The Infinite Jukebox: The Sutherland Brothers and Quiver’s ‘Arms of Mary’


One little-commented upon aspect of my belated discovery of pop and rock music ten days before the end of the Sixties is that, excepting those who continued strong between decades, such as the Who, I only knew the bands and artists of the Seventies in their guises of that year. It was as if they all sprang into existence on January 1st 1970, without any kind of past.
Whereas a great many of them had had a prior existence on the Sixties, some with success, others with no commercial track record. Only slowly, and more often than not by accident and with a fascinated surprise, would I discover where and how these people had been in the Sixties. For instance, though I never heard their music, I often saw the name Gentle Giant in the NME, without connecting them for a second to Simon Dupree and The Big Sound, hitmakers with ‘Kites’. But these were the same band.
It still happens today, fifty years on. Links emerge, connections between known and unknowns, the more so as I continue to indulge my fascination with the obscure, the rare, the bright and overlooked pop of the late Sixties.
Just this week, I’ve had one of those songs doing earworm duty in my head, just the chorus, but that includes the title, ‘Sadie and her Magic Mr Galahad’. With the majority of these things, I know the song title far better than the artist, and I couldn’t remember who was responsible for this.
Eventually, I cracked and googled the title, identifying the artist as A New Generation (of whom I have at least one further track), who later underwent a minor name change to The New Generation. But what caught my eye on one of the links was the song’s writer: Iain Sutherland. Not the Sutherland Brothers Iain Sutherland? Oh yes, and the other member of the band was naturally younger brother Gavin. Well, well, well.
I’d forgotten that I’d been well into the Sutherland Brothers in that part of the Seventies that got obliterated by the advent of punk, which turned my musical world over. There was ‘The Pie’, recorded as The Sutherland Brothers Band, displaying the brothers’ folk-oriented roots, with its gentle, almost plodding melody: I ended up with the album later, and its other, much-less played single, Gavin’s ‘Sailing’, that I knew and preferred when Rod Stewart, still in the penumbra of musical credibility, took it to no. 1
But it was the team-up with Quiver (songwriters without a band meet band without songs) that was the start of things. There was the 1973, debut, the kicker single, “(I don’t want to love you but) You Got Me Anyway”, with its beautifully paced acoustic intro and its solid yet delicate sound supporting a chorus of tremendous yearning power, 1974’s ebullient and indecently effervescent “Dream Kid”, title track of its own album, 1975’s laidback, cool, midtempo “Saviour in the Rain” that didn’t get the same love as its predecessors except from me.
All great songs. All great singles, perfect, full-bodied pop/rock, bright and illegally good, and ignored completely. In the Seventies, the Great British Record Buying Public needed a severe dose of taste, the number of great singles they ignored.
In 1975, the band switched from Island Records to CBS, apparently because Island wouldn’t release their singles in the US (though “You Got Me Anyway” had done far better there than in Britain). The outcome was their one and only big hit, Iain’s “Arms of Mary”.
I loved it then and I love it still, though it rarely leaks out of my memory. I remember Johnnie Walker, then doing the Radio 1 lunchtime slot, 12.00 till 2.00, falling in love with this song and plugging it. I remember the week it stalled at 31 in the chart, four weeks in the Top 50 already, and Walker – the anomalous daytime DJ, the one who was in it for the music, God forbid, who got saddled with the new Top 30 rundown every Tuesday – suggesting that if we all went around being nice to each other for a week, the song might make the Thirty, and the following week it was the highest new entry, at 19, and his cheerful words on announcing it, “You must have been good to be around.”
“Arms of Mary” peaked at no 5. It’s follow up, “When the Train Comes”, an uptempo, blasting rocker, did nothing. And 1977 came along and songwriters like the Sutherlands were just blasted away, and much as I’d liked them, much as I’d bought most of the albums (I would never own Reach for the Sky, the one that contained “Arms of Mary”), the truth was that for me at any rate, the Sutherlands were on the wrong side of a gigantic and necessary musical shift. Still, I’d been to see them, in late1976, at (I think) the Palace Theatre, and had a good time.
But though the move to CBS brought the band a measure of deserved success, and though “Arms of Mary”’s gentleness and wistfulness, fondly looking back to a boy’s first sexual experience (not that Top of the Pops seemed to notice), made it a restful and sweet sound on the radio in a year where so much music had descended into sterility, the band’s true strength, it’s solidity, was fatally undermined. The producers wished on the Sutherland Brothers and Quiver created a sound that even now astonishes me. It’s airless and suffocating for one thing, but what drove me crazy then and still is how weak, tinny and feeble the sound is. I had the evidence of Dream Kid and Beat of the Streets for how SB&Q could sound, full, rounded, purposeful, bright, glowing, rich, and here they were made to sound paper-thin, empty, hollow. It’s there in “Arms of Mary”, but it’s far worse on “When The Train Comes”, a classic rocker with the impact of a 97-pound weakling.
It was the same for their final SB&Q album, Slipstream, a Xmas present from a mate from whom I couldn’t quite conceal my disappointment, and which I played more out of duty than love.
This is a lovely song, but even as I loved it, and eagerly turned to the radio every time it was played, loving every moment of one of ‘my’ songs convincing everybody else, I could never hear it without knowing how much better it could have been at the hands of a Producer who could have let the band be what I already knew they could be.
Time, I think, for a bit of a re-appraisal of the Sutherlands and Quiver. Not of A or The New Generation, delightful as those failed singles are, but of that early Seventies period that may need to come out of the shadow of 1977. Beginning with another play of this. Lying in the arms of Mary. Oh yes.

 

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