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Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music Paperback – May 10, 2011

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this massive, beguiling history of 20th-century British folk music and its legacy, music journalist Young surveys the scene from the Edwardian revival through its postwar coffee-house heyday to contemporary outcroppings. He probes its influences on other genres, from the classical music of Ralph Vaughan Williams to the plangent Renaissance-ish harmonies of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven"; the book's headliners are folk-rock luminaries of the '60s and '70s: Fairport Convention, the Incredible String Band, Steeleye Span, and Nick Drake. Young roots his narrative in analyses of folk traditions and the eternal English nostalgia for a mythic rural past, but he also treats the folkie eruption as a very modern reaction to the discontents of industrial society. The folk culture he celebrates is really that of the musicians themselves: their gypsy wanderings, their clubs and festivals and country-house idylls, their debauches and overdoses, their fashion oscillations between hobbit outfits and pagan nudity. American readers' eyes may glaze at the endless litany of groups they have never heard of, but many will be inspired to rediscover these bands by Young's evocations of their music—and the romantic yearnings it expressed. Photos. (May)
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“Rob Young's ambitious Electric Eden presents a flip side to the well-known story of the evolution of electric rock in Britain in the 1960s, a story of the rediscovery of England's native folk music in the early 20th century by the likes of William Morris and Cecil Sharp, who went from town to town recording and notating the music that would hold great sway with those musicians who became associated with England's less loud, more earthy music--the likes of Vashti Bunyan, Davy Graham, The Incredible String Band, Pentangle, Fairport Convention and Sandy Denny, Richard Thompson, John Martyn, John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, Nick Drake, and many others would each deploy traditional folk music to their own ends in various recombinant ways, writing new songs laced with the idealism of the exploding sixties youth culture, while paying homage to the spirit and traditions of old. Eventually the tide of this music swelled to inspire some of the most influential names in electric rock, from the Beatles and Pink Floyd to Led Zeppelin and David Bowie. Thoroughly researched and well written, this book uncovers the secret history of British popular music in the sixties and beyond. Highly recommended.” ―Lee Ranaldo, Sonic Youth

“An exhaustive, widely researched, lovingly written book about the mythic roots of folk music originating in the UK . . . Beautifully panoramic in scope.” ―Suzanne Vega

“Encyclopedic and often mesmerizing . . . [Electric Eden] creates its own sort of timeless music.” ―Tom Nolan, San Francisco Chronicle

“Rob Young has written such a richly detailed, evocative, and readable account of Britain's fascination with folk music that it's hard to believe it exists. Electric Eden begins modestly as an account of folk rock in the sixties and seventies, and soon is sweeping boldly through time, turning up an alternative and often darker history of England, and subtly undermining the received wisdom on tradition, nostalgia, pop song, and high modernist theories of culture. Those who care about American music have much to learn from this book.” ―John Szwed, author of Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World

“Rob Young's theme--the visionary instinct--allows him to treat British music of the 20th Century as a continuous narrative rather than one that begins or ends with rock music. As such, Electric Eden deserves to be shelved next to Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise.” ―Wesley Stace, author of Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer

“The author is blissfully quotable . . . These lines about the early years of the British psychedelic movement are so terrific that they contain the seeds of a sour, funny, lovely Philip Larkin-ish poem . . . Electric Eden is a lucid and patriotic guided tour, as vigorous as one of Heathcliff's strolls across the moors . . . [Young's] book throws plenty of lightning, and it will have you scrambling to download some of the music that's filling his head.” ―Dwight Garner, The New York Times

Electric Eden is far more ambitious than a simple retelling of the past. In sync with his assertion that folk music echoes across time, Young's narrative slips fluidly forward, backward, and through the cracks of canonical music history. And he doesn't just stick to music; like Greil Marcus with a thirst for ancient paganism and postmodern urban theory, Young weaves a poetic, philosophical tapestry as rich and heady as the songs he champions. Nick Drake and Sandy Denny are voices from a séance; vintage album covers are tarot cards to be decoded. Films like The Wicker Man and books like The Hobbit loom in the background. As the high-decibel dystopias of glam and punk begin to eclipse folk-rock's heyday, astronauts takes a place at the table alongside bards and druids.” ―Jason Heller, The A.V. Club

Electric Eden is a stunning achievement.” ―Simon Reynolds, author of Rip It Up and Start Again

“I'm currently on my sixth album purchase because of this book. The guy should be getting a kickback from Amazon, he really should.” ―Robin Turner, Caught by the River

“Hugely ambitious . . . A thoroughly enjoyable read and likely to remain the best-written overview [of the modern British folk phenomenon] for a long time . . . I've already made several precious musical discoveries thanks to this book and I expect to make more.” ―Michel Faber, Guardian Book of the Week

“Young's grasp of context is enviable, his knowledge encyclopaedic . . . Electric Eden constructs a new mythography out of old threads, making antiquity glow with an eerie hue.” ―Peter Murphy, Sunday Business Post

“Stunning . . . The thread of mapping modern instruments on to traditional folk tunes leads Young from Peter Warlock to Bert Jansch, Steeleye Span and the Aphex Twin, via the bucolic psychedelia of the Incredible String Band, the Beatles and Pink Floyd. This is no easy path to navigate but Young rarely wavers.” ―Bob Stanley, Sunday Times

“A comprehensive and absorbing exploration of Britain's folk music, which serves, too, as a robust defence of the genre . . . Folk, be it traditional, mystical, mythical, radical or experimental, is a living, breathing form, Young believes. It is everywhere, in all the music we hear, in every song we sing. Electric Eden defies you to disagree.” ―Dan Cairns, Sunday Times


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 672 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (May 10, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0865478562
  • ISBN-13: 978-0865478565
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 9.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #373,170 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By John L Murphy TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 11, 2011
Format: Paperback
Rob Young's quest spans the last century's search for pastoral evocations and folk recreations of a British quest to summon its lingering "ghost memories". Over 600 pages, narrated with verve and ease, this editor at The Wire music magazine conjures up the contradictions of sound technology harnessed to rural moods, and an urban audience longing for antiquarian lore. In a nation built along Roman roads, the lure of open space limits the adventurer. In a land so long civilized among landscapes tamed, modern freedom seekers turn to the imaginary tale, the mythological ritual as liberating paths. For the British listener, nostalgia and fulfillment lurk in a golden age before machines, yet one which plugs into electricity, and exotic instruments and moods, to convey a retelling of the elusive past.

He begins with the "inward exodus" by singer Vashti Bunyan, whose 1968-69 trek away from London by horse-drawn caravan up finally into Gaelic-speaking Scotland symbolizes this era's idealism. Young's discography lengthens as hippies crowd out folksingers; Bunyan's search brings her to Donovan, producer Joe Boyd, and his clients The Incredible String Band, who epitomize the fashions and styles she imagined but did not know. In "the dual landscape/ dreamscape of Britain's interior", rock met and blurred and blended with folk.

The preliminary section, "Music from Neverland", efficiently explains the contexts for this Aquarian Age. Young charts the contributions of Cecil Sharp and Francis Child as song and ballad and dance collectors. Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams enriched classical forms with folk melodies drawn from the last remnants of the oral tradition, its untutored composers from the peasantry.
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Sometimes a reader really connects with a book. I bought an early edition of ELECTRIC EDEN off of Amazon UK after reading a review of it in the Financial Times. Over the past few years I had been listening to a lot of the artists this book talks about - Incredible String Band, Annie Briggs, John Martyn, etc. I liked the music, but only had a vague idea how the genre had developed. This book puts it all together in clear and magnificent detail. There is a lot of background on the roots of English folk songs, and on the early recording artists who introducted them to a new audience. The book follows it up with the great British folk explosion of the late 1960s. Rob Young goes into a lot of detail on the battles between the purists and the reinterpreters, how the artists ended up influencing each other, and how they influenced the broader music world in their wake. The scene in the 1960s and 70s was very fluid. Many of these musicians lived together and played together in frequently changing combinations. The book's depth is amazing, and the writing is completely engaging. I learned about so many musicians and bands I had ever heard of before. For any one interested in the British folk scene and its influences, this book is indispensible.
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I have been interested in this music my whole life and my IPod is full of 1970s era British folk and folk rock. This book tells the whole story. Starting with William Morris, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Cecil Sharp, it traces the folk revival leading up to Fairport Convention's Liege and Leif, which the author considers the "high water mark" of English folk rock. From there the book spreads out to include the well-known and obscure British Folk Rock bands like Mr. Fox and such.

The final part of the book is less sucessful and deals with the decline of British Folk after 1975 and includes a lot of modern stuff that was not that interesting to me. But the first 500 pages is more than worth the money. Just be warned that once you start reading this you will be hooked and not be able to put it down until you get to the end. Very well researched and very well written with lots of little insider turns of phrase and anecdotes. Highly recommended!
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After a teaser of an opening chapter that chronicles the story of Vashti Bunyan, Rob Young traces a thread of sensibility beginning with William Morris' utopian fantasy "News From Nowhere" (he doesn't mention that "News From Nowhere, like all utopian fantasies, is deadly dull); through British composers like Vaughan Williams, Holst, Britten etc. who incorporated British folk music into their work; through the song-collecting of Cecil Sharp; through the political activism of Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger; through pioneers of eclectic, multicultural sounds like Davy Graham and Bert Jansch and the groundbreaking DADGAD guitar tuning; to the heyday of Fairport Convention, Pentangle, The Incredible String Band, Steeleye Span etc. Exactly how that thread of sensibility is defined I'd be hard pressed to say, but Young comes close with "folk is a sonic 'shabby chic' that contains elements of the uncanny and eerie, as well as an antique veneer, a whiff of Britain's pagan ancestry."

Unfortunately, though Young is an engaging writer with valuable insights, he is not a reliable historian. He writes, for example, that

'[Donovan] released the double album "A Gift From a Flower to a Garden" in 1967... its sleeve included a picture of Donovan in Rishikesh, India, where he had just been staying with the Beatles and other celebrity truth-seekers on a high-profile creative retreat under the tutelage of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. He flew back high as a magic carpet with a pipe-load of Eastern mysticism and a newly piqued interest in Celtic medievalism and Victoriana, manifested in songs such as "Guinevere," "Legend of a Child Girl Linda[sic]," and "Season of the Witch.
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