2001 interview from Folking.com
Folkmaster: Who has been your greatest musical influence and why?
Don’t have any. Well I do, I have hundreds of them. I always give the same answer, which is that if I gave you a list of influences it would be of people who I really liked, who you’d be impressed by and I’d want you to be impressed by, but it actually doesn’t work like that because you are influenced from the day you are born. There’s negative influences like not to be like Max Bygraves, there’s influences to want to be like Rose Murphy who sang a wonderful song called Busy Line which I could never do. There are a million of them, the ones you like to think of as good are the ones that make you want to be good at what you do. The ones I think are fantastic are people who would never influence me musically, I suppose, how the hell should I know, because you don’t choose these things, people like Hoagy Carmichael and Rose Murphy. The thing I love about them is that they are utterly distinctive and the lesson I draw from that is diversity is everything. It’s not really an answer but it will have to do. There are all sorts of disgraceful influences, I’m quite sure, and all sorts of non-musical influence like Marilyn Monroe.
Folkmaster: You have also got the traditional background as well.
Basically it’s quite simply beautiful music. I do like the idea of unschooled genius that is something that makes me think profoundly and it influences my musical choices these days. If I listen to someone like “Pop” Maynard at the age of 90 singing a song, I listen to all the squeaks, grunts, farts and coughs, and he’s singing in the weirdest rhythm you can possibly imagine in a time signature of one. But if you think the man’s an idiot just hear his foot beating in the background, beating out the rhythm that he’s singing; this man does actually know what he’s doing.
Ok go back to the beginning and try to figure it out, and then you do a little bit of growing. So in that sense, yes you have a point, there are influences but when people talk about influences usually it’s something else, isn’t it? These days if an old singer does something weird I want to know why. If it’s because their false teeth have slipped you can usually tell, but more often than not it’s because they know what they are doing and they want to tell you something and they have a musical imagination, they really do. Some of these old people are very sophisticated musicians and they’ve been passed by and that’s a shame.
Folkmaster: If you could be one person in history who would it be and why?
I’d want to be standing behind Watt Tyler; I’d want to be on his side. Or Jack Straw, the old one not the new one. I wouldn’t want to be a historical figure as usually their history is told from the point of view of the winners. I’d quite like to be part of the real history of something, or maybe I wouldn’t. I’m happy being me.
Folkmaster: Where do you think the future of the music industry lies?
I don’t give a f**k, cos the music industry can go f**k itself for turning its self into an industry. It’s not to say there isn’t some good music coming out of it, it’s a shame, but it’s a kind of slavery. Eliza’s getting herself involved in it right now and she’s a fighter, she’s doing very well. She knows what she wants, she’s got a really clear line, she’s not afraid of those people and she’s not in their thrall. She has a musical life on the road, so if this thing screws up and they say you’ve got to do this or else, she’ll say well I’ll have the ‘or else’ and she’ll go back and work on the road. Those arseholes, they’re just suits and have the attitude of suits, you meet some of them and they’re perfectly nice people, but they’re like dogs and when they pack they’re horrible. The individuals can be nice people but the music industry is a pack of dogs, f**k em! They just look at it as you being a product and that’s all there is to it; I don’t think that’s the way to treat music. Music has to be free, now and again it frees itself, but then of course it goes and puts itself in thrall again. When popular or pop music, rock & roll frees itself from the grip of the industry interesting things happen. I’m thinking of Skiffle, Punk and New Wave, and I’m thinking of people like Pulp, Oasis, Blur and Beck who are fabulous. So decent music can survive but the people who are producing it have got to be really on the case and not allow themselves to get swallowed up.
Folkmaster: What’s your favourite movie?
Ooh, a good few. I love Blade Runner, I quite like Strange Days but it doesn’t’t wear as well as Blade Runner. It’s such an intriguing idea. The Terminator is a great movie and so is Terminator 2, the sequel is unusual in that it’s as good as or in many ways an improvement on the first one.
Folkmaster: Have you seen the Matrix?
Yes I have, I loved it, it’s good fun isn’t it. There again, I think its great chewing gum, great fun, but there’s something about Blade Runner, it’s a really profound movie in the way that Matrix isn’t and wasn’t intended to be. There’s a bit at the end that I think is really, really moving when the robot, the Rutger Hauer figure is dying and he’s got the Harrison Ford figure at his mercy. In the book Harrison Ford doesn’t know whether he’s a robot himself, but in the film they change it and he is a human. It’s a good move because you’ve got a robot against a human. The human has no real respect for life, but the robot, who is not life has that profound respect for the life which he can never have and Rutger Hauer figure makes the decision not to kill him. It’s a beautiful moment. I could watch it again and again. I love the way it’s done in the noire style of the forties.
Folkmaster: Can you tell me anything about your forthcoming album?
I’m supposed to be doing an instrumental album, but it’s not started yet and I don’t quite know what’s going to happen. We are also doing another family album fairly soon but haven’t decided what’s going to be on it yet. Eliza knows what she’s going to be doing, Norma has a pretty good idea and I haven’t got the faintest idea what my songs are going to be.
Folkmaster: What was your most memorable live performance and why was it so special to you?
I’ve had a few. In the sixties there was Swansea University with Swarb. I also remember a gig at the Oxford University Guitar Society in this huge room with a tiny bar. The organisers knew that if they had an interval it would go on for an hour and a half, so people got them selves a pile of drinks before the show. It was a no smoking room. It was in the days when people still smoked at gigs. It had to be no smoking, It was one of the conditions that the Oxford University Guitar Society got the room because it had a completely wooden floor and old paintings hanging everywhere on the walls. It was a fantastic evening and we did a two and a half-hour set straight through. It was totally exhilarating; we got on a roll and didn’t even notice that the time had passed.
There was also the Lincoln Festival in 1971, they called it an acoustic festival apart from the Acoustic Byrds were going to be on but they weren’t acoustic, they came on and played Do You Want To Be A Rocking Roll Star. It was fantastic, the line up included: James Taylor, Tom Paxton, Buffy St Marie, So Nny Terry & Brownie Mcghee and Tim Hardin, it was a list of who’s who of American Rock and Roll plus Ralph Mctell, The Incredible String band, Sandy Denny, Pentangle and Steeleye.
At the end of it Swarb and I did a set, we hadn’t seen each other for 18 months and they’d booked us to do the last hour. We went on stage and started to play, it was so cold and we played out of our skin. We were so excited, we hadn’t seen each other for so long and we’d fallen out as well so this was making friends again.
The thing that makes it extraordinary is that we played to 50,000 people. I had never played to fifty thousand people before I didn’t know what fifty thousand people looked like! All the way down the right hand side of the stage, moving away into the distance were these toilets that they had built, wooden toilets. They must have lost a fortune on that festival and somebody torched this beautiful row of wooden toilets, torched the lot. Whole row of toilets you can imagine it, Dave and I playing away to the audience and seeing this indescribably huge sheet of flame come rolling across the audience from right to left heating them up. It was unforgettable.
Folkmaster: If you could use one of your songs to promote something, which one would you choose and why?
There are two songs that come immediately to mind, one of them is a song that Mike Waterson wrote called Stitch In Time which is about wife beating.
The husband is a drunk and keeps beating his wife up until one night she takes revenge. She puts the blanket over him while he’s sleeping and spends all night stitching him to the bed so only his head sticks out.
When he wakes up in the morning he finds he can’t move and asks “why am I like this”? Her reply is to beat him black and blue with a frying pan, battering him all over until he cries for mercy. Finally she says “no more drinking or this happens again do you understand?” The husband doesn’t drink again; it’s supposed to be a true story or if it isn’t it should be.
I would pick that one or I would pick Prince Heathen, which is on a similar subject and is about rape and the aftermath. A woman is held prisoner until she agrees to say yes, I will be your wife but she says no and proceeds to go on saying no, even when he stops bullying her and says “well actually I do love you.” She says, “it doesn’t make any bloody difference. Sorry, if this is love I’m not interested – the answer is still no.” So I would pick one or other of those two, sorry I can’t pick one but in a sense they are the same.
Or I would pick a gypsy song another kind of propaganda exercise just to say to people that gypsies aren’t shit, they are extraordinary human beings. If you mistreat any human being they are going to behave in a way that you don’t like.
Folkmaster: Are there any venues that you haven’t played that you would like to play?
I never really wanted to play any of the huge places but I would like to play one place again which is The Swan in Stratford-Upon-Avon. I played a gig there in its early life and I screwed it up which was inexcusable. It’s a fabulous place and I looked a gift horse in the mouth and I will not forgive myself for that, I screwed it up. It’s a new theatre but it’s built on the site of the original Stratford-Upon-Avon theatre that was burned down in the 1930’s. Theatres are full of ghosts, for example there’s a place in Manchester called “The Band on the Wall”. When I first went in there and played you could feel the past crowding around you. If the place is a musical place, its full of ghosts. I’m not talking about people going round in white sheets and going boo. A place that is used to music has a past, it’s full of ghosts and you feel that presence around you. I remember walking into The Swan when it was being built; it was the most thrilling place I’ve ever been in my life. It was just about completed and it was alive and you knew that this place was going to be fantastic. What a space, the ghosts had been asleep all those years. I will not forgive myself for screwing that gig up and if I could do one gig again in my life I would do it there, and do it properly.
Folkmaster: If you could sit to anyone famous at a Dinner party who would it be and what would you ask them?
The name that keeps coming to mind is a guy called Ian Holme who I’m told is probably the greatest actor of his generation. I saw him do King Lear on television and it was the most moving thing I have ever seen in my life. A most extraordinary performance and if I sat next to him I would be tempted to ask him something about his profession but I know that the last thing Ian Holme would want to talk about is King Lear so I would probably ask him about cricket! I would obviously want to find out about the kind of person who could bring such thoughts to bear on a huge part like King Lear but I’d want to do it in a really oblique way.
Or I would love to sit next to Joanna Lumley who’s a fascinating woman, she’s very funny and a very, very clever woman.
Folkmaster: What was the first single you ever bought?
Well it was one of three; I can’t actually remember which one was first. It was either: Rock Around The Clock, Rock Island Line or Heartbreak Hotel. I think it was probably Rock Island Line.
Folkmaster: When did you get your passion for folk music?
It was probably due to Skiffle. I knew bits and pieces of a few songs because my mum had been very much on the fringes of the revival in the Twenties and Thirties and used to go to this place called Thrackstead in Essex (Gustov Holst lived there).
The local vicar had started the very first revival Morris team in 1911. There were old men in the village that remembered the Morris being in Thrackstead but nobody actually knew whether it was Morris dancing as done in the Cotswold or a variation that would have been done in East Anglia.
Nobody could remember. There was this old fella who said, “I remember the Morris”, sure he did, but it was something slightly different. We had something like that before until all the old blokes died out, all got killed in the various wars, Afghan war, wars in the Sudan or wars in Christ knows where else.
It was then probably Lonnie Donnegan and then being at school and hearing people talking about this club where they sang all their original versions of the Lonnie Donnegan hits. Then finding the club, it was a pub called the ‘Princess Louise’ and hearing Ewan Mccoll, Peggy Seegar, Bert Lloyd and Alan Lomax and all these Americans who could really play and really sing. When Ewan McColl sang he had this West Indian guitar player called Fitzroy Coleman who was an immense figure in Calypso culture, a great jazz guitar player and such a delicate player.
That’s when I became curious and that defined the direction I was going to go. It wasn’t going to be Rock and Roll; it wasn’t going to be Jazz. I’d sort of dabbled in flamenco because it was hard. I wanted to play a hard guitar that was really passionate.
I’d heard Big Bill Broonsy playing blues guitar and that was really passionate and I loved that. I got every record that I could get of Big Bill Broonsy and learned it. I couldn’t sing the blues but I could play it. Any kind of passionate guitar I was really interested in although I was never going to sing the blues, ever and I learned to play guitar like Elizabeth Cotton who wrote Freight Train.
I bought her record and learnt the whole thing. I worked out from the notes how to tune my guitar to the record and then figured out what she was playing, so I was able to play the entire record. On two of the tracks, she played a banjo so I went out and bought a banjo and figured out how to play what she was playing on the banjo.
I think the turning point and shining light was seeing a Norfolk Fisherman called Sam Larner at the Ballads and Blues. He was electrifying, he sang and he enjoyed himself and he was 80 years old and he just knocked everybody completely sideways. Ewan McColl just completely sacrificed himself to promoting Sam Larner to the audience; it was absolutely brilliant I don’t think Ewan sang a song all night.
Ewan just gave the audience Sam Larner, he organised the programme and then delivered what he considered to be the coupe-de-grace at the end of the night, this version of the song called Henry Martin that Sam Larner had with the world’s weirdest tune. Now I love the tune, now I think it’s a fantastic tune but at the time I thought it broke every single rule that I ever thought was a rule, but there it was, this old bloke sang the song with real conviction about a pirate sinking this ship. It was electrifying and I went away completely wide eyed just full of this guy. I can’t believe I was ever going to do anything else after seeing that.
I went down to this place called the Troubadour in Earls Court and saw this guy wrestling with what looked like to be an octopus in his lap, it was Seamus Ennis playing the Uilleann Pipes. I watched in wonder as this guy played these things, sitting down, not blowing them but playing them under his arm. His elbow is doing everything and playing chords and Christ knows what. Then he would put it down and play the whistle, then he’d sing, then he would tell a story, and when he sang it was the weirdest singing I had ever heard, in fact he just was completely riveting.
Then I saw Jeannie Robertson who had one of those commanding voices that grabbed you by the scruff of the neck for 12 minutes. My life was never the same again.
Folkmaster: What luxury would you take with you to a desert Island?
Cheap gramophone record, Shakespeare and a bibleÉNo I would probably want to have my guitar or some kind of musical instrument.
Folkmaster: We would let you have that anyway. What other luxury would you take? Joanna Lumley??
I don’t think Joanna Lumley would be interested in me, especially on a desert Island with nobody else around. She’s so smart and so clever. I love seeing intelligent people who also have a sense of fun.
Folkmaster: We never got an answer to this question as we went off on a Richard and Judy tangent and spent the next few minutes discussing how fabulous Joanna Lumley was. For all our readers outside the UK Richard and Judy is a daytime UK chat show.
It was time to move on – 3 grown men talking about Joanna Lumley in the confines of a hotel room was a recipe for disaster!
Folkmaster: What’s your favourite track and have you one in particular that sticks out?
Well I love New York Mine Disaster because of the fiddle solo Eliza put on it. That fiddle solo is unimaginably good. Some of the stuff I did with Dave I’m really, really happy with. I love that live version of Byker Hill, I’m really happy that we got that down on Life and Limb. I like Lucy Wan on Skin and Bone, as it’s something I have known for 25 years. I recorded it when I had known it for only three and a half weeks, which was a huge blunder. To come back to it 25 years later and get a hold of it is really gratifying.
I love the Brass Monkey stuff, I haven’t got a particular favourite, I loved doing that first Brass Monkey album. I like the second one as well but the first one is very special. My first Steeleye Span Album Please To See The King gives me an enormous buzz. It’s not the best music anybody ever played nor was it the best recording that was ever produced. The guy who was producing it, Sandy didn’t know what to do because he didn’t have drums to built it around. He had always worked with drums or with soloists. The idea of an electric band operating without a drummer he found utterly bewildering.
Well what producer wouldn’t have done in 1970/71?
It’s a unique album, a very special album. I also love the Battle of the Field form the Albion Country Band Album.
I have actually been very lucky and have been privileged to work on some really great albums. I’m very fond of Prince Heathen. I don’t like the idea of being proud of something but I am pretty damn close to being proud of that one. Prince Heathen was very important to me, it was the moment I began to understand and to actually appreciate the depths to some of these songs without actually applying any outside criteria to them. Also Bright Phoebus, which Mike and Lal wrote. It was a huge, huge privilege to work on that album. Crown of Horn was a great album to make but I think I prefer it because it’s there. It was a moment when I realised that I had changed in a way that I wanted to change.
Folkmaster – What about “Broken Ground”?
Oh I like it, the family albums I love, they’re so good to work on, they are very stripped down and have a tremendous intensity and a lot of power within them and the addition of Saul really balances the whole thing out.
Folkmaster: If you could be remembered for one thing what would it be?
I would love it if people understood that the sort of thing that I do and love to do is not unusual and is the sort of thing that people have always done. I mess around with songs, I don’t just pick up a book and learn a song and say that I’ve got it word perfect now and look at it 30 years later and say “oh yes it’s still word perfect.”
I would like people to understand that it’s the music that grows, it never stops growing and the big irrelevance is a book. You put down books, yes they are civilised things and a huge part of our civilisation but they have tended to overshadow the other thing that has gone on for years that’s in danger of being eclipsed, which is oral history, oral poetry and storytelling that is not written down, where someone has made it up and relied on timing and shifts of empathy.
People have to understand that those songbooks that people like me use are like snapshots. It like when you ask me “what’s my favourite album”, it’s like asking me “What’s my favourite snap shot” and I would say New York Mine Disaster because of Eliza’s fiddle solo. The reason I am happy with that album is because I actually got more snapshots clear on that album than any other, I actually managed to snap shot the moment more times than I had done before.
The people I admire in my field for various reasons, people like Ewan McColl and Bert Lloyd who were beacons, they set themselves up to be shot down which was a brave thing to do. One of the things they did was to be really vague about their sources like Ewan McColl saying that he learnt all his songs off his dad, I happen to believe that’s bullshit. I also believe that in a sense politically and academically, he could never have operated any other way because the establishment of the time demanded that he be authentic. All these professorships and all these doctorates hang on his perceived authenticity so the thing could never move. You’ve got the butterfly now nail it in it’s cage, there it is that’s traditional music – no it’s not!
I would like and to be remembered for this – much like on the side of Bob Davenport who years ago said he wanted to sing himself into obscurity, that’s what he’s done but remains one of great singers of the entire revival. Most people would say Bob Who? He still one of the great thinkers because he understands the fluidity, in a sense I would like to be like him. I would like people to finally understand that you can have a doctorate of what’s going on now.
Bert Lloyds great contribution, which people have forgotten about, the one thing he said at the end of so many of his lectures, “In the light of further research what I have just said to you in the last hour is nonsense.
This displayed a real understanding that the thing moves all the time, and must move otherwise it really will die. You can’t pin it down, you mustn’t pin it down. It’s like a book of reels, what you’ve got there in your 16 bars or however many number of bars it is, is a series of coat hangers. You learn the tune then you start hanging all the variations on the coat hangers. It’s a short hand version of what’s in front of you; it’s not the end.
Tradition moves, tradition progresses and is not a pile of stones. That’s what you have to get past the heritage industry, that’s what you have to get past Rock and Roll and it’s what you have to get past a lot of the Folkies.
Folkmaster: Thanks very much Martin, have a pleasant journey home.
Your welcome. Any chance of a lift to the train station
Folkmaster: No problem….do you know where it is?……..