Albums from the Lost and Found: Earth Song / Ocean Song

by Jeff Fiedler

Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.

Welsh pop singer Mary Hopkin was one of the first beneficiaries of the Beatles’ decision to start their own record label. While she would not be the most successful non-Beatle act on Apple – that title would belong to the power-pop outfit Badfinger, who had four major Top 40 hits on the imprint in the U.S., while Hot Chocolate, Billy Preston and James Taylor would all later become major stars in their own right after leaving Apple for Big Tree, A&M and Warner Brothers, respectively – she would still be one of the imprint’s greater success stories, scoring three Top 40 hits for Apple in America (“Those Were the Days,” “Goodbye,” and “Temma Harbour”) and another two in the U.K. (“Knock Knock Who’s There” and “Think About Your Children.”)

Hopkin also had the advantage of being actively aided in the studio early on by one of the Fab Four. Both her debut single, the traditional folk song “Those Were the Days,” and her 1968 debut album Postcard (the American edition of which tacked on her hit single), were produced by Paul McCartney. “Those Were the Days” just stopped one spot shy of becoming a Number One hit in America (being held at the #2 spot for three weeks by, ironically enough, the Beatles’ “Hey Jude”) but did reach the summit of the U.K. singles charts. McCartney also wrote and produced the follow-up single, the much more pop-oriented non-LP track “Goodbye,” which hit #13 in the U.S. and #2 in Britain. In spite of the success of Postcard, Hopkin would not issue another full-length for several years, instead releasing a long string of non-LP singles (thankfully, these would all be compiled by Apple and issued on LP via the 1972 anthology Those Were the Days.) 

By the time Hopkin finally got around to issuing a second full-length, the Beatles had split and were attending less and less to the operations of the label and the grooming of its acts, and McCartney had consequently dropped out of the picture as her producer.  Hopkin subsequently began working in the studio with her then-husband, producer Tony Visconti, best known for his production work on T. Rex’s Electric Warrior and many classic David Bowie albums (including Space Oddity, The Man Who Sold the World, Young Americans, Lodger, Heroes, and Low, the last of which Mary herself would contribute to as backing vocalist.)

Left to their own devices, Hopkin and Visconti went about making Hopkin’s dream album, which resulted in the 1971 outing Earth Song / Ocean Song. The album must have unsettled Apple executives on first listen, as it’s clearly not an album designed to extend Hopkin’s run of pop hits. (Indeed, there’s not even a drummer or percussionist anywhere on this disc.) Instead, it’s an unapologetic bona fide pure folk album, complete with guest spots from Ralph McTell, Dave Cousins from the folk-rock group Strawbs, and Danny Thompson from the folk outfit Pentangle.

While there’s nothing here nearly as effervescent or as pop-oriented as “Goodbye” here, this is still a surprisingly easy album to enjoy, even if you’re not much of a folk enthusiast. Much of this is due to the strong selection of material. Hopkin and Visconti mix up the tempos and textures just enough to keep the album from getting too monotonous, and the songs, while leaning much more heavily towards folk than pop, have melodies strong enough to stick with you after you’re done playing the disc and bring you back for additional listens.

Not all the songs here come from traditional folk songwriters per se.  The album’s strong opening cut, “International,” with a sweeping orchestral backdrop, comes from the pens of Benny Gallagher and Graham Lyle, both of the blues-rock band McGuinness Flint and later the writers of Art Garfunkel’s “Breakaway” and “A Heart in New York” and Bryan Ferry’s “Heart on My Sleeve.” [Lyle would also team up in the ‘80s with Terry Britten to write a long string of hits for Tina Turner, including “What’s Love Got to Do with It” and “Typical Male.”]  Elsewhere on the disc, Hopkins also covers Cat Stevens’ much-loved gentle ballad “The Wind” from his then-brand-new Teaser and the Firecat album and Harvey Andrews’ “Martha” and “There’s Got to Be More.”

Hopkin hews closer to traditional folk territory on the remainder of the disc, covering songs by Tom Paxton (“How Come the Sun”) and the aforementioned McTell (whose lovely ballads “Silver Birch,” aided by some lovely banjo accents, and “Streets of London” are arguably the two strongest songs here). The album’s lone single release was Reina & Mike Sutcliffe’s “Water, Paper & Clay,” also featuring Hopkin on harmonium, interestingly enough; it’s not exactly the best selection to have gone with for a single (“The Wind” is the hippest song here, while “Streets of London” is the catchiest and “Silver Birch” the prettiest), but its chorus is still strong enough to leave an imprint. The album is also cleverly sequenced, too, with Side One closing with Liz Thorsen’s “Earth Song,” while Side Two fittingly closes with its Thorsen-penned companion piece, “Ocean Song.”

Hopkin would retire from music for several years after the album’s release to raise a family.  While she eventually resurfaced in 1976 with a new single, also guesting around this time on albums by David Bowie and Steeleye Span, and would later briefly join the early-‘80s British bands Sundance (with former ELO member Mike de Albuquerque and former Springfields member Mike Hurst) and Oasis (with Julian Lloyd Webber), neither of which garnered much attention, she wouldn’t release another solo album until 1989’s Spirit. While it’s easy to see why Earth Song/Ocean Song didn’t fare all that well on the charts in either the U.S. or the U.K., it’s still one of the finest non-Beatles full-lengths to come out on the Apple label and the most well-crafted album Hopkins ever made.