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Oyster Band - A Basket of Oysters

Ideally, people should only distinguish between good bands and bad ones, but the British seem to want to pigeon-hole music more than any nation I’ve encountered. One standard route for British folk bands to improve their lot has been to play abroad a great deal – is that something which appeals to you?

I. T. Yes, fairly – I like to travel. I’ve done a few short tours this year with a Scottish band called New Celeste, who your reviewers are fond of slagging off (not wholly unjustly!) and it struck me very forcibly that in all these small and medium-sized French towns, New Celeste weren’t a “Scottish Folk Rock Band”, it was simply music and everybody turns out because it’s a gig. That struck me as quite a violent contrast to the British scene – and a very nice one in a lot of ways.

It would certainly be nice to see what is considered to be an English sounding band working abroad alongside the many Scottish and Irish bands who already go. It would help broaden the picture of British folk.

J.J. When the Celtic bands go abroad, I think the singing tends to be less important, it’s the mood of the music. The fast tunes and the haunting airs reach basic emotions that transcend any language difficulties. One of the problems with taking English songs abroad is that the hard hitting words and some of the arrangements may be lost – but when you get down to bopping, they really get off on you.

So whereas the Celtic bands have their set-piece jigs and reels, you concentrate on that English polka stomp?

J.J. Absolutely!

I. T. I don’t see why the storming approach to some English music shouldn’t appeal in some Continental countries quite a lot. In Denmark, I found I was able to jam very easily with Danish dance musicians.

J.J. Certainly one of the ideas behind the English Rock’n’Roll album was playing to moods – using a slow Morris tune in the same way as a simple Celtic air, to listen to, and the storming of the songs, piling everything in. Not just to show how rocky we can be, but to drag every ounce of appeal out of those songs. Although some are originally a bit thin, through lyric reconstruction you can make a really good story, one that’s immediate, out of English songs. And the tunes are stunning.

I. T. There are a lot of thin English texts, compared to say Scottish where a lot of song texts went through the hands of very intelligent and sensitive people because there was less distinction between art music and popular music – Burns and Walter Scott for instance. In a literary sense, the standard of Scottish texts is probably higher – you owe it to the repertoire of English songs to be a little more careful and selective.

But certainly the tunes – both of songs and tunes themselves – have a strong character. That’s why it has mystified me why bands in particular haven’t seized upon, say, the Coppers’ songs. Perhaps it’s because the Young Tradition were so wonderful at that stuff – people can’t divorce it from the idea of three part unaccompanied harmony.

J.J. That could well be true. Actually, I’ve been doing it at the moment – looking at songs which, like you’ve said, are so much part of a particular time or performance in your passage through folk. Getting rid of that and looking at the tune, drawing out the strong points is a fascinating thing to do. You’re absolutely right.

I.T. We’re just having a communal hum-hah about what to do next in recording terms. There are really only two options; to do an English Rock’n’Roll Volume 2, because obviously we’ve got more material coming along which slots into that – or do another distinctly different thing which is an album of our own written material. We’ve all got an enormous backlog – all the people that were in the Dram have got shelf-fulls, some of which deserves to have the dust blown off it.

From Southern Rag 15, January 1983


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