292. Matthews Southern Comfort – Woodstock (1970)

Matthews Southern Comfort, led by former Fairport Convention singer Ian Matthews, had a surprise number 1 with this beautiful cover of Joni Mitchell’s epitaph to the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival 1969, which also seemed to mourn the end of the optimism of the hippy movement, and touched a nerve following the recent death of the festival’s headliner Jimi Hendrix. Of the three famous versions out there, this is the best.

Mitchell hadn’t actually attended or performed at the festival as her manager had told her to appear on The Dick Cavett Show instead. She was in a relationship with Graham Nash at the time, though and he was there performing as part of his new supergroup with David Crosby and Stephen Stills. Watching the events unfold on TV from her hotel room had a profound effect on the singer-songwriter, and she put pen to paper.

Woodstock turned Max Yasgur’s farm that hosted the festival into the garden of Eden, and the journey to the site became a spiritual journey that would lead to enlightenment. Mitchell imagines meeting a child of God on their way to the site, starts to feel like she can be a part of a movement, and before you know it there are half a million likeminded souls.

She began performing her new song only a month after Woodstock, at the Big Sur Music Festival. Her recorded version found its way on to her third album Ladies of the Canyon in March 1970. It’s a sparse, low-key arrangement, performed on an electric piano. Sadly, it’s somewhat spoilt by her annoying double-tracked backing vocals.

Around the same time, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (for Neil Young had joined the fray) released their version on the album Déjà Vu. They had recorded a version with Jimi Hendrix while working on the song, released on the outtakes album Both Sides of the Sky (2018). I’m a huge fan of CSNY, but find their version of Woodstock somewhat of a misfire. They ditch the haunting melancholy of the original and turn it into a rather bog-standard rock anthem. An alternate take was used to close Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock documentary (1970). Which brings us to Matthews Southern Comfort. But who were they?

Ian Matthews MacDonald was born 16 June 1946 in Barton-upon-Humber, Lincolnshire. When he was 12 the MacDonalds moved to Scunthorpe, close to where I live. He left school at 16 and worked as an apprentice signwriter, and by the mid-60s he was performing in local bands. MacDonald moved to London in 1965 and formed surf music trio The Pyramid.

In the winter of 1967 he was recruited to sing for the then-new rock band Fairport Convention, and was among the line-up to record their eponymous debut (1968) and follow-up What We Did On Our Holidays in 1969. Sometime between the two, MacDonald changed his name to Ian Matthews (his mother’s maiden name), to avoid confusion with Ian MacDonald of King Crimson.

However, the second LP by the band saw them moving toward the traditional folk for which they would become so influential, and Matthews departed during the making of Halfbricking in 1969.

He quickly began work on his debut solo album, Matthews’ Southern Comfort, featuring more of the US country sound he performed. The line-up featured former Fairport colleagues like Richard Thompson, and included his own material as well as covers. Matthews put together a touring band, called Matthews Southern Comfort (minus the apostrophe), featuring lead guitarist Mark Griffiths and Gordon Huntley on pedal steel guitar from the album, plus new members Carl Barnwell on guitar, bassist Andy Leigh and Ray Duffy on drums.

Matthews Southern Comfort released their debut LP Second Spring in July 1970, and the world shrugged. However, a month prior to that they had recorded a set for BBC Radio 1’s Live in Concert. They needed one final song, and Matthews had recently bought Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon. The band kept their version of Woodstock faithful to the original, and it went down so well, the BBC contacted their label about it. Uni Records suggested it was recorded and added to their next album, Later That Same Year. Matthews refused, but said it could become a single. However, while recording the new version, the arrangement was radically altered, in part to suit Matthews’ voice.

Apparently Mitchell later told Matthews this was her favourite version of Woodstock, and I agree completely. This recording is sublime. Matthews Southern Comfort perfectly capture the sadness of the end of an era, the feeling that the counterculture didn’t pull it off. That we never did get ‘back to the garden’. Of special note is Huntley’s steel guitar, giving the song a sense of yearning for what could have been, the circular guitar sounds (mixed down in the single version) and Matthews’ tender voice and the lovely harmonies. This version is what Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s should have sounded like.

MCA Records, the parent company of Matthews Southern Comfort’s record label, only agreed to release Woodstock if CSNY’s version tanked, which it did. But they refused to spend money on promotion upon its release in July. Luckily for Matthews and co, they had a fan in BBC DJ Tony Blackburn, who made it Record of the Week on his Radio 1 breakfast show. Here’s a great example of how long it could take a single to climb the charts back in the day. Three months to make it to number 1!

Top of the Pops would show a lovely promo film during Woodstock‘s weeks at number 1, with a beautiful hippy girl wandering around the streets and looking at posters of the Woodstock film. Doesn’t sound like much, but it’s pretty fitting.

Were the band pleased to be chart-toppers? Not really, it turned out. Matthews didn’t like the extra demands on his time being a pop star entailed, and he walked out in December, making Woodstock their final single. He went solo, and the rest of the line-up continued as Southern Comfort, releasing three albums between 1971 and 1973.

Matthews recorded two albums in 1971 (If You Saw Thro’ My Eyes and Tigers Will Survive), before forming a new group called Plainsong, which included Andy Roberts. When they collapsed Matthews continued to record while living in Los Angeles, working with Michael Nesmith of The Monkees at times during the 80s and 90s. He has gone by the name Iain Matthews ever since 1989.

In 2000 he moved to Amsterdam and continues to record and perform, sometimes reviving Matthews Southern Comfort or Plainsong. Matthews co-wrote Thro’ My Eyes: A Memoir with Ian Clayton, released in 2018.

There are similarities shared between Woodstock and Scott McKenzie’s 1967 number 1 San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair). Both are folk songs written to commemorate counterculture festivals and give them mystical meaning. Yet by the time we get to Woodstock, it’s over. Hendrix’s death in September and this track are a full stop on the 60s. And yet, the festival scene certainly wasn’t over, with the very first Glastonbury Festival taking place the day after Hendrix’s death and celebrating its 50th anniversary this June, bigger than ever. And the next number 1 would be a very fitting postscript.

Written by: Joni Mitchell

Producer: Ian Matthews

Weeks at number 1: 3 (31 October-20 November)

Births:

The Divine Comedy singer-songwriter Neil Hannon – 7 November
Actor Harvey Spencer Stephens – 12 November
Race walker Verity Snook-Larby – 13 November

Deaths:

Liberal MP Alasdair Mackenzie – 8 November
Labour MP Bessie Braddock – 13 November

Meanwhile…

17 November: The Sun newspaper featured a Page Three girl for the first time. This tradition made stars of Samantha Fox and Maria Whittaker among others, but divided public opinion. However it continued for 44 years, until 2015.

20 November: The 10 shilling note ceased to be legal tender.

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