Right through the ’80s and early ’90s, you’d have been hard pressed to find something more unhip to be associated with than….(ahem)……fo*k music.
Oysterband had little choice in the matter. Influenced by all manner of music, culture and style, they listened to anything and everything – but the heartbeat of the band was a deep-rooted love of the traditional music of Britain.
Not the invented tradition of twee choruses and dodgy ideologies that inspired a million fake-rustic cliches, a travesty that turned off the very people it was alleged to represent. But a tradition that dealt in integrity, passion, human experience and human emotion – songs that made you want to dance/laugh/cry/jump for joy/kick a few heads in. Hey, that could be folk music, it could be rock music… maybe it’s just GOOD music. Whatever, it has helped the Oysters become one of the most irresistible bands of the last decade. And the one before that too.
They originally collided in and around Canterbury, a gang of like-minded mates and musicians who could jam and practice for free in a squat near the university. The ones who wanted to give it a go full-time were Alan Prosser, Ian Telfer, John Jones and Ian Kearey, and co-opting Russell Lax on drums they tackled Thatcherite Britain with a rare old vengeance in the mid-’80s: the rock end of Thatcherite Britain. Flailing distressingly in a laughable sea of new romance, postpunk apathy and pop pap, the music world didn’t quite know where to put itself when faced with this sudden onslaught. Folk-rock – whatever that was – had long since withered and died and the Oysters, angry and loud yet still eminently tuneful, were way out on a limb.
STEP OUTSIDE, first release of new label Cooking Vinyl in ’86, was born to grab attention on several levels (though maybe not as a PR event – on the day the record came out, the band were in Bombay doing something else entirely). Their treatment of the traditional standard Hal-an-Tow was a keynote track, a venomous statement of intent for a brave new dawn that clearly involved grabbing folk song by the scruff of the neck and shaking furiously. This, alongside some vitriolic social commentaries from their own pens, got up quite a few noses and dented the veneer of sweetness and light which was strangling pop and rock at the time (and a lot of folk and roots music subsequently).
At every turn since, they’ve steadfastly followed their own instincts, gloriously disregarding irrelevancies such as image, make-believe musical boundaries and media flavours of the month. Their own writing took a leap on 1987’s WIDE BLUE YONDER, which included the classic, if seriously strange, Oxford Girl. It featured an electrifying cover of Billy Bragg’s Between The Wars, and had a guest appearance from Kathryn Tickell on Northumbrian pipes some years before Sting had the same idea. lan Kearey left to be replaced on bass (and, increasingly, cello) by Chopper, who came to play a defining role on their next album Ride… and indeed their sound ever since. Ride – including a cheeky version of New Order’s Love Vigilantes – left us in no doubt of the band’s unconditional commitment to its own path.
A largely live album, LITTLE ROCK TO LEIPZIG, rounded off the ’80s; while they entered the new decade veering off at an unexpected tangent, collaborating with the high priestess of English folk song, June Tabor, on their most successful album thus far, FREEDOM AND RAIN. They toured with Tabor too – a tense, fascinating amalgam between two highly independent and sharply contrasting spirits and styles which merged into an uneasy dream ticket for English music. “Imagine if Aerosmith and Madonna announced they were to tour together……..!!” said Rolling Stone magazine, excitably. It was a refreshing diversion, but one that distracted the Oysters from the sense of purpose that had driven them for so long… and it confused their followers.
DESERTERS in 1992 saw that sense of purpose dramatically re-emerge, new drummer Lee joining to complete the current line-up and provide a harder edge still to a darker style of songwriting. The contrast between Deserters and the relatively jaunty Freedom And Rain again confounded the critics.
But by this time the goalposts had shifted again. Bands like The Levellers had been building a fervent following with an alternative indie approach that embraced many of the values pioneered by Oysterband. There was also an unexpected upsurge of young musicians taking their own inspiration from folk song and traditional instrumentation; and with their spectacular ’93 album HOLY BANDITS striking a glorious balance between their own traditions and a very modern kind of rock, the Oysters suddenly found themselves talked of as godfathers of a new English style of roots rock. After years being regarded by the music industry as on a par with inter-planetary aliens, it came as a shock to them to discover they were now ‘leaders of a movement’.
If anybody imagined this would mellow the band they were wrong. After a compilation album (TRAWLER) on which they rather novelly (and to Cooking Vinyl’s initial horror) decided to re-record most of the old tracks to enable Chopper and Lee to put their own stamp on them, they came back in ’95 with THE SHOUTING END OF LIFE, probably the most aggressive and political album of their career. It was an album of acute extremes, from the trailblazing title track to their raging treatment of Leon Rosselson’s socialist national anthem The World Turned Upside Down.
In ’97 they teamed up again with friend/producer Alan Scott for DEEP DARK OCEAN. It came, unpredictably, with a smile on its face, warm and melodic and, revealing an unexpected talent for quirky pop music, surprised in an election year by ignoring politics altogether (except in the sleevenotes: “Yes, we voted Labour but we didn’t inhale”).
HERE I STAND, co-produced with Alaric Neville, released during the last summer of the 20th Century, created another landmark with the formation of their own label Running Man. Happily, sales proved the Oysters’ following were not fazed by the album’s provocative (read “risky”) mix of austerity, improvisation, tradition and outright pop; which proved surprisingly radio-friendly and promises well for the label’s future.
But while marking time with an interesting remix of one of the Here I Stand songs, Ways Of Holding On, featuring ice-princess Emma Härdelin from Swedish band Garmarna, Oysterband were talking to their former label. Autumn 2000 saw the release of an ultimate Best Of Oysterband compilation, titled GRANITE YEARS. Covering the period 1986 to 1997, it weighs somewhat toward the later albums, partly because Cooking Vinyl have already licensed out a compilation from the early albums under the title Pearls From The Oysters (one the band had successfully avoided using for a great many years!), and partly because they reckon the band’s writing has improved with time (and who are we to argue?). The compilation is Cooking Vinyl’s idea, but as it contains many of the band’s most-requested songs, they’re happy too.
“In my time we’ve drunk away a century,” sang John on I Know It’s Mine (track 8 on Here I Stand). But a tie-up between Running Man and two linked German labels, Westpark Music and Pläne, made interesting new projects possible in the new millenium. RISE ABOVE (2002) may actually be Oysterband’s best album : savagely pruned in the course of recording to its leanest, meanest form, the intensity and grandeur of traditional tracks such as Blackwaterside and Bright Morning Star were a significant extension of the band’s aesthetic range. During the sessions they also picked up Irish piper James O’Grady, who played on five of the tracks, as a sort of “permanent temporary” addition to the line-up; and that has diversified and enriched the band’s live sound.
THE BIG SESSION Vol. 1 (2004) and the DVD of THE 25th ANNIVERSARY CONCERT (2005) are the most recent fruits of these expansions (see elsewhere on this site), and with the highly successful inauguration of The Big Session Festival in 2005 as an annual Oyster ‘signature’ event, possibilities just seem to keep on opening up.
The most exciting time in Oysterband’s considerable history could be right now.