The Ones I Rarely Play: Kate and Anna McGarrigle

1976 was a year of extreme weather: howling gales in January that took off part of the roof of our garage, fogs in November that were the thickest I’ve ever seen since the Clean Air Acts first began to wipe the word ‘smog’ from our vocabulary, and deep-laden snow in December that foreshadowed the Winter of Discontent, two years later.

But these phenomena are not remembered, overshadowed as they were by the first great Drought Summer. Over thirteen weeks without a drop of rain, unchanging blue skies, unbending heat, spontaneous fires in dry grass. Scorching heat, deep, sodden with sweat that might at any moment burst out afresh without even a movement to inspire it. When the rain finally fell again, in late September, I gambolled in it at the relief (not that I went out to do so, I was coming home from the cinema, getting off the bus and damn near skipping down the road, so you can tell how oppressive the sun had become).

Like the long, hot summer, 1976 was a year in which music was holding its breath, waiting for something to come along and change it. Which came in the form of the Sex Pistols, entering public consciousness – and notoriety – on the Bill Grundy Show that was only broadcast in London but which exploded all over the national press. Funnily, I’d heard of them, or at least I’d seen the posters for the now-legendary Lesser Free Trade Hall gig (I am in an exclusive group of less than a dozen Mancunians who doesn’t claim to have been there).

Punk was in the wings, waiting for the chance to vomit itself out. And never did I have a more exciting time in music.

Until then, it was chill and dreary. There seemed to be a greater profusion than ever of Oldies back in the Charts. I got heavily into the Irish group Horslips, who were trying to infuse Celtic music and rock. Their single, ‘The Warm Sweet Breath of Love’ was one of my favourites of the year. Another was the McGarrigle Sisters’ french-language ‘Complainte pour Ste. Catherine’. It went nowhere near the official charts, but it soared high in my personal chart.

That I couldn’t understand a word of the lyrics (despite a Grade 4 French O-Level, only five years earlier) was not a problem. It added a layer of exoticism to the jauntiness of the song, a bouncy, hoppy tune, lifted by the harmonies of Kate and Anna. It felt fresh, it felt like air in a stultified scene where the processed smoothness of Rod Stewart, or the over-produced airlessness of the Electric Light Orchestra was what seemed to matter, when my then favourite band, 10cc, had run out of inspiration and the Buckingham/Nicks Fleetwood Mac was on the cusp of making their first, limited impression in Britain.

Instead, the McGarrigles were natural, almost homely. Accordion and piano were the key instruments, and vocals that felt live, not multi-tracked. The appealing homeliness lay in the sense that you could imagine this being sung and played in a family home, and not a recording studio.

Surprisingly, it was years before I bought the CD, and by then I still only knew one other song from it, the piano-bright opener, ‘Kiss and Say Goodbye’. I’d sought it out after an interview in which the sisters, bemused at the industry impression that they were virginal creatures, pointed to this Kate song in refutation. It’s a joyous, romping affair, as the singer gleefully projects a rare weekend visit from her (married) lover, from that first call on the plane touching down to a meal, drinks and consummation.

“And I don’t know where it’s coming from/But I want to kiss you till my mouth gets numb.”

Wow, yes. Virginal? Yerrsss.

Though I’d never accuse any of the duo’s later albums of being formulaic, none of them can recapture what makes this album so great, cannot recapture the first flush of joy and excitement in these recordings. Ranging from the sublime (such as the exquisite ‘Heart like a Wheel’, written by Anna’s then-husband, Loudon Wainwright III) to the cheerfuly ridiculous (‘The Swimming Song’) the entire album is made out of joy and love: love of music, love of singing, love of the wonderment of it.

The homeliness aspects infects every track, whether a slow, yearning ballad or a rollicking little singalong. It’s music in the parlour, Kate at the piano and Anna’s banjo slung round her neck and singing for the extended family that gathers round, eager to share and join in, because it’s just one hell of a glorious thing to be doing.

It’s an album I cherish, because I don’t have any others that feel like this. But, like others in this series, it’s an album that’s an alternative. It’s a gateway that stands for other forms or traditions of music that exist in parallel to the world in which my overriding enthusiasms lie. Had I time enough, or maybe lives enough. I could enter those worlds and immerse myself. But in this world I am only able to linger in gateways at certain times. My loss, of course.

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