Michael Chapman celebrated his 75th birthday the other day. You might be saying “who?”, and, if so, you wouldn’t be alone. I asked about his music in a used record store once and the owner said “Oh, yeah, that guy from Monty Python!” No, that was Graham Chapman. “Oh, wait, wasn’t he in the band Family?” Closer, and also high on the obscurity meter, but no, that was Mike Chapman.
This Michael Chapman’s been recording since the late 60s and has a lengthy discography full of nimble guitar playing and leathery, sandpaper vocals. It’s tempting to pigeonhole his music as having roots in folk, but he’s shrugged off such comparisons, much like the musically akin John Martyn, who was known to say “I’m funky, not folky!” Chapman’s sound has a multitude of influences, but like the truly best artists, he sounds like no one but himself.
So many Chapman songs are memorable, but I often come back to a lesser known one from his late 70s years called “Northern Lights”. The opening track on The Man Who Hated Mornings, the song takes a bit of a Celtic approach, but it’s mixed with something else which I can’t quite put my finger on. I’m gonna call it jazz, for lack of a better reference point. Like the aurora borealis of the title, the fast, clear chiming guitar runs here have an electricity like the ionized air of a wild seashore or the atmosphere after a hard rain.
The song eventually eases into a relaxed exhale featuring the violin of Johnny Van Derrick (spelled sometimes as Van Derek), a colorful musician who had played with the Beatles and many others, including on Henry Mancini’s soundtrack for The Pink Panther. This section reminds me of the Bert Jansch / Martin Jenkins guitar and violin duets on Jansch’s Avocet, which was released around the same time. The story is that “Northern Lights” was to fade out with violin when the other instruments fall away, but Van Derrick kept playing, lost in the moment. The other musicians eventually join back in, bringing the song to a longer, more satisfying close.
The Man Who Hated Mornings album cover pictures Chapman and his long-time wife Andru (who’s appeared on a few of his other covers, often nude…) on a dawn beach, presumably having been up all night trying to find a reasonably priced inn with a waterfront view. Chapman looks like he’s decided to try and cheer his wife up by playing a little tune, but she’s saying “Forget it, I’m going home.” The alternate Decca Records album cover (pictured to the right) perhaps shows them earlier, during the night, having given up and resorting to camping out on the beach. Andru’s having none of it, though.
Then again, I think I read somewhere that the main photo was actually taken at sunset, not sunrise…so take my interpretation with a grain (or two, or three) of salt….