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 And A Monkey: Martin Purdy talks about their new single

Harp And A MonkeySongs about cuckolded molecatchers, a lone English oak tree that grows at Gallipoli, care in the community and medieval pilgrims…we can only be talking about the folk experimentalists Harp And A Monkey.

Formed in 2008, these harp and banjo driven electro-folk experimentalists have been building up a loyal following via the old fashioned practice of relentless gigging and modern practice of social network sites. The quality of their music and the vast range of influences, from lone English Oak trees in Gallipoli to Care In The Community, make them entertaining and memorable. Imbued with a deep Lancashire sensibility that shines through in their beautifully crafted and sometimes spooky vignettes of northern life, love and remembrance. Ask them about their influences and they are as likely to cite Ordnance Survey maps and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission as they are Bert Jansch, Bjork or Bellowhead.

Regulars on the northern folk circuit, in recent years they have expanded their live outreach across the country, helped massively by appearances on BBC Radio and rave reviews in the national and mainstream press. This year, they were awarded the accolade of Best Band 2016 by the highly respected folking.com website.

The band have gained a strong reputation for building an excellent rapport with their live audiences and the fact that they have never played anywhere and not been invited back. Such is the strength of their reputation as a quality live act, they have twice been asked to perform at the Homegrown festival; the annual international showcase of the best of English folk music.

The trio’s melodic and hauntological storytelling, which is always underpinned by a firm commitment to classic songsmithery, has caught the attention and support of the likes of Steve Lamacq, Mark Radcliffe and Mike Harding on BBC Radio 2, Lopa Kothari and Nick Luscombe on BBC Radio 3, Folk Radio UK and many more international, national and regional broadcasters.

The band’s self-titled debut album received critical acclaim on its release in late 2011.Their second album, All Life Is Here , was released in April 2014 and again received outstanding reviews, with the likes of fRoots magazine describing them as “ undoubtedly one of the most vital and charismatic things happening in English folk music right now”. The band’s third album, War Stories, was released in July, 2016, as part of their ongoing project (part-sponsored by Arts Council England and The Western Front Association) to mark the centenary of the First World War. The album has received outstanding reviews, with the likes of The Observer describing it as “bold and brilliant”. Support from BBC Radio 2 has been substantive, including sessions and interviews with Clare Balding (Good Morning Sunday) and Mark Radcliffe (The Folk Show).

2017 has seen Harp And A Monkey involved in a unique project to remember World War 1 nurses, in particular Nellie Spindler, a nurse from Wakefield in Yorkshire. Martin Purdy, the band’s frontman and a WW1 historian, said: “Recent events to mark the centenary of the opening of the Third Battle of Ypres, or “Passchendaele”, have focused on the soldiers, but it would seem fitting today to spare a thought for the nursing staff, many of whom – like Nellie Spindler – were never too far from danger.”

The project culminated in the band writing and recording the beautiful and poignant ‘Clean White Sheets’ (The Nellie Spindler Song), inspired by the work of secondary school children from Nellie’s home town, who worked with Professor Christine Hallett (from Manchester University), to remember the sacrifices of their local heroine, who was only in her mid-twenties when she died

Nellie Spindler, a nurse from Wakefield in Yorkshire, was resting in her tent after a hard night-shift at the No.32 British Casualty Clearing Station in Brandhoek, Belgium, when a German shell fragment pierced the canvass, hit her and killed her.

The sacrifice of Nellie Spindler, and nurses in the First World War in general, has been the focus of a recent project involving the folk experimentalists and storytelling trio Harp and a Monkey – and they have released a video today (which you can view here) to mark the anniversary of Nellie’s death.

Martin Purdy, the band’s frontman and a WW1 historian, said: “Recent events to mark the centenary of the opening of the Third Battle of Ypres, or ‘Passchendaele’, have focused on the soldiers, but it would seem fitting today to spare a thought for the nursing staff, many of whom – like Nellie Spindler – were never too far from danger.”

Martin added: “The idea of ‘Clean White Sheets’ is based around the memoirs of the wounded, who would often judge how close they were to home – and safety – by how clean the sheets were. It just seemed like a very simple but evocative and powerful image.”

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

‘Clean White Sheets’ – 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’:

HARP AND A MONKEY – All Life Is Here (MoonrakerUK)

All Life Is HereI wasn’t sure what to expect from my first hearing of Harp And A Monkey. Their publicity material is entirely accurate but the bare facts fail to paint a true picture of the band. All Life Is Here is their second album.

Coming from Manchester they have the down-to-earth quality that I’ve missed since I came down south. Martin Purdy’s voice immediately transported me back forty-odd years and two hundred miles north and their heavily rewritten traditional songs welcomed me back. But it’s not just nostalgia. ‘Molecatcher’, for example, isn’t the exercise in single entendre that it became in the folk clubs. Glockenspiel gives the song a new lightness and the band’s new chorus and bridge, coupled with the omission of the defiant penultimate verse, make this a story of regret.

Harp And A Monkey always intend their songs to be stories and the opener, ‘Walking In The Footsteps Of Giants’, links the Kinder Trespass with memories of Spanish Civil War volunteers from Lancashire – I think you have to be from Manchester to find that connection – and ‘The Gallipoli Oak’ is a true story of a pilgrimage to plant an English oak tree in a Dardanelles cemetery. In contrast to these grand ideas are the songs of daily life like ‘Doolally Day Out’ and ‘Tupperware And Tinfoil’ – no, I can’t really explain any further.

The band’s minimalist arrangements decorated with odd combinations of instruments are the final ingredient. Harp (of course), melodica, viola and banjo combine with the glockenspiel and programming of the strange noises to give them an immediately recognisable sound. I can enthusiastically recommend this album.

Dai Jeffries

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