2020 marks the 40th anniversary of the release of Penguin Eggs, the influential fifth studio album from Nic Jones.
Nicolas Paul Jones (born 9 January 1947) is an English folk singer, fingerstyle guitarist and fiddle player who was most active in the years 1964–1982. He recorded five solo albums, and has been a frequent guest performer.
Nic Jones was born on 9 January 1947 in Orpington, London, where his father owned a newsagent's shop. The family moved to Brentwood in Essex when Nic was two, and he later attended Brentwood School. He first learned to play guitar as a young teenager and early musical influences included such artists as The Shadows, Duane Eddy, Chet Atkins, Wes Montgomery and Ray Charles. His interest in folk music was aroused by an old school friend, Nigel Paterson (musician) who was a member of a folk band called The Halliard. When the members of the group decided to turn professional, one of them left to pursue a different career and Nic was invited to take his place. Whilst playing with The Halliard, Jones learned to play the fiddle and also how to research and arrange traditional material. The group toured the UK between 1964 and 1968, eventually splitting up when two of the members decided to pursue careers outside the folk music business.
In 1968 Jones married Julia Seymour and they eventually were to have three children together – Daniel (d), Helen and Joe. The couple settled in Chelmsford and Jones decided to pursue a career as a solo folk artist. He started playing professional gigs in 1969, and in 1970 released his first album, Ballads and Songs for Trailer Records. Between 1971 and 1980 Jones recorded four more solo albums – three more for Trailer Records and his last, "Penguin Eggs", for Topic. Apart from Jones' trademark vocals, fingerstyle guitar and fiddle, the records also introduced guest instrumentalists playing piano, harmonium, bodhran, melodeon and recorders.
During his career, Jones was much in demand as a session musician and he guested on albums by leading UK artists such as June Tabor, Shirley Collins, Barbara Dickson, Richard Thompson and many others. He was also a member of short-lived folk group "Bandoggs", comprising Jones, Tony Rose and Peter & Chris Coe, one eponymously titled album was released in 1978.
On 28 February 1982 Jones was involved in a serious road traffic accident. Returning home by car after a gig at Glossop Folk Club, on the road between Peterborough and March in Cambridgeshire, Jones, tired, inadvertently drove into a lorry pulling out of Whittlesea brickworks. He suffered serious injuries, including many broken bones and brain damage, and required intensive care treatment and hospitalisation for a total of eight months. His injuries left him with permanent physical co-ordination problems, unable to play the guitar as well as before, and no longer able to play the fiddle at all. The accident effectively ended his career as a touring and recording professional musician.
Jones now lives in Devon and continues to play guitar and write songs for his own pleasure and enjoys playing chess. His wife Julia set up the record label Mollie Music which has issued four albums of re-mastered live recordings from Jones's early career.
The accompanying book to the Topic Records 70 year anniversary boxed set Three Score and Ten lists Penguin Eggs as one of the classic albums. with "the Humpbacked Whale" from the album as the first track on the first CD in the set and "Clyde Water" from Game Set Match as track seven on the seventh CD.
On 5 August 2010, after an absence of 28 years, Jones made a return to the stage. He appeared at an event dedicated to his music at Sidmouth Folk Week. Jones sang three songs with one of his former bands Bandoggs and commented that he would "consider performing again – but wanted to sing his own songs." In 2012 Nic Jones (with musicians Joseph Jones – Nic's son – and Belinda O'Hooley) performed his first solo concerts for 30 years at the Warwick, Cambridge, Wadebridge and Towersey folk festivals. On 22 September 2012, Nic Jones was presented with The Gold Badge of the English Folk Dance & Song Society at a special concert at Cecil Sharp House, London. It is the highest honour the E.F.D.S.S. can confer on a musician. On 30 January 2013 Jones was named Folk Singer of the Year at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. On 23 August 2013 the Nic Jones Trio (comprising Nic, Joseph Jones and Belinda O'Hooley) performed on the opening night of that year's Shrewsbury Folk Festival, in the course of which it was announced from the stage that it was to be their final performance.
Jones developed an intricate, rhythmically complex fingerpicking and strumming guitar style. He started off playing in standard guitar tuning (EADGBE) but then gravitated towards a variety of open tunings after hearing the recordings of Martin Carthy, whom he acknowledges as an important influence. These included tunings such as the well-known DADGAD, but also variants of Bb,C and G major/minor/modal tunings heard on such tracks as for"Canada-I-O" (Bb F Bb F Bb C) and similarly but with a capo for "Billy Don't Weep For Me". Jones was also influenced by classical and flamenco guitar playing.
Early in his career he played a small-bodied Epiphone acoustic guitar. He then played a Fylde Oberon acoustic guitar, before moving on to a Fylde Orsino, which better suited his style. He used a plastic thumb pick and "bare" fingers. Jones plucked the strings with some force causing the strings to lift up and rebound against the fretboard – accounting for the "spitting", slapping sound characteristic of Jones' guitar accompaniments. Another important feature was a regular percussive sound made by striking downwards with the middle and ring fingers of the right hand on damped bass strings close to or above the bridge of the guitar. This is akin to the technique used by banjo players called frailing. This can be heard to good effect on such Jones tracks as "Ten Thousand miles" (on The Noah's Ark Trap, 1977) and "Master Kilby" (on From the Devil to a Stranger, 1978). Jones also skilfully used selective string damping to achieve other percussive effects such as on "Billy Don't Weep For Me" (on From the Devil to a Stranger).
A feature of his later, mature guitar style is the introduction of subtle counterpoint lines that complement the lead vocals. This can be heard on such songs as "Miles Weatherhill", "The Golden Glove", "Courting is a Pleasure".
Penguin Eggs is the fifth and final studio album by English folk musician and singer Nic Jones, released by Topic Records in 1980. After establishing himself as a sought after figure on the British folk revival scene, Jones recorded Penguin Eggs with producer Tony Engle; it consists of traditional folk songs arranged by Jones. Exemplified throughout the album is Jones' intricate acoustic guitar playing style, characterised by a distinctive, percussive plucking style and use of open tunings. He also plays fiddle on one song, while he is joined on many tracks by Tony Hall on melodeon and Bridget Danby on recorder.
Released to critical acclaim, the album was awarded Melody Maker Folk Album of the Year in 1980. It was ultimately Jones' last album, as a car crash in 1982 greatly restricted his ability to perform. In the years after its release, the album gained a cult following and has been hailed as a masterpiece and influence on contemporary folk musicians. Allmusic has described the album as "one of those rare records where not just every song, but each instrumental part is worth hearing". English folk musician Kate Rusby states that Penguin Eggs is her favourite album of all time, while Stewart Lee has ranked it among his favourite albums. It was named the second best folk album of all time in a 2001 BBC poll.
Folk musician and singer Nic Jones first emerged in the late 1960s as a member the trio The Halliard, who achieved a Spanish hit with "The Irish in Me" but soon split up when its members fancied different career paths. Jones began a solo career, taking strong influence from Martin Carthy, whose percussive style of guitar playing was adopted by Jones for his own work. Jones signed to Bill and Helen Leader's record label Trailer, who released his first album Ballads and Songs (1970), which consisted of traditional tunes that highlighted Jones' instrumental skill and "mastery of the long ballad." Trailer also issued his following albums Nic Jones (1971) and the much later Noah Ark's Trap (1977) and From the Devil a Stranger (1978), while throughout the decade, Jones had established himself as one of the British folk revival's most acclaimed artists, and one of the scene's most sought after solo performers.
Part of Jones' style was regularly writing his own material and discreetly passing it off as traditional folk music. This was consistent with Jones "turning his back" on his audience if he felt they were not paying attention, where in such instances he would sing gibberish or play the same song two times in a row to see if people would notice, which he later claimed they didn't. Jones said: "People didn't want me to write my own songs, they only wanted to hear traditional material. Other times I'd rewrite traditional songs or stick in new verses. Nobody ever knew." His 1977 album Noah's Ark Trap gave many indications as to the direction Jones would take on Penguin Eggs. After leaving the Trailer label, Jones recorded Penguin Eggs at Livingston Recording Studios in late 1979. It was produced by Tony Engle, who also designed the album's packaging, and engineered by Nic Kinsey. Billy Kinsley also helped engineer.
Penguin Eggs is a work of the English folk revival, and consists largely of traditional songs, English, Irish and Scottish, and one Irish instrumental, "Planxty Davis". The instrumentation is entirely acoustic and dominated by Jones' acoustic guitar. The singer's virtuoso acoustic guitar playing on the album is elegant, brawny and lyrical. As with Jones' previous work, an integral aspect to his intricate playing style is the recurring percussive sound achieved by striking downwards using the middle or ring fingers on his right hand onto damped bass strings near or above the guitar bridge, a technique similar to the 'frailing' of a banjo. His modern guitar arrangements on Penguin Eggs display a contemporary feel, and he makes inventive use of progressive open tunings on the album, including DADGAD, though he generally preferred tunings in C and G.
Although Jones' guitar work forms the basis on the album, musical support is provided on several tracks by Tony Hall on melodeon and Bridget Danby on recorder. Jones himself also plays the fiddle on "Barrack Street". According to Bruce Eder of AllMusic, Jones' singing, "some of the most expressive to emerge from the English folk revival," bare a richness that recalls young Martin Carthy but also hints of a roughness that is reminiscent of A.L. Lloyd and Paul Clayton, while the harmony singing from Danby and Dave Burland recalls several 1960s and 70s British folk rock bands like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, though the purely acoustic instrumentation on Penguin Eggs separates the album from those bands.
The albums opens with Jones' arrangement of the English folk ballad "Canadee-I-O," a recording cited as "iconic" by the BBC and the Guardian. It is followed by "The Drowned Lovers", an interpretation of the Child ballad "The Mother's Malison." Jones later found the album version of "The Drowned Lovers" to be inferior to the harder-hitting version he began playing live in the few years after the album's release, which bears a different arrangement. The following two songs "The Humpback Whale" (originally "Ballina Whalers") and "The Little Pot Stove" (originally "Wee Pot Stove") are both compositions by the Scots-Australian whaler and singer Harry Robertson, although uncredited ("The Humpback Whale" is listed as "trad./arr. Jones") and were originally recorded by Robertson on his 1971 album Whale Chasing Men; they deal with aspects of whaling in the subtropics (off Byron Bay in Australia) and South Georgia in subantarctic waters, respectively, the latter song also providing the phrase used for the album title ("Salt fish and whale meat sausage, fresh penguin eggs a treat"). The Celtic song "Courting Is a Pleasure" concerns "a broken heart and emigration to America." It features subtle counterpoint guitar lines that complement the lead vocals. The Guardian also cited his arrangement of "The Flandyke Shore" as iconic. The album's closing song, "Farewell to the Gold," was written by New Zealand-born folk singer Paul Metsers, who moved to the United Kingdom to establish himself on the UK's folk club scene the same year Penguin Eggs was released.
Penguin Eggs was released by Topic Records in June 1980, reaching number 71 on the UK Albums Chart. The album received critical acclaim, and Melody Maker named it their "Folk Album of the Year," as did Folk Roots. Reissued by Topic Records on CD in 1991, Penguin Eggs has for many years been the only easily available Nic Jones studio album, and with the exception of several compilations released after Jones' retirement, Penguin Eggs remains the only Nic Jones CD available with endorsement from Jones' family. An audiophile, 200g heavyweight LP reissue of the album was issued by Three Black Feathers in 2009, while a 180g LP edition was released by Vinyl180 in 2017, with the first 500 copies being on white vinyl. Record Collector ranked the original LP edition of the album at number 41 on its list of the "top 50 most collectable records." The Telegraph said that, while Jones' first three albums from 1970 and 1971 have not been reissued for many years, Penguin Eggs itself is a "neglected classic."
Mojo wrote in hindsight that there was strong clues on Penguin Eggs that Jones was "heading into bold territory." By 1982, Jones was fully embraced in contemporary song and, strongly influenced by Bob Marley, even contemplated making folk-reggae fusions. However, Penguin Eggs was ultimately Jones' last studio album; on 28 February 1982, Jones' career was cut short when he was involved in a serious road traffic accident. Returning home by car after a gig at Glossop Folk Club, a tired Jones inadvertently drove into a lorry pulling out of Whittlesea brickworks. He suffered serious injuries, including many broken bones and brain damage, and required intensive care treatment and hospitalisation for a total of eight months. His injuries left him with permanent physical co-ordination problems, unable to play the guitar as well as before, and no longer able to play the fiddle at all. He returned to the stage in 2010.
In a very positive retrospective review, Bruce Eder of AllMusic named Penguin Eggs an "Album Pick" and called it Jones' magnum opus. He wrote that the album "stands in a virtual class by itself -- a folk record built on playing of such virtuosity that anyone who enjoys guitar, of any type or style, should hear it; a body of traditional songs played with an immediacy and urgency that transcends any dry notions of scholarship; and a record that stands astride the opposing virtues of youth and antiquity, in its execution and source, respectively." He felt the musicianship makes the album "truly special" and "alluring to modern listeners" and noted: "Penguin Eggs is one of those rare records were not just every song, but each instrumental part is worth hearing." Journalist Jon Dennis of The Guardian wrote in retrospect:
"Nic Jones's Penguin Eggs enthralls from the outset through the sheer force of Jones's musicianship. It's an album of traditional songs, but very much alive and in the moment due to Jones's astonishing acoustic guitar playing. Bob Dylan covered 'Canadee-i-o' years after Penguin Eggs, but it's hard to imagine anyone bettering Jones's rendition."
Penguin Eggs is listed as Jones' finest album in the Rough Guides book World Music: Africa, Europe and the Middle East, where it is referred to as a "seminal album from the English revival" which marks Jones' "sudden transformation from accomplished but more or less straightforward interpreter of folk song, to innovative arranger and intricate performer. It remains a classic." In The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, writer Colin Larkin gave the album a perfect score and wrote that the album contains "some excellent performances," including "The Humpback Whale." Julie Henigan, in her book on DADGAD tunings, praised felt Jones used open tunings "inventively and with great flair," and felt "his approach to setting traditional music is edifying." The album is listed in the accompanying book to the Topic Records 70 year anniversary boxed set Three Score and Ten as one of their classic records with "The Humpback Whale" as the first track on the first CD in the set.
Colin Irwin of The Guardian called Penguin Eggs "groundbreaking," writing that it took British folk music "to a new level, with Jones channelling his inner rock psyche into the unlikely format of a solo singer playing mostly traditional songs on an acoustic guitar." The album has since repeatedly been cited as an influence by folk and pop singers, including English folk singers Eliza Carthy and Kate Rusby. Describing the album's enduring influence, Irwin noted that while British folk music was "largely barren" in the decades following Jones' accident, a new generation of folk musicians eventually emerged who "all appeared to carry a copy of the one Nic Jones album they could easily get their hands on, Penguin Eggs," with singers such as Jon Boden, Jim Moray and Seth Lakeman citing Jones as an influence. Stuart Maconie reflected: "Before folk became hip with preening trendies, and indeed at the height of punk rock, the now wheelchair bound Jones [...] made this heartbreaking, plangent album of originals that sound ancient."
English folk musician Kate Rusby states that Penguin Eggs is her favourite album of all time. Comedian and writer Stewart Lee has ranked Penguin Eggs among his thirteen favourite albums of all time. Singer Peter Case called Penguin Eggs "one of the finest acoustic albums ever made." Bob Dylan recorded "Canadee-I-O" for his album Good as I Been to You (1992), imitating Jones' arrangement of the song, though he did not give him credit in the album's liner notes. "The Flandyke Shore" has also been recorded by Joni Mitchell. In contrast to its glowing reputation, Jones looks back on Penguin Eggs with muted praise, saying in 2012: "It's all right, but people only go on about it because I wasn't around after that. I was interested in a more modern sound and I think I could have come up with a more interesting record after Penguin Eggs. Me having the smash-up made it more popular."
Penguin Eggs was named the 25th best ever folk album in the 1994 book The Guinness All Time Top 1000 Albums, which presented lists of the greatest albums by genre using over 200,000 votes cast by informed music lovers. In a 2001 poll conducted by Mike Harding of BBC Radio 2, Penguin Eggs was named the second best folk album of all time, after Fairport Convention's Liege & Lief (1969). In 2004, Observer Music Monthly ranked the album 79th in their critics' poll of the "Greatest British Albums." Of those whose lists were featured, Stuart Maconie named it the 7th best British album. Journalist Peter Paphides named it the 7th best English folk album ever in 2005, saying it "has deservedly continued to feed Jones’ legend". He praised "Jones’s plangent delivery and exquisite harmonies." The album is featured in the 2007 book The Mojo Collection, listing what its authors deems to be the 1,000 best albums ever, and in Uncut magazine's 2017 "Unlimited Record Guide," listing the "greatest music of the last 60 years."
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Date: October 2020.
Photo Credits: (1)-(2) Nic Jones, (3) Martin Simpson, (4) Martin & Eliza Carthy, (5) Jon Boden, (6) Kate Rusby, (7) Seth Lakeman, (8) Jim Moray, (9) Belinda O'Hooley, (10) Topic Records (unknown/website).