BY Bob Stanley in Interviews | 06 JUN 02
Featured in
Issue 68

Oats, peas, beans and barley grow

Jonny Trunk of Trunk Records, Paul Lambden of Spinney Records and Bob Stanley of Saint Etienne talk to frieze about the delights of Folk.

BY Bob Stanley in Interviews | 06 JUN 02

James Roberts     The first soundtrack released by Trunk was The Wicker Man; what drew you to the film?

Jonny Trunk     It's a late night English horror film - a great movie but more of a comedy than anything else. I'm basically a soundtrack collector and it became a bit of an obsession. The music is fantastic and there were strange rumours of a single being issued. I tried to find it for years until it was obvious that it didn't exist.

Bob Stanley     I think the film's terrifying. The first time I saw it I thought the ending I was expecting couldn't possibly happen because the main character is a policeman and a Christian. Of course at the end you realize that's exactly why he's going to die, which is great.

JT     The Coral, a band that has just been signed to Sony, are making a miniature Wicker Man for their new video. I think they get burnt at the end ...

JR     Britt Ekland's song from the film was covered by the Sneaker Pimps.

JT     Yes, there's one by the Mock Turtles as well, and one by the Doves.

JR     It seems to have struck a chord.

Paul Lambden     The reason is because Britt and her body double take all their clothes off. There was some fuss at the time because Rod Stewart was going out with her and apparently he wanted the negative destroyed because he didn't want her baring her...

JT     ... front bits ...

PL     ... so everyone chose that song because they have their own private vision of Britt banging on a wall.

JT     It's a good bit of adolescent pornography in a folky style. It's a very unusual piece of filmmaking too. That scene was copied recently by the League of Gentlemen - in an interview they said they wanted everything to be a bit pagan, a bit Wicker Man.

JR     The soundtrack got a lot of press when it came out. Do you think the timing was right?

JT     I think it was the favourite cult British horror film of a lot of journalists who had never covered it and wanted to write about it.

PL     The timing certainly wasn't a factor because it took Jonny and I years to get access to the tapes. If we were trying to hit the right moment we would probably have missed it because it took so long.

JR     The re-release of Vashti Bunyan's Just Another Diamond Day on Spinney got a lot of coverage too and there seems to be a bit of a Folk revival going on. Do you think that's filtering through to contemporary musicians?

PL     There's certainly been a movement towards acoustic material, especially amongst white guitar bands, but most of it's complete shit. Starsailor, for instance, sell loads of records and good luck to them, but whether they're actually picking up on folkiness in a trad kind of way ... We were talking earlier about Morris dancing and Folk festivals and I believe their attraction is coming overground. During the May Day protests in London this year people were dressing up as green men and doing maypole dancing - a few years ago that wouldn't have happened. Maybe the response to Vashti's re-release is related and people are realising there are traditions in their own back yard that are interesting and have fantastic music attached. During the 1980s and 1990s everyone was into world music, but from every country you could possibly imagine except England. The new acoustic movement is more a US singer-songwriter kind of Folk, as opposed to using traditional sounds and instruments, although there's an element of that creeping into younger bands. Eliza Carthy, a young musician from a family of traditional Folk musicians, is trying to make Folk more relevant by mixing in a little bit of drum and bass, or whatever. She's obsessed with English music and can't believe the way it's been neglected.

BS     The Straw Bear in Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire, is a centuries old Folk celebration involving a terrifying corn man with no face who walks through the streets while kids play around him. Until recently I'd never heard of any of these things and now they seem to be all over the country. I organize a club called Swaddling Songs that features mainly late 1960s and early 1970s English Folk revival stuff and there is a lot of interest. It's at Cecil Sharp House in Camden, the purpose-built headquarters of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. It's incredible the building is still there, but it's where Shirley Collins and others used to search the library looking for songs. It's really busy - the library is always full. It's a big secret but it shouldn't be.

JT     It's the centre of English Folk music.

BS     All this country stuff and toe-dipping into acoustic music makes you wonder if people are going to pick up on English Folk more in the next few years. It filters into my own work in things like using a lot of woodwind and strings and often we try to copy the structure of Folk songs.

JR     How did you discover Vashti?

PL     I was working for the company that owns the copyright to her songs and she phoned to tell me there was a bootleg CD going around. We didn't have her album so I asked her to send me one. She didn't want to let it out of her grasp because she felt it was embarrassing, a folky thing that everyone would laugh at. It has arrangements by Robert Kirby, who arranged Nick Drake, and was produced by Joe Boyd, who also recorded Drake. I thought it was fantastic and asked her if she'd like to re-issue it.

BS     She hates the record being called Folk though, which is interesting because it seems very deep-rooted in English music and nature.

JR     What does she object to?

BS     She doesn't like being lumped in with the 1960s Folk revival.

PL     Yes, she sees the Folk spin as being given by the producers and the arrangers. She was originally managed by Andrew Loog Oldham, who managed the Rolling Stones, and was signed to Immediate Records, who were trying to make her into the next Marianne Faithfull. That didn't work out and so she went on a journey in a caravan all the way up to the Outer Hebrides. Obviously things got a bit rootsy, but then Joe Boyd suggested certain people he was working with at the time, and who happened to be Folk musicians, to play on the recordings: Dave Swarbrick from Fairport Convention and Robin Williamson from Incredible String Band, for example. They were rather foisted upon her, so she's not terribly enamoured by the term 'Folk'. The record's had a high profile because it only sold something like 300 copies when it originally came out - that's why it's so rare. Although she's pleased about the response and really likes the songs, I don't think she really likes the sound that's coming out. Everyone else does, me included, but that's her choice.

JR     Apart from Vashti Bunyan who else do you feel is relevant now?

BS     There's Anne Briggs who I think is a much more interesting person than, say, Nick Drake, who has become the Bob Marley of Folk. I do like Nick Drake but I think it's really odd that there's a book on him and now they're thinking about making a film. There's absolutely no story to tell - his songs are nice and he died young ... that's it.

JT     They're making a film?

BS     Alison Anders was thinking about making a film but gave up because there wasn't enough material.

JT     He sits in his room ...

BS     His sister Gabrielle was in Crossroads ...

JT      ... and UFO.

BS     But Anne Briggs has a good story to tell.

JT     She lives in the Shetlands now, or some weird remote island, and hates the music business.

BS     Yes. She made a couple of albums in the space of a year in 1970, and apart from that she's hardly been recorded because she hates studios and hates singing live. She used to get up in pubs like a proper Folk singer but wasn't really part of the 1960s English Folk revival.

JT     She did a tour but never performed, just used to get arseholed all the time. Was it A. L. Lloyd who said that getting her in a studio was like putting a wild bird in a cage? A beautiful voice ... absolutely to die for.

PL     I think Shirley Collins is the quintessential English singer. Her voice has an almost school-girlish quality but it's fantastic.

JT     Shirley Collins' Anthems in Eden (1969) is the record that sparked off my interest in Folk. I bought it because Paul showed me the gatefold: there's a fantastic picture of Shirley and Dolly Collins with two masked weird people - one's wearing a huge bull's head. It's a take on proper 16th-century music, really hardcore.

PL     They used original 16th-century instruments, like sackbuts.

JT     I used to work in an antique shop at the time and I would sit with strange old stuff everywhere and listen to very old music. That's what got me - the voice of Shirley Collins - and when you follow the voice you find out more.

PL     She made a ground-breaking record early on with Davy Graham, a blues guitarist with a big reputation at the time. They made Folk Roots, New Routes in 1964 where they combined traditional songs with Jazz, Folk and Blues. It paved the way for bands like Fairport Convention to create Folk Rock, and later for Steeleye Span. Her profile seems to be rising: there's a box set coming out and there was a feature in MoJo Collections last month. She recorded a whole raft of albums, some with her sister, Dolly, who's now sadly dead. But for years she hasn't recorded and she doesn't sing live any more. Although apparently she's making a new album with Current 93 - they're kind of weird and scary ...

JT     Industrial but big traditionalists.

PL     They've been going for years, really underground. They started off kind of ... Satanist ... and are still very much into pagan stuff I believe. It's rather incredible that they are working with Shirley Collins, who hasn't recorded since around 1970.

JR     Politicized Folk hasn't had the mainstream success in Britain that it has had in America, where there's a strong grass roots counter-culture. Apart from the paganism-as-political-action that you see in May Day, English Folk seems to be more whimsical and escapist - people leave the record business, go off to the Outer Hebrides, or don't perform live.

PL     Roy Harper had very political songs about South Africa and other subjects, in a folky-acoustic-American kind of way. I'm sure there are others that I can't think of right now.

BS     There was the Ewan MacColl faction, which was extremely political - actually quite fascist: unless you were from Nottinghamshire you couldn't sing a Nottinghamshire Folk song. He was so bloody hard-line that everyone fell out with him. MacColl and his mates alienated people like Bert Jansch and Shirley Collins, so when they became more popular they played down the political side of things. That's the last time Folk was influential in England, since then it hasn't really been political - unless you count The Levellers, who are awful.

JT     Do we count Billy Bragg?

BS     He's got an acoustic guitar ...

JT      Sort of hangs round with the folkies ...

PL      The difference is that the material I'm interested in has its roots in anonymous traditional songs that have been handed down from farmer to farmer over generations. The sense of history you get with these songs is wonderful - knowing that someone ages ago wrote about ...

JT      ... 'The Cruel Mother' ...

PL      ... Well, normally they're about sex, drink and death, and that sounds alright to me. The attraction is not so much people with acoustic guitars saying globalisation is a terrible thing, but genuine stories about what happened in the past made into a fantastic song hundreds of years ago. Some have been lost but some have survived. There's the Copper Family, who had a CD re-issued recently. They learnt their songs from their granddad, who learnt them from his granddad and so on. They're wonderful songs and the lyrics are really special. There is a sense of mystery about them because you don't really know where they came from - this is what I find interesting.

JT     I find nursery rhymes absolutely fascinating. I've got a thing about children singing traditional English songs - you find quite a lot on the Argo label - either the whole school or just little children singing with percussion - songs about pigs, going out to dig ... stuff like that.

JR     Was that one of the motivations behind Trunk releasing The Clangers and Kes soundtracks?

JT      With The Clangers probably so, but that happened by accident. I was trying to get Bagpuss, which is Folk and would have been a perfect follow up to The Wicker Man because it's similar: quite evil, dark and strange. I asked Sandra Kerr, who wrote the music and has the masters, if I could release it exactly as it was recorded. She said 'No we're re-recording it and putting it out for schools'. She re-recorded it because she thought it would be 'better', which I don't understand. It's good music, like nursery rhymes: think of 'Row Row Row Your Boat'. I went back to Oliver Postgate, the creator of Bagpuss and The Clangers, and asked if I could release The Clangers because I've got this thing about space. In fact, the next soundtrack on Trunk is all the music from UFO, which has never been released - it's the only Gerry Anderson series that hasn't. At the moment there are four CDs of it.

PL     You've got a thing about TV shows from when you were a kid, old films ... you're obsessed by them and you want to release the soundtracks for them all.

JT     Actually, that is it Paul. I hadn't seen The Clangers for years and years. I bought the videos, sat down, watched them and thought they were the sweetest, most beautiful little shows. They are all based on traditional stories; there's no violence, it's just someone's imagination on the television.

BS     What I find amazing about The Clangers music is that it evokes a fantastic sense of space but the main instrument is an oboe - it's pastoral space. I like a lot of early 1970s TV music like Bagpuss, obviously, which is very folky, and Fingerbobs which is more melancholy and uses lots of woodwind. Maybe it's to do with our age.

JT     Play School, with Toni Arthur, was Folk songs all the way through.

JR     The Clangers and Kes soundtracks are incredibly atmospheric. Like traditional songs the music makes you feel you've been somewhere even if you haven't, or to imagine your rural origins, even if you don't have them. Perhaps that's attractive at the moment - to have a sense of history, a sense of a life that was once different.

JT      I think it's all very, very English in just about every respect.

BS     People have much more respect for English Folk music outside Britain; here there is a definite sense of embarrassment about it. The best collections of English Folk records I know of are in America and Japan.

PL     English traditional music has suffered because the 'celtic' sound has always been more attractive. When I went to college I was constantly asked 'Where do you come from?', and I'd say 'Surrey' and they would reply 'Oh God, do you really? Why can't you come from the Isle of Man or Scotland?'.

BS     Many people's idea of Folk music is listening to the Pogues - it's the English guilt thing.

PL     Absolutely. At that point I refused to accept that England's just a sack of shit, that the music's bad and that everyone wants to live somewhere else. I started discovering exciting folkish customs in our own backyard. But English traditional music hasn't done itself any favours image-wise. A lot of the old field recordings, made in the 1950s and earlier, were done in pubs. Someone stuck a microphone in the face of a singer who was probably half pissed up and 87 years old. But they would be singing a classic song, and were perhaps the last living person who could remember it. Although there are some fantastic songs it's really difficult to embrace them, which is why younger people came along in the 1960s and began performing them with a guitar; traditionally they were performed with no instruments, except perhaps a drum - the acoustic guitar thing is relatively new. No-one wants to be associated with being English today. It's a shame because some of the music just is fantastic. I think there is a need, and a desire on the part of performers like Eliza Carthy, to make people more aware of it and not feel so embarrassed about it.

JR     How do you think this reversal came about? There was a moment, not that long ago, when people were interested in Folk.

BS     The main characters from the 1960s and early 1970s ended up in pub rock territory - even Bert Jansch made some pretty stinky albums. When Punk came along Folk was not in a very good state and it went out the window along with Prog. Record shops still put Folk and Progressive Rock in the same section - it doesn't make sense musically but it does historically.

PL     Shirley Collins released albums on Harvest, which was a Prog label, and many other Folk Rock bands got lumped in with Prog. It was deemed a bit worthy and over-long and Punk was the new thing. I think Bob's right - Forest is a good example.

JT     The other thing about all this music is that it's almost impossible to buy. If record shops have a Folk section, it'll be full of Dubliner's records. You can get a lot on CD but if you want vinyl it's very difficult. It seems most of the people who bought Folk records in the 1960s never sell them, or if they do the records go to Japan, where they like folky, wistful female vocals.

PL     The next release on Spinney is a very rare record: an album by Barry Dransfield which came out in 1972 on Folk Mill/Polydor. It's interesting because not only is he a traditional singer and guitarist, and a fiddle player as well, but he does contemporary covers - one by David Ackles and another by Procol Harum. There's a 19th-century music hall song too, which I really like, called 'General Worthington'. The title makes it sound like a traditional Folk song but it's actually an advert. Someone used to come on the stage in between acts and sing 'Buy my chocolate' or whatever. This one goes 'Buy Worthington beer, I'll have a bottle of Worthington'. I like the way the record shows that you can take a song from 1450, one from the 19th century and one from 1972 and they all have a similar quality.

Bob Stanley is a member of the group Saint Etienne. His book Do You Believe in Magic: The Story of Pop is due to be published by Faber & Faber next year.