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Shelagh McDonald - Return Journey

This is where I unwittingly kicked off a chain of events. I’d been signed for my first LP by Sandy Roberton – then just starting out on a production career, nowadays L.A.-based director of one of the most successful agencies for record producers. He asked me who else I recommended, which resulted in my friend Al Jones recording his first album for Parlophone with Roberton. Al then pointed him at Keith Christmas who got to debut on RCA, and Keith in turn got Sandy to check out Shelagh.

“I was pretty crazy about Keith. I met him when we did a gig at Bristol University, and then I think he sent me a card and said ‘come down’. And then [Bristol Troubadour manager] Tim Hodgson said he had a flat so I moved down there.”

“Sandy Roberton came and saw me do a gig – I probably did things like Caruso, Mirage or Ophelia’s Song that I did on the first album – and he pretty much said ‘Do you want to make a record?’ I made him wait for a couple of days to be sure we were both happy with it, which was the intelligent way to go forward… I was aware that Keith had invited him along with that in mind and I didn’t want him to have that revelation at 8.30 the following morning – ‘What have I done?!’”

On her two albums, Shelagh shared musicians from Fotheringay and Mighty Baby who also worked with Sandy Denny, plus Richard Thompson, Danny Thompson, Dave Mattacks, Keith Christmas, jazz pianist Keith Tippett, pedal steel guitarist Gordon Huntley, flautist Ray Warleigh and vibes player Tristan Fry. In common with the Nick Drake albums she had engineer John Wood, photographer Keith Morris and arranger Robert Kirby.

Standing, Robert Kirby & Keith Christmas; seated, Richard Digance left, Shelagh second right. Others unidentified.
Photo: Keith Morris
Standing, Robert Kirby & Keith Christmas; seated, Richard Digance left, Shelagh second right. Others unidentified.

Kirby, quoted in the notes to her re-issued albums, said “The principal thing I remember about Shelagh is how uncannily similar she was to Nick Drake – tall, slim, very beautiful, alabaster skin, beautiful dark hair, but I believe that she had the edge on Nick…” Others, like Karl Dallas in the Melody Maker, felt she was an equal to Denny. I wouldn’t disagree with either.

“I just left everything to Sandy Roberton,” says Shelagh. “It was his company and my first album. He was investing his money so I think that was only fair. His parents were in Africa, he was a young man in London cutting his teeth in the music business. He always wore a very smart corduroy suit, short back and sides in the hippy era – so people took him seriously. He was absolutely passionate about it and that’s what I liked about Sandy. You walked into his office and he had one secretary, he was on the phone non-stop, he didn’t know the meaning of the word ‘delegate’. If ever I see him again, I shall ask him ‘have you learned how to delegate?!’”

“The first album was terrifying! We didn’t do that many takes and I’d never practised with a full electric band. It was a bit like somebody handing you the keys to a Phantom jet and saying ‘Hop in, see you…!’ We’d go in at lunchtime and we’d be there ‘til about two o’clock in the morning, maybe a quick half-hour break, packing in as much as you could do. It’s quite trying on the voice – if you hear some of my out-takes, my vocals are quite crap: you’re saving your voice for a gig the next day. Nowadays I’m sure a voice coach would tell you a more effective way of saving your voice. The first album, it took me a while to get used to it, but by the second album I was getting more confident. And John Wood was terrific.”

“On the first album I also did two of Keith’s songs, an Andy Roberts, Let No Man Steal Your Thyme, and one of Gerry Rafferty’s – you’ll notice one bit where I la-la-la part of it because I got the lyrics from Gerry at a party. We were sitting on the floor and I asked if I could do that song. So I wrote it down on a piece of paper and either he was drunk or I was, but I didn’t get it all.”

“But the second record was all my own except The Dowie Dens Of Yarrow which is traditional – I enjoyed doing that, with Dave Mattacks. But I must say how happy I was with Sandy Roberton as a producer. He was a dream team, he was terrific. He didn’t tell me that he himself had been a performer, but it explains to me now why he was very sympatico.”

Shelagh eventually moved back from Bristol to London around 1971. “It was when Sandy Glennon was no longer getting me gigs and Sandy Roberton was doing it, through Chrysalis. I was doing a lot more of the university circuit. So it was geographical, it was a lot easier to get to places. Katie had got this flat, a far from salubrious address in Islington but it was a happy flat.”

In those days before the festivals boom, work was still seasonal. “The summers were always problematic but the winters were pretty good. I remember seeing Nick at a concert around June and he was amazing – but everybody was already fully booked up and nobody had told him this. He went down a storm but then there was this big gap afterwards and he was wondering what the hell was happening. Joe [Boyd] had booked Nick in a couple of northern clubs where they expected the patter and Nick couldn’t go there, he couldn’t bullshit on stage, do the small talk, but I liked that about him.”

“I used to see Sandy [Denny] occasionally. Sandy loved to be with people, she was addicted to it, but I could tell that she wanted to get down to doing her songs as well. There was this wealth of songs in her, but she couldn’t organise her time – I felt that a lot of her friends should have respected that and given her more space. Which I did, I didn’t want to prevent anything of that flowering.”

Drake was to deteriorate and take his own life. Denny had a tragic fatal accident. Shelagh simply disappeared, as the result of a bad LSD experience that she now doesn’t want to talk about.

When she briefly spoke to the Scottish Daily Mail’s Grace Macaskill in November 2005, she’d said “Everybody was experimenting with drugs, but in April 1972 I took a trip that turned my world upside down. I thought it would be out of my system within twelve hours, but three weeks later I was still hallucinating… I was walking around the shops and looking at people who had no eyes or features, their faces were just blank. It went on for so long, I just forgot to eat and was just skin and bone. I was all over the place and ­didn’t seem to know what I was doing or where to turn to. Suddenly, I had to get out. My disappearance wasn’t at all conscious. It was a coping mechanism – self-preservation.”

Shelagh McDonald, 1970
Photo: Keith Morris
Shelagh McDonald, 1970

From fRoots 353/354, November/December 2012


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