The original line-up of Brass Monkey united Martin Carthy and John Kirkpatrick, two stalwarts of the folk scene, Howard Evans and Roger Williams, the Home Service brass and sought after classical and theatre brass players with country dance percussionist Martin Brinsford.
Martin Carthy has long been regarded as one of the principal figures in the British folk revival – his voice and guitar being two of the most consistent and distinctive sounds on the scene. It is well documented elsewhere that Carthy’s early work was an influence on Bob Dylan and Paul Simon. Carthy’s recording career stretches from a 1963 ep by the Thamesiders with Davy Graham, through the influential ’60’s recordings with Dave Swarbrick, two of the earliest and finest albums by Steeleye Span, the Albion Country Band’s splendid ‘Battle Of The Field’, three remarkable records with the Watersons, to two albums with the recent critically acclaimed family partnership – Waterson:Carthy. The two albums with Brass Monkey are seen by many as the high points – to date – of this distinguished discography.
John Kirkpatrick – remarkable British king of the squeezebox – has had a similarly illustrious and diverse career. The span of Kirkpatrick’s work is quite astounding: the solo work, the duo with Sue Harris, a member of ensembles like the Albion Country Band, Steeleye Span and Umps and Dumps, Morris dancer, accompanist to Richard Thompson and an enormous amount of session work.
Howard Evans and Roger Williams are both highly experienced veterans of the London West End theatre and classical orchestras. Howard’s musical career began in the band of the Welsh Guards and the London Symphony Orchestra. Roger had played the gamut from the 20th century avant garde to sessions with Shirley Bassey and Sammy Davis Jnr. Both were members of the Albion band during its tenure at the Royal National Theatre on London’s South Bank, and were to be instrumental in forming the Home Service in 1981.
Martin Brinsford’s background lay in country dance playing for ceilidhs. He had been a member of the Tangent Band, the Old Swan Band and in the original line-up of Edward II and the Red Hot Polkas.
The roots of Brass Monkey can be traced back to a number of projects during the 1970’s which brought Carthy and Kirkpatrick together. In 1973 they were invited to join the Albion Country Band – the then current version of a long-running series of Albion bands led by Ashley Hutchings. During a brief career the band recorded ‘Battle Of The Field’, an overlooked masterpiece, denied a release until 1976. That same year John Kirkpatrick assembled a strong cast to record a collection of Cotswold Morris tunes – ‘Plain Capers’. John was joined by Sue Harris (oboe and hammered dulcimer), Martin Carthy (guitar), Martin Brinsford (mouth-organ and tambourine) and Fi Fraser (violin). Both Brinsford and Fraser were members of the influential country dance ensemble – the Old Swan Band. Where ‘Morris On’ had rejuvenated the performance of Morris dance tunes by introducing electric instruments. ‘Plain Capers’ sought the same level of excitement by exuberant ensemble playing.
During 1977 Martin Carthy and John Kirkpatrick toured and recorded with Steeleye Span as part of a “farewell” tour. John recalls that it was on that tour that he and Martin talked about working together, perhaps forming a band, in the future. “One of the things we talked about was the idea of “folk-rock” – did it have anything new to say, was there another way of approaching it?” In 1978, they both worked in the National Theatre production of Flora Thompson’s ‘Lark Rise’, with the Albion Band. During that time the Albions became a semi-resident house band at the National for a number of Bill Bryden’s productions. The band’s membership expanded according to the demands of each play. Soon established as a mainstay of the ensemble was trumpeter Howard Evans. Martin Carthy invited Evans to add his distinctive trumpet playing to three of the songs he was recording for his ‘Because It’s There’ album. The trio of Carthy, Kirkpatrick and Evans began to play occasional folk club gigs following the record’s release in 1979. Howard recalled in a Swing 51 interview that “Martin popped into the green room one day and he was talking to John, and they asked me if I fancied doing some gigs. On almost the first gig, he said they’d like to use a drummer and harmonica player called Martin Brinsford.” Brinsford’s recruitment was to be an essential ingredient in the Brass Monkey sound. Carthy and Kirkpatrick were agreed that the electric bass and drums rhythm section had superimposed an inflexible style on most folk-rock. John told Southern Rag in 1983: “We both like percussion a lot, and we thought of trying trombone for bass… playing with Martin Brinsford on percussion… there’s such a racket going on with the five of us.”
By 1982 when Martin Carthy recorded ‘Out Of The Cut’ the possibilities of expanding the trio to a five piece had already been tried out on a number of gigs. In fact, in early 1983, a fortnight’s tour involved duo dates of Carthy and Kirkpatrick; a trio of Brinsford, Carthy and Kirkpatrick; quartets of the two Martins, Howard and John or Carthy, Evans, Kirkpatrick and Williams and some dates involved all five! Although their individual work suggested much for the ensemble, those who had not been fortunate enough to attend any of the sporadic live appearances were probably unprepared for the majestic power of the debut album. Recorded at Livingstone studios in North London with producer Jerry Boys, ‘Brass Monkey’ is an enormously exciting set. The material unites fresh and exciting arrangements with a passionate commitment to traditional song. Martin Carthy has spoken often of the strength of folk song, its ability to withstand all manner of rearrangements: “the thing that is so extraordinary about folk song is that it is timeless. It actually speaks to people now as loud and clear as it ever did.”
‘Brass Monkey’ was greeted with universal praise and was well-placed in the critics’ year-end polls. Due to the difficulties in earning sufficient fees to support a large group on the folk circuit, and the members individual hectic work schedules, Brass Monkey as a band continued to appear only sporadically. It was to be a full three years before the release of their second album – ‘See How It Runs’. Due to his many other work engagements Roger Williams had gradually relinquished his place in the band to Richard Cheetham, another well-known trombonist in London theatre orchestras, and a noted sackbut player in Early Music circles. Where ‘Brass Monkey’ had captured the ensemble’s live repertoire onto vinyl, ‘See How It Runs’ was largely a collection of newly rehearsed pieces. In a recent interview Martin Brinsford remembered the recording of the second album as a little nerve-wracking – “We each came along with suggestions for the band to play; as I remember it now, we’d learn a song one day and record it the next.” ‘See How It Runs’ garnered equal praise to the earlier recording.
A brief appearance backing Loudon Wainwright on his ‘Unhappy Anniversary ‘ song and they were gone. Brass Monkey dissolved in 1987 – unable to juggle the demands of each musician’s schedule and acquire enough gigs to support the band. The recorded legacy of their two albums reminds us just what an enormous loss to the British folk world that was. John Kirkpatrick regards the band as “a dream come true” and Martin Carthy spoke with sadness of the group’s demise – “Brass Monkey was a great idea, a phenomenal experience playing with the brass and John K., a blast. It was a great idea and it worked really well but it became impractical. The best we could do was leave while it was great.”
Legendary American multi-instrumentalist David Lindley speaking in a 1984 interview likened Brass Monkey’s impact to his first hearing bluegrass or Okinawan music – “I heard them at the Cambridge Folk Festival when I played there. When they went onstage, I said ‘this is going to be good. Look at the instrumentation.’ It was the most exciting thing I’d heard in ten years.”
Hardly surprising that in 1997 Brass Monkey reconvened for a short British tour, with the adrenalin pumping they quickly reminded audiences of the awesome power of the ensemble in full flight. Five acoustic instruments blasted out a wild, gloriously unique sound – the most exciting folk-rock since the heyday of Fairport convention and Steeleye Span. Early in 1998 they entered the recording studio to begin work on the long-delayed third album.