ORGAN THING: William D Drake gets all magical in a sixteenth century Tudor house with a harpsichord…



William D. Drake at Sutton House  (photo: Ashley Jones)

William D Drake – Sutton House, Hackney, London (Feb 4th 2017)

Psst… want to know a secret? Two secrets, really.
First of all, there’s this place – it’s a house, might be just down the road from you, if you’re a Londoner, and in fact you might have driven past it a hundred times. This house is, to put it mildly, a bit special. It has form, it’s… seen things you people wouldn’t believe. But more on that later.

The other secret is this music. It’s not been around as long as the house, but in some ways it has, and in some ways it makes the same connections. This music consists of a bunch of songs and tunes and full compositions, a thicket of extraordinary creativity that started properly growing in the early 1980s in an ordinary suburb of London. We’re talking about a band called Cardiacs, and the scions of the Cardiacs family.

Until these all-revealing connected times, Cardiacs were a home-grown wonder hidden away in plain sight. They were so unexpected, so curious and layered and sometimes alarming, that many people walked by, seeing only some kind of punk band, or rock theatre, or some kind of mockery of both. It was too much for most of the commentators of the time, hence the years of being pointedly ignored by the music press, hidden away, plying their art to a slowly growing crowd of people who ‘got it’. Those who failed to listen closer missed out on the real flesh and bones of Cardiacs: a deep, ancient Englishness, filtered through childhood TV and the distant transistor radios of edgeland suburbs, and all sorts of unfathomable melancholy and humour and weirdness that also inhabits the Home Counties paradise.


William D. Drake at Sutton House  (photo: Ashley Jones)


William D Drake met Cardiacs founder Tim Smith a few years after the band’s start in 1977, and there seems to have been an instant creative fusion. Drake added more folk tune to the stew, more classical knowledge to play with..  And then, very very early on, when Cardiacs were gigging so many small venues and putting out albums on tape (because that’s what you did in those days), Tim, Bill and Sarah put aside all the noisy, punky, moshpitty inclinations of Cardiacs and recorded a tape album of staggering beauty and oddness and fragility, called Mr and Mrs Smith and Mr Drake.

More than three decades on, new people are discovering this long lost thing, adding to the long list of those calling it their favourite album. The trio became The Sea Nymphs, recording two albums under that name and both full of that same subtle, rich and strange spirit, sometimes playing live to lucky, breathless audiences.

Tonight’s audience is very lucky indeed. William D Drake now gigs regularly as himself, with the resources of a loose collective of like-minded musicians (some of whom grew up listening to the Sea Nymphs and Cardiacs and understand the magic).  The venue tonight is so small and so special that there can only be a couple of dozen people, gathered in a dark room teeming with ghosts.


William D. Drake at Sutton House  (photo: Ashley Jones)
The ghosts are here because the room is five hundred years old, and a lot of thinking and doing has gone on in this space. The thoughts belonged to people who stood where the harpsichord now sits and looked out the window up the road that now teems with traffic: the friend of Henry VIII and Cromwell, the sea-captain, the weavers, the schoolmistress and clergy, the trade union officials, the anarcho punks and finally the people who dreamed about saving this place. The instruments being played tonight are all as hand-made and exqisitely textured as the ancient linen-fold wooden panels on the walls: a harpsichord, a hurdy-gurdy, a clarinet that complains about the cold, a living, breathing harmonium. It’s cold because there’s not enough room to light the fire, what with all the people and the instruments in the way, but we can smell the woodsmoke from the one burning in the Tudor hearth downstairs.

James Larcombe warms us up with a collection of tunes played on melodeon (a kind of refined accordion, I think), English sea shanties and country tunes and a few of his own compositions. This is living music, the pop music that moved real people forgotten and lost to us. He uses two different instruments, marvels of buttons and canvas and goodness knows what, high tech from ten generations ago made to put a whole band into the hands of one person. James is a great player, giving the  Hard not to get up and dance, but there’s a joy in listening to this as it is, to hear the layers of bass and treble and clacking buttons that go with James’ expressive, unforced playing.

William D Drake settles down behind the harpsichord, with Nicola Baigent on bass clarinet and James Larcombe taking up the hurdy-gurdy. It’s bliss. These tunes and songs have been waiting for these instruments, and vice versa: no amplification but in this little room we can hear everything. Sometimes the twenty-first century passes through, itself a ghost, as a siren flies by on the road outside. In here, time doesn’t matter; it’s all compressed into one, and that’s the essence of Bill’s tunes – a sense of atmosphere and deep feeling that is always there, waiting to be seen and heard if you can let your eyes and ears adjust from the blinding brightness and deafening noise of the now.  Beginning with the snowy, hymnal Ivy Dun, we are treated to compositions from the full range of Drake’s career, including a stomping Black Blooded Clam from the long-lost and recently released second Sea Nymphs album On The Dry Land and equally vigorous Orlando and Catford Clown from Drake’s recent solo releases.  Be Here Yesteryear is pure hiraeth (look it up, you’ll thank me); mourning and yearning for green fields and innocence…Bill is, as always, a charming and gently funny, bonding with Nicola and James with the unshowy, easy skill of musicians who play for the love and joy of it; a crumhorn is always welcome, even if it’s a bit of a handful, and the hurdy-gurdy is a revelation, another bit of ancient tech or witchcraft in the hands of (let’s face it) a master, meeting the harpsichord perfectly – the arrangements these three have worked out for tonight are some kind of genius in action.

Final song of the set is one achingly dear to the hearts of those gathered: To My Piano Love From Mr Drake, otherwise known as The Rocks They Rage… it first appeared on the Mr and Mrs Smith and Mr Drake album, and is a lump of spring sunshine masquerading as a song with some bits of gleefully borrowed poetry. Suddenly everyone is singing, much to the bemusement or maybe understanding of the ghosts. It’s funny how sometimes the most fragile things are the ones that survive. (Marina)

The performance is repeated tonight at the same venue



William D. Drake at Sutton House  (photo: Ashley Jones)

2 thoughts on “ORGAN THING: William D Drake gets all magical in a sixteenth century Tudor house with a harpsichord…

  1. Pingback: William D Drakeのアコースティック・ライブ – The Alphabet Business Concern – Japan Branch

  2. Pingback: ORGAN THING: William D Drake will play a rousing selection of tunes from the Mr Drake and Sea Nymphs repertoire for free this Friday… | THE ORGAN

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