The HOME SERVICE that went into Raezor Studios in Wandsworth in December 1985 to make their third LP was a band with a pedigree second to none in its field of English music. That third LP was ALRIGHT JACK and it found the band on a creative streak. At the time of its release critics hailed it as one of the seminal albums in its field, one to rival the best albums that Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, the Albion Band or Richard Thompson had produced. The passage of time has borne out how perceptive those assessments were, for like those other classic albums, it proved more than a ‘genre album’. In a quintessentially British tradition ALRIGHT JACK proved a classic.
Of Albion and England – the search for an English identity.
The Home Service was a group which had achieved relatively little in terms of ‘product’ in the five years of its life. That was because they had spent most of their time and expended most of their energies providing the music for theatrical productions, mostly in the Royal National Theatre (NT) on London’s South Bank. Simplistically speaking, the band’s origins could be traced to its immediate predecessor’s work in the theatre. That band was the Albion Band.
Under Ashley Hutchings’ directorship, the Albion Band had pursued an active career functioning as a sort of house band for Bill Bryden’s NT productions but had done relatively little in the way of recording. Hutchings had formed an attachment for the theatre during his time with Steeleye Span. as early as 1971 the group had worked on Bryden’s ‘Corunna’ at the Royal Court, causing the actor Brian Glover to recall: “The first time Steeleye Span played (in ‘Corunna’) I thought, ‘Christ, what a cacophony of noise!’ – within a week I was an absolute groupie.”
‘Corunna’ led to other collaborations and eventually to work at the NT in ‘Lark Rise’, ‘Candleford’ and a sheaf of other dramas. “The Albion Band,” their drummer Michael Gregory reflected, “was continually having to change, depending on who was playing at any particular gig, and I think this is what eventually bored everybody into wanting to go for the fixed line-up. After ‘Rise Up’ came out, it never really went any further. Very little new material came about.” tragically, the energy of ‘Rise Up Like The Sun’, released in 1978, was dissipated, its artistic vision was blurred and the promise of that team was blown.
The next nail in the coffin was ‘Dispatches’.
‘”Dispatches’ wasn’t the Albion Band,” Michael Gregory explained. “It wasn’t an Albion Band project. It was the first thing we’d done without Ashley. The play’s a dramatic adaptation of a book by Michael Herr about the Americans in Vietnam. We were on stage as a poor man’s Doors really and generally made a lot of row which was quite fun. We used to go in and play as loud and as brash as a Sixties rock band would have done. It pleased most of the audience who had come to see a show about a Sixties predicament so there was no reason not to pull out all the stops and do authentic music. It was the kind of show people loved or hated but at least it was uncompromising, I think, both from a musical and a dramatic point of view. That was the beginning, I suppose, of a band without Ashley, so that was a crucial point.” Moreover, it brought a new team together. “It showed a want, an inclination and an ability within John Tams, Graeme Taylor and myself to play some rock music. Musically it was a departure from anything we’d done before and I think we got a lot of frustrations out of us by thrashing ‘Dispatches’ out every night. It released a lot of tensions.”
But tensions and frustrations continued to mount and the crunch came in late 198O when the nucleus of what would become Home Service peeled away although in fact the splinter band took shape while the parent band was working in ‘The Passion’. Concurrently, that is, between November 198O and March 1981, they rehearsed as an octet in a studio called the Tunnel in Southwark. Their departure would leave the Albion Band decidedly depleted but, typically, Hutchings soon had the first of a concatenation of replacement Albion Bands in hand.
Commenting on the unwieldy, overambitious original line-up, John Kirkpatrick recalled that “Everybody was a bit concerned about the size of it, you know, nine people to organise on an occasional basis.” Accordingly he and the second trumpet player Colin Rae left to pursue other activities. That left Malcolm Bennett on electric bass, Bill Caddick on guitar and lead vocals, Howard Evans on trumpet, Michael Gregory on drums and percussion, John Tams on melodeon and lead vocals, Graeme Taylor on lead guitar and vocals and Roger Williams on trombone and tuba.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Home Service.
In time-honoured fashion they went searching for a name to match their image of themselves and the Englishness of their venture. Initially they picked the First Eleven but this was soon abandoned in favour of Home Service the name of a bygone radio station. How they eventually hit on their name was something that John Tams recalled in 1984: “When we were looking for a title for the band, a name for the band, we intended essentially to give it an English feel and First Eleven was an idea. It’s cricket and football and any particular sporting game that has eleven players. It had an English reverb to it.” Somehow, the First Eleven did not quite fit the bill and the Home Service elbowed out the earlier choice. “I had a notion,” he continued, “that this ‘Home Service’ was an idea that was kind of a lost world. I had this whim that I’d love to hear someone on an independent radio station say, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the Home Service…’. They never had much opportunity to do that because there wasn’t much – what is often referred to as ‘product’ – in terms of plastic.” Tangible ‘product’ was something that would be under represented in the Home Service’s career but at the time that word began leaking out about their existence nobody would have guessed that. After all, expectations, both within the band and among their target audience, were high.
In February 1981 Tams spoke to Patrick Humphries in the Melody Maker and gave a statement of intent as far as the First Eleven – as they were still named – was concerned. “We have to find what is identifiable to contemporary listeners, that also takes on board the tradition, the national heritage, and blend it with an accessible style.” He defined their approach as ‘rock folk’ rather than ‘folk rock’. His choice of words was more than a mere verbal sleight.
Shortly after, spurred by Melody Maker’s words, Jo Lustig approached them about a management deal. “We went over to see him, had sandwiches and Perrier water,” recalled Michael Gregory. “The next thing we knew we were in Maison Rouge, the studio in Fulham.” Three tracks were recorded which originally were intended as demos. Events took over quickly and two of the songs were speedily issued as Home Service’s debut record. That single – ‘Doing The Inglish’ b/w ‘Bramsley’ – came out on Friday, 7th August 1981 on Jo Lustig’s Luggage label. Its release was timed to exploit the band’s appearance at that year’s Cambridge Folk Festival and their transmission in the BBC TV series ‘A Little Night Music’, broadcast on 23rd September. The band viewed it as ‘a stop-gap measure’. In fact it would be the only product released until 1983 when their maiden LP appeared, for staring them in the face was a career of treading the boards.
Their ensconcement in the NT deservedly provoked some ribaldry, not least of all from Ashley Hutchings who recalled their desire to tour and play concerts. Richard Thompson voiced a lot of people’s concern in 1985 when he said, “I think it’s almost too incestuous, you know, the fact that the Home Service are always doing stuff in the National Theatre. It’s a shame that that is their main employment. They ought to be out on the road a bit, ’cause they are a really good band.” The fact that he said that in 1985 reinforces how comfortable they had become with the theatrical life.
The Home Service.
Work began on their debut album in 1983 at Jigsaw Studio in Purley in Surrey, sessions that would stretch over the draining summer months. Sometimes all the hopes in the world can get bogged down in entangling detail and logistics. The band that set about the task, however, boasted a formidable diversity of talent and experience. Especially important was its pool of songwriters, for in Bill Caddick and John Tams they had two tried and tested writers. Out of that partnership would come material of the calibre of Tams’ ‘Don’t Let ‘Em Grind You Down’, Caddick’s ‘She Moves Among Men’ (covered insightfully by June Tabor as ‘The Barmaid’s Song’) and their anthemic ‘Walk My Way’. The group’s arranging skills were particularly well illustrated by the reworking of the traditional ‘Peat Bog Soldiers’.
That maiden album, ‘The Home Service’ on Jigsaw, was greeted rapturously in many quarters. After all, there had been a buzz about them from their earliest days and Patrick Humphries had hit it on the head when in December 1981 he reviewed them as “the Great White Hope that many have predicted”. In truth, welcome though the LP was, it was a triumph of optimism over ears because, regrettably, ‘The Home service’ had been refined and redefined to buggery. For reasons of financial expediency the tracks had to be built up with people going to the studio to add their parts or overdubs whenever they could. Rarely were they there together and compounding the ergonomic difficulties of recording an album in such a piecemeal, fragmented fashion, halfway through the project – in February 1981 – keyboardist Steve King joined. He swelled their ranks to nine. (Hitherto, the only change in their personnel had been Jon Davie’s recruitment as bassist.) King’s recruitment naturally necessitated a reworking of some of the arrangements. By the time that mix was finished, any spontaneity or spark had long been sucked from the grooves.
Concerts came and concerts went but they were rare events and Home Service’s main location was still in the NT. Most notable of the productions with which they were associated was a trilogy of plays directed by Bill Bryden. Individually they were ‘The Nativity’, ‘The Passion’ and ‘Doomsday’: collectively the cycle was known as ‘The Mysteries’. Augmented by Andy Findon, Phil Langham, Eve Matheson, Philip Pickett and Linda Thompson, the Home Service recorded an abridged version of the trilogy’s music in one quick burst for an album that appeared on the Coda label in 1985. ‘The Mysteries’ was a pied affair although far more successful than the Albion Band’s souvenir of ‘Lark Rise To Candleford’ on which many of the group had worked in 1979. ‘The Mysteries’ would also bring Andy Findon on saxophones, clarinet and flutes to the hearth proper in October 1984. ‘The Mysteries’ was transferred to the Lyceum in May 1985 for a twelve-week season and would close amid much confusion although not before the company’s performance was filmed for television. Ironically, despite sell-out audiences every performance, its run was not extended and talk in Time Out that June about transferring to Broadway in December proved groundless.
More tellingly for the Home Service, July 1985 saw Bill Caddick’s departure.
It was against the background of these events that the Home Service began preparations for their next album. That album was ‘Alright Jack’.
The group that went into Raezor studios at the turn of 1985 to record Alright Jack was eight strong and was pulling as a team, despite the setback of losing Caddick’s compositional skills. They were also eager to produce something that would both show off their musical personality and would avoid the mistakes of every previous excursion into the recording studio. Working in a theatrical context had honed and shaped their arranging skills, as their drummer explained: “In the theatre or in film you might have forty seconds to create an image or a mood. You have to think about every one of those forty seconds when you do it. That same attention to detail is given to every second of a three-and-a-half minute track.”
They had decided that the album’s centrepiece would be a setting of folk songs by Percy Grainger for large wind ensemble. ‘Lincolnshire Posy’, the album’s major opus, would dominate the album while its length would effectively dictate the organisation of the LP’s sides. “We knew obviously” reflected Tams in 1990, “that the Grainger was to be the main body of side two with a bunch of new, largely unwritten songs for side one.” The Grainger proved an inspired choice.
Grainger, a highly complex character with enough quirks and eccentricities to fill the pages of a sizeable psychological study, had been regarded as one of the finest pianists of his day and the preserved evidence in the form of piano-rolls and recordings demonstrates a pianistic virtuosity on an Olympian scale. What is more, he had been a true visionary in the field of folk song collecting, for, in an era when many collectors allowed their preconceptions about the lower classes, good taste and musical orthodoxy to colour and distort their results, Grainger’s attitudes were positively revolutionary. For example, other collectors, it would seem, often bowlderized language which might offend or doctored or rejected as aberrations, modes or time signatures which failed to comply with scholarly expectations or theories. Grainger made early use of wax cylinder recording techniques to capture those touches which stave notation cannot adequately depict and he described this process in a piece entitled ‘Collecting with the Phonograph’ in the Journal of the English Folk Song Society in 1908-9. His collecting forays netted some 500 folk songs in Britain alone. Although he moved to White Plains, New York in 1914 – where he died on 20th February 1961 – he was also responsible for the collection of an important body of folk songs in Denmark during the Twenties. Furthermore, Grainger’s championing of what he called ‘Free Music’ – a striving to escape such conventions as set scales, adherence to rhythms (“whether metrical or irregular”) and harmonic structures that hogtied music – anticipated a number of later developments in music. It was no coincidence that he relished the possibilities of “the most perfect tonal instrument” that he knew of, the theramin, an eerie-toned instrument whose potential was grasped by the avant-garde and later, popular music, most familiarly by the Beach Boys on ‘Good Vibrations’. But at the time of his death it was mainly for his pianism and for what he dubbed his “fripperies” – compositions like ‘Country Gardens’ and ‘Molly On The Shore’ – that he would be remembered.
For Alright Jack the Home Service arranged two Grainger settings, namely ‘The Duke Of Marlborough Fanfare’ and ‘Lincolnshire Posy’. With the world poised on the brink of war in 1939 Grainger again took up the sketch that would eventually become ‘The Duke Of Marlborough Fanfare’. Originally begun in 1905, it had lain fallow for many years before he attended to its completion. In its finished state, Grainger’s vignette would achieve a similar deftness of touch and precision as, to use a contemporaneous example from another musical field, Carl Stalling’s incidental music for Warner Brothers cartoons. Grainger was directly inspired by the mood of lowering conflagration and the Home Service’s arrangement brilliantly caught the ominous, charged atmosphere of his composition.
It was Howard Evans who provided the key to the longer ‘Lincolnshire Posy’ suite. He had first heard the piece when he was serving in the Welsh Guards as a bandsman and had even accompanied Grainger at the Queen Elizabeth Hall – albeit with Grainger playing from beyond the grave on a piano-roll. For him, the appeal was twofold and was the conjoining of folk music and wind ensemble. “Not many bridges had been crossed between these two things, so I had another listen and looked again. I got the only complete set of band parts from the Welsh Guards; apparently they’re the only ones in existence now.” Graeme Taylor picked up the story: “Everyone was really enthusiastic about the idea of doing it to start with but when we came down to doing it, it proved quite a problem. When it came to what the electric guitar, drums and bass were going to do with the voicings, that’s were the problems started. Sometimes there’d be strident horn lines that cut across as in ‘Dublin Bay’ which were obvious contenders to come in on. You often get the case where electric instruments are playing notes off the page and they sound too studious and collegial. It just doesn’t work because they’re rock’n’roll instruments and they’re just not meant to play notes off the page in that manner. It’s got to be more of a gut feeling which we tried to achieve while keeping to the spirit of the original Grainger.”
While the Grainger dominated the album and directed its original programming, much of the success of the album lay in the quality of the songwriting, for Tams rose mightily to the occasion. In the title track, ‘Scarecrow’, ‘Sorrow’ and ‘Look Up Look Up’ (an electric reprise of a song on ‘The Mysteries’) he created socially aware barbs with hymn-like tunefulness and majesty. Moreover, Tams’ originals were of a kind with the traditional material as the segue of ‘Sorrow’ into ‘Babylon’ showed. The original pairing had been of two traditional songs: ‘Gresford Disaster’ – a song that had appeared on ‘Rise Up Like The Sun’ – and ‘Babylon’. But the unity of the original and traditional pieces was made all the more apparent by the dovetailing of ‘Sorrow’ and ‘Babylon’.
Looking back in 1990, John tams summed up the album: “It bespoke of the band at that particular point in its life and it also related outside the studio walls as well; I think it had something to say about what a lot of people were thinking about at that particular time.” He is overly modest. As the days of Thatcherism and Reaganomics recede a hallowed aura may tint both glasses and memories. But it is important to remember that ALRIGHT JACK was the full point in a chapter of English music. It was that significant.
Ken Hunt, May 1991
Unless otherwise stated or credited, the interviews date from 1984 to 1986 for SWING 51