Jennifer Cutting's The New St. George

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Ian A. Anderson’s “Royal York Crescent”:

Masterpiece or Embarrassment?
An appreciation by Scott Miller

Ian A. Anderson cast a long artistic shadow, and The New St. George always labored in its ink. Royal York Crescent is the sterling accomplishment of a career that offers embarrassments of riches (with heavy emphasis on the former). This album is regarded by many observers, who wish to remain anonymous, as the “Sergeant Pepper” of British country jug folk blues, a song cycle pinnacle of astonishing variety, encompassing no less than the sum of human vision.

After Royal York Crescent, which stunned the world when it was released in 1970, what was left to accomplish, musically? The original title of The New St. George’s CD was Democratic Hickory Circle (after the Hickory Avenue address of the band’s home base), intended as an American tribute to the ultimate British masterpiece. But this artistic presumption was too daunting to sustain, and the band decided that discouragement was the better part of valor in their case. After all, was not Anderson actually draped with a snorting cartoon dragon on his album cover, as if to frighten off upstart American British folk-rock bands?

As Bob Dylan was to Fairport Convention, so Ian A. Anderson was to The New St. George: the ultimate musical inspiration and deity. There was one essential difference, however. While Fairport recorded a number of Dylan songs on albums spanning their entire career, The New St. George never managed to produce one Ian A. Anderson cover that could faintly approach the literally inimitable original. Even though The New St. George recorded the entire Royal York Crescent cycle as a tribute to the best songs they knew, they realized that they were not worthy.

But even members of Fairport were not immune to awe of the master. When Dave Pegg was phoned by Ian Anderson (of Jethro Tull), Pegg mistook identities and did not dare return the call, instantly tongue-tied at the (albeit mistaken) prospect of actually conversing with the renowned Ian A. This almost cost Pegg lucrative assignments with Jethro Tull, who, it must be admitted, were somewhat more successful commercially than Ian A., but never approached his musical heights (which Pegg instantly realized he could not scale). Indeed, much of Tull’s initial audience was attracted in confusion between the inferior and the superior Ian Andersons, the former shamelessly capitalizing on the happenstance of nomenclature.

But on to the masterpiece itself. Royal York Crescent bursts off with a stunning rendering of the old blues song That’s No Way To Get Along, adapted by the Rolling Stones as Prodigal Son Ian A., of course, sings rings around Mick Jagger, adding his own compelling “wooh wooh”s to the chorus. This song finds Ian setting out to complain to his “ma” about the “low down dirty women” (perhaps the four birds among the adoring throng around Ian on the back album cover?) who “make you wish that you was dead and gone.” Fortunately, our hero will surmount this onslaught of the harpies and experience a kind of spiritual resurrection.

The next song, Please Re-adjust Your Time, was a deafening musical and philosophical revelation to Jennifer Cutting when she first heard it. Who could resist Ian A.’s invitation:

If you’re willing we can go out through the mountains
If you’re willing we can teat up the sky
If you’re willing we can be the waters of the fountain
If you’d re-adjust your time

If you’re willing we can go out through a thousand years
If you’re willing we can cross the borderline
If you’re willing we can go out through the Universe
If you’d re-adjust your time

Oh now then won’t you
Won’t you re-adjust your time (song quoted in its entirety)

Jennifer was more than willing, and has been trying to re-adjust her time ever since, in order to live up to this Blakean vision. Ian A. was not merely going “across” the Universe, like John Lennon, but through it, as well as time itself, to plumb its deepest secrets. And, most irresistibly, Ian A. was singing the chorus in his plummiest voice (“wohhhn’t you, wohhhn’t you”)!

After this overwhelming revelation, the listener needs a little relief, which is offered by the instrumental Goblets & Elms, a track which some critics of the time dismissed as “little relief” and “for the birds,” due to the actual avian soundtrack accompanying the guitar. Ian A., with due modesty and perspicacity, describes the cut as “a little instrumental thing” on the lyric sheet.

Next, on Shining Grey, Ian A. offers his scathing commentary on the entire British educational system, in a musical setting that reflects the title. It’s obviously autobiographical:

Shortly after going in
You discover what the plan is
Even if all you can do is sing
They’re gonna make you another scientist
Before you’re even out of short pants
They’ve fixed your career, you’ve no chance

Some carping critics of the time, disputing all that Ian A. could do was sing, suggested that he should have gone along with the plan, despite the dubious gain to science. They also unkindly noted that Bob Dylan in Subterranean Homesick Blues had used “short pants” more succinctly and effectively in a lyric of social commentary. But Ian A. had already pressed on:

And so you’re sent out in the world
Without a clue of what life is
They’ve killed the creativity you had
And you’ve never quite made a scientist
With a vague mathematical flair
They’ve encouraged to try and keep you square.

The critics agree here: whatever Ian A.’s original, alleged creativity, it was long killed before he wrote this song. They also concurred that Royal York Crescent showed that Ian A. was without a clue as to what life was, that the “they” of the song had indeed turned Ian A. “shining grey” and that Ian A.’s weedy image (cross-legged, wearing large glasses and a cartoon dragon) on the bilious yellow album cover displayed a fundamental squareness.

After Shining Grey’s final exhortation (Don’t let your children in this system/We can’t let it go on again”), the listener again craves respite. So again comes an instrumental: The Worm, NOT autobiographical, in which Ian A. achieves a curious burrowing sound on his guitar,

Now comes the clash of the Titans: In Hero, Ian A. confronts and overcomes Bob Dylan. Plaintively, Ian A. acknowledges his artistic debt, but asserts that he has left Dylan behind:

When I was just a young man
Only half way up my trade
When I was just a young man
Yours were the choices that I made
But now your last string is broken
There’s rust on your shining steel
Now your new Dawn has broken
But your new morning just ain’t real.

New Morning was Dylan’s “comeback” album of 1970, but it obviously couldn’t hold a candle to Royal York Crescent. And Ian A. had lost faith in Bob! John Lennon, in that same year, on the song God off Plastic Ono Band, jumped on Ian A.’s bandwagon to intone, “I don’t believe in Zimmerman.” The combined artistic onslaught of Ian A. Anderson and John Lennon broke Dylan’s spirit--never again would he scale the artistic heights of the sixties.

But for Ian A., this Twilight of the Gods was a “sad morning,” as he observes in Silent Night No. 2, which for some reason is still not as well known as Silent Night No. 1.

Sitting here silently
Thinking oh so quietly
The night has been so long
Sitting here silently
Thinking oh so quietly
Where did I go wrong
But the time just before the light
Is the time it all starts dawning
The time just before the light
Brings on another sad morning.

Again, the benighted critics of the time suggested that Ian A. went wrong when he entered the studio to record this album. Even Ian A. at the end of the song was “Wondering who’s the blame is” (the engineer’s? his backup musicians’? his enabling friends’?).

Fortunately, the album moves on to Mr. Cornelius, perhaps Ian A.’s masterpiece and certainly his attempt to emulate Ballad of a Thin Man. In lyrics rivaling the best of modern poetry, the songwriter attempts to mirror the absurdity of his own life and music. The song must be quoted in full so that its surrealistic allegory and complex vision can be appreciated (if not understood). Apparently, the working title of the album was Bond on Bond.

A Chinese horseman came in for breakfast
And tied his wooden donkey to the wall
Sat down to eat his toast and cornflakes
From the bowl provided
Didn’t seem to mind the cat at all
Singing “Mr. Cornelius, the reader waits
For you to give the call”

A clergyman in his robe of orange
Crept in and ate the donkey as it lay
The Chinese horseman took a cycle
From the belt around his middle
Mounted up and quickly rode away
Singing “Mr. Cornelius, the reader waits
To hear what you will say”

The clergyman crept in the other window
And asked the cat exactly what it heard
The cat lifted up it’s (sic) head
And ate the man in one quick swallow
Rolled on it’s (sic) back and loudly purred
Singing “Mr. Cornelius, the reader waits
For you to say a word”

Mr. Cornelius, where do you think you go
On the morning of the show

The staff lined up before my window
The Chinaman his bicycle did lend
The clergyman fed the donkey
To the cat who looked quite human
So began another ugly trend
Singing “Mr. Cornelius, a donkey
Is a clergymans (sic) best friend”

If John Lennon was the walrus, was Ian A. Anderson the donkey? In the intense symbolism of Ian A., it was clearly a clergyman-eat-donkey world. Mr. Cornelius is his counterpart to Dylan’s Mr. Jones, as one who is unable to respond to Ian A.’s vision. Unfortunately, contemporary critics were only too happy to respond, dismissing this profound meditation as pretentious drivel. To which Ian A. would reply, “where do you think you go/on the morning of the show.” Tragically, there were to be none too many such mornings for Ian A., whose shows fast began to dwindle, as audiences were unable to keep pace with his blinding artistic vision.

But Ian A. could take comfort in his most philosophical song, The Maker, with a vision surpassing any of Wallace Stevens or Kahlil Gibran:

The world is not round
It’s certainly not square
It’s flat, it’s got edges
It’s not going anywhere

Even if, like the world, Ian A.’s career was not going anywhere, he could still console himself that he was, like the title of the next relieving instrumental The Man in the High Castle. Sensing that his audience was about to disappear, Ian A. invoked The Last Conjuring,

The golden egg of the timeless bird
Lies in a mountain pass
To be found by the Demons searching the world
And win the war at last
The Witches Empire comes to an end
Their king is stricken down
Sorcery is lost from the world
And peace once more is found

Alas, not even the “golden egg” of Royal York Crescent could keep the “Witches Empire” of carping critics from triumphing and banishing this great album to artistic obscurity. But Ian A. had sensed the upcoming turmoil of the seventies, when his vision would be ignored. His next song was a cover of Geoff Muldaur’s Ginger Man--Muldaur had joined the cult of the sinister Mel Lyman. “He’s got that power/Bad habits too/That Ginger Man will make a mess of you.” Clearly, Ian A. identified himself with this apocalyptic and sexually ravenous figure.

That same year of John Lennon’s Working Class Hero, Ian A. assumed that he would be attacked by the “Working Man” of the album’s final track, who declares:

We’ll show the hairy fairies they must pay
Grab a bottle, smash their hides
If the coppers come, no need to hide
They’ll help us kick ’em
Then take them away

On this note of impending martyrdom and a discordant note of God Save the Queen (anticipating the whole punk movement), Royal York Crescent concludes, followed by an excerpt of a song played backwards (some ignorant critics suggested that this technique would have improved the entire album), to foreshadow the musically retrograde seventies.

Still, despite the critics’ conspiracy, a quarter century has not dimmed the luster of this deeply influential, prophetic album. It humbled Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, and John Lennon, and inspired Jennifer Cutting. Even if The New Saint George was unable to scale its artistic summits , it inspired them to try the foothills. And Ian A. has been resting on his laurels ever since. But Royal York Crescent is being discovered with renewed incredulity by new generations, who hear its clarion call: “Wohhhn’t you. wohhn’t you re-adjust your time.”

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