Playing The Hero

by Robin Johnson

Published in Issue 10 of Play Music magazine

Special thanks to Robin for allowing us to include this article on the site.

In the guitarist hall of fame, names from A (ngus Young) to Z (al Cleminson) are written large in lights. But that of Anthony Phillips is conspicuous by its absence in any list of widely-appreciated six-stringers.

This is probably for two reasons. Firstly Ant (as he's better known) left what would become one of the biggest bands in the world - Genesis - in 1970, after the band's second album Trespass.  Secondly, ever since he's led a productive-yet-quiet life making solo albums and library/soundtrack music. While library music undoubtedly pays the bills, it doesn't give your name huge exposure. Which seems to be exactly how Phillips wants it.

Although I was aware of Ant's existence back in the 1970s, to my regret I didn't discover his solo work until a decade later.

My local independent record store stocked a few of his CDs and I was drawn to the beautifully illustrated covers. One featured a countryside scene, looking down a long thin field of ripe corn being harvested in a diamond pattern by (literally) grim reapers, while either side were fields, trees and a river. On the right this scene was depicted in summer, while opposite was a mirror image of the same scene in winter. I bought it and my life changed forever.

I was captivated by the exquisite textures of the music. From the rolling piano/guitar melody of Beauty and the Beast, via the achingly beautiful 6/12 string guitar duet of Tregenna Afternoons to the semi-classical piano of Autumnal, this album (Private Parts and Pieces Part 1) oozed atmosphere and ensured I was soon gathering every piece of Ant's recorded output I could lay my hands on.

As his career progressed he diversified into other musical territories, especially in his soundtrack work. But Ant's classical guitar and piano pieces have a unique quality. Somehow they manage to embody the spirit and sheer soul of the countryside.

Like the delicate cover artwork, these pieces of music depict a heavily romanticised vision of rural life that probably never existed, but I think music should be all about escapism. The ability of a piece of music to 'transport you' elsewhere is one of the main reasons the tribute and retro markets are currently doing so well.

For me, the first three Private Parts and Pieces albums, The Geese and The Ghost and the quite stunning Tarka still form the soundtrack to three exquisitely happy years I spent living in Cornwall. Playing any of these immediately transports me back to many glorious summer afternoons spent lazing on the Cornish cliffs, a former girlfriend (then the total love of my life) crashed out next to me, watching the sun set and listening to the birds singing, gorse seeds popping and the Atlantic breakers heaving themselves against the rocks far below.

Inevitably Ant's solo work sometimes has more than a whiff of self-indulgence about it and he's not the world's greatest singer. But when he does hit the spot, you're no longer merely listening to music - you experience it as pure emotion. That's a talent precious few songwriters possess.

I'd be the first to admit that this style of music isn't to everyone's taste but, if you're a part-time closet romantic like me, it makes for a glorious counterpoint to screaming Les Pauls and Marshalls turned up to 11!

As well as a long string of collaborations, in recent years Ant has continued with his soundtrack and library work, ranging from ITV and BBC television programmes to National Trust compilations, while continuing to issue the occasional solo album to keep us quaint old romantics happy...


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