The little discussed album ”Back at the Beginning” by D’Arcy is in my opinion one of the best major label folk-rock releases from Canada, which stands up well against the more classic bands like Riverson and Perth County Conspiracy. The record was released in 1972 on the Aboslu label with distribution through Polydor and contains strong songwriting throughout (all songs written by D’Arcy Draper) in a mainly pop oriented folk-rock style. The album has clear west coast and CSN influences and contains gentle folk tunes, like in “Sunflower”, which reminds me of “Snow On A Mountain” by Wilcox, Sullivan, Willcox, as well as more rural singer-songwriter songs but also heavier moments as on the extensive guitar solo in “Forest”, which as Patrick Lundborg puts it “packs enough feedback punch to add a bold “Y” to the CSN”*.
D’Arcy Draper was born in Toronto but grew up in Town of Mount Royal, a suburb of Montreal and it was here he started to play music and formed his first band in the late ‘60s, playing mainly British invasion covers. He started to write his own material and in 1970 he released his first album, under the name Mantra, a band he had formed together with Dick Kelder. By then he had become part of the folk scene and played only acoustic guitar. Mantra started to perform in coffee houses in the region and even played on local TV shows. However, the album failed to do anything commercially and after 3-4 years the group split up when they realized they couldn’t make a living out of it. Soon after a local DJ offered to help them to get a record contract and he set up a deal with Polydor to record D’Arcy Draper’s solo album “Back at the Beginning”. A lot of bands were playing in Montreal (e.g. Riverson, Mashmakhan and Tapestry) and in his time in Mantra he got to know many of the local musicians, which explains the album’s impressive lineup, including Jerry Mercer (Mashmakhan and April Wine), Rayburn Blake (Mashmakhan and Riverson) and Tim Forsythe (The Haunted and Our Generation) to mention a few. Once again the album didn’t sell and it was not because it lacked commercial potential but because they never probably promoted it and if the band would made some tours and done live performances I think this might have been different. Instead “Back at the Beginning” sadly became D’Arcy Draper’s last release and soon after he left the professional music business behind and started to work at a regular 9-5 job. However, he left us with one of the best representatives of the Canadian folk-rock style of the early ‘70 and I can only hope that a reissue will see the light of day sometimes soon, especially as the original record is not easy to find.
*Patrick Lundborg (ed.), Acid Archives – A Guide To Underground Sounds 1965-1982, Second Edition (2010). Lysergia, Stockholm.
What kind of music did you play in your earlier bands (i.e. Black Sheep and Lost & Found)? Did the bands record and/or release anything?
When we started we played covers of the Rolling Stones, Beatles, Kinks, Animals and a few others, and towards the end of that period we added a couple of original songs. We didn't do any recording, except for one time when we played live for George Morris, a DJ on CKGM, a local AM radio station; however that recording has been lost.
How did you get to know Dick Kelder and why did you two decide to form Mantra?
I met Dick when he played lead guitar with a female folk singer, Dee Higgins at Expo '67. Shortly after that Dee got a recording contract and had to move to Toronto. Dick is a wonderful acoustic guitar player and a great singer and Dee was crazy not to take him with her. It was my good fortune he stayed in Montreal. That was the point I started writing songs on the acoustic guitar, some of which were eventually recorded on the Mantra album. We wanted to play these songs live and started as "Dick Kelder and D'Arcy Draper", and later changed to the name to Mantra when we included Pierre Fauteux on bass and vocals, and Graeme Lennox on piano and vocals.
What was the idea with making an all-acoustic album?
There were several reasons. There was a trend away from electric / rock music to acoustic based light rock at the time, and it seemed you were one or the other, not both. These days any instrument goes with any other instrument and is played in any musical style.
We liked the sound of the two acoustic guitars together and also the blending of playing new style original songs in a traditional sounding way. When Pierre and Graeme joined us we started to have quite sophisticated harmonies and we felt the acoustics could stand up well with support from a bass guitar and some keyboards.
There was also a cost issue – playing “electric” music requires a lot of equipment and logistics to move and set up for shows. With two acoustic guitars you just get in the car and go.
The next step in your career was to record your solo album “Back at the Beginning”. Can you tell me how you got Polydor involved and why it was released on the label Absolu?
This is a long story. As I understand it, a friend of Pierre’s, Jean Sicotte, brought the Mantra album to the attention of Doug Pringle. Doug was the top DJ at the first FM radio station in Montreal, CHOM, and was quite influential in the city in his own right.
I was asked if Dick and I would be interested in playing live on Doug’s show. We did that a couple of times and Doug eventually asked us why we didn’t do more recording. I felt that doing another acoustic album didn’t make sense. I wanted to branch out and have a full band if we were to go ahead with anything else. Bob Dylan had The Band, James Taylor had full instrumentation on his recordings and I felt that that was the right direction – original “songwriter” material with a full band sound and lots of harmonies.
Soon after Doug arranged a deal with a local recording studio (Studio 6) and Polydor, and I believe he set up Absolu Records as the production company.
Can you tell me something about the concept of the somewhat mysterious sleeve design?
The cover photograph was taken by Pierre Fauteux, and I was always sorry that in printing Polydor did not include his credit. He has made me pay dearly for that oversight over the years!
I wanted a cover that would be recognizable from a distance, and with those vivid oranges and yellows the photograph certainly does; and to make people think, which it also does – as you say “mysterious”. I didn’t want just the typical picture of the artist holding a guitar.
I thought and still think it’s the most interesting picture I’ve ever seen. What is the significance of the glass lantern? Is the sun setting or is it rising? The day is ending but he says he is “Back at the Beginning”; beginning of what? Where did they come from to get back to the beginning?
Why did you name the album “Back at the Beginning”?
The phase appealed to me just as the photograph does. It’s ambiguous. It’s a bit of an enigma and hopefully makes the reader wonder what it could mean. There is a song on the album with that name, and it puts forward a similar theme: beginnings and ends are part of the same thing.
Two of my favorite songs on the album are the title track “Back at the Beginning” and “One Free Dream”. Could you please tell me a little bit about those songs?
“Back at the Beginning” was the only song on the album I wrote on the electric guitar. Someone left a Stratocaster at my place for a little while and I wrote that song with it, although I recorded the song with an acoustic guitar. The song is about two people in the same place at the same moment in time but seeing the moment in opposite ways. She is saying it’s the end, he is saying it’s the beginning, and it could be either, you decide.
“One Free Dream” sounds quite different from “Back at the Beginning” but has a similar theme: the different perspectives of the same people doing the same things. We’re “racing away with our minds on fire” as if to say we know where we’re going and what we’re doing, but then the refrain asks “what do we think we know?” So maybe we think we’ve got it all figured out, but on the other hand maybe we don’t have anything figured out. All and nothing, beginning and end.
Why did you choose “Forest” to be the single to promote the album?
That was the decision of Polydor and Absolu. They felt the incredible lead solo by Rayburn Blake combined with the “message” of the song would be great for FM radio play. Actually, it turned out to be “Sunflower” that got most of the airplay, both FM and AM.
Interestingly, “Forest” and “Sunflower” were the only two songs on “Back at the Beginning” that we played as Mantra. All the others were written for the new album.
“Forest” tells the story of a man who left the materialistic city life behind to live alone in nature “with a forest for a home” or at least that is how I interpreted the song. How did you get the idea to this song?
When I write songs, 80% of the time I have a little piece of music on the guitar and that sends me a message about what the style and tone of the song should be. So the first few chords sounded a bit angry, the person speaking was going to have strong opinions about the subject, and that made me think of “not being pushed into something I didn’t want”, and it went from there.
There was a feeling in those days that “wouldn’t it be better if we just got away, bought a house in the country and lived the simple life”. So there was some influence from that.
Rayburn Blake played lead guitar on “Forest” (and “Are You Coming”). He was already famous at that time, as a member of Mashmakhan. How did you meet him and got him involved with the album?
I met Rayburn and Gerry Mercer through Mashmakhan’s manager Donald K. Donald (DKD). I think he must have heard some of the live radio shows we did with Doug Pringle, because he called out of the blue one day and he asked if I would be interested in “opening” for a few Mashmakhan concerts. So Graeme Lennox and I did 3 concerts as the opening act, just with acoustic guitars. The album came up right at that time so I asked Rayburn and Gerry for their help. They got clearance from DKD and we started practicing for the album.
Gerry went on to form “April Wine” and Ray later formed the band “Riverson”.
Was Dick Kelder also involved in the making of this album?
Dick played on three songs: “Forest”, “Sunflower” and “Move Over”. “Move Over” was never released. One interesting thing about “Move Over” is that it is the only song that I have a final mix of on tape (now converted to CD) from the studio. All the other songs we have on CD are digitalized from a copy of the vinyl album and you can hear all the scratches from 40 years of playing. No scratches on “Move Over”.
The song “Move Over” is as strong as anything on the LP with a rural sound similar to The Band. D'Arcy Draper has kindly given us permission to include the song here.
The album received local air play but why do you think the album never become commercially successful?
Honestly, I think it was because we just weren’t quite good enough yet. It would have been better if circumstances would have allowed us to play live for a year or two with the whole band, and then go in to the studio to do the album.
Why did you stop recording music after this?
It wasn’t viable financially. We would have had to form a full band to play live and do tours, and I did not believe at that time there were enough places for us to play that all of us could have made a living at it. So it came down to this: if I wanted to continue I’d have to go to New York or LA and start over from scratch. I ultimately decided I didn’t want to do that.
We didn’t actually quit music altogether. For example, a year or so after the album Graeme Lennox met a record producer from Buffalo, NY who asked us if we had any new material, and would we be interested in doing some demos for a new album. So I started writing songs again and Graeme and I drove down to his studio in Buffalo to do demos. We recorded 5 songs including the first song that Graeme had composed. We recorded with acoustic guitars, a 12 string guitar and a baby grand piano that was in the studio. We call these the “Buffalo tapes”. Although I felt the songs were better than the album we never got a record deal.
What are your thoughts about the album today?
I have great memories of those days, the playing, the practicing, and the recording. I have the greatest respect and appreciation for all the people who helped.
When I hear the album I sometimes think “that’s pretty good for a bunch of guys who started with basement bands”, other times I wish I could redo some of the songs and play or sing them better.
One of the most interesting things and the most rewarding is to see how people from all over the world keep finding these two albums. Someone has even posted a couple of songs on YouTube.
Are you still doing any music?
Yes, Graeme Lennox and I, along with three other musicians are continuing to write and record in the “Basement Boys” tradition. We formed the Supergroup “The Travelling Willnuts”, but that’s another story.
Thank you D'Arcy!