Simon Finn

Pass the Distance

Durtro/Jnana

Photograph of Simon Finn courtesy of the artist.

For the truly committed record hounds among us, few experiences are more initially seductive or ultimately frustrating than the search for “lost classics,” the vast majority of which, we repeatedly discover, have already found their proper homes in the dusty record bins of history. Occasionally, though, we stumble across a previously neglected recording that’s so unique, inventive, and immediately appealing that it’s hard to believe we haven’t heard it before. In my experience, these unearthed treasures most often consist of offbeat musical hybrids, created by young musicians who simply don’t know any better, seeking—with only limited success—to combine disparate musical influences into a reasonably coherent style.

Far and away my favorite recent discovery is Simon Finn’s Pass the Distance, a dark, haunting, frequently unwieldy mix of English folk music, late-sixties psychedelia, free-form jazz, and studio experimentation that transcends its apparent influences and obvious flaws to create something utterly timeless and distinct.

Simon Finn first strolled into London in 1967, a stringy-haired, frail-voiced Donovan-styled troubadour who spent his nights on park benches and his days charming impressionable young women with his whimsically romantic folk compositions. After an early and undistinguished demo session with North London producer Vic Keary, Finn bounced around the London club circuit for a couple of years before finding his way back into Keary’s studio in 1969, with a markedly new approach to writing and performing. “It’s quite a change from your older songs, Simon,” Keary reportedly told the young musician at the time. “It’s a little weird, but I like them.”

“A little weird” was a euphemism for the new direction that Finn’s music had inexplicably taken—the weirdness even further exaggerated by his recent choice of collaborators. A few days after meeting with Keary, Finn bumped into a couple of the producer’s regular session musicians, multi-instrumentalist David Toop and percussionist Paul Burwell, near the studio. In addition to their occasional gigs with Keary, the two men were also budding experimentalists, improvising together on a musical patchwork that was equal parts Sun Ra, Captain Beefheart, Indian raga, and traditional Celtic music. The three men were soon jamming together in local clubs, where Finn’s mostly cheerful, conventionally crafted folk tunes quickly mutated into dark, meandering, occasionally explosive improvisations. In the studio, Keary encouraged Finn’s recent experiments, pushing the music even further away from the folk tradition that had given it birth—along with any potential for commercial acceptance—with his generous use of stereo panning and echo effects.

On the surface, Finn’s recording still featured all the familiar trappings of mystical English folk music.  A quick glance through the lyric sheet reveals a typically twee topography of odd, precious, occasionally sinister characters and situations drawn from nature and Celtic mythology. In the foreground, a good-natured snail shouts encouragement to a lovesick walrus. Across the way, the bright smiles of mermaids illuminate a gathering fog. Just visible on the horizon, a seductive wizard rises up spectacularly from the depths of the ocean.

As recorded, however, very few of the songs actually remain faithful to the twee-folk tradition. The most obvious example of traditional folk is the lovely acoustic ballad “Patrice.” With its sweet, wistful matter-of-factness, the song could have floated right off Vashti Bunyan’s Just Another Diamond Day or Donovan’s A Gift From a Flower to a Garden. A harmony of recorders twists and turns its way around the vocals, gently nudging along the song’s seductively messianic pretensions: 

Though sea and river block my pathway,
My mind is the whole earth.

My poems rule the universe, girl,

As nature brought you birth.

In true hippie troubadour fashion, Finn delivers the lines sweetly and nonchalantly, without a trace of irony or self-doubt.

The rest of the recording has irony and self-doubt to spare, however, along with an enveloping sense of fear, apprehension, and smoldering rage that leaves the folk hippie landscape in the dust. With its heavily echoed vocals and slide guitars, off-tune arrangements, occasionally errant notes, and constant panning, the recording anticipates the dark, haunting, near cacophonous effects of mid-seventies pop experimentalism, particularly Big Star’s Sister Lovers, as well as much of what passes for acid folk today.

The similarities to Alex Chilton’s bleak, introspective masterpiece are uncanny at times. Several of Finn’s songs could easily pass as lost tracks from the late Big Star sessions. “Big White Car,” for instance, is the reverse negative of Chilton’s “Big Black Car,” an angry tirade against self-complacency replacing the brooding nostalgia of the later recording. The similarities between Finn’s “Where’s Your Master Gone,” a dark fairytale about temptation, and Chilton’s “Holocaust,” a haunting dirge about childhood bereavement, are even more striking. The haunting vocal phrasings and instrumentation on the songs’ repeated choruses are virtually identical, each creating an eerie mood of mystery and longing and dread.

But the recording’s one real epiphany is utterly incomparable. “Jerusalem” is a bitter, impassioned, ultimately soulful jeremiad against religious hypocrisy. In the style of Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” and other apocalyptic folk recordings of the period, the song erupts full-throttle from the opening bar, with Finn ranting self-righteously above the jerky rhythms of bongos, steadily swelling organ, and his own choppy bursts on acoustic guitar.

Did he imagine at that moment
Two hundred million hypocrites would praise his                         name?

And were he now to come down,

Those hypocrites would crucify him again.

As the song progresses, Finn’s increasingly urgent delivery begins to come unraveled, his voice gradually transformed from a stern, clench-throated harangue (à la McGuire), to a measured falsetto scream, to a violent, sputtering caterwaul. At the end, the lyrics collapse into a stream of almost indecipherable ravings (“Gonna put him inside I’m yelling all I can can’t you see he’s the Christ?”), and Finn’s spastic, stuttering vocals come as close to genuine dementia as I’ve ever heard on an ostensibly commercial recording. For all its excesses, the song is astonishingly moving, soaring far beyond the limits of a traditional protest song toward the anguished gospel improvisations of Al Green or the spiraling Sufi ecstasy of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

A few months after its initial release, Pass the Distance was withdrawn from circulation for legal reasons, and the recording and its composer quietly vanished from the London music scene. Over the years, rumors circulated that Finn had variously descended into madness and self-imposed isolation, committed suicide or, even more unthinkably, settled into a successful career as a stockbroker. Pass the Distance continued to have a life of its own, with homemade cassettes of the virtually nonexistent LP circulating around the London musical underground. “I thought to myself: He is either dead or a millionaire,” explains Current 93’s David Tibet in the liner notes to the CD. Tibet first heard a tape of Pass the Distance in 2003 and was determined to track down its composer and reissue the album. “Either way, he wouldn’t be easy to contact.” But Tibet did manage to find Simon Finn after all, living a modest but happy life in Montreal. A few months later, Tibet met with Vic Keary, who still had the two-track master tapes from the original sessions, and the current release on Durtro/Jnana was arranged.

David Shirley and his trusty pickup truck, Old Blue, currently divide their time between Brooklyn, New York, and Oxford, Mississippi.

Contributor

David Shirley

David Shirley and his trusty pickup truck, Old Blue, currently divide their time between Brooklyn, New York, and Oxford, Mississippi.

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