HARP & A MONKEY – The Victorians (own label)

The VictoriansWe have waited a long while for Harp & A Monkey’s fourth album but, despite the hints they dropped, this may not be the album some of us were expecting. No matter for the band have gone back to their roots with a collection of songs that were popular during, and sometimes written during the nineteenth century. Of course, most of the material within The Victorians has been seriously interfered with by Martin Purdy, Simon Jones and Andy Smith but that is to be expected. These are, or were, tavern songs, parlour songs and sometimes even folk songs mostly from around their home town of Manchester. The illustration on the cover is that symbol of Victorian progress, the Peppered Moth, sometimes called the Manchester Moth which we all learned about in school.

The opening track is ‘A Naked Man In Paradise’, proof of the old adage that no good deed goes unpunished. It tells the story of a man who dived into the Irwell to rescue survivors of a capsized ship. While he was thus engaged somebody stole his clothes and he later died of pneumonia. I can’t help but think that there is a moral for our times in there.

Next is ‘Calico Printer’s Clerk’ which was sung regularly when I was a lad and was a favourite of mine. I always assumed that it was traditional but I now learn that the tune was written by Dave Moran of ‘Bedlam Boys’ fame. I’m not sure that I like the chaps’ interference with this song but I’ll let them off in gratitude for putting the song into my record collection. They move to Yorkshire for ‘Jolly Grinder’ – a variant of ‘The Miller Of Dee’ story but not terribly jolly – and ‘Glossop Road’. Again, I always believed that the latter was traditional but I now know that it was written in the 1860s. It’s great to have it in the collection, too. Finally, we have ‘Victorians’, a summary of 19th century themes including science and the acquisition of wealth, and ‘Bonnie England’, which illustrates how very little things have changed in the last century or so.

On a first casual listen the arrangements seemed rather minimal but actually they are quite complex. We’re not given much information in the packaging but there’s accordion, guitar, banjo, harp and viola in there with Martin’s glockenspiel providing the top notes and I suspect that electronics play a part in the album’s production number, ‘Ten Shilling Wife’. On top of that there are bits of “field recordings” – water, the creaking of oars and background conversation providing ambience.

The Victorians could well be Harp & A Monkey’s finest hour but I should listen to their other albums again just to be sure.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website: http://www.harpandamonkey.com/

‘Calico Printer’s Clerk’:

HARP & A MONKEY – Live at Grayshott Folk Club

Harp & A Monkey
Photograph by Dai Jeffries

Although they have a new album on the way – pause for cheering – Harp & A Monkey had resolved not to play anything from it. Martin Purdy explained that when they had tried to preview new songs, audiences had been disappointed that they couldn’t buy them there and then. Besides, being such a long way from home gave them a perfect opportunity to explore their back catalogue in front of a new audience.

I’d seen them live once before, doing a support spot but here, in a headline role, they were able to relax and be a little more expansive. Their instrumentation seems minimal, not to say a little odd: banjo, guitar and glockenspiel with touches of accordion, melodica, fiddle and, yes, harp. However they perform over loops and backing tapes – Andy Smith and Simon Jones are both string players and it’s all their own work, so as Martin put it “we’re miming to ourselves” but they’re not, of course. They are playing in a situation where timing is everything and unforgiving and you can’t help but admire the skill when a note rings out a split second before a spoken word section of tape begins.

They began with ‘The Manchester Angel’, one of their adapted traditional songs and one which puts Harp & A Monkey in a geographical and historical context: mill towns, cobble streets and poverty. Many of their original songs encompass the history and geography of their home region as well as its people which is where the semi-traditional ‘Bolton’s Yard’ comes in. But they’re not restrictive as ‘Digging Holes’ proves and sometimes their songs are deeply personal – ‘Dear Daughter’ springs to mind.

The second set began with a selection of songs from War Stories, their Great War album, beginning with ‘The Banks Of Green Willow’. It may be sacreligious but I think I prefer their version of ‘Soldier, Soldier’ to Peter Bellamy’s. Peter emphasised the harshness of the poem whereas Harp & A Monkey bring out the tenderness. The album and songs like ‘Gallipoli Oak’ and ‘Postman’s Song’ concentrate on the other stories of the war – the widows, the bereaved parents and the civilians who kept services going at home but saw the misery and despair.

They finished with the lighter songs: ‘The Molecatcher’, ‘Pay Day’ – not exactly light, perhaps, but very singable – and the delightful ‘Katie And The Twinkly Band’ before encoring with ‘Charlie Chaplin’. A splendid show.

Jim Cozens
Photograph by Dai Jeffries

Harp & A Monkey were supported by singer-songwriter Jim Cozens and Grayshott are very lucky to have a performer of his calibre in their midst. His songs are never formulaic and conjure up wonderful pictures. I particularly liked ‘15th And P Street’, his account of living in Washington DC which he really brought to life.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website: http://www.harpandamonkey.com/

‘Soldier, Soldier’ – official video:

HARP & A MONKEY – War Stories (own label)

War StoriesAs we approach the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, Simon Jones, Andy Smyth and Martin Purdy turn their unique talents to its commemoration. War Stories is just that; not tales of great heroism, except in one case, but mostly stories of the aftermath in human terms and its effect on the men, women and children who were part of it.

Superficially, there are singalong tunes, snatches of popular songs of the period and traditional titles which turn out to be not what they seem. The particular skill of Harp & A Monkey is to weave traditional elements into their own writing pinning it together with sound effects and archive recordings. Beneath the superficial attractiveness is real meat.

We begin with ‘The Banks Of Green Willow’, neither the traditional song nor George Butterworth’s composition, but a new song that sets the image of rural England against “the banks of the Somme”.  That juxtaposition is very forceful and sets the tone of the album. Next comes ‘Soldier Soldier’ from that great songwriting team, Kipling and Bellamy. I wonder if the band tried to move away from Peter’s tune but were always pulled back to it. They take it at a slightly brisker pace and the emphasis is on the harshness at the end of the poem rather than the compassion of the early verses. The soldier is portrayed not as offering a shoulder to cry on but angling for a little how’s-your-father.

‘Charlie Chaplin’ is a well known chorus originally written as an attack on the Daily Mail which we can all get alongside and the new verses depict life behind the lines – Chaplin was vilified for dodging the war, another mistake by the paper. ‘A Young Trooper Cut Down’ is a well-known song updated during the Great War as a warning about sexual health. ‘Raise A Glass To Danny’ is the story of “The Piper Of Loos”, Daniel Laidlaw, who was awarded the Victoria Cross after playing his pipes in the midst of battle. In an interview Daniel is asked to play the tune he played on that day. “Yes, sir”, he replies, ever the soldier. The chorus of ‘The Long, Long Trail’ is used as background to a painful reminiscence by Connie Noble about her father and uncle. It’s only the matter-of-factness of the northern character that makes it possible to listen to it more than a couple of times.

War Stories should be up there as one of the albums of the year and I’ve only described about half of it here. You can hum along with the tunes or sit and think on the human tragedy that was the Great War.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website: http://www.harpandamonkey.com/

‘The Great War – New Songs & Stories’: