Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Folk Music (slight return)

Overall the 80s were a terrible time for British folk. After the rich feast of the 60s and 70s the best bands had broken up, and the best talents had either died (Nick Drake, Sandy Denny), left for the States (Richard Thompson) or were drinking too much (John Martyn, Bert Jansch). Davey Graham and Linda Thompson only recorded one album each in the entire decade.

Musically it had run out of steam, but it was also stuck in a hostile decade. Apart from trade unionism, nothing was made to look more antiquated and 'not wanted around here anymore' than folk.

Still, there were a couple bright spots. The Thompson's last brilliant album together ‘Shoot Out The Lights’, which perhaps should have been an epitaph for the whole scene.



Probably because it was under attack, you could get a great, bitter fight back from Dick Gaughan with 'Handful of Earth' (Melody Maker Album of the Year 1981) and the follow up 'A Different Kind of Love Song'.



And finally there was the Pogues. Because they made it past 1990, had all those songs about drinking and Shane McGowan turned into a 'character' they were partly complicit in 90s laddism and/or retro rock. However, on the first few albums they seemed to have found a way out of the Ralph McTell impasse. No one followed though and they never quite had the skills to take the music somewhere different. Still, better than David Gray.


39 comments:

carl said...

aha...never heard of Dick Gaughan.

carl said...

always loved the Pogues though...

carl said...

always loved the Pogues though...

carl said...

so much so I apparently felt the need to say it twice

Lutz Eitel said...

Yeah, thanks for the intro to Dick Gaughan!

William said...

His version of World Turned Upside Down is better than Billy Bragg's IMO. Probably should have included Bragg too, but he's always on Tv and radio - he doesn't need our help.

David W. Kasper said...

Think it's unfair to (partly) blame the Pogues for '90s laddism'. Songs about growing old, illness, parenthood, prison, extreme poverty, the experience of immigrant labour or the worst oppressions of the British state are the antithesis of laddism really. There was a glamorisation of alcoholism perhaps, but I wouldn't call Rickie Lee Jones or Tom Waits laddish. They were great musicians too - it's just unfortunate that the press largely viewed the band through the image of Shane MacGowan's personal problems (first as farce, then as tragedy).

I'd say they were the one of the last big British bands to actually have something to 'say'. 'Birmingham Six' caused a furore when it was released, not as 'consensual' as 'Free Nelson Mandela' but arguably more effective as a campaigning song, banned by the BBC and in the great tradition of folk as the 'voice' of the unheard. 'Irishness' has had a major image change since the Good Friday agreement, but as defiantly Irish Londoners they situated punk as a detour in a much longer, more complicated continuum; more communal than the 'classless' spiel of new laddism's appropriation of punk.

Phil Knight said...

Anyone remember The Band Of Holy Joy? They were touted as the "intelligent" Pogues, which was a tag they resented because it was MacGowan & Co. who had the expensive educations.

The Pogues' connections with Joe Strummer and Pete Doherty are an interesting phenomenon for me - all public school boys gone bad.

MacGowan is kind of an upper-class Irishman pretending to be a working-class Englishman pretending to be an Irish vagrant. Although "pretending" is a bit harsh - he's really living the role.

All that said, I'm pretty indifferent to his music.

Phil Knight said...

Also, I'm quite amused when MacGowan, like John Lydon, makes involuntary pro-British establishment comments.

It reminds me of the bits in "Dr. Strangelove" when Strangelove himself is fighting with his own arm to stop it giving a Hitler salute.

William said...

You're right I was a bit back-handed towards the Pogues. I do actually really like them - but am aware there is a constituency out there who think it's just for male drinkers who've got a paperback collection i.e. all female friends of mine. It was quite hard to pick a song which wasn't about being in a drinking gang.

David W. Kasper said...

True about McGowan's performance as an Irish prole - but like the Clash, what mattered most about them is what they meant to the audience. He was also a brilliant lyricist - if he hadn't crumbled so much he could have had a good novel or two in him.

And the prole rebel/voice of the establishment thing lies in punk's internal contradictions. Or further than that, the ambitious grammar school boys who led the 'British Invasion'. Paul 'Give ireland Back To The Irish' McCartney's legendary miserliness being a case in point. Or indeed Ray Davies shedding a tear for Empire and writing sonnets to Thatcher. The hot air that kept neoliberalism's promises afloat had some roots in post-war pop's 'classless' contradictions.

Phil Knight said...

There's an element here of Class as performance - nobs performing the role of proles. I suppose there must be proles who did the opposite in pop, there certainly was on the telly (e.g. fruity Frank Muir).

Anyway, how about The Mekons as folk group?

David W. Kasper said...

Leslie Philips came from a very rough background, and he's been pulling off that performance rahh-therrr welll. There's also Bowie and Ferry, who pretty much set a new template for affected fop-nobbery.

Not that familiar with the Mekons (liked the country stuff though), but weren't they poshos too?

SIMON REYNOLDS said...

the Men they Couldn't Hang

the Boothill Foot Tappers

the Shillelagh Sisters

there was a lot of it about in the mid-80s

pomplamau5 said...

A pair that got away: Nic Jones' excellent Penguin Eggs album was 1980, and the second June Tabor & Maddy Prior from a few years after that was alright too.

Alex Niven said...

I think you peeps are forgetting about ... CLANNAD!!!

Seriously, there are a couple o good tunes.

Altan also a great trad folk band, formed in the mid-late '80s.

Nic Jones's Penguin Eggs an early entry in 1980 but a pedant's choice nevertheless.

Also, isn't it an argument in favour of folk generally that it doesn't conform to the micro-periodisation, boom-n-bust pattern that has hampered post-fifties popular music? Isn't that what redeems the concept of tradition from being an inherently conservative value and makes it, at least potentially, anti-capitalist?

Alex Niven said...

sorry pomplamau5, didn't see your nic jones shout ...

JM said...

I love the Pogues and there's plenty of non drinking songs from them:
Old Main Drag
If I should Fall with Grace from God
Sickbed of Cuchulain
Pistol for Paddy Garcia
Misty Morning Albert Bridge
Young Ned of Hill
Trans metropolitan

David W. Kasper said...

The Men They Couldn't Hang - forgot about them. They were pretty good.

Folky elements were buried under the sound of Big Country, The Alarm, That Petrol Emotion Simple Minds. It was definitely present in their lyrics and melodies. Maybe even Aztec Camera, albeit with slick soul production.

And of course, the late great Kirsty Macoll.

William said...

'Sickbed of Cuchulain' not about drinking?

'Well in the Euston tavern,
You screamed it was your shout,
But they wouldn't give you service so you kicked the windows out'

Alright, there were some other good folk records in the 80s, and a cluster of folk-ish bands in the mid decade. But not in the same way there was Davey Graham & Bert Jansch & Anne Briggs & John Martyn & Nick Drake & the Watersons & Fairport Convention & Pentangle in 60s/early 70s. So actually I do think there is boom and bust in folk music. Since c. 1984 it’s been a long downturn.

carl said...

the Mekons have produced two or three of my favourite songs of all time....
Ii suppose the emergence of Crusty around the mid Eighties also further disseminates a folk influence dunnit.. Chumbawamba on to New Model Army and the Levellers/ traveller culture. The Waterboys were also a big band...on the more leftfield side wouldnt Goth and neo-folk ie Current 93's Swastikas for Noddy etc have come out in the 80s? I wonder whether you couldnt make a case for the folkiness of emerging black metal. So maybe its less that folk disappears or declines but atomizes and disperses and suddenly is everywhere, but it is folk by other means.

Also all of those canonical 70s greats were shunned and despised until the early/mid 2000s weren't they? Maybe not Nick Drake and Buckley as they were lost Indy Icons, but the rest...

David W. Kasper said...

I agree that it booms and busts with time, and as a 'continuum' it did kind of fizzle out towards the late 80s (were Dexy's 'folk'? Or Van Morrisson for that matter?).

Maybe we're all stretching it so much that we should just accept that there's folky 'currents' in all kinds of pop'n'rock, just like there's blues (although the latter usually dominates in rock). Prog had folk all over it, but it was still identified by techno-glossy virtuoso-wankery.

I mean, Grime is a 'folk art' innit?

David W. Kasper said...

JM -

I thought 'If I Should Fall From Grace With God' was about trying to avoid getting too rat-arsed?

carl said...

I saw Pentangle earlier this year, actually. They were incredibly boring.

I still think "folk" kind of migrates in the Eighties, and also Mainstreams, both the Pogues and The Waterboys were huge, but would be pretty hard to find in the nineties (by folk I'm thinking about a back to nature/paganism/traditional instruments/non traditional rock instrumentation/ longing for pre-industrial/early industrial past etc)...Agree about prog being defined by other than its folk element butI guess that's also an indicator in a way that on some level " the folk is always with us". maybe those 60s/70s guys just distill it, and it's periodically distilled as a way of re-illuminating/being re-energized by the "source"

I'm sure Electric Eden is very good on this, but I've yet to read it....

I've had too much coffee, don't let me get carried away!

Alex Niven said...

Okay, clearly there are "currents" that vaguely fall into boom and bust patterns, but the argument here is predicated on folk-rock or crossover acts isn't it? And by definition this mainstream-ish terrain will always be subject to trends.

I agree with the general argument, because to an extent the health or unhealth of the scene as a whole can always be judged by the state of its visible representatives, but I think the grassroots folk tradition has probably stayed pretty healthy throughout all of this. It was certainly so in the north-east in the 90s when I was growing up -- this is the scene The Unthanks, for example, emerged from. People like Chris Wood, Catriona MacDonald, Kathryn Tickell all worth checking out, on a related note.

Alex Niven said...

Though actually, having said that, this was all dependent on a kind of last hurrah of social-democratic arts funding, via the Northern Arts-attached body Folkworks, which no longer exists ...

David W. Kasper said...

Interesting you bring up the art-funding aspect. It's final hurrah was under New Labour, which due to it's 'youth improvement' agenda, 'creative industries' spiel, multicultural policies and I.T.-based education initiatives, was perhaps diverted from folk to urban dance music? A few 'nuum' scenes of the past decade where more a product of youth clubs and F.E. colleges than nighclubs, no?

It was the case in the field of work I was involved in anyway. Of course, classical always gets the biggest share of the pie when it comes to arts money. Rich people like it.

David W. Kasper said...

Totally off-topic, but I'm quite surprised at the absence of 'hair metal' on here and UCAP. It was such a major cultural presence in the late 20th century, I'm wondering if it's the music-weekly 'taste police' lurking in our heads.

You may have thought it was a crap genre, but nearly all teenagers liked it at least some of it some of the time. Its massive chart success proof enough. A love that dare not speak its name?

Simon said...

the Proclaimers!

ralph dorey said...

I'm working on a hair metal post.
Or rather, I am once again working on a hair metal post. Numerous times in the past I've attempted to articulate something on the transatlantic mutation that occurred between the Rolling Stones and Aerosmith, or the equally bizarre lineage of the New York Dolls to Mötlëy Crüë but I've never quite managed to get to grips with the politics of it all.

The Pogues are wonderful though. I think lad culture sucked in what it wanted from the hapless Shane just as it did from Mark E Smith and Iggy Pop.

Simon said...

Hanoi Rocks is your missing link, Ralph

carl said...

Hang on, aren't we all supposed to hate the Pogues? I had proudly carried around my iconoclastic love for Rum, Sodomy and the Lash (the album that is) for thirty years there, basking in my own triumphal minimal difference and now you lot ruin it for me!

David W. Kasper said...

The Pogues were ace. End of.

I only brought up hair metal cos I had a weird urge to listen to Van Halen this week, and found myself smiling while I did.

carl said...

Now that is uncanny as about two weeks ago I asked Phil if he was into Van Halen and sent him a link to their first album off youtube. I've been listening to the first three records a lot and really enjoying them...

Phil Knight said...

Ah yeah, I'll get back to you on VH, Carl - haven't followed up that link yet.

I'll be the obligatory Pogues-hater then, although I'm more of a Pogues-ignorer. That said they remind me of that weird cultural moment when Harp Lager suddenly became Harp Irish Lager. I think "ersatz" is the word I'm looking for....

It's an interesting phenomenon how "Irishness" went from being something despised and feared to something warmly admired that everyone wanted to get in on (this was not just confined to the UK of course). I suppose there's lots of cultural inputs into this - Big Jackie Charlton, the GFA, Father Ted, Guinness marketing to younger drinkers, a general yearning for authenticity etc.

It all seems to have disappeared overnight though, into a neither-loving-nor-hating indifference. Perhaps the realisation that the Irish were as much property-speculating greed-mongs as everyone else broke the spell?

Phil Knight said...

Er....apologies for the Ricky Gervais-style lapse there....

Phil Knight said...

Also, it's occurred to me that I seem to have a strange aversion to bands/artists whose name begins with "P" - Pogues, Pulp, PJ Harvey, Pavement, Primal Scream.....

What could this mean?

carl said...

heh...don't worry about that i still haven't got round to watching a certain DVD yet, to my shame...

I'd be interested to know what you thought of it, i guess its the first real Coke-metal LP production wise, or is that Aerosmith...?

Phil Knight said...

Dunno. I'm kind of a W.A.S.P fan as you know, so it's a backwards step for me to start listening to the more respectable likes of Aerosmith and Van Halen. I suspect that Aerosmith got better as they went along though - their early stuff is no great shakes, but "Love In An Elevator" is superb.

Also, I really like Pearl Jam, so the "P" thing doesn't work either, come to think of it.