London’s folk music scene was in full bloom by the late 1960s and Keith Christmas was right at its centre, playing not just on David Bowie’s Space Oddity album but at the very first Glastonbury festival.
Ahead of his appearance at RockShot Mag’s #BLOGTOBER FEST night at the Finsbury on 19th October, he tells us about those heady days, turning his back on the music industry for decades, and returning with not just a new album but multiple live dates.
In December last year, you released Crazy Dancing Days, your first new album in over a decade. How did it come about?
In summer 2015, I went to France to see if I could write one more song, because it had been a long time since I’d felt anything like I was a writer. So I took two weeks off my life to go and sit in this place in France and all these songs started coming out: different style, different way of singing, different way of expressing myself. I have no idea why, but I’m certainly not unhappy about it because I was so excited. As a writer it’s just the best thing to suddenly hit a purple patch. And I know that people like some of my other stuff, but I have to say looking over my back catalogue, I’ve never really been that impressed with it. But with this stuff I realised I’d suddenly made some kind of jump into a different level of writing.
You must be really happy with how those two weeks turned out.
It’s the best thing to find you can still do it. I don’t think there’s even such a thing as writer’s block, I just think there are periods when you’re inspired and there’s time when you’re just living. And to suddenly discover that things can happen is a huge thrill, because now when I’m going out to play live, I’m playing new songs. That’s always good. And I’ve got two more I’m working on that I’m really happy with, and a third one that’s proving a little tricky but it’s interesting in that it draws a lot of parallels between the Magna Carta and the current government. And I’ve written an anti-war song called Gun In His Hand that’s already done. So at the moment this is showing no signs of slowing down.
Why did you decide to use just your voice and your acoustic guitar on the album?
I found the hard way that the stuff I do is quite complex and unless it gets absolutely the right arrangement, extra instrumentation works against it. What I do is a kind of complex finger picking that I’ve developed myself over the years and it carries the music in its own right, live certainly. What happened to me in the ‘60s and ‘70s is people put big backing on all my albums and then I’d go out and play solo and no-one could really understand whether I was supposed to be a solo artist or a band artist. Well, if you want to be a band artist, you’ve got to have a very successful record, get tons of money behind you, and then you can pay musicians to go out.
So I made the decision that since this fingerpicking was my deal, I might as well just let this album hang off that peg. And when people come to see me live, they hear the set, they buy the album, they take it home, they put it on, and they’re listening to the set again. That’s always turned out to be quite an effective way of doing things.
That approach puts a lot of focus on the lyrics. How important are they to you?
When I used to listen to music, what I really heard was the musicianship and the rhythm because a song’s rhythm turns me on like crazy, so I could forgive a weak lyric if a song was really powerful. But when it comes to acoustic music, I think lyrics are absolutely vital. Back in the ‘70s, when I knew a lot of musicians in bands, like Paul Kossoff, they used to have these tapes full of music but no words, so it’s always the hardest thing to write words. Finding original lyrics is incredibly difficult so when I hear an original lyric coming out of my mouth or somebody else’s, I’m absolutely over the moon.
Talking original lyrics, you played with David Bowie on some of his Space Oddity album. Did you have any inkling at the time that he’d have the career he did?
During the sessions I didn’t think very much of the album. We just sat down there in the studio, with Tony [Visconti] producing it I believe. It was a cavernous room, with no atmosphere, that was obviously designed for orchestras. So it was like being on the inside of a bulk carrier ship and they just sat these two chairs down with these two mics, and a mic for vocals. He just sang his songs and we quickly knocked up an accompaniment. An hour, hour and a half, that was it. I came in, I did four songs, I left, I never got paid, I never asked for money, that was it. I just thought it was fun to do.
But not long later I was at Hyde Park for the Stones gig and it was a gorgeous day. They were playing music on the speakers and one track stood out. That was Space Oddity, which I hadn’t heard because it was done separately to the album and, when I heard that, I just realised it was going to be a really really big song. Even then I didn’t know he was going to have this success and run with it the way that he did.
How did the two of you work together?
At that time you kind of cut your chops on being good. The better the guitar player – the faster, the quicker, the more nimble, the more agile, the better fingering – the more highly you were esteemed. It was kind of the way things were done and so, when I was watching people like John Renbourn in the Troubadour in Bristol, I set myself to learn how to do this. I didn’t really think very much about singing because I had a pretty crappy voice then, or songwriting because I wasn’t very much good at that either. But I did concentrate on the guitar and that’s what I became known as. Now David never learnt to pick, he never bothered. All he wanted to do was strum a 12-string and write these songs, but he didn’t really stand out because he was swimming in the wrong pool. He was trying to swim in the folk singer pool where everyone was trying to be virtuoso guitarists. He wanted to create songs and images, and it was when he got the success of Space Oddity, I think, that he got the boost he needed to say: ‘Right, I can create my images, I don’t have to be a virtuoso guitar player’. And of course he had this great interest in fashion and style so he then allied that with the songs he was writing. He basically strummed out the basics, then let the producers take care of the rest, and what a fine job he did.
Not long after, you were invited by Michael Eavis to play at the very first Glastonbury Festival in 1970. What are your lasting memories of that day?
It was a funny little rickety stage in a field. I don’t remember it being a particularly nice day, it was a bit blustery, a bit cool. A big bunch of hippies turned up. I went down with some friends of mine, we all sat in this field. I don’t even remember playing at all, I don’t remember doing my set. It was absolutely completely forgettable that gig.
There’s a photograph of me on stage singing in a big group and what we used to do in those days in folk clubs is everybody would get together to jam an old folk song that everybody knew. I think that’s what we were doing when the photo was taken, so that speaks volumes about the quality of some of the music at the time. But of course it all changed when Marc Bolan came down from London trailing thousands of people in his way. Unfortunately by that time I’d already cleared off because I had another gig to do, and I never got to see what was probably the most interesting thing of the first gig.
In the years that followed, because I had a strong connection with the festival and with Michael, I was able to just turn up with my guitar on the weekend. They all knew me on the gate, so they’d say: ‘Come on in’. I remember playing the main stage on a Sunday afternoon to about 200, 300 people stretched across the grass. It was such a sleepy afternoon that a dog even came on stage and fell asleep by me.
You’ll never find me mentioned on any of the bills because I used to just turn up. Then I sort of just packed in music because I had to do other things to pay my way. I kind of lost track of all of it and by the time I looked up again I found it had morphed into something I didn’t recognise at all.
During the time you’d packed in music, was there no desire to go out and play?
I found it very hard to forget that I’d had even a small amount of success. It’s a really difficult thing because you get a mindset of being there at the centre of attention, if you like, and then all of a sudden you’re just everybody else. I never got that much success, but the little I did get, even that I had trouble adapting to losing. But you’ve just got to get on with your life and say: ‘Well you’re not there now, you’ve got a job to do to put food on your table and bring your kids up.’
What brought you back?
Well, I retired from teaching, I remarried, I found this period of my life was extremely stable. And it was that one trip to France that triggered it. It was absolutely like a bolt out of the blue. I sat down at this table and started plucking something out and Welcome To The End Of The World just popped out. Then I was writing at such a level that one day I went into a bar, sat down, and wrote the first verse of If The Young Don’t March without having to change a word afterwards. That is the holy grail to me, it’s gold dust. Whatever anybody else may think of the songs, it’s there, it’s happening, and it’s of a good enough quality that I know I can sing them.
So you’re enjoying playing live again?
I love playing live because, whenever I write a song, the first thing I can think of is where I can play it. I don’t ever think I’ll sit on it for a couple of months and see if I can refine it – I’ll take it straight out because there isn’t really much point to writing songs if you’re not going to play them. And if you play a song live, some strange instant feedback happens. If you’ve got a weak lyric, the second you sing it, you know it’s not right; if you’ve got a strong lyric, the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. So that’s absolutely vital to me, but I just love the sheer joy of taking the song out, seeing whether they like it or not. I absolutely love playing live.
And what can we expect from you at #BLOGTOBER FEST on 19th October?
As much of the album as I can cram into half an hour. Plenty of angry politics, plenty of fast finger picking.
Interview by Nils van der Linden, September 2017