357) Duncan Browne — “The Death of Neil”
Duncan was one of those beautiful souls who was lost to us all too early (in ‘93). Bruce Eder says that:
[His revered ’68 album — Give Me Take You] was one of the jewels of the Immediate Records catalog, a quietly dazzling work that embraced elements of folk, rock, pop, and classical, all wrapped around some surprisingly well-crafted poetry and Browne’s stunning voice. Over the decades, it has been compared to the best work of Paul McCartney and the Moody Blues, and also to such albums as Astral Weeks by Van Morrison . . . .https://www.allmusic.com/artist/duncan-browne-mn0000154955/biography
Yes, what an album it was (see #155). “[O]ne or two tracks, particularly . . . ‘The Death of Neil’, hinted at the dark self -doubt that the likes of Nick Drake were about to bring to the singer/songwriter genre.” (David Wells’s liner notes to CD reissue of Give Me Take You).
The Aquarian Drunkard writes that:
[Browne was] sensitivity, sophistication, artful baroque and progressive leanings. . . . [with] the ability to chart his own arrangements, buoyed by a flair for melodies so sweet and sad that they almost hurt to hear. At a time when most of his fellow countrymen desperately tried to sound American, Browne dared to embrace his British-ness . . . . Andrew Loog Oldham . . . first snapped up a young Duncan . . . . When I asked Andrew to share his first impressions . . . he replied: “other worldly, attractive, mannered, confident.” Oldham encouraged him to record a solo album, and Duncan recruited a friend [David Bretton] to add fanciful lyrics to his then-wordless new songs. . . . Andrew professed, “Duncan was therapy in a time of madness. And I got to be in the studio for my therapy. How good is that?” . . . .https://aquariumdrunkard.com/2020/03/04/someone-left-moonlight-in-my-heart-an-exaltation-of-duncan-brownes-music/
Yes, how good was that. In 2 Stoned, the second volume of his memoirs (both are great reads), Oldham writes that “‘Give Me, Take You’, is well remembered but did not sell well at the time. . . . Duncan . . . remains one of the artists I was proudest to stand in a room with and watch evolve.”
And why didn’t the album sell well? Bruce Eder elaborates:
Despite its many virtues, the album died a commercial death, largely as a result of its being released just at the point when Immediate’s financial underpinnings were beginning to collapse. . . . Browne probably could have gotten some concert work from the release, but for a certain degree of confusion as to who he was, owing both to Immediate’s slipshod publicity operation and the design of the album jacket — the triple superimposed image of Browne, coupled with the multiple overdubs on many of the songs, led some promoters to think that Duncan Browne was a trio of some sort.
And as Oldham himself tells the Aquarian Drunkard:
[Unfortunately, “m]y partner Tony Calder was going through a period where he loathed anything I championed. Duncan and Billy Nicholls fell victim to that and got no pragmatic promotion. Tony wanted big – I wanted good.” . . . [Browne’s widow] Lin confirmed that “they were still in touch right up until Duncan’s death” . . . .
Now, Bretton’s lyrics are certainly an acquired taste:
The only dream that Neil had was to fly on self-made wings, to realise the dream of man, become the king of kings. To have a private world alone where no one else could be. Entered through a secret door, and he would have the key. He worked alone till night and day became just dark and light, the outside world a distant haze with two dimensional sight. They thought that Neil was off his head and laughed so he could hear. But Neil could smile at what they said, his arrêté was near. He built his wings like those of old, with pedals, strings and wheels. A universe he’d soon enfold with stardust on his heels. He’s fly across Lorentia and touch its mountain peaks. Atlantis he would soar above and find what memory seeks. From back to front of ages’ words by candle light he read. From dead alerts the reason why brought Icarus was dead. With geometric line and curve his plans began to shape a pair of wings that soon would serve to accomplish Neil’s escape. Silent now, the people watched and no one laughed or spoke. A memory in their souls was touched, was no longer just a joke. And through their midst a path was cleared for Neil, a golden way that lift-up and his dream he neared, no longer far away. He stood alone with wings unfurled and watched the rising sun. Apollo and another world he’d soon have lost or won. He spread his wings, unfurled them lift among the gods he peeked. By silent lips his soul was kissed, and Neil at last was free.
Thankfully, Mick never recruited Browne to be an opening act. I can just imagine the Hell’s Angels at Altamont singing along to these words! Wait, on second thought, maybe Altamont would have turned out differently if he had . . .
Anyway, Bretton recalls that “Duncan came to me one day and said, ‘I’ve got a problem. I’ve got a record deal with Immediate, an album to make and no lyrics. Have you got any ideas?’ I said ‘Sure”, and we started working on the songs . . . .” Oh, and Bretton explains that this is a reference to a “province of olden Europe. I suppose it was being clever, but back then you could be a little pretentious and people didn’t attack you for it — the Age of Aquarius and all that!” (liner notes to the CD reissue of Give Me Take You).
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David Wells writes that “The skeletal, acoustic versions of . . . ‘The Death of Neil’, . . are breathtakingly gorgeous. Shorn of the subsequent studio embellishments, they are certainly none the worse for that: instead, the sparseness of the arrangements serves to throw the magnificence of the songs into even sharper focus.” Take a listen:
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