Surprisingly, before 1982 it appears that Band on the Wall had little, if any, connection with the folk music scene. However, the venue made up for it in subsequent years. In the period 1982 to 1989, over 100 solo artists, duos and bands, whose repertoires could be said to belong to the broad, multi-faith church of folk music, delivered their richly varied songs and instrumentals at ‘The Band’ (short name for Band on the Wall).
These included several of the seminal figures in the earlier folk music revival in the UK, particularly current or former members of significant bands that had emerged in the 60s & 70s:
- Steeleye Span – Ashley Hutchings, Maddy Prior, Martin Carthy
- Fairport Convention – Ashley Hutchings, Martin Carthy, Ric Sanders, Maartin Allcock, Dave Swarbrick, Dan Ar Braz,
- Pentangle – John Renbourn, Bert Jansch
- Lindisfarne – Alan Hull
- Incredible String Band – Mike Heron, Robin Williamson,
At the height of their popularity, these bands were capable of filling major venues; now individual band members were happy, or at least prepared, to play smaller venues. Some of them had never stopped doing so. Band on the Wall occupied a place between the big halls and the pub back- or upstairs rooms that were the usual locations of folk clubs, of which there were many in Manchester and throughout the country. Unlike the folk sing-arounds of many clubs, Band on the Wall presented the artists in concert-style, on stage, with proper PA system and stage lighting. But still close to ‘point blank range’ of the audience that Martin Carthy insists is folk music’s preferred striking distance. 1
The 80s at Band on the Wall also saw performances by the most influential of folk artists in the UK, including Manchester-born Roy Harper and the substantial figures, musically and physically, of John Martyn* and singer, guitarist and story-teller Hamish Imlach,** himself an influence on Martyn and others such as Billy Connolly.
It would be easy to describe the folk music programme at Band on the Wall in the 80s as essentially retrospective, perhaps even nostalgic: musicians growing old gracefully but artistically living in a previous era – the glory days of the folk music revival – when folk music gelled with more popular forms, and some performers almost became rock stars. In fact, few of the performers rested on their laurels: if less sensational than in the 60s, folk music in the 80s retained its restless, often progressive, spirit, and Band on the Wall reflected this.
A senior figure on the folk scene, Hamish Imlach combined jolly humour with rebelliousness that had lent a cheer-leading quality to the anti-nuclear protests in Scotland. The Dirt Sisters, from Nottingham, communicated a sonically weird but persuasive message, much inspired by their visits to Greenham Common where the women’s peace camps had settled in 1981. Alan Hull, Geordie poet, songwriter, musician and socialist activist, played Band on the Wall in 1984, the year he organised many events in support of the miners’ strike. An obituary of Hull called him “a champion of the people rather than a champion of rock star values”.2 The description could have been applied to many of the folk artists who performed at Band on the Wall in the 80s.
In 1985 Assistant Manager Steve Forster organised an Irish series at The Band, book-ended by local band Curragh and a little-known London-based group, The Pogues. Curragh continues as the Curragh Sons today (2017) and in the 80s included members who would go on to found the Irish folk-rock band Toss the Feathers that would be featured at Band on the Wall on many occasions and continues to reunite for annual Christmas gigs in Manchester. Flautist and piper Michael McGoldrick and fiddler Dezi Donnelly both enthralled audiences at The Band and would subsequently create international fan bases, particularly through McGoldrick’s tours with Mark Knopfler and Bob Dylan, and Donnelly with Sharon Shannon.
The Pogues went on to success and some notoriety due to the erratic behaviour of lead singer Shane McGowan, described as ‘a man of many words but few teeth’. The original name of the band, Pogue Mahone, means ‘kiss my arse’. However, we never saw their posteriors at The Band, as The Pogues cancelled, having found a more lucrative offer of a week in Ireland.
Prevalence of the guitar
There was a day when folk clubs showed a preference for unamplified, unaccompanied folk songs; singers with guitars were often viewed with suspicion. But by the 80s, almost without exception the guitar was the chosen instrument of accompaniment for the succession of singer-songwriters who took the stage at Band on the Wall. Few of them had an aversion to amplification; indeed, some were highly skilled in its use, such as American virtuoso Isaac Guillory,*** one of the first solo artists to travel with his own PA system. That he decided not to use it at Band on the Wall was a tribute to the quality of the venue’s own system, though the current (2017) in-house system is a qualitative step up from the 80s installation.
Increasingly through the 80s, the guitar was featured in its own right as many of the players honed their skills and achieved high standards of dexterity and musicianship. This was ably demonstrated by performances at The Band during the decade by: British musicians, John Renbourn, BertJansch, Martin Simpson, Martin Carthy, Adrian Legg and Gordon Giltrap; Dan Ar Bras, from Brittany, France; and several outstanding Americans, including Stefan Grossman and Guy Van Ducer. Several of these players, such as Simpson, Carthy and Grossman, went on to make guitar instruction books & tutorial DVDs. Brilliant local guitarists Howard Lees and John Hobson performed their jazzy repertoire several times at Band on the Wall in the 80s.
From the 60s, folk music was an expanding universe and, in England, the musician who caused a seismic shift was guitarist Davey Graham,**** who performed on two occasions at Band on the Wall in the 80s. Ian Croal, CEO of Band on the Wall at the time, recalls:
I first met Davey Graham in Edinburgh in 1962 or 63. He walked into the newspaper office where I worked as a trainee journalist, writing the Youth Page that, then, was mainly about Boy Scouts, Girl Guides and canoeing expeditions, though I was more interested in music. Davey was looking for publicity for a solo guitar concert he was doing. I went to the gig and was deeply moved and astounded by his playing. He played blues and boogie, Irish jigs, Indian rags and Eastern European tunes. Then he played a Mingus tune I knew – and I could hear the whole band, bass, drums, saxophones, trumpet, etc…given that only a guitar was being played, it was uncanny. For me, this was where ‘world music’ began and I had been in the presence of a genius musician.
When we booked Davey in the 80s, I knew of his well-documented problems with hard drugs, but thought that it was worth the risk. If he were only half as good as I recalled… that would be enough.
In his first performance at Band on the Wall he shared the bill with the Indian tabla master Manikrao Poppatkar, who performed superbly, with musical illustrations of the different rhythms learnt on his travels throughout India. Graham, controlling his demons with obvious great effort, managed a passable performance. But the second time it was a sad story. Steve Forster, who was assistant manager of the venue, in his ‘Memories of The Band’ describes the occasion:
Upon arrival it was apparent that he was in an advanced stage of refreshment and was making little, if any, sense. He took to the stage, started a tune then started to giggle. He stopped playing and giggled some more, tried to tell a story, then to play some more but to no avail. After a few embarrassing minutes he seemed to be overcoming his incapacity, only to break down into giggles once more. Eventually he left the stage and, when we were sure he was fit enough, we put him in a cab and refunded the audience’s ticket money. Davy did eventually clean up but the sadness of that night will stay with me forever.
Graham has influenced a generation of guitar players at a technical level, but only up to a point, as inferred by Dave Swarbrick,***** Fairport Convention’s fiddle player, who played Band on the Wall several times: “There was nobody capable of doing what Davy Graham was doing, or even dreaming that it could be done.”****
An obituary of Davey Graham3 perceptively pointed out that his influence was more conceptual than technical. His vision recognised no boundaries to the music that could be played on the guitar.
An “Atlantic country”
Actually, I think there probably is some kind of Atlantic country which connects the west coast of the British Isles and the American eastern seaboard – and, if there is, it certainly has its music – Martin Carthy
The 80s folk music programme at Band on the Wall certainly emphasised the transatlantic connections. Not only were there numerous performances by Americans – such as Stefan Grossman, Maria Muldaur, Guy Van Ducer, Country Joe McDonald, Guy Clark, Flaco Jiminez, Santiago Jiminez, Jesse Winchester, Isaac Guillory, Peter Rowan, Rattle Snake Annie, Butch Hancock, Kimmie Rhodes, Saul Brody, John Stewart & Hugh Moffatt – but also many performances by British musicians whose music derived, in part, from American sources.
A common starting point, an early influence, for many of the British players who appeared at The Band was skiffle, the mid-50s craze whose origins lay in the jug bands of the USA earlier in the century and in recordings by Americans, particularly Lead Belly. These skiffle-inspired Brits included: Martin Carthy, John Renbourn, who performed at The Band with American Stefan Grossman and also with Pentangle, and Ashley Hutchings, founding member of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, who appeared with his Albion Band. The influential Scottish guitarist Bert Jansch appeared at The Band solo and with Pentangle; his cited influences were Big Bill Broonzy, Woody Guthrie, Brownie McGhee and Pete Seeger; the latter appeared at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in the early 1960s.
Sometimes the skiffle influence was indirect. Alan Hull, who performed at Band on the Wall in 1984, 1985 & 1988, cited as his inspiration John Lennon whose performing career started with his skiffle group, The Quarrymen. The Americanisation occasionally could be almost complete, if somewhat tongue-in-cheek; thus English medical doctor Sam Hutt became country singer/guitarist Hank Wangford and his band’s English vocalist Melanie Harrold became Irma Cetas from Mexico, introduced oddly as The Vera Lynn of the North Sea Oil Fields. At Band on the Wall in 1989, Melanie had regained her own identity and performed her acoustic roots show with her then partner, double bassist Olly Blanchflower. Few British musicians have been so steeped in American music as singer-songwriter and guitarist Wes McGhee who brought his Country All-Stars to The Band in 1986. Since the late 70’s, he has commuted between his English home and Texas, recording, producing and performing on both sides of the Atlantic. In Texas he is regarded as one of them.
The music of the notional ‘Atlantic country’ that Martin Carthy envisaged perhaps could be best illustrated by another musician who performed at The Band in 1989 and whose parentage gave him a trans-Atlantic start in life: singer-songwriter & guitarist Ron Kavana, born of an Irish father and an American mother from Chicago with Cajun roots. His first solo album was called ‘Rollin’ and Coastin’ (In Search of America)’. Of course, some would argue that it was all started by a trans-Atlantic migration: the introduction of the guitar to North America by the Spanish.
Far from being a museum of ancient music, the folk programme at Band on the Wall in the 80s was very much alive. Almost all of the performers included their own songs and those by other contemporary composers. A few, like fiery Scot Dick Gaughan, would move seamlessly from a song of great antiquity to one of his own songs and to recent pieces by fellow musicians, such as Brian McNeill, founder of the Battlefield Band. Folk music was not a musical straightjacket or sacred tome; many of the musicians would comfortably switch genre. Two Manchester-born musicians would exemplify this: multi-instrumentalist Maartin Allcock for 11 years was lead guitarist with Fairport Convention, and concurrently four years as keyboardist with rock band Jethro Tull; guitarist Dominic Brown, who performed a folk-blues set with fellow singer/guitarist James Varda in 1989, later joined Duran Duran and co-wrote 13 of the 15 tracks on their 2011 album, All You Need is Now. Other examples include: violinist Ric Sanders who was a member of rock/jazz fusion band Soft Machine and also Fairport Convention; Liam Genocky, drummer with Steeleye Span, appeared at Band on the Wall in a contemporary jazz group led by alto saxophonist Trevor Watts.
At Band on the Wall in the 80s, the broad, multi-faith church of folk music was well served by its prophets, disciples and devoted congregations.
*John Martyn died 29 January 2009, aged 60
** Hamish Imlach died 1 January 1996, aged 55
*** Isaac Guillory died 31 December 2000, aged 53
****Davey Graham died on 15 December 2008, aged 68
.*****Dave Swarbrick died 3 June 2016, aged 75
1 Article on Martin Carthy by Ed Vulliamy, The Observer, 17 April 2011
2 Obituary of Alan Hull, by Chris Welch, The Independent, 20 November1995
3 Obituary of Davey Graham by John Pilgrim, The Independent, 17 December 2008.