The Early Recordings 1985-86
Musical Traditions Records MTCD405
Another Fine Mess; Cliffe Hornpipe; French Schottische; Clee Hill; 79th Highlanders’ Farewell; Boatman’s Dance ; Ashling / Shantey; Johnny Mickey Barry's / Freedom of Ireland; Bromsberrow Heath; Redower Polka; Kelly’s Home Schottische; Swiss Boy; Mr Prime’s; Art Wooton’s Quadrille; Polka Volta; Gloucestershire Hornpipe; Queen’s Jig; Stack of Wheat; Sophie Bourbon’s Hornpipe; Walls of Butlin’s; Swiss Boy; Bourée a Gaston TommierIn the beginning there was English Country Music, or to be precise there was a thing that probably wasn't called 'English country music' until there was an album called that, and then there was. And English Country Music begat all sorts of things including a quartet called Oak containing Rod & Danny Stradling, who then begat a splendid outfit called The Old Swan Band, the godfathers (and mothers) of the New Wave Of English Country Dance Music, eventually bailing out of said still-continuing national institution around 1983.
Meanwhile, a nice man called Johnny Gill was working as an engineer up in Bill Leader's studio in Yorkshire, in the course of which he, as they say, twiddled the knobs for all sorts of clients including yours truly's duo Hot Vultures and a Leeds art school punk band called the Mekons (who would themselves become another still-continuing national institution). And Johnny was so enamoured of the Mekons that he introduced them to that English Country Music album, by which they were very much taken, resulting in a 12" EP they released in 1983 called The English Dancing Master, and him taking his fiddle into the band.
Further meanwhile, us Hot Vultures had met young master Stradling and ended up forming an unlikely team together called the English Country Blues Band. In turn we grafted on a few other musicians including guitarist Jon Moore from post-punk folkists Jumpleads to form a noisy English dance band called Tiger Moth who put out our first record in…1983! There was obviously something in the air in 1983.
The prevailing anarchic philosophy for dance bands of the day like us and Oyster Ceilidh Band was "the last one playing the tune's a sissy", but it also was around this time that many musicians were starting to listen to lots of what later got called 'world music' - in our case Kenyan benga, Texas conjunto music, Italian dance music and all sorts. In the West Indies of England, a.k.a. Cheltenham and Stroud, they were rather fond of reggae, especially the roots of its forerunner mento, which they imagined to be in an Afro/Euro plantation dance music which none of them had heard (then) so decided to reinvent.
And so a band slowly emerged, with shifting personnel, called Edward The Second & The Red Hot Polkas. By the time they got into a recording studio in 1985 it was Dion Cochrane's 5-string banjo, Rod Stradling & Dave Haines on melodeons, Danny Stradling on percussion and - oh look! - Johnny Gill on bass guitar from the Mekons, who particularly laid down that reggae-inflected element. And by 1986, Dion's banjo had been replaced by the aforementioned Jon Moore's lead guitar, two rhythm guitarists had joined the ranks - another Mekon, Tom Greenhalgh, and Rod & Danny's son Barnaby - and the whole thing had really gelled.
Over those two years they recorded three cassettes, all of which are squeezed on to this marvelous CD. Its cassette lo-fi is surprisingly hi (original master tapes have vanished) and that ambience actually adds to the allure, rather like the audio quality of all those cassettes we used to bring back from Africa back in the day. I've had 'em stashed away for years, but hearing them again has brought enormous pleasure.
As both bands had Rod as tune central, there was a lot of shared repertoire between the Moths and EII (and the continuing Old Swan too). The wonderful thing is how things shape-shifted in the different bands' approaches, as great tunes like Polka Volta, The Redower, Kelly's Home Schottische and Johnny Mickey Barry's can do, especially in EII with little bits of squelchy dubbery and without a drummer. It's also interesting to hear how things evolved within EII themselves, as the album begins with their party piece titled Another Fine Mess from the first recorded line-up, and ends with it from the third under its proper title, Bourée a Gaston Tommier.
After this, the band got signed to Cooking Vinyl, began a series of LPs and CDs with Let's Polka Steady (which included a third version of Another Fine Mess) and headed upwards and outwards. The Stradlings left, Johnny Gill and Dave Haines are sadly no longer with us, and the band added some great English musicians of West Indian ancestry. In the 21st century, only Jon Moore is still in E2 from those early days, but their roots in this bravely experimental, joyous and downright exhilarating ancestor are still clear.
I can't think of a current English ceilidh band who can match this stuff for rough'n'ready inventiveness. There are lots of good 'uns, of course, but none so naturally inspired, so raw and righteous. Maybe it has all got a bit too muso, too four-square 'folk rock', too rumpty-tumpty, to rock along like a wayward cart on a bumpy road like EII did. I prefer the old light bulb.
An old man speaks. Can we have 1983 back please? In the meantime, this CD is the next best thing.
Ian Anderson - 13.2.16