18
Oct 06

MATTHEWS SOUTHERN COMFORT – “Woodstock”

FT + Popular63 comments • 5,971 views

#292, 31st October 1970

In the whole Popular project so far, “Woodstock” represents my biggest turnaround in opinion between hearing and writing about it. On first listen it sounded dreary, sappy and self-satisfied – I had it earmarked for a 2, or even a 1.

I don’t know what exactly changed my mind. Hearing it one hungover morning in late Summer and letting it soothe me? The acquisition of such CDs as The Best Of Bread giving me a taste for wet but beautiful seventies dreampop? Repeated exposure to the Glastonbury Festival? Maybe I just listened a bit harder and felt the fear in the song. “Woodstock” isn’t self-satisfied, or not in the way I thought. It’s full of the dread of a moment passing, energy dissipating, opportunities slipping away. You don’t have to be a hippy to recognise that feeling. It doesn’t come across in the lyrics, particularly, just in the sorrow-laden singing and drifting melodies: the repeated triads in the guitar break being particularly effective at conveying this air of desperate futility.

Learning that Joni Mitchell wrote the song after missing Woodstock explains a lot of this dread. It explains the song’s spiritual vibe, too: legends always grow more in the minds of people who weren’t ‘there’, and this song helped shape and transmit the Woodstock legend, and by extension the legend of the hippy era and movement, turning the Festival (and in some ways the 60s itself) into a sacred, doomed, unrepeatable moment. The song’s sadness becomes self-fulfiling and defeatist – those who came after Woodstock could never recreate it; no route back to the garden ever existed. If you’ve ever given part of yourself to a scene – whether major or minor, vast or tiny, whether you called that lost moment “punk” or “rave” or “The Round Table” or “old ILM” – you might know that defeatism too well.

{democracy:7}

7

Comments

1 2 All
  1. 1
    Tom on 18 Oct 2006 #

    This is also the only appearance of the UK 60s folk-rock movement in Popular – the band was a project of a former Fairport Convention member, which I didn’t know until five minutes ago. I can’t talk about that with any authority, but perhaps one of you can.

  2. 2
    bramble on 18 Oct 2006 #

    Ian Matthews had been singer in Fairport Convention, along with first Judy Dyble and then Sandy Denny, leaving about the time of their What We Did on Our Holidays album. I dont know much about the group he then started, other than remembering it featured a renowned steel guitar player and a drummer who had played with early Marmalade.

  3. 3
    Doctor Mod on 19 Oct 2006 #

    It’s not the most exciting version of “Woodstock”–that would be the Crosby, Stills, and Nash (and Young?) one. I used to like the latter, but growing older has made me realize that its bombast (Steven Stills was never subtle) is completely at odds with the lyrics, which are, as you say “spiritual vibe.”

    The Matthews Southern Comfort version does, I think, approximate the feeling while giving it far more life that the Joni Mitchell version. While I like a lot of her work, her own version of “Woodstock” always struck me as a bit moribund. This hits a nice middle ground.

    I think the post-Edenic sentiments actually do convey the feelings of many people in my generation as we felt in the early 1970s. I was already becoming quite clear that the utopian dreams of the 60s weren’t coming true. For those of us in the US, Nixon was in the White House and the Vietnam War was escalating ferociously, National Guardsmen were shooting students on college campuses. As JM sings in her song “California,” “They wouldn’t give peace a chance / That was just a dream some of us had.” The “bomber jet planes” weren’t “turning into butterflies above our nation” by a long shot. “Woodstock,” then, is perhaps the last hurrah for our sense of innocence (naivety might be a better word). After that the great cynicism.

    And yet, I think that many my age still mourn the fact that we never found “our way back to the garden.”

    MSC doesn’t resort to false idealism (or agressive certitude like CSN) nor does it turn the quest for the garden into a lost cause to be mourned. Instead–and perhaps a band functioning at a long distance from the actual event had an advantage here–MSC deliver something that might apply to any incident of mystical experience, not a long ago rock festival.

    *******************************

    Doctor Mod is signing off until next week as I’ll be away at a conference. Or, to paraphrase an old Gene Pitney/Dusty Springfield song:

    I am only twenty-four hours from Tulsa

    (Forgive me. I’ve always wanted to say that but never had a reason until now.)

  4. 4
    Marcello Carlin on 19 Oct 2006 #

    Gordon Huntley was the renowned steel guitar player in question, and a very fine, nay crucial, performance he gives here. I’d say an eight.

    Apparently Matthews wasn’t really expecting it to be a hit, let alone a number one, and was rather taken aback/nonplussed when it hit the top.

  5. 5
    Christopher Barbour on 19 Oct 2006 #

    Best illustration for a song yet !

  6. 6
    Lena on 19 Oct 2006 #

    I can feel the loss of something that was, a collective dream…but the Gen Xer in me always wants to say, “we were half a million strong” is an exaggeration – though as a generational experience it touched many more than that…this is the best version of the song, it strikes the right balance…

    …and yes, great illustration!

  7. 7
    Tom on 19 Oct 2006 #

    Apparently 500k people did turn up for Woodstock though! It being (in practical terms) free and there being tons of druqks there no doubt helped.

  8. 8
    markgamon on 20 Oct 2006 #

    Got to say I ALWAYS preferred the Crosby Stills Nash and Young version.

    Matthews Southern Comfort’s is pretty. Joni Mitchell’s is spare and thoughtful. CSNY rocks.

    What’s interesting is that of the three acts, CSNY were the only ones who were actually there. Maybe their ‘aggressive certitude’ had some foundation in fact.

  9. 9
    intothefireuk on 20 Oct 2006 #

    The problem that begins to arise in reviewing these songs chronologically is that once you reach the era when you became aware of these songs when they were numer 1 it’s very difficult to disassociate memories and review objectively. The serene pastoral style of the song actually sounds more akin to CSNY than even their own version. The effect is a peaceful gentle optomistic song which struck a chord with people in the UK possibly because like Mitchell & Matthews we too experienced the festival from a distance. I am a sucker for ethereal pop so it certainly registered with me even though I would have been too young to know wot Woodstock was or what it represented. I have some happy memroies associated with it as well which helps as well. I reckon an 8 myself.

    PS I also note that the marking seems to have gone astray a little along the way as this merits a 7 which ranks it alongside Kay Starr ! It does seem a little tougher now to get a decent score.

  10. 10

    there are two ways to achieve solo reviewer objectivity:
    i. reviewing everything without have ever listened to anything
    ii. being older than the whole of human (musical) culture

    (as a sometime professional critic i favour i. but of course in practice i. and ii. will produce identical effects if you manage either)

    i am (just) young enough that as a teen myself i considered the late 60s classix to be a HATEFUL PEST UPON ALL HUMANITY (boomer nightmare weighing on the punXoR brane of the living ectect), and contrariwise the hits of the early pre-rock 50s (when i began to hear em) to be charm itself

  11. 11
    Tom on 20 Oct 2006 #

    Yes, a 7 now is pretty much the same as a 7 then, though as I said I was a little generous to Kay – but on the other hand Eddie Fisher deserved more than a 5, and Guy Mitchell’s 2 is a big error of judgement. The lesson is to not take the marks terribly seriously!

    There is no pretense at objectivity in these reviews. Once we’re into the 80s, in particular, my views on the songs will be absolutely coloured by my own experience – it couldn’t be any other way. Hopefully I’ll still also be able to offer some interesting thoughts on why a song works, or doesn’t.

  12. 12
    Tom on 20 Oct 2006 #

    Also of course my views on the songs are coloured by mood – f’r instance there are Popular entries which are written:

    – to cap off an already successful day
    – to salvage something from a totally unproductive day
    – after percolating in my brain for months
    – with one eye on the more interesting record coming up next
    – reluctantly because I don’t feel I have much to say

    etc etc.

  13. 13
    intothefireuk on 20 Oct 2006 #

    The other problem we have now is trying to find the original recordings to review as via the wonder of the web I have found countless versions of some ‘classics’. Generally these are low budget re-recordings made in order to re-acquire the copyright in the artists name or because the original masters aren’t available. Some are also made to ‘improve’ on the original – here I offer up Lieutenant Pigeons ‘glam’ remake of mouldy old dough. Oh dear. Worth seeking out when you get there !

  14. 14
    Tom on 20 Oct 2006 #

    I have tried to be alert to this – especially after the shameful incident at Club Popular where I played a horrible re-recording of APACHE. There is a nasty later stab at “I Love To Love” by Tina Charles kicking around, too. I am pretty sure I have the right “Mouldy Old Dough” though. I do have a couple of doubts but not until the late 80s and 90s: working out exactly what the single edits of “Jack Your Body” and “Let Me Be Your Fantasy” were for instance.

  15. 15
    Marcello Carlin on 20 Oct 2006 #

    RE-RECORDING OF LAND OF MAKE BELIEVE ON POPTIMISM CD WITH AL MARTINO ON COVER

    Actually it depresses me that the SOME TRACKS PERFORMED BY ORIGINAL ARTISTS curse has now infiltrated the eighties…

  16. 16
    Tom on 20 Oct 2006 #

    Yes I’ve got the original version on that one too now!

  17. 17
    intothefireuk on 20 Oct 2006 #

    Yes well as far as dance mixes go it is a whole minefield. There were/are usually several edits of each tune to choose from anyway. During the 80s these progressed from extended versions of singles to the singles being hacked up version of the 12″. The emphasis would then be on 12 inch mix not the single edit. You may find you have to include all mixes! Oh joy.

  18. 18
    Tom on 20 Oct 2006 #

    Where there is a doubt I defer if possible to whichever mix made it onto Now Thats What I Call Music.

  19. 19
    blount on 20 Oct 2006 #

    question: how is woodstock usually played in brit culture? over here festivals decidedly less common and though there were many more at this time my guess is in the american imagination woodstock = big climax in 3 act play ‘the rise and fall of the hippie’ w/ monterey act one and altamont the exit stage left (hunch: how much do the big prominent movie tie-ins to each play a role, at the time and now, in preserving these 3 fests as ‘important’ while other big american fests – good trips and bad – have been lost to the ether?); when i was a kid and boomer culture was dominant (cf. jerry garcia making more rolling stone mag covers during the 80s than all hip-hop acts combined)(and seemed it would always be that way; one thing i remember really ‘liking’ about the wild palms miniseries was the way even in the future 60s chesnuts would still be unescapable; sadly/gladly this hasn’t come to pass – oldies format dying out and completely dead in much of this country – i don’t think there’s a radio station on my dial that’s ever played ‘i want to hold yr hand’ or ‘house of the rising sun’) the flipside question to ‘were you in nam?’ was ‘were you at woodstock?’ even then, well well after, it had some residue of ‘this is important, this means something’, at the time it must have seemed an obv turningpoint of some sort and genuinely thrilling/terrifying, that some sort of revolution was in the offing must have seemed clear/inevitable and it was of course, just not the one either the old liberal establishment or the young radicals anticipated.

  20. 20
    wwolfe on 20 Oct 2006 #

    I can’t help but wonder whether Ian Matthews or the listeners who bought this single believed that the garden was lost at the moment they were recording or buying this music. In retrospect, the ball had clearly ended, but as I recall there were plenty of people, famous musicians and unknown fans alike, who still believed in October 1970 that society was going to change in revolutionary ways. (Given the degree to which women and people of various colors have moved up and through society in the decades since, I’d argue that belief has turned out to be not exactly wrong, albeit not exactly like the believers at the time foresaw.) So I wonder how much of the elegiac quality that gives this recording whatever power it has comes from us, supplying that sense of a lost world thanks to three-and-a-half decades of hindisght, and how much was in Ian Matthews and company’s performance.

    Matthews’ voice has a certain limited charm, the simple bass part grounds the music so it doesn’t drift off, and the steel guitar, particularly the long solo before the last chorus, rings true. For me, though, this teeters dangerously on the precipice of Southern California 1970s mellow country-rock. As such, I can’t completely suppress a reflexive pushing away from not just the sound, but what that sound represented for me as a listener at the time: as Randy Newman put it so aptly, wanting to be mellow is like wanting to be senile. And I don’t think it’s totally unfair to suggest that the kind of nostalgia for an imagined utopia such as is expressed in this record can sometimes be the first step toward a kind of musical senility.

  21. 21
    rosie on 21 Oct 2006 #

    Here is a fine axample of the affectiveness of music, especially popular music. I love this song and I especially love this version of it, for reasons I’ll come to in a moment. As a song it’s ok and 7 is about right, maybe even a 6. But as something that marks a significant moment in my life that I look back on with great fondness, it’s a very personal lay-down 10.

    The CSNY version, along with the whole Déjà Vû figured heavily in that magical French summer (along with Mungo Jerry and Ten Years After) and when I hear that verion with its funky, spiky overtones of improvised jamming and dancing I recall balmy evenings under the pines, the sea breaking gently on rocks, and playing tennis under a blazing sun. When I here the MSC version, however, I think of autumn rain clattering on my window and a sense of something I had which was now dissipated – my conviction that I had found love when I thought I never would was coming to nothing but it was a memory to treasure.

    And there it is, in this version which is so full of wistfulness and regret for the passing of something big but fleeting which might never be recaptured.

    Getting ourselves back to the Garden is full of resonances of the Fall and redemption. I’m sure Joni Mitchell was well aware of this when she wrote the song, and Ian Matthews captured it very well. That slide guitar gets me all shivery too!

    Swerving a little – I have half a memory of the gay Ian Matthews recording a cover of The Crystals’ And Then He Kissed Me without changing the gender of the lyric, and causiung a Radio One pundit to get quite outraged!

  22. 22
    markgamon on 21 Oct 2006 #

    To paraphrase Angela Carter, for a brief period at the end of the sixties we all really did believe anything was possible; and that the world could be changed for the better. Woodstock was a messy accident, but it came to sum up that rather glorious sense of belief. A couple of months before this single hit number one, I was lucky enough to attend the British equivalent festival, at the Isle of Wight. It too was a messy accident, but I won’t ever forget the feeling of excitement and POSSIBILITY.

    Contrast that with the other great generational movement linked to pop, which we call punk. Also exciting, also culturally powerful, but the exact antithesis of the late 60s’ faith in the future. In 1976, everything became IMPOSSIBLE, and a whole generation appeared to celebrate the fact.

    Neither was right, of course. But I know which attitude I prefer. That’s what Joni Mitchell was writing about.

  23. 23

    aged 106 (or whatever i now am) i absolutely now recognise it was not ENTIRELY the self-satisifaction and self-importance of the older-kid generation which shaped, justified and fuelled my nihilism, but aged 16, it was just impossibly irritating to be forever reminded “bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, oh wait YOU’RE too YOUNG to UNDERSTAND — things will NEVER be that good again and YOU MISSED OUT shorty, bad luck it was AWESOME, you just had to be there”

    the dread that tom correctly identifies in this song had largely compacted into a compensatory and weirdly triumphalist smugness by the mid-70s — and even yet an early-teen part of me still very much yearns to “have been part of” the thing joni is already frightened of losing (someone brought the woodstock triple alb to school and i LOVED it and played it over and over) (there’s an underlying sense of bleakness and nihilist resignation haunting the film also — the festival buzzed by minatory insecticopters; hendrix edited so that he playing to an army of shadows) (“the show is over. the audience get up to leave their seats. time to collect their coats and go home. they turn around. no more coats and no more home…”)

    for example, i’m now much more aware that my mum and dad’s deep attraction to 60s utopianism — which they were a bit too old and settled to act on much — was violently gutted by my dad’s parkinson’s disease, which was first diagnosed in 1967… those are the kinds of stubborn personal rocks “we can do anything” as a political mantra will always crash against, and left teen-me (very much unable to confront these family facts consciously) wide open for a VERY complicatedly hostile-wretched-still-attracted attitude to utopias

    the first job i had, the person i worked with i liked the best was a very cynical and amusing man — who had also been at the isle of wight festival, curiously enough — who passed on a bunch of his hippy canon as a kind gift, i think bcz he “believed” no longer but could see i still did (i’m trying to remember what he gave me, apart from the lennon/ono “god” LP — which is also a ferocious bleat of disillusion of course)

    anyway to me, then, the sense of being late-born was the prison that j.rotten”s “ever got the feelin you’ve been cheated” was part of the freedom from — as in, if there is REALLY no future, then what CAN’T we do? what can’t we try? (which is like kid brother*, angrily declaring himself nothing like his overbearing elder, exactly and worshipfully imitating him)

    haha i’m readin 120 days of sodom at the moment and the funniest thing about it is that these self-declared sexual and social libertines, shoutily against ALL human and humane law, spend their entire time making up EVEN MORE RULES

    *i’m actually an older brother not a kid brother so this analysis doesn’t really apply — but i still think that the battle between 68 and 76 is more intra-generational than not

  24. 24
    Tom on 21 Oct 2006 #

    Of course “Punk” – or the version of punk written up by Mojo, Uncut, the NME etc. – has become a big “you hadda be there” bludgeon in its own right too.

  25. 25
    rosie on 21 Oct 2006 #

    It wasn’t, in either case, simply a matter of ‘being there’: you had to be at a certain stage in your life too. I was there for ‘Woodstock’ and it was part of my sexual awakening. I was also there for punk, but by 1977 the boot was on the other foot, as it were, and I was part of what was being rebelled against. Actually the kids I was teaching in Hull were largely untouched by punk, they were Northern Soulers and because I was steeped in Motown we had more in common.

  26. 26

    since the uk rock, pop and style press largely established itself as a media presence via punk, i think the punk bludgeon is a LOT BIGGER than the hippy bludgeon nowadays, at least in the uk — which is a hard fact to get yr head round when “being an out-group” is what we so routinely deploy to establish our subcultural credentials (it’s punk’s victory* that mark g is battling against, and fair enough, bcz it stifles and distorts his voice)

    in the us, maybe not so much: boomer has a lot more resonance there, and feels a bit borrowed when you (ok i mean i) use it over here

    *(the hippy political defeat was annoyingly presented as a kind of victory; the punk media victory is annoyingly presented as a defeat)

  27. 27
    blount on 21 Oct 2006 #

    late 70s punk explosion not quite a dominant myth on american landscape i don’t think, though it is acknowledged at least – very very often in vh1 type historia de la musica rock docs it (in a move that provokes both roffles and outrage from me) will jump from ramones/patti smith -> nirvana, like the thread just completely died with patti falling off the stage or the ramones calling phil spector and then a decade later kurt cobain just upped and revived it and ladies and gentlemen here’s the 90s. increasingly but still only very slightly i’ve been detecting some golden age haze applied to alt rock Xplosion with cobweb gravy about how music ‘meant something’ and the famous ‘we won’, i heard some spin on this around the time of ‘rock is back!’ and hear it occasionally when someone bemoans the present day rockband as so shallow and facile in comparison to, um, deadeye dick or the crash test dummies. there may be a clinton nostalgia factor there thoguh which would be understandable. boomers fairly absent from pop culture now (the red hot chili peppers qualify as ‘my god the mileage! what legends, what vets! lo they were there at the dawn of stonehenge/woodstock 94!’)(cf. politicians, ugly buildings, whores), but still obv very dominant in the overall cultural landscape (if america is undergoing a ‘a second great awakening’ per dubya a huge number of boomer’s staring death in the eye obv factor #1; cf current ad for retirement plans w/ dennis hopper going on about how ‘we aren’t gonna do retirement like our parents maan, we’re gonna do it cool, we’re revolutionary’), i think a certain segment of my generation (X) are resigned to ‘these fuxx are gonna be in power til we’re pushing 65 and henry rollins is hawking xtreme retirement plans’ though there are potential bright spots on the horizon (edwards and obama both decidedly post-nam/post-boomer if hard to think of as remotely gen x), see also the suv: an object built on a marriage between boomer reality and boomer delusion.

  28. 28
    Anthony on 22 Oct 2006 #

    is this the same one as joni mitchell, b/c Paglia has some interesting things to say about it in the last record, if it is

  29. 29
    Anthony on 22 Oct 2006 #

    she basically talks about it as the beginning of the end of 60s utopianism, and compares it to the romantics, blake esp. i really like this song, and i know wood stock is a deeply problematic touchstone, but the idea of communalism and changing the world and all of that nonsense gives me a sort of warmth

  30. 30
    markgamon on 22 Oct 2006 #

    Beg pardon, folks. I’m not battling against punk. I was there for that too, though more as an interested observer than a participant. And I still love Pretty Vacant. ‘Hippy’ and ‘punk’ seem to me to be two sides of the same coin – and I suspect they’re being endlessly repeated in popular culture as we speak. Wasn’t the rave scene just a new local take on the pop festivals of the late 60s?

    I do get pissed off when the current cultural media (punks to a man, as lord sukrat rightly points out) sneer at the 60s and idolise punk culture. Jonathan Ross is a prime culprit. There’s great art in every generation. Even prog-rock had its moments: I caught myself listening to a Yes album the other day and had to admit it was musically pretty stunning, despite the lyrics being hippyshit twaddle (that’s not to say I have a kind word for Gentle Giant, by the way).

    I dunno. Of course it’s about where you were when you were 14. I was lucky enough to be 14 when White Rabbit and Sergeant Pepper came out, and unlucky not to have been a couple of years older so I could actually be at UFO in its heyday. In truth, my cultural touchstone is probably the British Blues Boom, which also gave us some fine stuff and some rubbish.

    I was on the tail end of hippy and just a little too old for punk. I still prefer the positivism of hippy, but I’m dismissing neither.

1 2 All

Add your comment

(Register to guarantee your comments don't get marked as spam.)


If this was number 1 when you were born paste [stork-boy] or [stork-girl] into the start of your comment :)

Required

Required (Your email address will not be published)

Top of page