David McWilliams

TrackSingle / Album
Days Of Pearly SpencerDavid McWilliams Vol.2
Lady Helen Of The Laughing EyesDavid McWilliams Vol.2
Can I Get There By CandlelightDavid McWilliams Vol.2
I Love Susie In The SummerMajor Minor MM 616
Lord OffalyLord Offaly
The PrisonerLord Offaly
The GypsyLord Offaly
Morning That Looks like RainThe Beggar And The Priest
By The Lights Of CyrianDavid McWilliams (1977)
Love Walked In
(When You Walked Out Today)
David McWilliams (1977)

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David McWilliams playlist

David McWilliams photo

David McWilliams

 

Contributor: Andrew Shields

It starts with muted strings and guitar, followed by a rapid-fire drum part which gives the song a forward momentum it doesn’t lose until it finishes. Unlike in some of the artist’s other early records, the string arrangement complements the song rather than overwhelms it. The lyric of the song also marks a substantial advance on his previous work. Vaguely Dylaneqsue in style, it gives a vivid picture of the life of someone reduced to living on the streets. The lyric also implies, however, that the person described in it once had experienced much better days (you played a house that can’t be beat/ now look your head’s bowed in defeat/ you walked too far along the street/ where only rats can run). The song also reflects its author’s outstanding eye for detail and his beautifully economical way with words (a tenement, a dirty street/ walked and worn by shoeless feet). Those opening lines immediately bring the listener into the world of the homeless, possibly alcoholic, central character of the song. Such is McWilliams’ empathy with Pearly’s plight that he describes the latter’s impending death as if it is a victory. Here’s a near-contemporary live performance of the song:

There is, however, some online controversy about whether or not the song is about a real person. One school of thought – and the one that I find most convincing – takes it that ‘Pearly’ refers to a single individual, a down on his luck man that the songwriter knew in his early days growing up in the town of Ballymena in Northern Ireland. Another view is that the song deals with more than one character and that some of these may be women rather than men. Whatever the merits of these opposing arguments (which are well summarised here), Days Of Pearly Spencer remains a remarkably engaging and powerful song. As his ex-wife Gil put it, throughout his life, the writer had a love of “the underdog, the poor, the homeless, the tramp… [and] the alcoholic” and this love shines through the song and gives it its lasting resonance. ‘Pearly’ also reflects its author’s superb gifts as a storyteller and a writer of ‘narrative’ songs.

One of the most distinctive features of the song is its chorus, which appears to be delivered either through a megaphone or by a phone from outside the studio. Apparently, it was the second of these methods that was used on the record and this gave it that ‘otherwordly’ and arresting quality, which probably accounted for much of its relative commercial success.

At this point, it’s worth mentioning that although this piece was originally intended for the Toppermost series of ‘One Hit Wonders’, the original version of ‘Pearly Spencer’ was not, in fact, a hit in the United Kingdom or in Ireland. This was despite the fact that it achieved considerable chart success in France, Belgium and Holland, and – to a lesser degree – in Australia. But it was not until Marc Almond covered the song in 1991 that it finally entered the British Top Ten, eventually reaching No.4. Adding salt to the wound was the fact that Almond’s version – good as it was – was not a patch on the original and he had also, for some strange reason, added a gratuitously upbeat final verse to the song.

So where had the artist who recorded this unexpected but enduring classic come from? David McWilliams was born in Belfast in Northern Ireland in July 1945. At a very young age, his family moved to Ballymena, a smaller town about twenty miles from that city. As a teenager, he developed something of a rebellious streak and – perhaps with it – an interest in music (particularly early rock and roll). This eventually led him to join the group, the Coral Showband, and to begin writing his own songs. Fortunately for him, a demo of these soon reached the hands of Mervyn Solomon, a member of the prominent Belfast musical family. He passed McWilliams tape on to his brother, Phil, the music promoter. Phil was highly impressed by their quality and encouraged his friend Dominic Behan, the writer and folk musician (and brother of the more famous, Brendan, the playwright) to take McWilliams under his wing.

As a result, McWilliams moved to London to live with Behan and his family and to concentrate on developing his own songwriting. This intensive period of writing prepared the way for the release of his first album, David McWilliams Singing Songs By David McWilliams, in 1967. It appeared on Phil Solomon’s recently established record label, Major Minor, whose roster also included other rising and established Irish acts like the Dubliners (with whom McWilliams subsequently toured).

Like his other albums for Major Minor, McWilliams’ debut album was produced by Mike Leander, the talented English musician/arranger, who had previously worked with artists like the Beatles, Marianne Faithfull and Ben E. King. Despite his impressive pedigree, however, Leander’s style of production and arranging proved a mixed blessing for McWilliams. He displayed a tendency, at times, to go for a bombastic and overblown musical backing, which occasionally negated McWilliams’ strengths as a fine singer and a writer of hard-edged songs about the poverty he had seen around him during his youth in Ballymena (an example of this clash in styles can be seen in Redundancy Blues on McWilliams’ first album):

The other major issue with the first album Singing Songs was that, while several of the songs on it were very strong, he was still clearly in the process of finding his own voice. Indeed, the shadow of Bob Dylan’s influence lay very heavily over the entire record. In this respect his second album, David McWilliams Vol.2, represented a marked advance on the first. There was a much greater self-confidence about his songwriting and it gave a clear indication that he had found his own new musical direction.

This centred on a new folk-rock/pop fusion which has led some critics to compare him with Donovan. In my opinion, though, McWilliams’ music always retained a tougher edge and a more down to earth ‘feel’ than Donovan’s did. I have chosen two fine examples of this new style, Lady Helen Of The Laughing Eyes and Can I Get There By Candlelight for inclusion. ‘Candlelight’ also had a significant after-life when it was chosen as the theme music for a Dutch radio programme. It was subsequently re-released as a single there, reaching a high point of No.14 in the Dutch charts in November 1969. Here’s a later live performance:

The outstanding song on the album, however, was Days Of Pearly Spencer. Realising its potential, Phil Solomon decide to use what would nowadays be described as ‘cross promotion’ to further boost its commercial prospects. He did this through his links with the pirate radio station, Radio Caroline, which he had effectively taken over in early 1966. After doing so, he basically ordered the station’s disc jockeys to relentlessly plug his Major Minor artists. As we have seen, this strategy did pay off for ‘Pearly’ in many parts of continental Europe. In Britain, it backfired when the BBC refused to add the record to its playlists, because of what it saw as Solomon’s unethical conduct in relation to promoting it. At the same time, Radio Caroline itself was facing legal and financial troubles which ultimately led to its closure in 1968. In this way, David McWilliams’ musical career became enmeshed with the rather dubious business practises of his musical promoter/mentor. This was a situation over which he, of course, had no control. In the event, it resulted in some long-term damage to his musical career reputation.

My next pick, I Love Susie In The Summer, first appeared as the B-side to McWilliams’ 1969 single Oh Mama Are You My Friend. In my opinion, however, the sides should have been reversed. While ‘Oh Mama’ is a reasonably good song, ‘Susie’ is, perhaps, the most effective pop song McWilliams wrote after ‘Pearly’. Also, while the arrangement has some of the typically over-the-top Leander feel, the track itself is strong enough to carry that weight. There is also a slightly psychedelic feel to the song which immediately gives it that late 1960s ‘vibe’ without rendering it too dated even today:

 

David McWilliams made one more album for Major Minor, the fine if rather low-key David McWilliams Vol.3, before moving to the Pye subsidiary Dawn Records in 1972. As a result, it was on that label that his next album, Lord Offaly, was released later in the same year. This now stands as by far the best album he released in his entire career. It was also a much more stripped-back effort than his previous releases had been. Lord Offaly was also the most ‘Irish’ album he ever made. Its excellent title track also has a claim to be one of the finest songs on Irish history to be written by a modern songwriter. The song centres on the failed rebellion against English rule by ‘Silken’ Thomas Fitzgerald, son of the Ninth Earl of Kildare, which took place in 1535. After it failed, Fitzgerald was held as a prisoner in the Tower of London for two years before being executed. The song is written from his perspective in the interval between his arrest and execution. It remains a haunting and a superbly atmospheric piece. It is also strikingly different from McWilliams’ earlier work. Indeed, it is something of a pity that he did not continue to write in this vein, given his marked aptitude for it.

My other two picks from the record are also strongly folk-influenced. The first, The Prisoner, is a fine folk ballad which again displays McWilliams’ sympathy for the downtrodden and oppressed. My other choice, The Gypsy, is a nicely tongue in cheek up-tempo song with a clever twist at the end. Here’s a live performance of the song delivered in a rather unexpected setting and with an audience not particularly like McWilliams’ usual one:

Lord Offaly was also an interesting album in that it was one of the first to show his interest in country/roots music. For example, its first track, Go On Back To Momma, sounds like a cross between the Band and early Elton John. His voice also had a mellow warmth to it (a kind of ‘Irish Gordon Lightfoot’ quality) which made it very suited to that style.

My next two selections, Morning That Looks Like Rain and Love Walked In (When You Walked Out Today) (which are on two of his better later albums) are both fine examples of his work in that vein. Love Walked In could have fitted very easily into the late 1960s/early 1970s repertoire of either Lefty Frizzell or Merle Haggard and, in my book, that is very high praise indeed.

By contrast, my final choice, By The Lights Of Cyrian harks back in style to McWilliams’ earlier work with Mike Leander. It had the type of string-laden arrangement which typified that phase of his career. However, by that point in his career he had acquired a kind of maturity and gravitas which enabled him to stamp his own authority on the song. He later described the song as a critique of “organised religion and its consequence(s)”. This is done in such an oblique way that ‘Cyrian’ does not comes across as either hectoring or overly polemical. It is also possible to see it as an indirect commentary on the situation in Northern Ireland in that period – that is, the late 1970s.

Despite the gradual waning of his commercial appeal, David McWilliams continued writing and recording music right up until his early death in January 2002. By that point, he was known primarily as the author of one career-defining song. In many respects, this was a shame as his other work (particularly the albums he made on the Dawn label from the early-to-mid 1970s) deserved far more attention than they have received. Indeed, throughout his career, he remained a superb singer, a highly underrated songwriter and a man who, whatever the vagaries of his arrangers, managers and promoters, always prioritised authenticity and staying true to his musical vision over chasing commercial success.

 

 

David McWilliams (1945–2002)

 

David McWilliams poster

 

David McWilliams official website

David McWilliams discography

David McWilliams biography (iTunes)

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs ….

TopperPost #783

4 Comments

  1. Peter Viney
    Apr 27, 2019

    Intriguing. I had the first and third Major Minor albums, and a couple of singles, including Days of Pearly Spencer and The Stranger but hadn’t listened for years. You’ve sent me back to him, and yesterday I rescued “Lord Offaly” from my local secondhand store- it’s been in the rack for years!

  2. Andrew Shields
    Apr 28, 2019

    Peter, thanks for this. ‘Lord Offaly’ is probably his best album and strikingly different from his earlier work. Thought this might interest you.

    • Dave Stephens
      Apr 29, 2019

      To misquote someone, that’s another fine Topper you’ve got me into, Andrew. A fine artist and someone who I was guilty of ignoring at the time – there were too many competing performers, mainly from across that big ole pond. I did love the single though and still regard it as an excellent record. It’s a shame that McWilliams never received the sort of acclaim given to lesser beings.

  3. Andrew Shields
    May 1, 2019

    Dave, thanks, enjoyed researching this one, as I discovered doing it that there was far more to David than ‘Pearly’ – as great a single as that was.

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