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The best of happy endings: the rediscovery of Donnie and Joe Emerson’s Dreamin’ Wild

Two generations after their record sank without a trace, Donnie and Joe Emerson’s music has finally found the teenagers it was written for.

The artwork for Donnie and Joe Emerson's “Dreamin’ Wild”

Last year, a book called Enjoy The Experience was published which highlighted the world of private pressings, albums which were often little more than vanity pressings, that flourished in the pre-CD era. Records were expensive things to record and produce back then – you had to be driven, you had to really believe in your vision to make it worth all the effort. Many private pressings were made with the highest hopes; one such was Donnie and Joe Emerson’s Dreamin’ Wild from 1979. Their parents, who believed totally in their sons’ musical ability, took out a second mortgage on the farm and invested $100,000 in building a recording studio and cutting the album. With sickening predictability, copies gathered dust, and the family had to sell most of their 1,600 acre farm in Fruitwood, Washington to cover their losses. Joe helped out with the family business, while Donnie briefly attempted a solo career in Los Angeles before returning home, bruised and beaten, his wild dreams now hidden away in a bedroom drawer.

Jump forward to 2008, when a record collector called Jack Fleischer discovered a copy of Dreamin’ Wild, with its distinctive cover featuring the brothers in home-made white jump suits, in a Spokane thrift store. He loved it, shared his love on the internet, and the album became an underground sensation. The highlights were long atmospheric pieces, seemingly recorded in a summer dust-storm; one track, “Baby”, was covered by Ariel Pink and the album was reissued in 2012 by Light In The Attic to much acclaim. Pitchfork described it as a “a godlike symphony to teenhood”, while the New York Times flew out to the Emerson family farm where both boys, mother and father were still located.

So what had happened after Dreamin’ Wild? The Emersons had just kept writing and recording and, more than three decades on, we have Still Dreamin’ Wild (with a rotten title, but lovely artwork), the pick of their Fruitwood recordings from 1979 to 1981, all previously unreleased. We now know they bought a drum machine and stepped gleefully into the American new wave era. Later, Donnie had a short stint in LA, trying to get an industry break, but otherwise the Emersons’ career – if you could call it that – seems to have added up to little more than selling their own cassettes and CDs door-to-door.

The lost-in-the-rain feel of the debut is replaced on Still Dreamin’ Wild by a clean streamlined synth backing. Anyone expecting more extended weird-outs like “Give Me The Chance” may be disappointed on first listen but this album is adorable, and somehow timely. The tremulous vocals are still there, always giving an impression of melancholy, no matter how upbeat the lyric, as is the circular, repetitive nature of their songwriting (try out “Since You Been With Me”). On the whole it’s far stronger melodically than Dreamin’ Wild, and suggests – which, hand on heart, I couldn’t say on the strength of the first album – that they were unlucky not to score a hit or two.

I’m assuming Rick Springfield and Hall & Oates were on heavy rotation on the radio in Fruitwood while these songs were coming together. I’m also reminded of the Searchers’ two late-bloom albums for Sire. On the whole, this is synth-driven powerpop, exemplified by the 1980-moderne “Stand By Love” (“with a click of the switch she’s on stand-by”). The production on the terrific “Don’t Fight” is reminiscent of Rod Stewart’s “Young Turks”, while the primitive rumble of “Big Money” sounds like the Emersons were maybe the only people who appreciated Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk first time around.

“One True Love” sounds like a Christopher Cross demo, sure enough, but melodically and sonically – in its airy, clipped way – it takes no great leap to imagine it playing today on 6Music, or even on Ken Bruce’s Radio 2 show. In the sleevenotes, Donnie Emerson describes the song as “the city as imagined from the farm”. It’s hard to imagine just how isolated the brothers were from the Burbank of Christopher Cross, or even how different theirs was to a regular suburban upbringing – Donnie had never even been on a bus at the time he wrote these songs. It was all one step removed, coming from a place where a kiss at a stop light, or even a simple bus ride, sounded impossibly romantic.

Like the strangest and most individual privately pressed albums, Still Dreamin’ Wild has an irrepressible self-confidence. In most cases this is due the artist having some unshakeable religious belief, or sheer mental blindness – few of the musicians could have written a Top 40 hit. In the case of the Emersons, though, they clearly had the ability, and knew it. Their naivety may be what gives their music its lightness of touch, but the same naivety meant few people outside of Washington State ever heard them until recently. Their rediscovery means they are now playing shows to appreciative crowds, mostly the teens and twenty-somethings that the songs were originally written for – only two generations later. It’s the best of happy endings.

Still Dreamin’ Wild is available from Light in the Attic on CD, LP, and limited edition blue vinyl LP with a bonus 7”

Bob Stanley is a writer and a member of the pop group Saint Etienne. His book, Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop is published by Faber & Faber.

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As the falcon flew towards us, its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle

In your faces, twitchers!

The BBC2 programme Springwatch may have made the RSPB’s reserve at Minsmere in Suffolk the Mecca of popular birdwatching, but Cley on the north Norfolk coast is still its Alexandria, a haven for wanderers of all species and a repository of ancient and arcane knowledge. I learned what little I know about birding there in the early 1970s, sitting at the feet of the bird artist Richard Richardson as he gave his sea-wall seminars on the intricacies of behaviour and identification. Richard could put a name to any bird, but he never believed that this process rigidly defined it.

The reserve at Cley has been gentrified recently, with smart boardwalks and a solar-powered visitors’ centre, but something of its old, feral spirit remains. On a trip early this winter, we were greeted by birders with the news: “Saker! Middle hide.” Sakers are big, largely Middle Eastern falcons, favourites with rich desert falconers. No convincingly wild individual has ever been seen in Norfolk, so it was likely that this bird had escaped from captivity, which reduced its cred a mite.

The middle hide proved to be full of earnest and recondite debate. The consensus now was that the bird was not a saker but a tundra peregrine – the form known as calidus that breeds inside the Arctic Circle from Lapland eastwards. We had missed the first act of the drama, in which the bird had ambushed a marsh harrier twice its size and forced it to abandon its prey. It was now earthbound, mantled over its dinner on the far side of a lagoon. It was bigger than a standard peregrine, and in the low sun its back looked almost charcoal, flaring into unusually high white cheeks behind its moustachial stripes.

Then it took off. It swung in a low arc around the perimeter of the lagoon and straight towards our hide. It flew so fast that I couldn’t keep it focused in my binoculars, and for a moment its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle. At the last minute, when it seemed as if it would crash through the window, it did a roll-turn and showed off the full detail of its tessellated under-plumage. In your faces, twitchers!

It was a thrilling display, but that didn’t entirely quieten the identity anxieties in the hide. One or two dissenters wondered if it might be a hybrid bird, or just a large but eccentrically marked common peregrine. The majority stuck with the tundra option. This form migrates in the autumn to sub-equatorial Africa, and days of north-easterlies may have blown it off-course, along with other bizarre vagrants: an albatross had passed offshore the day before.

Calidus means “spirited” in Latin. The Arctic firebird treated us to ten minutes of pure mischief. It winnowed low over flocks of lapwing, scythed through the screaming gulls, not seeming to be seriously hunting, but taunting a blizzard of panicky birds skywards. At one point, it hovered above a hapless tufted duck that dived repeatedly, only to resurface with the quivering scimitar still above it. Then it took another strafing run at the hide.

Does it matter whether the peregrine was a rare variety, or just an odd individual? Naturalists often categorise themselves as either “lumpers”, happy with the great unlabelled commonwealth of life, or “splitters”, rejoicing in the minutiae of diversity. I swing from one to the other, but, in the end, I can’t see them as contradictory positions.

The bird from the tundra was a hot-tempered peregrine to the core. But its strange facial markings – however much their interpretation panders to the vanity of human watchers – are the outward signs of a unique and self-perpetuating strain, adapted to extreme conditions and yet making a 6,000-mile migration that might take in a visit to a Norfolk village. Lives intersect, hybridise, diverge, in the counterpoint between what Coleridge called “uniformity” and “omniformity”.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage