Tony Cummings chronicles the unlikely tale of Cambridge folkies WATER INTO WINE BAND whose records have become collectors' items.
Each month a music magazine hits the shelves at Britain's news agents which is very different from its rivals. Record Collector magazine covers a wide sweep of music - rock, pop, folk roots, blues, Northern soul - but does so targeted at the hardcore record collector. So in Record Collector you get vast swathes of information about Japanese pressings of Beatles albums, the "Psych legends " Dantalian's Chariot, the collectability of early Motown releases and numerous references to record fairs, car boot sales and The Rare Record Price Guide. As with most mainstream magazines, music by Christian artists is largely ignored (save for occasional pieces on Cliff Richard's EP output or the article U2 Man & Boy: The Story Behind An Iconic Album Sleeve). But the February issue of Record Collector showed that some of the obscurer corners of UK Christian music history have not entirely escaped the obsessive gaze of rare vinyl collectors. In that issue reader Graham Paris wrote into the Value Added Facts column. His letter headed Water Into Fine Wine read, "Can you tell me the value of an album I have? It's 'Hill Climbing For Beginners' by the Water Into Wine Band and is signed by the group. The person I bought it from said he went to see them in a folk club in 1975 and I assume that's where he got the album and the autographs."
Ian Shirley, the editor of Rare Record Price Guide and the writer of the Value Added Facts column, responded, "Christian rock is one of those areas that can either produce excellent music or the sort of stuff that makes you want to destroy every tambourine in the world. New Dawn's privately-pressed album from 1969 features some nice organ-led pieces that bring to mind pastoral Pink Floyd, alongside other songs that seem to extend time like a Sunday sermon. Luckily for you, the Water Into Wine Band produced an entire album of excellent folk-rock, even though there are song titles such as 'I Have Seen The Lord', 'I Used To Be Blind' and 'Jesus I've Been Walking'. Despite selling poorly upon release - you probably got one free if you put a £1 into the collection plate - 'Hill Climbing For Beginners' has become a really collectable album and has even been reissued on CD. That yours is signed by the band will add value to a collector, and you should easily get something around our RRPG valuation of £150."
The musings about the Water Into Wine Band continued. The April Record Collector published a letter from me. I wrote, "It was good to see a mention of Christian rock in your February issue though your writer didn't do himself any credit with his guff about how probably you get a copy of Water Into Wine Band's 'Hill Climbing For Beginners' for free if you put a pound in the collection plate. The reality is that the Cambridge-based folkies were quite a name in the Christian music underground of 1975 and as you can see from the attached photo, played concerts with Cliff Richard. Also it's worth mentioning that the follow-up to 'Hill Climbing', 1976's 'Harvest Time', sold out its entire pressing of 500 copies at the third annual Greenbelt Festival in 1976 and according to the Encyclopaedia Of Contemporary Christian Music, a copy of the original vinyl will now set you back £750."
But the Water Into Wine Band saga didn't end there. With help from Peter Timmis and Mike Rimmer, the gone-but-not-forgotten band's lead singer and acoustic guitarist Trevor Sandford was tracked down and one Wednesday evening on the Rimmerama programme talked about the life and times of the band. Trevor, who today runs an education management company, has long since known that WIWB's two albums were highly prized collectors' items - he and the other former band members had once cooperated in 'Hill Climbing For Beginners' (in both 'English' and 'US' versions) and 'Harvest Time' being reissued on CD - but was still amused and bemused at the continuing collector interest. He chuckled, "It's amazing! I might be able to dig out one or two old vinyl copies from the attic. I think it's called antiquity or something like that, isn't it?"
The origins of the Water Into Wine Band go back to 1971 at Cambridge University when students Trevor Sandford (vocals, guitar, bass), Peter McMunn (guitar), Ray Wright (guitar, bass, bongos) and Bill Thorp (violin, piano) met up and found they had mutual interests in theology and music. Explained Trevor, "We were all at Cambridge doing various degrees and things and we all played different things; some were from a folk background, some rock. Bill Thorp who plays the violin was from a classical music background. We all just met up and it was at the time when folk rock was in vogue and we all got together, we were there at the same time and because we got on quite well we decided to spend a week together in an old vicarage in Huddersfield, just playing music to each other. At the end of the week we did a gig in the local school. The turn out was about 1,000 kids and they liked it. So we thought fair enough, we'll carry on from here. So we did. Because there was folk rock of a different style - Strawbs folky rocky stuff but ours was very much acoustic. One guy in America when we were on tour there described it as gospel chamber music but that's a whole other story."
Although Christian bands such as Malcolm & Alwyn, the Glorylanders and Out Of Darkness were already laying the foundations of a Christian scene in the UK, the Water Into Wine Band didn't consider themselves a ministry group. Said Trevor, "We saw ourselves as a band who were Christian rather than a Christian band. In a way we just wanted to play music, a lot of which had backgrounds in our beliefs and what we wanted to say. But some of it was just fun music. We didn't see ourselves as exclusively kind of promoting the Gospel. The music kind of spoke for itself in a lot of ways. We'd play in folk clubs and so on. It was a much tougher environment to get a Christian message across but we would just do the music and let that speak."
In 1973 as well as the folk clubs Water Into Wine Band were beginning to play gigs in church halls and outreach events. Recalled Trevor, "We got grabbed by what was then the sort of emerging Christian scene a bit. Somebody must have heard us at a gig or something and we were offered the chance to make an album by Word UK. A guy called Bobbie Graham was the producer. We went down to Enfield and made the album there. It was all pretty raw stuff and we were pretty inexperienced at recording."
Trevor remembered the Enfield sessions very well. "I remember I borrowed a long scale bass - I normally played a short bass because it fitted into the car. We had an Austin A40 if you remember what those things are, and the whole band would fit inside the Austin A40. We called it the Tardis. We'd sit in the back with guitars over our knees. For the recording I borrowed a Fender Precision or something and I couldn't play the thing. If you listen to the album you'll hear the fret buzz which annoys me to this day."
Despite its crude production - Bobbie Graham's drums and bongos sound distinctly out of synch - and a lack of dynamics in the arrangements 'Hill Climbing For Beginners' showed the band to be thoughtful crafters of chamber folk. Bill Thorp's violin work was dazzling, some of the vocal harmonies truly haunting and the 11-minute epic "Song Of The Cross" one of the most ambitious works ever attempted by a UK Christian band. With crowd pleasers like "Stronger In The World" and the wonderfully named "I Used To Be Blind (But Now I'm Short-Sighted)" the album definitely had its moments. Then something unexpected happened. The December 1974 issue of Buzz magazine announced the development. "Acclaim from America has come for the acoustic outfit Water Into Wine Band. Billy Ray Hearn, A&R manager of Word Records, has described them as 'one of the most creative and original bands I've heard. And I believe they will make a big impact on the American gospel scene.' As a result the band last month re-recorded their first 'Hill Climbing For Beginners' for release in the USA."
Strangely, the re-recording of 'Hill Climbing For Beginners' for the American market occurred not in the USA but in Britain. Explained Trevor, "We recorded the new version at Wessex Studios in South London with John Pantry producing. The Americans wanted a cleaner sound and a more commercial feel, and more production and so on. So we took the opportunity to respond to that by adding extra instrumentation. So for instance we put a string quartet on one of the numbers and we also had harmonies with that. We added flute, wind and so on so whilst we weren't entirely. . . we wanted to keep it a fairly small, kind of raw group sound and not make it into pop music - we didn't use a lot of drums - we still took the opportunity to do something that we felt made the music more interesting. There were pluses and minuses but on the whole we were able to do something good with it."
The American release version of 'Hill Climbing For Beginners' didn't please everyone. Mark Allan Powell's Encyclopedia Of Contemporary Christian Music reports that "critics consider the American version a travesty, while collectors price the original British edition at £250." The release on American Myrrh did, however, get the band out to the States. Said Trevor, "I think we sold a number of albums in the US. But the thing was the American market in the '70s wanted something much more immediate than the music we were making. We did a couple of tours in the US. They liked some of the music we would do that was very straightforward, less complex - they loved it. But then we'd get into some of our chamber style music that was a bit more complex and they wouldn't know what we were up to really. If you look back at some of the progressive rock of the time it did get very creative and it wasn't maybe everybody's cup of tea and that was particularly so in America."
Neither did the band's progressive folk offerings always connect with British audiences. Remembered Trevor, "We were the support act for some Cliff Richard Tear Fund concerts (in the autumn of 1975). To be honest, our music and his was like chalk and cheese. His was mainstream pop and ours was more progressive folk rock type of stuff. But we connected with the audience."
In June 1976 the band decided to record another album. Booking into London's Freerange Studio the tracks on 'Harvest Time' were, if anything, even more ambitious and less "commercial" than its predecessor. There was an eight-minute plus "Scottish Suite" containing a medley of such traditional perennials as "Coming Through The Rye", the reel "Peter Gray" (expertly played by Bill Thorp), "Skye Boat Song" and "McPherson's Rant". The album also contained a highly tongue-in-cheek rendition of the Tin Pan Alley standard "Moonglow" with the group helped out by Judy Mackenzie (vocals) and Dave Cooke (guitar), the group having played some gigs with the Mackenzie/Cooke duo.
But by far the more ambitious number on 'Harvest Time' was the 18 minute plus title track. After a delicate orchestral introduction featuring George Caird on oboe, John Payne on clarinet, William Prince on horn and Jeremy Ward on bassoon, "Harvest Time" flows into a medieval-sounding Sandford/Thorp composition featuring the haunting refrain "Though the sower may be sad/Harvest time will make him glad". The song continues to build, the woodwind interweaving with Bill Thorp's elegant piano and then violin, acoustic guitar and woodwind swirl around to take the listener to the telling vocal climax "All that we need is a handful of seed/All that we want is to live/Won't you turn to the sower/Forget all your greed/Ask, and I know he will give".
Such intricate pastoral delights were of course light years away from Cliff Richard immediacy and the emergent US CCM, so there was no attempt to put 'Harvest Time' with a record label. The band pressed some copies (there seems to be some debate whether the pressing was 500 or 1000 copies) and took them to the Greenbelt Arts Festival to sell at what was to be their final concert. Trevor Sandford explained the band's decision to make the 1976 Greenbelt the Water Into Wine Band's swansong. "I guess we all had other careers and things we'd trained to do or wanted to do. We've all ended up doing completely different things. Bill, the violinist, plays with the Academy Of Ancient Music, you may have heard of them, they're a top international music ensemble. I went a different way into other things. Pete's an architect. We said let's give it a couple of years but we realised that we'd either then have to become commercial to really make a living out of it or else we'd be 60 and still earning £10 a year. We were on survival rations basically and we decided that yes, it was okay and we enjoyed it and had a great time but let's quit while we're winning."
As it turned out, of course, that wasn't the end of the story. Over the next two decades record collectors began to emerge keen to explore the obscurer denizens of progressive folk music. In America and, of all places, Japan, vinyl copies of the UK version of 'Hill Climbing For Beginners' and 'Harvest Time' began to change hands for ever increasing amounts of cash. In 1999 such was the demand amongst collectors that a Korean label Hugo-Montes bootlegged 'Hill Climbing For Beginners' without, of course, the knowledge of the band. Two years later entrepreneur Steve Smith, aware of the collector interest in the band, did his homework and tracked down members of the Water Into Wine Band and with the band's cooperation released a double CD package reissue featuring both the UK and USA versions of 'Hill Climbing For Beginners' and the 'Harvest Time' album on his Kissing Spell Records.
Today, the four original members still have some contact with each other and indeed haven't completely forgotten the days when they were long haired folkies. Explained Trevor, who when not running his business, is a County Officer with Kent County Council and a member of the Kent Chamber Choir, "I've got a bit of decking in my back garden which sits above the ground and people can gather round and hear from a distance. We did have a bit of a reunion when a round number birthday came around not that long ago. So maybe we'll do it again at that level. Most of the audience were our kids who are now at university. They thought it was quite cool to have dads who were able to do this kind of stuff."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.