I’ll never forget the first time I heard Ship Sets Its Sail, one of the standout tracks from Wish I Was the sole album by Mabel Joy. A gorgeous melody that skips along, a vocal performance both redolent of, and in many respects the equal of some of the great singers I cherished from the 60s and 70s, it has become one of my favourite songs from any era.
Yet the the album from whence the song came, Wish I Was, is one of the 90s indie music’s very best kept secrets. And the tune is the just one of many wonderful moments that the band, in its various guises, gave created over the years. Look on this disc, which has just been reissued by the wonderful Hanky Panky Records, as not just an outstanding example of genius British songwriting and musicianship, but also as the key that will unlock many other stunning musical treasure chests.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Exactly who were Mabel Joy and what were they doing sitting rather moodily in field in Hertfordshire at the turn on the nineties?
The Palace Of Light
The band’s journey began at Manchester University in the early 80s where students Mark Brend, Matthew Gayle and Geoff Smith, fuelled by a fascination with the more melodic and ambitious end of British indie music (think Prefab Sport, Aztec Camera and The Smiths) and the art school psychedelia (The Church, Doll By Doll) that was emerging began to create their own music.
Seeking a wider audience for the band who had chosen the tasteful, but rather grandiose moniker The Palace Of Light (Matt isn’t sure where the name came from but suspects it could be a reference to a Doll By Doll song), sent out their demos to what they hoped would be sympathetic record companies. It didn’t take too long for specialist psychedelic label Psycho to bite and by early 1985 the band had no fewer than three tracks on the label’s sampler album Waking Dream.
Waking Dream was a curious album that mixed the poppy beat pop of Mood Six with the more ambitious, and some might say proggy noises of The Magic Mushroom Band. The three POL tracks really stood out. They were clearly a band from the early 80s, this early version of Bitter Seal wasn’t too far removed The Smiths, but there their musicianship and intelligence made them stand apart from their peers. They also had Geoff the possessor of a stunning tone and timbre whose voice could swoop and soar in way that recalled both the younger Scott Walker and even easy greats like Tony Christie.
The tracks also caught the ear of a key player on the British indie scene – Phil Smee. Since the early 80s Smee had been piloting a psychedelic label called Bam Caruso which had stunned many serious music fans with its wonderful Rubble collections of rare and rather wonderful 60s psych obscurities. But Smee had bigger ambitions for the label – he wanted contemporary bands and psych combos in mid eighties Britain were rather slim on the ground.
So he must have thought he struck gold when he heard the band’s demos. The band, three of whom were ensconced Monkees style in a flat in London, happily signed up with the label and with new drummer Tom on board began plotting The Palace Of Light album Beginning Here And Traveling Outward.
By 1985 the quartet of serious music collectors had each been bringing new influences to the band’s sound. Scott Walker’s first five albums had become a primary influence, but the band had also discovered eccentric American folkers like Fred Neil – best known for his stunning lament Dolphins – Mickey Newbury and Cyrus Farrer. And way before the trinity of Tim’s (Rose, Hardin and especially Buckley) became fashionable the band were experimenting with covers of tracks like Buzzin’ Fly. A residency at Jackson’s Lane community centre in London’s Highgate enabled them to hone their sound even further mixing original songs with covers of Tim Hardin’s Reason To Believe and the Tom Rush via Scott Walker classic No regrets.
Smee was also generous in the budget for the album enabling the boys to add strings and an experienced producer to fill out their sound.
Some years later Smee told the Spring Records blog – ‘The album that The Palace Of Light, made for Bam Caruso, ‘Beginning Here and Travelling Outward is a long lost eighties classic. Smee remembers that the album was ‘light years ahead, in terms of content and production of virtually any other band´s first offering… textures of sound , woven like a complex web, overlay the songs, (all originals) and turn each and every one into a mini-symphony…It’s 1988 and the art of music making is alive and well in the hearts of at least four young people called The Palace of Light.’
The album sold around 2000 copies, which seemed to please everyone, and has since become something of a cult classic. You can hear it now though via iTunes
Buoyed by its success and a good response to their gigs the band reconvened in London in the late 80s for second attempt at creating a folk rock, baroque country-flecked masterpiece. Before the new album was begun though a single, Books, was recorded, but not properly released. By then the band had evolved in both their personnel and their name.
Out went The Palace Of Light and in came Mabel Joy a nod to the Mickey Newbury album that was feeding much of their new music Frisco Mabel Joy. They also gained a new drummer, Tom. Smee, whose Bam Caruso label seemed to taking a mini hiatus as he focused on the excellent Strange Things magazine, once again agreed to a new record out.
After the semi- orchestrated psychedelic pomp of The Palace Of Light album the band took something of a sidestep in Wish I Was – the Mabel Joy debut. The band’s key influences were now more transatlantic and although the songs still had very English sensibilities there was a whiff of country music seeping through.
Within a few years many British bands would be nailing their colours to the mast in adopting musical styles influenced by Gram Parsons, Hank Williams and many others, but in the early 90s in the UK very few other acts shared Mabel Joy’s key influences.
The band also wanted a slightly different sound than on their debut. ‘I wanted something that was more natural and organic, yet at the same time featured some Nashville type arrangements,’ says Matt. ‘We still had the strings, courtesy of semi-permanent viola player Emma, but they were less prominent and more subtle than on the Palace of Light album.’
The album was recorded quickly too with all the songs completed in just a few days. ‘We were very well rehearsed, remembers Geoff, ‘We had the arrangements before we went in and were able to very quickly put the backing tracks down.’
‘‘Another key difference between Mabel Joy and The Palace Of Light,’ remembers Matt, ‘was that Phil Smee paid for the recording of the first album where as we paid for the Mabel Joy album – needless to say it got finished a lot quicker.
Wish I Was once again featured songs from both of the group’s tunesmiths Geoff and Mark, but this was no Lennon and McCartney type collaboration with it being obvious who wrote what. Matt attributes much of this to the fact that its was him and Geoff who came up with most of the arrangements. ‘It all fell rather seamlessly into place. It does sound like a very unified album.’
The album was finished in August 1992 and to celebrate the band spent a day or so creating a suitably pastoral photograph for the cover in a wood in Hertfordshire. Yet bizarrely, the album didn’t actually get its official release – CD only – until a year or so later.
Smee and the band did their best to plug the album but it would in no way trouble the chart compilers. Geoff remembers that within six months its had sold less than 100 copies making it one of the 90s prime indie obscurities. It didn’t help too that an album by a band that were dabbling in Americana came out just as Blur and their Brit pop cohorts were crashing the charts and championing all things English.
It is not surprise then that soon after Wish I Was the name Mabel Joy was buried and with another change of drummer the band morphed into Farina.
Wish I Was was largely forgotten then and even Matt harboured some reservations about it. ‘For me it was all a bit lightweight, too melodic and poppy, the sound was very thin. For a while I couldn’t bring myself to listen to it.’
Yet when Matt slipped the CD recently on he admits to being rather pleasantly surprised. ‘It has stood up really well. There are some really strong songs on there.’
In my opinion Matt is being way too harsh. Sure it might it might lack the grandeur of The Palace of Light album, but Wish I Was, in my opinion, is all the better for it. It is impeccably produced and arranged and some of its songs rank as among the best of the first part of the 90s.
The absolute must-hear track is Geoff’s Ship Sets Its Sail, a beautiful country-ish pop song with a lovely hook and soaring chorus that perfectly complements Geoff’s voice. Matt recalls being very proud of the song at the time. ‘I think it is very original and doesn’t sound like anyone else at all.’
The other tune that has recently been on the receiving end of some very fulsome praise from influential music blogger Aug Stone – is Mark’s Sylvan Road. An exquisitely crafted tune for me it reminds me of the very best of The Go-Betweens, a very high compliment.
Matt also loves another of Mark’s songs Pilot Ship, a tune that had taken a long time to make it on to disc – Matt remembers Mark playing the song during their University days.
It does make me wonder what kind of reception Mabel Joy would have got had Wish I Was been released today. It would sit quite nicely next to The Leisure Society and Fleet Foxes on the virtual shelves. Like Big Star’s debut, Scott Walker’s fourth album and The Church’s epic Priest=Aura I think it was largely ignored as it was totally at odds with almost everything else that was going on at the time. Yet like those three albums, which it shares little with musically, but everything spiritually, it deserves to go on and become music that people will cherish. And I am sure that in time it will.
These days Matt, Geoff, Mark and Tom are all still making music and all three should have new music released in the next year or so. Tom drums with Mysterious Wheels, Mark releases music as Ghostrider, Geoff’s solo album is due soon and Matt mainly composes classical music. Like Wish I Was, and indeed everything the trio collaborated on since the 80s, all three are sure to be compelling listens.