The Making Of A Cult Classic
RJ McKendree's amazing 'Wallflower' album, and how it became no longer fictional...
Melbury Beacon isn’t quite the highest place in Dorset, but, at 263 metres above sea level, it’s one of the big boys and, much like the man I walked to it with this time last year, probably has no trouble seeing when it stands at the back at concerts. It forms one of the towering curved edges of the ancient hunting ground of Cranborne Chase, above the Blackmore Vale, on the north Dorset Downs. To me, visiting the Chase always feels like arriving on a separate planet up a hill. There is something distinctly “other” about it which kicks in as soon as you have climbed the strange and disorientating Zig Zag Hill – a road with bends so sharp you have to bring your car to a virtual standstill to negotiate each of them – to reach its long plateau. It’s a place that initially looks very open and bald, but with innumerable deep hiding spots, clumps of trees known locally as “hats”, not all that long ago peppered with man traps. These clumps often have slightly gruesome names such as Bloody Copse, commemorating the vicious battles – not uncommonly ending in murder – between gamekeepers and poachers that raged here in the early half of the 1800s. It’s not the setting for my recent novel, Villager – actually, the setting of the novel doesn’t exist, in the real world, and is largely inspired by another legendary, folkloric upland just over a hundred miles south west – but at the end of an overcast day, the September before last, I could think of few more atmospheric settings in which to record the climax to the book’s soundtrack.
Soundtrack? To a book? Yes. I knew, from the moment I started writing it, that Villager demanded to have one. A couple of years earlier, ten bands and singers had each recorded a song inspired by one of the stories in my 2018 book, Help The Witch, for a soundtrack released by Stick In The Wheel’s From Here label, and I’d been blown away by the diversity and magic of the results. When I started working on more fiction, the question of what kind of sounds might best accompany it was instantly in my mind. There are plenty of bands – some real, most fictional – mentioned in Villager’s interlocking two-century-long narrative and I could easily have envisioned a similar project to the Help The Witch LP, but together, earlier in 2021, my friend Will Twynham and I hatched a more apt and potentially even more creatively fertile idea: Will would record the actual album that forms a significant part of the book’s plot, the cult work ‘Wallflower’ from 1968 by the Californian songwriter RJ McKendree. For a short time, he would “be” McKendree, emerging out of the Stars-In-Their-Eyes dry ice from his home on the dense commuter fringe of East Anglia, into the homemade recording studio in the tiny 16th century home of his manager, Michelle Hilborne, in the lofty, untarnished Dorset village of Ashmore. But there were a couple of obstacles to overcome. In the book, when he writes and records ‘Wallflower,’ McKendree is still in his early 20s. Will – although usually mistaken for somebody much younger – is well into his 40s. McKendree was a brief West Country incomer from north of Los Angeles. Will is from the Hertfordshire-Essex border. Recording techniques have changed a lot since 1968. Even if the equipment of that era was used, and used well, and the person recording had an encyclopedic knowledge of the best psychedelic music made at that time (and few people have a more encyclopedic knowledge of that than Will), anything created would inevitably be influenced, however subtly, by the years that have occurred since then.
But, from the conversations we had, and a few brief demos Will sent me, I quickly got the sense that something very special was happening, up there on Cranborne Chase. For the duration of the recording – around eight weeks, in total, at the end of summer 2021 – Will slept in a bell tent in Michelle’s garden, and was almost blown away in a couple of big storms. “Michelle’s cottage was an absolutely perfect setting,” Will remembers. “It’s remote and barely changed from the 1860s, let alone the 1960s. Exactly the sort of place you might imagine someone like McKendree would have ended up in 1968. We foraged for hedgerow items to turn into booze between bouts of recording, went for walks. There was a vibe to that whole period of time which certainly filtered into the recordings way more than if it had all been done at home, between trips to Sainsbury’s and the post office.” Will and I had talked a lot about the records we imagined Wallflower might be reminiscent of. The eastern-gazing primitivist folk of Robbie Basho and Sandy Bull had come up a lot, Chad & Jeremy’s bafflingly little-known ‘Ark’ LP, the psych-Americana of Circus Maximus. “There’s not one song with standard tuning on the whole record,” says Will.
Precisely to what extent could this be called a collaboration? As Will, Michelle, sound engineer Ben Strelley Jones, my partner Ellie and I walked towards Melbury Hill and the day’s tiny sliver of sun dipped below Shaftesbury in the distance, I remember a feeling of being mostly a bystander to the big event. I’d planted a few ideas in Will’s head, but that was it. I played the tiniest bit of beginner guitar, emotively steered by Will, that night, and Ellie and I joined Will, Michelle and Ben in a session of chanting by Melbury’s Trig Point, which ended up on the track ‘Gods Of Mist And Stone’. I wrote the full lyrics to only one RJ McKendree song – ‘Little Meg’ – in Villager, and a few to a couple of others, plus a full set of track titles. Other than that, everything was Will’s. After years of playing music with his partner, Mary Epworth, he’d recorded his own music under the alter ego Dimorphodons – mindmelting distorted psychedelia of the highest calibre – but the finished Dimorphodons songs had been a long time in coming. He told me that, due to having a persona created for him (and a deadline), the results came thick and fast, in a flood of inspiration. “I never have a problem coming up with musical ideas, I can just sit and make stuff up constantly, I love it, but when it comes to lyrics, the thing that takes most time is deciding what a song is about. I can have a few great lines, a chorus even but not feel that there’s a strong enough lyrical centre to finish it easily, which means songs can get left unfinished. Having a list of titles to work from was a joy because even if i just circled round it, there was a concept to hang the words onto. When I first saw some of the titles – ‘Cow Of The Road’ for example, I thought ‘What the hell can I do with this!?!’ then after chewing it over a bit, started picturing a solitary cow in a field, eating a Nietzsche book that has been left there, and ruminating on existence.”
I first met Will in the summer of 2009 at a record swap, where he gave me a slightly bashed up but playable first pressing of ‘Astral Weeks’ in exchange for a VG+ copy of the self-titled 1972 album by Bobby Charles (current Discogs price: £100). The countless hours we have spent nerding over music from the 60s and early 70s since then no doubt played a part in making ‘Wallflower’ what it is, but I did not have Will in mind when I first began fleshing out the character of RJ McKendree. Yet, later, I realised there are uncanny similarities between the pair, and not just musically. They’re both very tall, a little shy, admirably uncompromising, unafraid to let their freak flag fly, aesthetically equally parts Western mellow and eastern hypnotic, awkward yet practical… the kind of people you could hand part of an old tree to and get a fully functioning sitar back three hours later. When I first heard ‘Wallflower’ I was astounded by how similar it sounded to the record I’d heard in my head while I was writing the book, the only significant difference being that it was even better. On its cover was a painting by my mum, Jo, which I’d also first written into existence in the pages of Villager. It’s enormously satisfying to finish a novel you’ve been wanting to write for over a decade but to have two pieces of superior art created from the template of your own art is another level of satisfaction entirely.
As a fake Flower Power era record, ‘Wallflower’ never sounds pastichey or contrived, or like a musical of the book – all things Will was very careful to avoid. It’s an eerie, far-reaching, strange, low key, wild, multilayered, weirdly futuristic work. It’s a precious fictional cult record on a fictional cult record label that has already transcended its origins and become a precious real life cult record. The limited lathe cut edition of the vinyl sold out instantly, and it didn’t take long for the cassette version to follow. “Is there any way at all you can get me the vinyl?” people asked. Finally, we caved in to demand and repressed it. That repress is now also virtually sold out. I have one original ‘Wallflower’ LP of my own and feel very lucky to possess that. When Will, with a band consisting of Ben and Michelle, with the addition of a little bit of spontaneous spoken word from me, debuted the songs in Bridport last summer, it all felt seamless and correct. Somehow, even before having heard more than snippets of ‘Wallflower’, I sensed that all this was going to happen, that night a year ago on Cranborne Chase. It’s said that one of the reasons the place was deforested in the 1800s was to dispel the wickedness that had gone on there for centuries, but the ghosts of the smugglers and the highwaymen and the murderers and the gamekeepers and the poachers are still there, and there was a feeling that, as Will tapped into some other musical voice parallel to his usual one and Ben pressed the ‘Record’ button, Will was summoning them out of the chilly night, as well as the fictional ghosts of Villager, just in the same way, or maybe in an even more enraptured way, as in writing the book I’d felt pulled along by some mystical force outside of me. “The most spooky and unexpected sounds on the album came from that session,” Will told me recently. “When I listened back there seemed to be hours of it, coming from all angles. There are a lot more noises there than can be easily accounted for.” It’s a night I feel certain I’ll remember forever.
Check out RJ McKendree’s music on Spotify.
Order a copy of Wallflower by RJ McKendree.
Order the paperback of Villager with free worldwide delivery.
For those further interested in the musical aspect of the book, I have made this Spotify playlist of some of the songs that inspired of me during the writing of Villager (and helped coax RJ McKendree into existence)…