In Search of Plainsong

Author: Ian Clayton

In Search of Plainsong

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In the autumn of 1972, Plainsong released their beautiful debut album In Search of Amelia Earhart. It was the height of the golden era of English folk rock. The record received universal critical acclaim for its musicianship and sublime singing, but just three months after its release the group disbanded in acrimony. How could a group capable of such exquisite harmonies disguise such disharmony within themselves?

In the fifty years that have followed the album’s release, what we know about the original incarnation of Plainsong has been shrouded in myth and misinformation. In Search of Plainsong tells the true story of the group and their classic album for the first time. It is a cautionary tale told through the voices of the key protagonists and those who were lucky enough to see Plainsong in full flight or bought the album first time round.

In Search of Amelia Earhart remains a folk-rock classic. For those who don’t know it, it might just be the greatest debut album you never heard.

‘A group that doesn’t come up and sock you in the eye, all decibels blaring, but kind of sneaks up and insinuates itself into your psyche almost before you have begun to notice it. By that time you are hooked by its gentle genius.’ – Karl Dallas, Melody Maker

In Search of Amelia Earhart is, and let us not mince words, the finest display of gentle, sometimes liltingly so, English folkiness and rockabilly to surface in a long while.’ Cameron Crowe, San Diego Door

‘A startlingly fine album.’ Charles Shaar Murray, NME

Foreword by Clinton Heylin

Signed Hardback and Deluxe Edition.

The Deluxe Edition includes a signed hardback book and The Folk Fairport Concert CD, exclusively available from Route. On 25th April 1972, Plainsong played an intimate, after-hours gig at the opening night of new cafe in Amsterdam called Folk Fairport. They played without a PA, and generated percussion from the clogs they were wearing. The CD also includes five bonus tracks of demos by Iain Matthews and Andy Roberts. Select Deluxe Edition from drop-down menu when ordering.

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Americana UK

Ian Clayton shines a forensic light on one of the great bands, and great enigmas, of the English Folk Rock boom of the early 70s and, with the keen eye of a musical historian, shows exactly why Plainsong were such an important band at the time and, equally, why they couldn’t stay together beyond their one, near perfect, studio recording. Ian Clayton has written the book this outstanding band have always deserved. The full story of what happened to Amelia Earhart may never be fully resolved but 'In Search of Plainsong' finally dispels the myths and mysteries around one of the great bands of English Folk Rock.

Record Collector

As subjects go Plainsong could be said to be a tricky one: a band who made one album and splintered within a year. Yet that 1972 album was the folk-rock gem In Search of Amelia Earhart. The story is largely told in quotes from the protagonists and is seen as a see-saw. The first half tells of the trials of getting together; then it tips over into success and the business pressures that drove them apart. Recriminations, sadness and the rock'n'roll dream shatter. A song of success and sadness.


Ian Clayton charts Plainsong’s genesis within the wider musical context of both English folk-rock and what would become Americana. By drawing on interviews with surviving members, managers, road managers, diaries and unpublished memoirs, fans and record labels, Clayton paints an astonishingly complete portrait of the band's initial 12-month existence, and his conversational part biography, part oral history approach keeps the reader engaged.

Losing Bobby Ronga

An extract from In Search of Plainsong: The incredible story of how the group lost Bobby Ronga in a field in Wales.

With the album release and the prestigious showcase concert at Queen Elizabeth Hall, the autumn of 1972 should have been a happy time for Plainsong. It wasn’t. On the day after the Queen Elizabeth Hall concert, Plainsong played at Cardiff University. Following the show, the roadies Harry and John stayed in Cardiff at The Central Hotel. The band travelled back to London together. Bobby Ronga was very drunk on red wine.

Iain Matthews: For reasons only known to himself, Bobby had started to drink heavily. On the way home from the concert in Wales things came to a head. We had travelled together in one car. Somewhere along the return journey Bobby called out from the back seat, ‘Stop the car, I need to take a piss.’ On a dark country road we pulled over. Bobby staggered through a gate into a nearby field.

Roger Swallow who was only just finding his feet behind the drum kit was in the car on the way back from Wales that night.

Roger Swallow: We stopped in the middle of nowhere on the way to the Severn Bridge. We were tired and it was very late with another few hours to go. I also stepped out of the car to pee but I didn’t follow Bobby into the field. The mood wasn’t great waiting for him and getting no reply to our yells.

Iain Matthews: We waited. Ten minutes slipped by and he hadn’t come back. Considering his state, we decided to give him a while longer, but after twenty minutes we went into the field to look for him. He was nowhere to be found and after much discussion we had to decide what to do. Do we wait, do we search some more, do we report him lost or should we just leave him to it and go home? We eventually made the latter decision. It was late, we were tired and cranky, rightly or wrongly we just thought ‘fuck him’ and drove off. We got back to London feeling incredibly guilty about our decision and stopped at the house Bobby shared with his wife Gill to tell her. By this time it was almost three in the morning. We banged on the door until Gill came down to open it. We told her sheepishly that we had some bad news, we’d lost Bobby. ‘What do you mean?’ she giggled. ‘Bobby’s upstairs in bed. He’s been home for more than an hour.’ He had apparently taken a piss and in his drunken haze had lost his way out of the field and arrived back at the road around the corner from us. Confused as to why we would have left him and apparently angry too, he began hitchhiking home. By some huge stroke of fortune he had managed to get a lift from a passing car all the way back to London.

Roger Swallow: When Bobby’s wife answered the door and told us he was in bed our jaws dropped – and the incredulity hasn’t diminished over the years. How he beat us back is a complete mystery, maybe we stopped for something to eat but I don’t think so.

Iain Matthews: As we drove away that morning we decided that Bobby was becoming too much of a liability and something had to be done.

Whatever had to be done would have to wait for now. The agents at M.A.M. had brokered a deal with the BBC for Plainsong to appear in a televised show in front of a live audience. This was part of a series called In Concert, and they were due to record it in just over a week’s time, for which they’d need Bobby’s services. The Plainsong diary reports that they rehearsed at The Fishmongers’ Arms, the home of Wood Green Jazz Club, on the afternoons of Thursday 26th and Friday 27th, and at GCD studios in South West London on Sunday 29th in preparation for a trip to Shepherd’s Bush on Monday 30th October for the recording.

John Cornelius: We turned up at some grey BBC studios. Afterwards Dave Richards complained to me that he had barely appeared on the TV monitors and that Iain had hogged the whole thing.

Andy Roberts: I didn’t like the way they arranged the stage for that show and some of the camera angles were a bit off key. They put Roger Swallow’s drums up on a raised platform and that didn’t sit right either. It was done at the Shepherd’s Bush Theatre and introduced by Noel Edmonds. Noel came into the dressing room, he plainly didn’t know anything. He came up to me, stuck out his hand and said, ‘Hello Iain, it’s great to meet you at last.’ I thought I would have a bit of fun, so winked at Iain and said, ‘Good to meet you Noel have you met Andy?’ and introduced him to Iain. He was a complete muffin and we milked it and took the piss for the rest of the session.

The concert was in the can, but a lot of water was about to flow beneath the bridge before it was eventually broadcast.

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Ian Clayton

Ian Clayton is an author, broadcaster and storyteller from Featherstone, West Yorkshire. His stories are about making sense of where we come from. His books include Bringing It All Back Home, a bestselling book about music; Song For My Father about his lifelong search for a father figure; Our Billie about loss; It’s The Beer Talking, about adventures in public houses; In Search of Plainsong tells the full story of the original 1972 incarnation of the folk-rock group and their debut album In Search of Amelia Earhart. He co-wrote Iain Matthews’s memoir Thro’ My Eyes and Anne Scargill & Betty Cook's memoir Anne & Betty.

Books: Bringing It All Back Home, Song For My Father, It’s The Beer Talking, In Search of Plainsong

Co-author: Thro’ My Eyes: A Memoir, Anne & Betty.

Ian’s website:

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