Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Shelagh McDonald,The Lady Who Vanished.

Kevin is a musician friend of mine. He sent me the Trees album a couple of years ago that I hadn't heard for 30 years. Kev phones me up occasionally and we have chats about music and one evening I mentioned to him about Annie Briggs and Vashti Bunyan and Kev said ,"There's another great singer who disappeared as well,Shelagh McDonald,she used to live in Bristol and she was really good,check her out". When I had got my 'American Gothic' out of my system I thought,"What shall I buy next?". Then I remembered what Kevin had said so I looked on the net to see if there were any Shelagh McDonald albums available and there were three, 'The Shelagh McDonald Album','Stargazer' and 'Let No Man Steal Your Thyme' which was a double album comprising of her first two albums and other earlier recordings,demo's and out-takes etc and that is the one I opted for. A few days later the CD plopped through the letter box. The first thing I noticed on opening the package was how nice looking she was,the elfin mystical looking long haired hippy chick of the early 70's (See pictures). Opening the accompanying booklet I was amazed to see the list of great musicians who played on her albums, it was the gliterati of the British folk/rock scene of the time.Richard Thompson,Keith Christmas,Gerry Conway,Andy Roberts,Keith Tippet,Gordon Huntley,Pat Donaldson,Dave Mattacks,Danny Thompson and even Katie Kissoon on backing vocals plus lots of others. What an line-up of talent. Also the notes told the  story of Shelagh up to 2005 when this compilation was released. Not a lot is known about her early life except that she came from the Edinburgh area of Scotland.She discovered a talent for singing and playing the guitar and when she left school in the late 60's she left home and headed for Bristol where she soon made a name for herself playing in the clubs of Bristol's thriving folk scene and she began an on off relationship with singer Keith Christmas. (I pinched the top photo with Keith and Shelagh from Keiths Facebook page,I hope he doesn't mind) Soon her talent was spotted and she headed for the bright lights of London and a record contract. Her first album received lukewarm reviews but her second one 'Stargazer' was a hit with critics and a growing following of fans. Karl Dallas one of the leading music journalists hailed her as the new Sandy Denny and she was compared to Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell. Just when she seemed set for fame and fortune though her world began to fall apart. One fateful night she took a tab of acid and the experience left her a psychological mess. Even weeks later she was still suffering from horrible hallucinations. I have every sympathy.British LSD in the 70's was the strongest in the world up to Operation Julie in 1977 which took it off the streets. To borrow from Allen Ginsberg I saw some of the best minds of my generation destroyed by LSD.It al ways seemed to be the sensitive,creative types who suffered the most. In desperation Shelagh headed back to Scotland and did not contact any of her old friends and for 33 years up to the release of this compilation cd and the sleeve notes being written nothing was heard of her again.She had completely vanished.
So then I put on the first cd and the opening couple of tracks were not that impressive to me.They were early recordings from a radio series called Dungeon Folk.However when the third track called Mirage played then I was really impressed.She had made the transition from folk singer to folk-rock singer. That whole side was really good but CD 2 went from really good to quite stunning. It is a mini-masterpiece,As good as Fairport Convention,Pentangle, Nick Drake or any of the luminaries of the folk rock scene of the time. The production by Sandy Robertson is quite superb as well. Every track on the Stargazer album is brilliant. The lyrics of Liz's Song almost suggest she was planning to disappear but that could be just a coincidence. Some tracks like Odyssey and The Road To Paradise are like progressive rock. I would have loved to have seen her with this band in concert,that would have been really something. Sweet Sunlight is a beautiful song and her voice is exquisite. Stargazer,the title track speaks for itself . I particularly enjoyed Canadian Man which has a real Joni Mitchell influence, Good Times has some great funky saxophone, Dowie Dens Of Yarrow would have graced any Sandy Denny album.Spin and City's Cry are also great.The latter with the unmistakeable sound of Richard Thompson's guitar reminding me of Fairports album What We Did On Our Holidays.I can't praise this album enough.
I looked on Wikipedia to find out more information and discovered there is one final twist in the tale.When this album was released in 2005 it prompted an article about Shelagh in The Independent by Charles Donavon. This led to similar copycat articles in other papers including the Scottish Daily Mail. In November 2005 Shelagh read the article and turned up at the newspaper office to tell her story. She revealed that after her bad acid experience she had totally lost the ability to sing and she had worked in a department store till 1981. Then she met a hippy bookseller (A man after my own heart! ) called George Farquhar and they adopted an itinerant lifestyle travelling around the Scottish Islands and abroad and eventually lived in a tent,camping wherever they could. She told the newspaper that her voice had returned and she had started writing songs again. Since that visit to the newspaper 5 years ago though nothing else has been heard from Shelagh and she has disappeared back into the mists of obscurity from which she had so briefly emerged.
                                                                              I'm not expected Shelagh McDonald to rekindle her career now but it would be great if more people discovered her music and realised what a great talent she was.I urge you to listen to the song 'Stargazer',the choral ending is quite brilliant.Also thank you very much to Kevin for telling me about Shelagh McDonald.

                There is a very happy ending to this story.I received a message yesterday from a fan of Shelagh's to say that she is playing her first official gig in 40 years next week in Camden Town.That is brilliant and I wish her every success with that.I hope it leads to more dates.The gig is sold out apparently and I found out too late or I would have loved to have seen her live.Anyway I looked on the web and found that she had done an interview on Scottish community radio in December and this is really good.Shelagh is on at about 19 minutes in and she sings a few songs as well. Her guitar playing is superb and her voice is as good as ever.I'd love to see her at the Village Pump Festival right here in Westbury. Her old friend Keith Christmas is often on so it would be great if Shelagh appeared one year and it would also be great if she made a new album.We shall see.Anyway you can hear Shelagh here-

Another update. I just looked on youtube and found some recent footage of Shelagh which I have put on this page.


Philip Ward said...

Well said, Pat. You might be interested in the posting on Shelagh on my own blog.

Pat said...

Thanks a lot for your comment Philip and for the link.I just had a read of your blog page and it is really good.I'll tell my facebook friends about it.

All the best,


Kazooboy said...

Another great post. I've enjoyed checking out the different artists/musicians you've mentioned in your blog over the past few years. You've got a good instinct for quality English folk. I think some CDs in the future will bear a "As endorsed by Pat Corley" sticker just to get them to sell. Keep writing.

walterotter said...

caught up with my friend Vic on the diamond tonight he told me he was going to see Shelagh McDonald perform at the Blue Note in Camden Town next week, we've owned Shelagh's albums since the 70s and for many years visits to the south wight and Vic's cottage culminated in a mug of cocoa and watching the coal black sky littered with stars as Shelagh McDonald sang Stargazer, should be a cracking gig, sadly can't make it. Mike

Pat said...

Thank you very much for your comment Walter.I just added a postscript to my story.I wish i had heard of the Camden Town gig earlier but hopefully Shelagh will do more live gigs soon.

All the best,


albajammy9 said...

Great article, Pat ~ good to hear about Shelagh, love finding out about "new" singers to me & checking them out, too ..

gl1963 said...

Contrary to popular myth, LSD does not cause hallucination, and doesn't last for weeks. Either she (unknowingly) took something else, or made the story up. I find the idea of her living in the woods in the dead of winter with her hapless husband not very plausible.

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