I’ve learned as I age that the eighties were not actually the musical wasteland us nineties kids disparagingly thought. Horrible gated snare drums, feathered mullets and pastels aside, there was actually a ton of very creative rock released during the period. And let’s be honest, the only real innovation since then has occurred in electronic music or in hip-hop, depending on how much you like rap. Subsequent bands have mainly just regurgitated styles perfected from 1955 to 1985. Hell, even every skinny smart kid’s favourite band, Radiohead, was really just copping Krautrock on Kid A. Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t listen to any music recorded in the last 23 years, just that, well, that excitement of discovery is not there any more for us older dogs.
But I digress.
Having failed to establish itself as a musical force in the UK punter’s consciousness, folk-rock based on the traditional sounds and sentiments of the British Isles limped into the eighties badly in need of an injection of fresh blood, while some of the established providers of the music fought gamely on. Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span did make some good albums in the eighties, but none of these held a candle to their earlier output. So younger bands arose, usually armed with a political consciousness and a set of self-composed songs inspired by traditional music, rather than adaptations thereof. This is sometimes known as “folk-punk” (or “punk-folk”!).
Regardless of the motivation, these young ‘uns had started their own movement, and for kids like me who were coming to musical awareness around 1988, the music of The Pogues, Oysterband et al was the gateway drug to discovering the music of the seventies, and thence, if we were truly sophisticated, the sixties revival of people like Shirley Collins, Martin Carthy and The Watersons. And THEN even further back to crackly old field recordings of septuagenarian Norfolk farm labourers!
So I’m happy to present some of the gems that demonstrate electrified folk was still alive and kicking during the horrid era of the keytar.
But first, read part 1 of this series.
Oysterband (formerly spelled as above) is the greatest of the modern folk-rock bands, so in fact this is actually far from their best album. They have made a handful of classics since the nineties and remain a vital force on the scene today. But this is a landmark recording. The band’s earlier recordings had been tentative steps, as much acoustic as electric. Good albums but fairly typical folk. On this album they decided to embrace the world of rock and roll, to great effect. With opener “Hal-an-Tow” they have taken an ancient Cornish song and made it into a roaring, dramatic slice of new wave rock. The band’s political consciousness was also developing (one of many such responses to the nastiness of Thatcher’s regime), as attested to by “Another Quiet Night in England“, a lament for the the UK’s industrial decline. The throbbing bass pulse and delayed guitar of “Molly Bond” are a perfect combination of modern style and musical technology (for the time) with traditional words and melody. John Jones proves himself a dramatic rock n roll frontman, a role he would grow into quite well. One of the best concerts I’ve ever seen was Oysterband at a small club — it was more like a massive bonding experience than a gig. While not the band’s best album, Step Outside is important because it was manifesto for its future. And no band has represented the musical soul of the British people better than Oysterband in the ensuing years.
This album represents Runrig’s transition from hard-rocking Scottish nationalists to soft-rocking, keyboard-dominated … well, they were still Scottish nationalists. But this charming album contains a very strong collection of Celtic-rock tunes enhanced with a new pop sensibility and a new bag of guitar effects tricks for guitarist Malcolm Jones. The sounds here almost make Runrig more a contemporary of bands like Big Country and U2 than folk bands. However, Runrig being from Skye and being such expert folk musicians means that the traditional music influence is never lost in the poppiness, and songs here are quite lovely. In fact, the collection is so strong that it’s hard to select highlights, though the rockin’ “Dance Called America” (about emigration, of course), the dramatic “O Cho Meallt“, “Skye”, the band’s love song to its home, and “Cnoc na Feille“, with its virtuosic guitar solo, are especially engaging. Runrig would later turn essentially into a top-40 soft rock band, though there are at least a couple of great songs per album, so this album is probably their best, bridging a time when they might have been too raw with a long period of being too polished. Not till 2003’s Proterra would Runrig again produce an album of this much rock intensity.
Ashley Hutchings wasn’t about to let his venerable, trailblazing combo lose its vitality, so by 1986 a new lineup was back to making solid albums. This lineup featured guitarist/singer Phil Beer (later of the duo Show of Hands), fiddler Martin Bell (later of The Wonder Stuff) and vocalist Cathy Lesurf. Lesurf’s voice is an acquired taste, since it’s a very full, piercing one and she tends to make most stuff sound melodramatic. But I don’t mind it, and she does make some wonderful contributions to this surprisingly strong recording, which is easily Hutchings’ best of the eighties. Like other folkies, Hutchings embraced the new eighties sounds, so opener “Broomfield Hill” is a far cry from the seventies with its VERY current synth pads, hot lead guitar, gated thingies and riffery. “Such a Paradise” is almost neo-psych, with exotic oud sounds and a rhythm that is definitely not UK folk-inspired. “Orion’s Belt” finds Lesurf accompanied solely by an icy-sounding synth. And so it goes, a very slick-sounding collection of folk-influenced eighties rock, until we get to the massive suite that takes up most of side two, “The Task“. This is a long, linked set of songs and pieces about … the Buckinghamshire lace-making trade! That’s right. And yes, it’s somehow compelling and even moving! I’m not sure how this album did at the time, but I actually think it should be considered an important advancement in integrating traditional influences into modern production styles and sounds, without sounding forced.
I bet you aren’t familiar with this album or band. But we must represent the Welsh here too! Pererin made three albums of folk-rock mixed with progressive rock influences in the early eighties, with all songs sung in Welsh. Not only was this culturally important to the effort to preserve and promote the Welsh language, but the music is actually very pretty as well. I guess the closest well-known comparison I can make would be to Clannad, in that the music is uniformly slow, atmospheric and lush, featuring rich string synths, delicate flute, a measured rhythm section, tasteful guitar solos and understated vocals. Hence, aside from folk fans, the group’s albums have achieved a following with collectors of international progressive rock. This is not music that will blow your mind — more of a nice, quiet listening experience for an afternoon. You can get some well-packaged slip-cased versions of the albums, and for fans of interesting folk and folk-rock, Pererin’s music is a real find.
Another lesser-known band, Pyewackett released four albums in the eighties. This is not the hard-rockin’ variety of folk-rock. Pyewackett specialized in arrangements of dance music and songs going back to the eighteenth century. Hence, the songs feature elaborate vocal arrangements that are more madrigal than sea shanty. Pyewackett also introduced different kinds of rhythms, doing things like putting a reggae backbeat behind a two-hundred-year-old round. This is very sophisticated music and not for those looking for cheap thrills and visceral excitement, despite the varieties of archaic dance music on display. However, examples of the genteel fun are an interesting arrangement of “Tam Lin“, the energetic “B to B” dance medley, the uplifting harmonies of “The Well Below the Valley“, and the dramatic piano/synth arrangement of “The Grey Cock“. Not by any means the first electric folk band you would want to investigate, but definitely a group with its own distinct personality.
So here’s the inventors of “folk-punk”. Shane MacGowan and co. sort of created a monster in that one, though there’s little doubt that not only were The Pogues excellent players, but growling, toothless MacGowan, despite his exaggerated, dissipated persona that verged on pastiche, is a gifted songwriter with great respect for the tradition that he was shaking up. Still, sometimes I’m a little uncomfortable with that sensationalist drunk, spitting and bellowing Irishman image because it plays up to too many stereotypes. Nonetheless, there’s no doubt that this album and If I Should Fall From Grace With God are both very strong. I choose this one because it’s the best distillation of what The Pogues were about: high energy, fast living, and turning the Irish folk scene on its tradition-bound head. Hence it contains some of Shane’s greatest numbers, from the hysteria of “The Sickbed of Cúchulainn” to the melodrama of “A Pair of Brown Eyes” and the gritty tragedy of “The Old Main Drag“. And of course the definitive cover of Ewan MacColl’s “Dirty Old Town“. While they may have taken it too far, The Pogues did do us the service of bringing folk music to a much wider and younger audience than could ever have been hoped for — an audience that included myself at the time.
What’s that I hear? You are scoffing? Well, hear me out. Yes, this is one of the biggest UK sellers of the eighties. Yes, “In a Big Country” is practically an eighties cliché at this point. Yes, to most Big Country is a footnote in rock history. Here are the facts: Stuart Adamson (now, sadly, deceased) was one of rock’s greatest songwriters — period. And the main influence on his style was Scottish traditional music. After his punk group The Skids broke up, Adamson deliberately formed a group to explore Celtic influences, even developing a bagpipe-esque guitar sound by using an Ebow. This album and its follow-up, Steeltown, are jammed full of misty, melancholy Scottish drama. Sure, the big hit is a little cheesy and the band may have exploited a certain image for the early video era, but the songs on this album are incredible, from the mournful ballad “Chance” to the storming “Fields of Fire“, and the highly dramatic and eerie “The Storm“. The folk-influenced lyrics and melodies on this album, combined with an extremely innovative approach to expressing these influences in a harder rock context, make it one of the greatest ever folk-rock recordings. And it still holds up to this day.
Shoot Out the Lights is Richard Thompson’s most famous album, but let’s face it, it’s partially because of the drama behind it. The couple’s marriage was splintering and being lived out in public (the album cover basically sums it up). Thompson was documenting his feelings, and Linda had to sing his sentiments! That tension did certainly result in a searingly emotional album, though to me it’s not his best collection of songs by a long shot. Nonetheless, I’m including it here because it does belong. The title track highlights Thompson’s hybrid old-tyme rock and roll/English folk electric lead style, and he’s sure going for it with these shrill solos. “Walking on a Wire” is one of the most heartrending things ever put to record, and the sorrow in Linda’s voice pours palpably out from the speakers. “Back Street Slide” is the folkiest-sounding song on the album, and “Did She Jump or Was She Pushed?” is a classic slice of Thompson’s morose cynicism. A nice collection given more emphasis by the emotional background, and still with enough UK folk influences to be considered British folk-rock.
I talked about Spriguns in the first post in this series. After the break-up of that band, Mandy Morton released a few solo albums that found favour in the Scandinavian market, for some reason. Morton’s songwriting was generally very gothic and dark in tone, and her clipped vocal style is an acquired taste. On this album an effort was obviously made to provide a bit more variety to the arrangements of her folk-pop. Sandy Denny is an obvious influence on a very polished set of songs. Some of the arrangements are quite elaborate, which means I assume someone was hoping for some real success for this album. That may not have happened, but this is nonetheless quite a lovely singer-songwriter album of moody, interesting songs such as “After the Storm”, the very dark “Black Nights“, “Twisted Sage” and “Land of the Dead“. There’s even some guitar/sitar on “Wake up the Morning”. I would go so far as to say this is as good as any of Denny’s albums or Maddy Prior’s solo efforts, and it deserves a much wider listenership than it received.
John Tams is a mighty figure in the world of UK folk, both as a member of The Albion Band and as an acclaimed solo artist (he’s even done some TV acting). Between those two eras he led Home Service with guitarist Graeme Taylor. Tams is a great songwriter, and on this album he takes up the mantle of British identity in defiance of bleak mid-eighties England. As a result, on this album he’s nothing less than the British Springsteen, using his country’s roots music as the basis of a statement on his people’s behalf. Rousing songs like “Alright Jack“, “Sorrow” and the war-themed “Scarecrow” represent a new level of sophistication in the genre matched only by the subtleties of Richard Thompson’s work. The album is also characterized by some wonderful, almost cinematic horn arrangements amongst all the muscular rock, as found in the lengthy “A Lincolnshire Posy” medley. Alright Jack isn’t just essential to this list, it’s one of THE essential British folk-rock albums and is not to be missed.
After starting his career making grandiose rock music designed to sound as “big” as possible, Scotsman Mike Scott made a sudden change of course, moving to Ireland and immersing himself in roots music. He’s never been one for subtlety, so nothing but an entire album of this music would suffice. Recruiting fiddler Steve Wickham and a large cast of backing musicians, he proceeded to crank out this enduring masterpiece, which, while it contains some standard rock, also contains rollicking country-rock (“And a Bang on the Ear“), purist country music (“Has Anybody Here Seen Frank”), ragged Celtic rock (“Fisherman’s Blues“) and trad folk (“When Will We Be Married?”). It feels like Scott is a cub leaving his den for the first time and realizing the musical possibilities that his talents can conquer. It’s a joyous, sprawling, ambitious but fun album that, like The Pogues’ music, brought a whole new generation of younger people to folk music for the first time. Scott has gone on to record a number of fine albums since this one, but it’s still one of his best.
This band is sometimes unfairly characterized as an English version of The Pogues, which isn’t strictly true. Sure, you can call this “folk-punk” if you wish because of the the strong political emphasis, the high energy on display, and the fact that one of the two singers was a MacGowan-esque bellower, but The Men They Couldn’t Hang did have their own sensibility and were a potent force on England’s folk-rock scene. It’s the intelligence of the songwriting that sets this band apart, on such tracks as “The Ghosts of Cable Street“, which accurately tells of a clash between working men and Fascist supporters in the 1930s, the union-supporting “Shirt of Blue“, the lovely ballad “Parted from You” and the Cockney sentimentality of “The Bells”. This band occupies the territory between the musicality of Oysterband and the ferociousness of The Pogues, and all of their albums are worth investigating.