On The Road Again With John Renbourn

Back when the M1 motorway was first built, journeying to London from anywhere north of the Midlands was a tiresome, all-day exercise, especially if you were hitch-hiking. This story takes place in 1968 and although by then the motorway had pushed a little further north, almost as far as Leicester in fact, it still required a trek across country to reach the miraculous New Road (as the League Of Gentlemen might call it).

And so it was that early on a Sunday evening in 1968 I found myself stranded in the middle of nowhere – Burton-on-Trent to be exact – dropped off by an asthmatic, chain-smoking truck driver who had given me a ride from just outside Sheffield. At this rate I’d not reach London until late into the night, or possibly even the next day.

Wondering what to do I walked the streets considering the options. The motorway was still 20 miles away and with traffic bound to be light on a Sunday evening I guessed the chances of getting a lift would be slim. What to do? Then I passed a pub and noticed a hand-written chalk sign sitting out on the pavement: “Folk Club Tonight – John Renbourn” it read. This looked more promising.

John Renbourn

Recorded in 1965 and released the following year this is the first Renbourn album. Did bohemian folk chic ever look cooler than this?

Along with his musical partner Bert Jansch, Renbourn was already part of the UK folk blues aristocracy by 1968. His guitar playing was legendary and other than perhaps the brilliant but wayward Davy Graham no one came close to matching his finger-busting virtuosity.

Folk music was still a long way from crossing over into the mainstream, however. Renbourn and Jansch may have been like rock stars to us, but your average record buyer wouldn’t have had the first idea who these people were. When they weren’t playing the trendy London folk clubs or prestigious university circuit, guys like Jansch, Renbourn, John Martyn, Roy Harper and the rest made a living on the endless treadmill of tiny provincial pub gigs.

As was often the case back then the Burton-on-Trent folk club was basically just an austere upstairs room above a pub with lino on the floor and maybe 20 tables seating less than 100 people. I took a seat near the front and sat nursing a half pint of shandy for most of the night. I vaguely knew John Renbourn to speak to, having seen him play several times in the space of a year or two, most recently at Sheffield University only a couple of weeks before. Part of Renbourn’s on-stage patter back then was to take the piss out of Donovan, who had leap-frogged all the other folkies to become a world-famous pop star. I’d semi-jokingly taken him to task about his Donovan-baiting previously so when he saw me after the gig he said “Bloody hell, it’s the Donovan fan, what are you doing here?” I explained my predicament and wondered if he was driving back to London after the gig, hoping for a lift. He said he’d come by train and in any case was staying the night with the guy who ran the folk club (I hesitate to call him ‘the promoter’ but for the sake of this tale, let’s do that). A quick introduction to ‘the promoter’ went something like this: “I need somewhere to stay tonight”. “Sure, any friend of John’s is welcome to stay at my place.” What he forgot to mention was that he’d organised an aftershow party for Renbourn and, seemingly, anyone else who cared to attend.

Back at the promoter’s house in the Burton-on-Trent suburbs the party was already in full swing when we arrived. There were maybe 20 well-refreshed people there with more arriving all the time. Tables groaned under the weight of all manner of food and drink and the air was heavy with the aroma of dope. Incomprehensible modern jazz records were played, folk songs were sung and amid the hubbub, amateur guitarists took to the floor one by one, most of them much too earnest for their own good.

As the night progressed things started to take a surreal turn. The booze flowed, joints were passed around freely and a few couples seemed to be getting, ahem, intimate over in the corner. Then one guy became so stoned and/or drunk he removed all his clothes, stood stark-naked on the coffee table and began to read aloud from a book by one of the Beat Poets (Ginsberg or Ferlinghetti, I forget which). I’d never seen anything quite like it but no one appeared to bat an eyelid. For a 17 year-old high school drop-out like me it was exhilarating to be in such hedonistic company but it was also a little scary as well.

Finally in the small hours I found an empty bedroom and crept away for some sleep. Just as I was drifting off the door opened and amid much ‘shushing’ and giggling a couple stumbled in. It was John Renbourn and he had a young lady in tow. Now, Renbourn was only 22 when he made his first LP and at the time of this story he was possibly just 24. Yet he has always looked old and crusty to me. It was the straggly beard I think. It made him look like Billy Connolly’s dishevelled, older brother.

John Renbourn - Another Monday

Another Monday, John Renbourn’s second solo album from 1966 shows him playing the Gibson J50.

Nevertheless fame is a powerful aphrodisiac and Renbourn’s complete lack of fashion sense was no deterrent when it came to pulling the folk groupies it seemed. I should really draw a discreet veil over what happened next but let’s just say that pretending to be asleep in the corner while your folk guitar hero and an attractive young woman made the beast with several backs in a single bed not two feet away is an experience that never leaves you.

The next morning while the house was still quiet I crept out into the kitchen to make a cup of tea. Then I remembered something – the previous night Renbourn had stashed his guitar case in a cupboard under the stairs.

As brazen as you like I removed the battered case, undid the clasps (unlocked, mercifully) and took out the wondrous instrument. It was a Gibson J50 with a blonde finish and it carried all the dings and scars of a hard life on the road. It’s the guitar Renbourn used on all but the first of his solo LPs up to The Hermit in 1976 and right though the first incarnation of Pentangle. Most notably it’s the Gibson pictured on the cover of Another Monday, his 1967 second album. A precious object indeed, that guitar was part of the soundtrack of my life.

I don’t mind admitting I quite fancied myself as a guitarist back then, but the idea of owning an instrument as fine as this was out of the question at the time. The J50 played like a dream and all those Jansch and John Martyn pieces I’d agonised and fumbled over at home seemed to come flying from my fingers easily. Lost in a reverie as I attempted the tricky counterpoint of Bert’s Running From Home I failed to notice a figure standing behind me. “Not bad, but you’re doing that alternating bass line wrong” a voice said. It was John Renbourn. He’d been there listening for a while, but instead of the expected bollocking for using his guitar without asking, I received an surprisingly charitable reaction. Taking the Gibson from me, he played the Jansch tune perfectly, pointing out where I was going wrong, then handed it back. We ran through a few other pieces before more people drifted into the kitchen and the guitar lesson ended.

Around lunchtime we packed up and our host drove a few of us, including Renbourn, to the local pub. These folk guys were serious drinkers and the expensive rounds soon began to be ordered. I had very little money and still a long way to travel, so after a swift half I said goodbye and took my leave. For one thing I still had to reach that bloody elusive M1.

On John Renbourn’s website he says this about the Gibson J50:
In the mid sixties my guitar idol was Davey Graham. Davey had an LP out called ‘The Guitar Player’ and he was holding a Gibson on the cover. I heard through the grapevine that an American serviceman on an airbase had one for sale and I had to have it. It was a J-50, nearly the same as Davey’s and that was it for the old Scarth (the guitar used on Renbourn’s 1st LP) – musical considerations overruled by blind fanaticism. I found out later that Davey wasn’t playing his by choice, he had owned a very nice Martin, gone to a party and come away with the Gibson, possibly without realising it! However, for me, it was a transformation. From ‘Another Monday’ right through into Pentangle it did the job – both acoustic and amplified.

The J-50 has lasted well, only one major repair as I recall. The back was smashed, courtesy of an airline – guitars into Airlines do not go as I have learned (to my cost) over the years! A friend of mine, James Flynn of the Flynn Brothers, has it at the moment and I heard it in action at the Troubadour in London recently and it still sounds good.

The J-50 was my main guitar on the solo Transatlantic records up to ‘The Hermit’, by which time it was ready for a re-fret and a rest. The recording studio can be a cruel judge of things that go unnoticed on the road.

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About Stuart Penney

Stuart Penney is a music archivist who has been writing about music since the mid-70s. He's contributed to Record Collector, Folk Roots, Mojo and Q as well as local and national newspapers in the UK and Australia. These days he mainly writes for music blogs. Find him on Twitter: @StuartPenney1

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