Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music

There exists a parallel universe in which I am happily giving Electric Eden an absolute rave. This, I say, is a perfectly timed, perfectly pitched alternative history of English folk music. It is wide-ranging, insightful, authoritative, thoroughly entertaining. I may even go so far as to say that, in parts, it is electrifying. There is another parallel universe, however, in which I come over all Cambridge philosophy tutor, sigh woefully, wave the weighty tome around and say, "In­sufficiently rigorous, self-contradictory, partial and - worst of all - lacking a central thesis."

These universes are exactly parallel to this one here, which leaves me bisected - because I would like to be able to flip across into either one or the other, the back-patting or the intellectual disembowelling. If I don't, I'll end up doing one of those annoying "On the one hand . . . but on the other hand . . ." reviews that leave everyone equally confused.

This is a book that is constantly climbing towards peaks and then twisting its ankle just shy of reaching them; when you feel like it's lost its way entirely, it suddenly stumbles out of the undergrowth and into the sweetest little clearing you ever saw.

“The 'Visionary Music' invoked in this book's title," writes Rob Young in his prelude, "refers to any music that contributes to this sensation of travel between time zones, of retreat to a secret garden, in order to draw strength and inspiration for facing the future." This is a wide enough definition to draw in both Gustav Holst and the Incredible String Band, Ewan MacColl and Boards of Canada. But it's based on some questionable premises, and it is carried out in a frustratingly flukey way.

One of Young's most interesting arguments is there in the title. It is electricity that made possible the folk forms he's interested in - the recording and retransmitting of them. It is also electricity that undermines the whole time-travel premise. In 1967, Steve Winwood's group Traffic, copying the Band's retreat to upstate New York, went to get it together in the English countryside. "Tucked away up a muddy lane that became impassable in heavy rain, on an estate owned by a local racehorse magnate, they enjoyed total isolation, with not a house, road or pylon in sight." All very much a "timeless bucolic existence".

However, "During their nocturnal jams they projected a complicated liquid light show on to the outside of the house . . ." This, we can be sure, wasn't powered by tallow candles. Nor were Traffic's instruments acoustic. Without an industrial-sized generator and a decent supply of diesel, you can't get much of a sound out of a Hammond B-3 in pylon-free Berkshire.

When the music critic and lecturer Hans Keller introduced Pink Floyd on the BBC's Look of the Week in May 1967, he said: "I want to ask one fundamental question . . . Why has it all got to be so terribly loud? For me, frankly, it's too loud. I just can't bear it - I happen to have grown up in the string quartet, which is a bit softer." This is the kind of thing that gets a cheap laugh in documentaries on rock music - "Hey, man, if it's too loud, you're too old" - but Keller's is exactly the reaction Traffic would have encountered if they'd been able to time-travel back ten years and play their version of "John Barleycorn" to even the most progressive English folk players of 1957. Keller was being polite in using the word "terribly"; but he was also saying, "You terrify me."

In other words, it's all very well to say, "What we're doing now is a form of musical time travel," but that's deluded contemporary wishfulness if in fact what you're doing would be anathema to the very people with whom you're claiming to be in ahistorical harmony. The folk queen Norma Waterson absolutely nailed it when she said, "A group is not a traditional thing to do."

For every view on the spiritual authenticity of folk, Electric Eden provides a counter-view. The difficulty, in the end, is knowing where the author stands. I finished the book thinking that, if Young had been either a little more of a hippie or a little less of a hippie, he would have been more suited to the task. At points he goes full-on mystical:

Even to dip a toe into the world of folklore is to unearth an Other Britain, one composed of mysterious fragments and survivals - a rickety bridge to the sweet grass of Albion.

At others, he writes more cynically:

But even as the mixed electronic and acoustic group attempt to wrestle this Albion country music into a future form of hayrick'n'roll . . . it's impossible to shake the sensation of flailing to revive a feeling for a senile England whose vision is starting to grow dim.

Well, is Albion sweet or senile? Eternally accessible to the suitably attuned, or lost beyond recall? Young seems content to let his many interviewees make their conflicting points and leave us to judge for ourselves. Perhaps, as editor-at-large for the Wire magazine, he felt unwilling to commit himself totally to the irrational, the mystical, the atemporal.

By contrast, what is so fantastic about the musicians in Electric Eden is their wholeheartedness. They believed. But in taking the indeterminate position he does, Young is only being true to the spirit of our age. We are perpetually engaged in nostalgia for dead people's passions. And so his book turns out, after all, to be perfectly timed, perfectly pitched.

Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music
Rob Young
Faber & Faber, 688pp, £17.99

Toby Litt's latest novel is "King Death" (Penguin, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 02 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Politics and comedy