Classic albums re-examined: John Fahey – The Yellow Princess

John Fahey – The Yellow Princess

Pure Pleasure (Vinyl)

By Paul Rigby

John Fahey: genius or barmpot? Innovator or alcoholic curmudgeon? Eccentric or shock-artist? Such are the extremes of a life that has been lived in the left-field.

With The Yellow Princess, however, the music successfully encapsulates all that is good about the man and can, with some confidence, be recommended either as an introduction to Fahey’s works or as a representative of his most accessible style.

Beautifully recorded, Fahey’s acoustic guitar doesn’t so much broadcast itself to the ear but constantly explodes with shrapnel pieces flying off in all directions at a steady pace. There is so much musical information chucked at the listener in every track it’s often difficult for the ear to keep up.

It’s also a varied production in terms of tone and mood, with light-hearted, jolly pieces providing an acoustic harmony of dancing steel strings to more reflective tracks that utilise space and time in concert with the guitar itself. Fans of the group, Spirit, should take a look too as members of the band are present on this album too.

Released in 1969, this album has some delicious, contemporary company. This was the year of The Beatles’ Abbey Road, Johnny Cash’s Live At San Quentin, Deep Purple’s The Book Of Taliesyn, Blind Faith’s, Free’s and The Doobie Brothers’ self-titled debut releases, King Crimson’s debut plus many more classics and top albums. Fahey was drowned in the rush of that year but, since then, this album has increased in stature and it’s quality has been more widely recognised.

The most recent re-release of this album has been created by the UK-based audiophile outfit, Pure Pleasure, on 180gm, “I had to approach the Ace record label, in this country, as they are the British representative for Vanguard,” said label boss, Tony Hickmott. “Once through that hoop I was able to reach Vanguard themselves in the USA. I made a point of contacting the archivist, directly, in that company. I always attempt to do this with whatever the label might be because the archivist is closest to the source itself, he’s hands-on and can provide valuable information on the tape itself.”

The archivist reported that the condition of the tape was good with no processing, such as baking, required. As time moves ever onwards, this welcome report well become rarer with every passing year. Being an organic substance, master tape will always deteriorate gradually, “When I apply for any title, that’s done without ever knowing what condition the tapes are in. Even a skilled engineer can’t put something back that’s gone.”

However, Vanguard, like many other significant music libraries hold their treasures under secure and temperature controlled conditions to minimise degradation.

The mastering for this album was completed by the highly respected pairing of Steve Hoffman and Kevin Grey from the original master tapes. Fortunately, both engineers had direct access to the original tapes – a welcome occurrence as, these days, it’s not unusual for a source to be presented as a flat copy CD-R. Apparently the masters were not tweaked too much either, “It may have been warmed up a little bit but the aim was to keep the music as close to the original master tape sound direction as possible.”

Hickmott had an original copy of the album to recreate the cover sleeve, “There was, and this is not unusual for a reissue cover sleeve, processing to be done when transferring the sleeve art to the new reissue. When you have a large expanse of colour and there is a scuff, for example, then a good graphic artist can repair it via computer.”

Fahey was also an artist, he could drop your jaw in wonder at his finger picking skill but he could also frustrate and draw anger from his fans or his audience. For example, as Fahey entered his later avant-garde period (a period that was not welcomed by many of his supporters) he would often play eccentric sets. One friend of mind witnessed a gig in which Fahey sat in front of an audience and plucked a single note. Then he sat in completed silence for, what, 10 maybe 20 minutes? Then he plucked another single note. And so the evening progressed into stupefying oblivion. There are other tales too: Fahey urinating up against a mountain in full view of his audience before he sat down to play and Fahey performing in front of a seated audience and playing a single waltz theme over and over until, one by one the audience got up and left. When the hall was empty, Fahey continued – seemingly for his own entertainment.

This was a broken man. That is, Fahey was always broken, as a person. Maybe this is where his genius came from. The problem with the genius, though, is that they are too busy ploughing their own furrow to give a damn about anyone else. Fahey was like that too. With The Yellow Princess, however, Fahey pleased most of the people, most of the time.

Stand-out track: The Yellow Princess

This entire album is all about your speaker’s midrange capabilities. In fact, if there is a midband weak link anywhere within your hi-fi, it will certainly be highlighted by this track which is jam packed with mid and upper-mid detail, complex acoustic guitar playing and musical constructions whose tonal explosions spill all over the place.

Stand-out track: Lion

In a similar fashion to The Yellow Princess, Lion demands much of the midrange capabilities of your speakers but the difference here is the change of pace with a much slower, quieter mid-sections that introduces more space into the transcription which means that you become much more aware of tone decay. The ability of your hi-fi to pick out subtleties of this nature will be important.

The Yellow Princess – A Recorded History

1969 LP Vanguard 79293

2000 CD Vanguard VMD-79293

2000 LP Vanguard 00011424

2001 CD Vanguard 79293

2001 CS Vanguard 79293

2004 CD Vanguard VMD79293

2010 LP 79293 Pure Pleasure

1 Comment

  • j_duluoz03 says:

    “..Innovator or alcoholic curmudgeon?” You have got to be joking.

    What a pompous ass you are! – hubris and lack of humility in vast evidence.

    Read George Winston’s comments on the last five years of Fahey’s life before you stupidly call someone an alcoholic (without realizing there exists such a person as an ”alcoholic in recovery”).


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