A few rock aficionados will be familiar with the sixties / seventies / eighties group Renaissance. Fewer still will be au fait with their reclusive, self-effacing, lyricist Betty Thatcher.
The band, perhaps best known for their 1977 single Northern Lights, cited folk, classical, and jazz influences, on their musical compositions. For the uninitiated, their most successful style can best be imagined as the love child of Prokofiev and progressive rock. The classical interests of many of the musicians – including their phenomenal five-octave range singer Annie Haslam – is surely the distinctive secret to the success they enjoyed, but their principal unsung heroine is, without doubt, their non-playing non-singing, lyricist ironically born with the surname Newsinger.
Betty entered the world in London on 16th February 1944. She had a turbulent adolescence, passing the eleven plus matriculation and winning a scholarship to grammar school, but then refused to take any exams and hence was eventually transferred to a school that accepted ‘difficult’ students.
She never sought the limelight or craved fame, and it is perhaps a blessing, that the band did not reach the heights of some of their contemporary folk-rockers and hence she escaped the worst of the prying appetites of the press. Her private struggles and triumphs, and wrangles with bliss and darkness can only be accessed through her words.
The essential challenge of a song lyric is surely that a balance has to be found between the simple to understand exposition, and the potentially impenetrable density of idiosyncratic poetry. Somehow Thatcher hits that balance brilliantly, offering easy access but also optional enigma as in Can You Understand:
Dancing without moving now
Growing with your soul
One with all around you now
Related to the all
Some of Thatcher’s profundity, and also some of her most joyous lyrics, come from having a near-death experience, as in the epic Ashes Are Burning:
Follow the dying embers
Cross on the paths that they lay
Breath of the past, the earth’s yesterday
Clear your mind maybe you will find
That the past is still turning
Circles sway echo yesterday
Ashes burning ashes burning
Others, such as Running Hard, are evocations prompted by the imagination working on fears provoked by being immersed in the unsettling hinterland between the industrial and the natural, such as following a cliff path between the sea and a railway line after missing the last bus, and then extending the sensation into a more universal phobia:
Running hard towards what used to be
Losing ground in changes sliding endlessly
Reaching out for mirrors hidden in the web
Painting lines upon your face inside instead
Some of her songs are more romantic and have become fan-favourites, for example Ocean Gypsy which was inspired by seeing the sun rise and the moon set from Trencromb Hill in Cornwall. The sun and the moon are lovers perpetually chasing, never meeting. As well as a folk tale framework, there is a tantalising melancholy:
No-one else can know
She stands alone
Sleeping dreams will reach for her
She cannot say the words they need
She knows she’s alone
And she is free
In At The Harbour, by empathising with the gut-wrenching grief of widows wrecked by waves she cuts a deep sad truth with a generic blade:
Out at daybreak to the sun
Seas are drifting glass
The tides were turning to the storm
Winds were moving fast
Women waiting at the harbour
Silent stand around
Weather storms another day
For men the sea had found
Renaissance had two main manifestations. The original (1969) line-up included Keith and Jane Relf, Jim McCarty, John Hawken and Louis Cennamo. Subsequently, the “classic line-up” of Annie Haslam, John Tout, Michael Dunford, Jon Camp, and Terry Sullivan was established. Betty Thatcher was never in the band, but her poetry underpinned most of the finest songs of their heyday.
Following Thatcher’s untimely death in 2011 Dunford wrote:
I remember the first time I spoke with Betty, I was looking for a writing partner and Jim McCarty suggested I call her as he wanted to write lyrics as well as the music. They had been working together for a while. After speaking we decided that I would put down a couple of songs I’d recently completed on cassette tape and send down to her.
To my amazement in the mail three days later were the lyrics that were fantastic, she just knew what lyric would work with the music. That was the beginning of a wonderful partnership that lasted over fifteen years with songs that have become classics: Ashes are Burning, Carpet of the Sun, Mother Russia, and the hit single we had in the UK Northern Lights.
The fact that the lyrics were written in response to the music and yet find such personal resonances and universal meaning, exemplifies Thatcher’s song writing skill. Whenever lyrics are added to music it severely limits the range of imaginative possibilities on offer to the listener. The lyrics become the locomotive force of the dominant melody. In the hands of a poor lyricist the train of thought enters a tunnel where all we see is indistinct reflections in the windows, but by the flourish of a maestro we can be presented with a panorama containing precise landmarks, and also plenty of open space over which our minds can wander. That’s what Thatcher does.
The singer-songwriter brings a visible honesty to a song, and that takes courage, but a lyricist who remains invisible offers something else: she not only donates a soul resource to the vocalist, she liberates the listener’s imaginative exploration, freeing it from the visual ties, especially when the performance is heard and not seen. Thatcher, by tucking herself away, sets her gifts free. She has admitted cringing after releasing certain songs because they were so acutely personal, but that is part of the vital sacrifice of making valid art. As she says in Northern Lights:
It’s not for money and it’s not for fame
I just can’t explain
Sometimes it’s lonely
That’s true for the singer on tour, but it’s also true of the lyricist at home.
Thatcher could not ask for a better exponent of her material than Annie Haslam who must certainly be a contender for the most sublime voice in the popular music pantheon. Apart from her exceptional range, her phrasing is supreme, her diction always exact and scrupulously clean, and her natural timbre has a flute-like texture with a strength that turns sound to architecture.
Similarly, the compositions of the other band members, especially Dunford, create a sound citadel that is classical in form, fluid in tempo, rich in contrast and yet elegantly consistent. The arrangements set up Thatcher’s lyrics on plinths of potency. The symbiosis is frequently superb.
Betty Thatcher wrote most of the band’s lyrics for the studio albums Prologue, Ashes Are Burning, Turn of the Cards, Scheherazade and Other Stories, Novella, A Song for All Seasons and Azure d’Or.
Despite being the first British rock band to sell out three consecutive nights at New York’s Carnegie Hall, and amassing a substantial devoted following (particularly in the USA) the group never reached truly lofty prominence. On stage they were considered and well-crafted rather than charismatic. They did not indulge in extravagant light shows or theatrical pyrotechnics. Quite rightly, they were much more interested in their music than in themselves. In recent times Rolling Stone ranked Ashes Are Burning as number 31 in the greatest prog rock albums of all time.
Renaissance were a consummate ensemble that should first be accessed audibly before viewing any live footage. They may not have hit the heights of their more legendary contemporaries, but without the poetry of Betty Thatcher, they would have been much lower on the rock radar, and much less fascinating when found.
Influenced: Renaissance albums provided the sonic background to the construction of a significant proportion of my output. In particular some songs prompted some of the more mystical moments in Ice and Lemon . Ashes Are Burning furnished the eleven-minute climactic peak of the musical parody Game of Gnomes staged at Preston Guildhall in 2016.
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13 thoughts on “Betty Thatcher”
Thanks so much for this, loved reading every word. Admittedly, I am more of a music guy than a lyrics guy but Thatcher was so good that the true quality of her work was illuminated in absentia by Annie Haslam’s own competent but much less poetic attempts at writing lyrics in Thatcher’s absence. It was interesting to see how much even a supremely accomplished singer like Haslam (by the by, I appreciate that you mentioned her phrasing because I have always thought that more than her range, it is her ability to tell a story that makes her so great) struggled to lend weight to her own lyrics.
The musicians lent Renaissance its class and elegance, Haslam lent it personality and warmth but it was Thatcher who gave their work soul and gravitas. That undefinable something that made it feel like those songs had something worth singing about. It is also interesting how much more easily Haslam confided her own private experiences in Thatcher (perhaps knowing that SHE didn’t have to personally pen them) – Closer than yesterday in particular has a lot of pain, as does Forever Changing – but when it came down to writing her own lyrics, she seemed to feel compelled to write something ‘positive’ and ‘uplifting’ and couldn’t dig deep within to shed light on something profound. It does take a lot of guts to bare your soul and, as you put it so well, Thatcher, by being the non-performing sixth member of a second tier prog rock band, had the width to do so without wondering if she had given away too much.
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Thanks for such a considered response, Madan. I very much appreciate your appreciation. Pete H.
Thank you for the article. Best one I’ve read so far about Betty’s talent as a lyricist. Her words will resound and resonate with mystery and beauty forever and ever, whatever that is.
Thanks for the thanks. The post about Betty remains one of the most popular that I have made over the last three years. A fact that both surprises and pleases me.
I guess rock is a popular genre and music is a way of delivering uneasy words a bit more easily : )
She seemed to me like an old and knowing soul, but unable to correspond on her own, so she used this medium to tell about her thoughts and feelings. * ocean gypsy* always was the resume of her own life, in my opinion.
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Thank you for your insightful article for Betty, sir! She is really a special poet. She is a female Tomas Tranströmer.
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Pete. This blog article has been listed as reading material by my university professor! I attend a top 20 (in the world) school. This is proof of your amazing article and great memorization of Betty Thatcher.
That is most gratifying. Thank you for letting me know. When I write the post I doubted that anyone would read it
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Thank you for letting me know. When I wrote the post I doubted that anyone would read it. After three years it remains the most popular of nearly one hundred posts. I’m glad it is proving to be of use. Thanks again.
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You are welcome, Pete! Please always know that many people including me and my professor highly appreciate your work!
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