The Importance of Pembroke

English expatriate Jim Pembroke’s songwriting was capricious, a pestle that ground quintessential pop and rock (as the Beatles, Traffic and the Band) against mordant, often flippant, lyrical ironies ... Eccentric and absurdist, peripatetic and fatalist, romantic and idealist – Pembroke wore all these suits, and wore them well.

-- Angus McKinnon (1977)

By Claes Johansen (alias the Tanskalainen)

When Jim Pembroke landed in Finland for the first time in the spring of 1965, no one, least of all himself, had any idea of the vast influence he would have on the country’s popular music scene over the next more than 40 years. Pembroke didn’t even see himself as much of a musician at the time. He played no instrument and he had never written a song in his life. For a while, back in England, he had been the singer in two small, practically unknown groups – that was all.

But with his long hair and strong English-Celtic features (fair skin, jet black hair) Pembroke stuck out in any Finnish crowd, and since he was so obviously British what could be more natural than assuming he was also a musician? Wasn’t that what the UK was all about in the mid-Sixties – singing and playing in bands? It wasn’t long before a backing group was gathered behind him and he found himself in a Finnish recording studio, making his first singles.

Finland wasn’t without its own musical talents, of course. The environment for Classical music and the Jazz scene were excellent. If you wanted to play such music it was just a question of getting on with it, learning to play an instrument of your choice, preferably taking lessons and learning to read notes. If, however, you wanted to be a part of ‘the Beat Music Scene’, you would soon discover a demand for something else. You might get along for a while covering material by English and American groups, perhaps instrumental bands such as the Shadows and the Ventures (to avoid linguistic hurdles), but soon people would start asking why you didn’t sing and why you didn’t write your own songs. As the situation in England showed, the commercial success of groups who only did cover material rarely lasted for very long.

This new situation presented a serious problem, because even if you were able to write songs the trend at the time demanded you write them in English. To do that you must have excellent command of the English language both on paper and verbally, which was practically non-existent outside the UK and America at the time. Towards the late 1960s these demands became even more impossible to meet, as the trends dictated by English and US songwriters moved away from simple love songs into writing much more complexed lyrics, often using puns and literary references etc.

At the same time Progressive Rock offered a small salvation, since it was more instrumentally based than the previous fashion of three-minute pop songs. That explains why groups such as the Focus, from Holland, for a while could do well internationally. Furthermore, Abba more or less invented the style Euro Pop, where you are almost expected to write crappy lyrics in crappy English, as long as the words sound musical.

All that, however, happened mainly in the mid-1970s. And so we are still stuck with the big problem – how to get ahead in the world of ‘Beat Music’ if you live in a place like Finland and it is the mid-1960s. Well, here is a solution: find an expatriate English person and ask him to join your band. And when he has done that, ask him to start writing some songs.

Jim Pembroke wasn’t the only one this happened to. There was also Frank Robson, of course, another fine voice with a song-writing talent. And the same thing happened in many other European countries, too. In my own native Denmark, for instance, our British expat was called Cy Nicklin, a driving force behind the group Culpeper’s Orchard who made some fine LPs. I doubt, however, that any European country was as lucky with their import of English talent as Finland was. It is almost uncanny to think that a musical career as profound, prolific and long-lasting as Jim Pembroke’s can grow out of a few coincidences, not to mention the wonderfully bizarre idea that if someone is English he must automatically be a good singer, and since he is a good singer he must also be a good songwriter – ‘now go on, Jim, write us some songs!’ A very peculiar luck of the draw, I would say, because it seems Jim was more surprised than anyone that he could actually do it.

As the man himself puts it, ‘I have things thrown at me and so I just try to do my best.’

With the arrival of Jim Pembroke and Frank Robson, Finnish rock was given a huge boost that sent the country’s Rock scene into the international arena in a way practically no other Continental European country experienced. It didn’t happen all at once, however. In fact, it wasn’t until the very end of the 1960s that Wigwam and Tasavallan Presidentti formed and the miracle happen. Admittedly Blues Section produced a handful of fine recordings before that, but the band was really just a launching pad for the other two groups and their rise to magnificence. Where Finnish rock had previously been restricted to mainly reproducing covers of British and American artists, often instrumental guitar groups, there was now a whole new world opening to performers and songwriters.

What Jim Pembroke, in particular, contributed to the Finnish rock scene were not just songs and lyrics for his own use. He also wrote lyrics for other artists, but even more than that he gave the entire Finnish rock scene a scope it hadn’t had before. Though they may hate me for saying it, it is hard to imagine the production of Dave Lindholm and Paavo Maijanen without a Jim Pembroke lurking in the background. It is hard to imagine Jukka Gustavson ever writing and singing in such good English without being in a group with Jim Pembroke. Just the sheer fact that Pembroke was around, speaking English and representing a pathway to the international rock scene, was important. Try listening to Jukka Gustavson’s English pronunciation when he was in Wigwam and had Pembroke around him all day, and then listen to his English on subsequent solo albums. Or take a look at Mats Huldén wonderful, surreal and highly accomplished English lyrics for Tasavallan Presidentti and others. There is a quality there you aren’t likely to find in any other European country around that time.

Likewise, Finland was in many ways a generous environment to Jim Pembroke and Frank Robson. Had they decided from the start to go for a musical career in England, there would have been a long and hard journey ahead of them, making their way up through a very crowded scene. And even if they had managed to get into a recording studio, there would most likely have been producers and managers trying to steer them in certain, supposedly commercial direction.

In Finland they could start at the top of the local game, being big fishes in a small pool instead of the opposite. They were backed by the greatest musicians in the country within the genre, musicians of high international standard, with a unique approach and sound, driven by that typically Finnish no-compromise approach and determination. And with the launch of Love Records they were picked up by a label that gave them huge artistic freedom and was constantly requesting more material from them.

There were, however, drawbacks. There was no way to avoid the fact that Finland was a small, thinly populated country, geographically isolated, still licking its wounds from the Second World War and consequently lacking behind the most other European countries economically. In such an environment it can be very hard to make a living playing adventurous new music, and while the international interest in both Wigwam and Tasavallan Presidentti was motivating and flattering, it never took off to a degree where it had any real financial impact on the groups.

But it was worse than that. If I may be a bit caustic now it is my impression that Finland – at least until recently – on the whole never fully appreciated the size of the gift the country received when Jim Pembroke and, albeit to a lesser extent, Frank Robson arrived in the local music scene. I base this view on two things: 1) Listening to recordings such as the Wigwam double live album ‘Live Music from the Twilight Zone’. 2) Reading the many articles that Timo Rauhaniemi and I have translated from Finnish into English for this website.

With regard to my first point all I can say is that you don’t put a massive talent like Jim Pembroke in a group and then under-feature him so blatantly as he obviously was in Wigwam at the time. Since it was commonly agreed that the group could not reproduce the works of Gustavson and Pohjola on stage, you would assume their live performances would be a feast of Pembroke material. Not at all. Instead it was mainly an opportunity for Jukka Gustavson to sing cover material by English and US artists, with Pembroke providing a bit of vocal harmony and some very faint doodlings on the Fender Rhodes in the background. I remember asking a Finnish friend at the time if the group were trying deliberately to elbow him out because he wasn’t Finnish. My friend said no, and also claimed that by now Jim Pembroke wasn’t viewed as a foreigner in Finland any more. I must say I found that hard to believe.

With regard to the articles, revealing Finnish musical journalists’ views on Jim Pembroke over the decades, you get the impression that this weird English fellow was quite nice to have around – not exactly the greatest singer anyone could imagine, and not particularly interesting or profound as a songwriter but, okay, he did write the odd pleasant ditty now and again. However, when we get to Gustavson, Pohjola and Rechardt the superlatives suddenly start to flow.

To use one of Pembroke’s most brilliant juxtapositions: ‘Chip on my shoulder, egg on my face.’ And what a ridiculous way to view music. I am one of the biggest fans of Finnish rock on this planet, but the idea that you must under-expose Jim Pembroke and his immensely important role in the Finnish rock scene, in order to amplify how great your native born players and songwriters are, is both sad and pathetic.

I suppose there is a reflection here of a typical Finnish feeling, a feeling that you must always be able to take care of yourself one hundred percent, never relying on any outside aid or assistance. This notion has grown out of often tragic, historical circumstances unique to the country and is highly understandable. However, in the world of music there should be no place for it. Ever since the dawn of time musicians and composers have moved between countries and inspired each other, not giving a damn about the boundaries that for some reason seem so important to others.

Furthermore, the attitude is slightly paranoid. To my knowledge no one has ever suggested in any kind of way that the Finnish rock is of such high quality ONLY because Jim Pembroke arrived to the country in 1965 and became an important factor. To entertain such an idea is equally diabolical, as it is the COMBINATION of the talents and backgrounds that is so incredibly interesting.

Where would Jim Pembroke be today without Finland? Perhaps still working in some art studio in London, making commercial designs and boring himself stiff. Where would Finnish rock be without Pembroke? Perhaps still dominated by Shadows covers and tango (though probably played as Death Metal or Speed Punk). So thank God – and Love Records – for bringing the two together.

Apart from the above mentioned trauma there is another explanation to why Pembroke at times seems so undervalued. If you don’t get the tiny understatements and subtleties in his lyrics you loose half of the plot. And that is easy to do for a non-English person, because throughout his career Jim Pembroke has remained devoted to his Englishness, not just in his expert use of the language but also in his references to specifically English issues, including characters and even place names. Just to take two small examples out of literarily hundreds: ‘And I’ve thrown out all my Stanley Matthews tips on/how to make it big on the right wing’ (from ‘How to make it big in Hospital’), and, ‘We’ve come all the way from Wigan to get up and state/our case for survival before it’s too late’ (from ‘Daemon Duncetan’s Request’). You can’t say the man goes out of his way to meet his Finnish audience even half-way.

Still, in later years there have been signs of a larger appreciation of Pembroke’s musical role in Finland, perhaps as a concequence of the country’s joining the EU and general opening its doors to the rest of Europe, something that was previously held back by the strained relationship with the now dissolved Soviet Union. As EsaJii recently pointed out in the guestbook for this website, the Wigwam CD compilation Highlights (released 1996) is, in fact, so centered on Pembroke’s role in the group that it goes too far in the other direction. There should be no doubt that Jukka Gustavson was as much a key member of the Mark I line-up as Jim Pembroke was, and the role played by Pohjola at the same time is also significant. A Highlights Vol 2 would be appropriate, centered on these two great musicians and composers. It might even notch up some international interest considering the currently positive climate for Progressive Rock.

Other significant events in the development of Finland’s view on Pembroke’s career are worth observing, too. Last year he received a well-deserved grant from the Finnish State, and though it may be earmarked for specific work it is hard not too view it also as a recognition of his past endeavours. I cannot read Mikko Merilänen’s Wigwam biography but I’m told it leaves no doubt about Jim Pembroke’s important role in the history of Finnish Rock. (Still, a Jim Pembroke rarities CD that was intended to follow up the Wigwam Fresh Garbage double disc of mainly unreleased material was shelved. Hopefully the idea will be revived at some point.)

All in all, the musical career of Jim Pembroke is a very strange one. Basically, he has been writing lyrics for four decades now aimed at a British audience that by and large do not exist. Instead he has a fan base consisting mainly of Finns, whose cultural background is so different from his own that they must inevitably feel left out for, at least, some of the time.

I am probably not the only reader of this website who thinks Jim Pembroke’s talent has never fully received the attention it deserves, be it in Finland or internationally. On the other hand, he has managed to make a living as a songwriter and a musician, rarely compromising his talents along the way (a couple of Eurovision Song Competition contributions aside). Some people claim he could have done better had he moved back to England in, say, the mid-Seventies and rebuilt his career from there. However, living in Finland has meant a degree of artistic freedom he would have been hard pressed to find anywhere else.

You could see all this as a very peculiar and sad story about a great unrecognised talent. But you could also argue that it is a situation that to this very day holds a vast amount of potential and promise for the future. Nearly all the considerable work of Jim Pembroke is today very easily available, just waiting for someone to put a new spotlight on it. And best of all the guy is still carrying on, full force.