfaced with a Japan-only mini-album Six Elementary Songs. Rather like Susan in the final Narnia story Clodagh now ‘looks on Mellow Candle as something that’s all very nice, but it’s way back when and she doesn’t want to have anything to do with it. It’s gone, in her mind. She’s not sentimental about people or things in her past, whereas I am!’

When the band split ‘we had three new songs in the pipeline, one of which I can still hear in my head to this day. But we never did it. So it’s all ‘out’ now, unless anybody has a secret live recording.’ All About Eve once covered Silver Song, but are there any other Candle covers out there? ‘I’m not sure. Maybe there are in Japan – because that’s where we get our royalties from. We keep getting played on the radio out there but it’s so inscutable – ‘What’s the station, who’s playing it!?’’ But I’ve never performed any of those songs again myself. It’s a sacred thing.’