Former folk star Mandy Morton has gathered all of her music from her lead singer days with Cambridge band Spriguns of Tolgus and her later solo career into one six-album box set and discovered it reveals the story of her life.
After running away to Cambridge in the Sixties at the age of just 15, Mandy Morton stepped into a world of flower power and music that led her into a glittering decade as a folk artist.
Leaving behind her rowing parents, she came to live with her older sister in the city and soon found everyone had a guitar and was joining a band.
When she and her husband at the time, Mike, started a regular folk night at The Anchor pub, their band Spriguns of Tolgus was talent spotted and it led to a 10-year recording career. But Mandy later left it all behind to become a journalist and novelist.
Now those albums have been repackaged as a retrospective CD box set called After The Storm, that features the band’s albums plus previously unreleased material and a DVD of a live performance from 1979. After many years not even listening to her own songs, she is finally ready to talk about those heady days.
Mandy says: “I did run away in 1968 when I was just 15, which was a bit naughty. But my parents argued a lot and my childhood was quite unhappy. My father had been a fighter pilot in the Second World War and was highly decorated by the king. But of course when all the men came home, it was not a home for heroes. So he’d sort of changed who he was and my mother, who had married a gallant fighter pilot, ended up with a bit of a shambles of a marriage, so the two of them kept the war going between them, to put it mildly.
“Consequently, all three of us children got out as soon as we could. And luckily my sister had married an undergraduate by 1968 and was living in Cambridge. So it was an obvious place to run to because my sister always tended to look after me when I was younger. She sent a van with some friends who had a band to Nottingham. We loaded up anything that was precious to me and that began my life in Cambridge.”
Mandy described the part of Cambridge she arrived in as “bedsitter-land” and as soon as she reached 18, she moved into her own bedsit.
“It was a wonderful time. The Folk Festival had been going for a few years, so there was a big folk scene. There were gigs everywhere in pubs, at the university and the Corn Exchange. And of course, Cambridge was full of hippies. It was a time when people walked the streets without shoes on, wearing kaftans and beads. The economy was bad but we were young and we had our lives ahead of us so we didn’t care much about that.”
By day, she was running a fashion store called Pussycat Boutique on Petty Cury, but evenings were given over to music.
“Boutiques were all the rage in the late 60s, bringing fashion from swinging London - we were the first shop in the city to stock hot pants,” recalls Mandy.
“It was owned by a lovely lady called Mrs Atkins who roamed around doing all the buying, bringing in gear from London, and left it to my sister and I to actually run the day-to-day business there.”
During this time, Mandy met and married Mike Morton and together they launched the band Spriguns of Tolgus in 1972. It was named after a Cornish piskie and the location of a tin mine in a village close to where they went on holiday. They became big names on Cambridge’s music scene and before long were spotted by a talent scout.
“Ted, the landlord of The Anchor pub on Silver Street asked if we would run a music club to entice more of the students into his bar on Fridays,” says Mandy.
“We had no idea about running a club but started up by playing covers of Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention and from the audience eventually came the rest of the band.”
The Mortons, with Mandy on vocals and Mike on bass, were joined by Rick Thomas (fiddle) and Chris Russon (electric guitar). They would take the lyrics of traditional folk ballads and Mandy wrote music to accompany them. Particularly popular were the “bawdy ballads”, very rude traditional songs that make her blush to remember them now.
“When the record company approached me to say shall we do a complete collection of your music rather than just a couple of re-releases, they were very keen to include a cassette called Rowdy, Dowdy Day that we had recorded with a couple of other members of the band in our kitchen in Cross Street in Cambridge, using a dilapidated tape recorder,” says Mandy.
“I listened back to it and realised how thoroughly and disgustingly rude virtually every song was! It really is quite something that we got away with it - the sexual content was quite alarming. My blood started to boil and I thought, oh my God! We can’t unleash these things. But the record company said no, that’s the point. We are trying to show a history of how your music has developed. So I agreed.”
After they made that cassette, the band came to the attention of a recording studio in Leicestershire, which recorded their first vinyl album, Jack with a Feather. It was this album that got them noticed by Decca, who signed them up in 1976 and shortened their name to Spriguns.
Mandy says: “That’s when I started writing my own lyrics and, looking back, they were influenced by what had gone on in my life. Back in the 70s, we didn’t know much about mental health or that some things that had happened in our childhoods had damaged us beyond all measure.
“I wasn’t abused sexually and there was no violence towards us children. It was simply that my parents were unliveable with. It was their war that we didn’t want to be part of. It literally was mental torture. I was astonished to see people discussing all kinds of nonsense about my background and theories about the meaning of my lyrics on YouTube and I want to set the record straight.
“As a child, the reason that I started collecting dolls house pieces, and I went into my own little world and had conversations with myself because I wasn’t allowed to have friends. I mean, my parents didn’t believe in that. I did have quite a lonely childhood. So I made up my own stories.
“People say that if something terrible has happened you should write it down and throw it on a fire, because you feel better afterwards. And I guess that’s exactly what I did with all my song-writing, because when I look back on it now, 40 years later, and I listened to some of those lyrics it really does put me on edge. I can see what I was saying. It was fantastic to be able to write these things down and then go to perform them to lots of people who became fans and appreciated what you were doing.”
Spriguns brought out two albums with Decca (Revel, Weird & Wild, and Time Will Pass) and then when their deal ended they launched their own record label.
These next album, Magic Lady, which had an original print run in the hundreds, is now hugely collectible and sells for large sums of money.
As the UK folk music trend began to wane and punk exploded onto the scene, Mandy and Spriguns were wondering if they had reached a natural end point.
|Rowdy Dowdy Way Studio Album, Private on Cassette released in 1974|
She says: “I was thinking of throwing the towel in for a few years, because new wave and punk had sort of set fire to the country and bands like us that had a pride in what we did and created proper stage shows just weren’t needed anymore.
“The university circuit collapsed. People stopped having gigs in all the halls up and down the country where we used to make a living. And we had to think seriously about what we were going to do, whether we were going to scrap the band and get proper jobs, as my mother used to say, or alternatively, to forge new areas. And luckily we discovered after we’d been offered a residency in Oslo for the summer in 78 that there was a whole new world for us in Scandinavia.
“They were about three or four years behind the music scene in England. Therefore, they were still enjoying the hippie and progressive folk rock music, and so we toured Norway, Denmark and in Sweden. It felt like a rebirth of the band, rather than us sort of falling down like an awful lot of the bands did in this country.
“We had winter tours where we crossed the Arctic Circle and summers at amazing festivals. It was just the most wonderful experience and the penny dropped that we could make a living and we could continue with the band for a little bit longer. Scandinavia was beautiful and welcoming. The scenery we used to fly past in our little old van that climbed up the mountains and down the other side, was stunning.”
It was there in 1979 that Mandy signed a deal with Polydor Scandinavia, where she gained quite a following and produced the album Sea Of Storms. But around that time her marriage to Mike was coming to an end. He returned to Cambridge, where he died unexpectedly in his forties on November 27, 1995, after a short illness.
Mandy has spent the past couple of years going through all their old music and notes and materials to create the box set and it has brought back a lot of memories for her.
“I had the most wonderful lockdown just reliving all my own past history,” she says.
“And following my story from this distance was a revelation because as an older woman you have a completely different attitude to those days than you did when you were actually living through them. Because living through it was full of anxiety. Now I can look back and say, look at least I survived.
“The hardest part has been looking back on anything to do with Mike because we were very, very happy and we forged the band together and we grew up together. We were married very early. I was 18 when we got married and our marriage lasted 10 years with the band. Then we grew up and we realised that both of us wanted other things in our lives and we remained friends right up until his death.
“So, that was a very, very sad thing for me. And it was lovely doing this project because it was sort of like having him alive again in all the music I was listening to, all the photographs that I was looking at, and reliving that time and realising what a very special time it was. And of course the box set is dedicated to him because the band was a team. It wasn't just me, it was him and me. When Mike left the band after the marriage broke up, it just didn’t feel the same anymore. It had been a magical concoction. Without one or the other, it never could have happened.
“I used to get up and write songs in the middle of the night. And then I used to wake Mike up at four o'clock in the morning and say I’ve got one and he’d crawl out of bed and he’d get his bass guitar out and he’d listen to the new song. And by five o’clock in the morning, we had an arrangement ready to present to the band.
“I wrote songs and he ran the business and it was a marriage literally made in heaven. It was a good relationship. We managed to sort of get through the storm of the 70s, which wasn’t an easy time, and then by the 80s there were new things to think about. And Mike was a very good teacher. Eventually he was persuaded into going back into teaching and he ran the St Andrew’s tutorial centre for many years.
“I was very much married to the band while I knew that Mike wanted to have a family. He went on to do that and I’m very pleased that that’s what he did, because it never really fazed me. I had enough trouble being a child. I certainly didn’t want to create any more in this life. I wanted to keep my independence and I always wanted to plough my own furrow without having that sort of family concern around me. I don’t think that would have suited me in any way at all and I’ve never regretted it.”
The opportunity to bring all the music together in one box set presented itself when Mandy was approached by Cherry Red Records to write liner notes for a re-release of the Decca albums.
She says: “They came back and asked me if I wanted to release the other albums, and I thought, yes I would like to see them released again, especially Sea of Storms, which had been brought out by Polydor Norway and which I owned. I was also sick of seeing my work being bootlegged or going for silly prices - I thought this box set would stop all that. It was a wonderful opportunity that they offered me, so I grasped it with both paws.”
Since her stint as a folk star, Mandy has been an arts presenter on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and most recently has been writing a series of detective novels with cats in the lead roles called The No 2 Feline Detective Agency.
Mandy says: “One day I was writing my own songs and recording albums. The next day, I was writing about somebody else doing the same thing. So it was a natural transition. And then after leaving the BBC and sort of continuing to make programs now and again, I actually got so bored that I felt that I needed to get into something else. So that's when the book started. Of course my own music career creeps in occasionally because one of my main characters in the books had a music career.”
Mandy now splits her time between Cambridge and Cornwall where she and her partner, crime writer Nicola Upson, pen their novels.
★ Bass – Mike Morton
★ Guitar, Acoustic Guitar, Mandolin – Chris Russon
★ Producer – Mike Morton
★ Vocals, Acoustic Guitar [12-string], Dulcimer, Bongos – Mandy Morton
★ Vocals, Acoustic Guitar, Mandolin, Fiddle, Dulcimer – Rick Thomas
01. Lambton Worm (Traditional) (04:06)
02. Let No Man Steal Your Thyme (Traditional) (02:53)
03. Derby Ram (Traditional) (02:45)
04. Jigs - Rakes Of Malo/St. Patricks Day/Ten Penny Bit (Traditional) (03:45)
05. Flodden Field (Traditional) (06:38)
06. Troopers Nag (Traditional) (03:36)
07. Curragh Of Kildare (Traditional) (04:44)
08. Keys Of Canterbury (Traditional) (03:31)
09. Twa Magicians (Traditional) (03:59)
10. Seamus The Showman (Tim Hart) (02:44)
11. Barren Banks Of Aden (Traditional) (01:13)
Bonus: Rowdy Dowdy Way Studio Album, Private on Cassette released in 1974
★ Amanda Morton / 12-string guitar, dulcimer & vocals
★ Mike Morton / bass guitar
★ Rick Thomas / guitars, mandolin, violin, pipe & vocals
★ Chris Russon / lead guitar & mandolin
12. Let No Man Steal Your Thyme (02:39)
13. The Jolly Tinker (02:11)
14. The Laily Worm & The Mackerel (02:11)
15. Spanish Ladies (01:56)
16. Matty Groves (07:15)
17. The Trees They Do Grow High (03:05)
18. Three Drunken Maidens (02:40)
19. Scotia Reel (02:08)
20. Keys Of Canterbury (02:59)
21. Sir Brian Botany (02:53)
22. Troopers Nag (03:26)
23. Cuckoos Nest (02:25)