The Reckoning, John Tams’ third solo album, is the latest deluxe re-issue marking Topic Records’ 80th anniversary. Originally released in 2005, it was the last of a trio of albums that might fall into the singer-songwriter category and the culmination, as far as recording goes, of a career that now stretches back fifty years. Tams has also been an actor, composer and musical director among other roles he’s taken on over the years but is best known for his membership of Muckram Wakes, The Albion Band and Home Service.
The first thing that struck me on listening to The Reckoning again was how gentle it is. Tams is a political thinker but he doesn’t rant in song, preferring to let the ideas enter your mind by a process of osmosis. Take the opening song, ‘Written In The Book’. On the one hand it seems to be a condemnation of the false hopes of the sixties: “Lennon and McCartney have a lot to answer for” and on the other it’s an attack on Thatcherism. ‘Safe House’ is equally complex. It’s clearly about the dispossessed but are they immigrants, Travellers, or the unemployed detritus of industrial decline? Probably all three.
There are several traditional songs here – at least they were once traditional and Tams labels them as such despite the work he’s put into them. ‘Amelia’ is absolutely gorgeous: obviously in shanty form but it leaves us wondering whether it’s ‘Amelia’ who is out on the sea or her sailor who is trying to get back to her. ‘Bitter Withy’ is modernised with Graeme Taylor’s Dobro over Andy Seward’s banjo and ‘A Man Of Constant Sorrow’ is transferred to the Derbyshire and Yorkshire coalfields and 1984.
‘The Sea’ is a song cycle which includes ‘One More Day’, a song that Tams has made his own, and the amalgamation of ‘A Sailor’s Life’ with the chorus of ‘A Sailor’s Alphabet’. The last track on the original release was ‘Including Love’, a decidedly American blues decorated by Steve Dawson’s trumpet. It sounded slightly incongruous then but with the three “postscript” tracks taken from or inspired by productions of John Steinbeck works it seems more appropriate. The first of the three is the cheekily titled ‘Sweet Home Oklahoma’ and the second is ‘No Luck At All’, both featuring Taylor on second guitar. Both of these post-date the first release of The Reckoning but the final track is a gorgeous big band version of Albert E Brumley’s ‘I’ll Fly Away’ from 1990 (remember Plainsong’s version?) and among the familiar names on board you have to single out Trevor Dunford’s lead guitar playing.
If this is the last of Topic’s celebratory reissues, it’s not a bad place to stop but, you know, I can think of a dozen more candidates to continue the series.
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Vision & Revision: The First 80 Years of Topic Records is a deluxe double CD and double vinyl of the cream of contemporary British folk artists interpreting a song of their choice from Topic’s vast back catalogue (the only stipulation being that the song was at some time released on Topic). It includes newly recorded and never-before-released tracks by Martin Simpson, Richard Thompson, Lankum, Peggy Seeger, John Smith, Sam Lee, Martin Carthy, Olivia Chaney, Lisa O’Neill, Oysterband, Nancy Kerr, Chris Wood, Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker, Lisa Knapp, Kitty Macfarlane, Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys, Emily Portman & Rob Harbron, Rachael McShane & The Cartographers, Eliza Carthy & Olivia Chaney and The Oldham Tinkers. These artists have delved deep into Topic’s treasure chest to pull out all manner and variety of ballads and broadsides and breathed new life into them.
With its origins in the Workers’ Music Association, through the mid-20th century folk revival to the present day, Topic Records has established itself as not only the pre-eminent British folk music label, but one widely respected throughout the world. Topic has survived, grown and flourished – proof, if any were needed, that “grass roots” interest in traditional music, the artists and the label itself, has remained constant and strong. Topic has released some of the most influential folk recordings of modern times by a host of revered artists, from Anne Briggs to Peggy Seeger to June Tabor to Ewan MacColl and many, many more.
For 80 years, Topic Records has been a fervent and consistent champion of “the people’s music”. During that time, it has withstood wars, shortages, austerity, economic disaster, the vagaries of fashion, corporate onslaught and various cataclysmic shifts in the fortunes of the recording industry, to retain its proud and distinctively individual role as a beacon of integrity and true values. This fortitude has resulted in its unquestionable claim for being the oldest, surviving truly independent record label in the world.
“Folk music never goes away. You may not hear it, but it is always there, just over your cultural horizon. It lives in families, in communities, in the villages and towns and cities, and in the hearts of the people. Each generation takes what it needs and gives what it can to the tradition, each wave of newcomers turning another furrow, sowing new seeds. For eighty years, Topic Records has played a major role in this process, ensuring the old voices are still audible and creating a space for those that hear them to make new recordings of their own. Formats come and go, but like the music, Topic endures. Long may it do so.” – Billy Bragg
This 20-track double album comes in CD and vinyl gatefold formats, both housed in a special deluxe, debossed, silver foil-blocked sleeve. The vinyl issue is limited to 1000 copies only. A digital version of the album is also available.
Vision & Revision: The First 80 Years of Topic Records will be released on May 31st 2019.
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From January 2013, the venerable and redoubtable Topic Records (now 74 years old) will be making available another of its ‘gifts to the nation’, in the form of The Great Big Digital Archive Project. Thereafter, a programme of 6 – 10 additional titles will be released every month throughout the year. With the possible exception of Smithsonian Records in the US, this will probably constitute the largest digital project of its kind undertaken by an independent record company anywhere in the world.
Topic has always had the underlying philosophy of making traditional based music as widely available as possible. The ambition of the label is now to make as much of its vast historical catalogue available using the current format – digital. What makes this project distinctive is that at the moment, digital delivery all too often divorces the audio recording from all artwork, documentation and sleeve-notes. The plan at Topic is to restore and include all of the information that accompanied the original releases of the past.
In January 2013, 84 of these albums will be available to download complete with digital booklets. The digital booklets will be available from the Topic website as well as iTunes. There will also be a short YouTube film explaining the project in detail and the content of specific digital booklets.
The first tranche of 84 digital releases will include albums originally released on vinyl LP in the late 1950s, the 60s, 70s and 80s. Many have been out of print for twenty years or more and include titles which were championed by John Peel and other influential broadcasters.
Much of the repertoire on the field recordings included in the Topic archive has fed into the latest British folk revival, whilst many recordings of Irish traditional music are of cultural and political significance and date from a period when there were few domestic labels in Ireland releasing such music.
The original recording of Davy Graham’s ‘Angi’ was made in Bill Leader’s Camden Town basement flat in 1962 and released on the seminal Topic 7″ vinyl EP – 3/4 AD. The vinyl release appeared in three different sleeves during the early 60s and with slightly different sleeve notes by Alexis Korner. The digital booklet will incorporate all the sleeve notes and illustrate the variant sleeve designs.
‘Angi’ is widely regarded as one of the cornerstone compositions of the sixties’ acoustic guitar movement, famously recorded by Bert Jansch, Paul Simon, Ralph McTell, etc.
And – looking a little further ahead – leading up to Topic’s 75th birthday in 2014, the label also plans to make available digital booklets for all current Topic releases, artist by artist, as well as new “themed” digital collections.
The first 84 TOPIC archive digital releases for January 2013
TSDL035 DOMINIC BEHAN Down By The Liffeyside (Irish Street Songs)
TSDL051 A L LLOYD Outback Ballads
TSDL070 DAVY GRAHAM 3/4 AD
TSDL084 THE WILLETT FAMILY The Roving Journeyman
TSDL093 RAMBLING JACK ELLIOTT Talking Woody Guthrie
TSDL110 VARIOUS ARTISTS Sea Songs & Shanties
TSDL113 PEGGY SEEGER & TOM PALEY Who’s Going To Shoe You’re Pretty Little Foot?
TSDL117 HEDY WEST Old Times and Hard Times
TSDL118 A L LLOYD First Person
TSDL120 THE CAMPBELL FAMILY The Singing Campbells
TSDL125 VARIOUS ARTISTS New Voices
TSDL130 EWAN MacCOLL Bundook Ballads
TSDL134 JESSE FULLER Move On Down The Line
TSDL137 THE FISHER FAMILY Traditional & New Songs From Scotland
TSDL139 PADDY TUNNEY A Wild Bees’ Nest
TSDL147 EWAN MacCOLL The Manchester Angel
TSDL163 HEDY WEST Ballads
TSDL175 WILLIE CLANCY The Minstrel From Clare
TSDL182 MRS. SARAH MAKEM Ulster Ballad Singer
TSDL183 WILLIE SCOTT The Shepherd’s Song
TSDL185 LIZZIE HIGGINS Princess Of The Thistle
TSDL186 THE HIGH LEVEL RANTERS Northumberland Forever
TSDL190 DAVE & TONI ARTHUR The Lark In The Morning
TSDL193 PHOEBE SMITH Once I Had A True Love
TSDL200 PETER BELLAMY The Fox Jumps Over The Parson’s Gate
TSDL203 A L LLOYD The Great Australian Legend
TSDL206 THE OLDHAM TINKERS Oldham’s Burning Sands
TSDL212 OAK Welcome To Our Fair
TSDL214 THE CHEVIOT RANTERS The Sound Of The Cheviots
TSDL216 FRANKIE ARMSTRONG Lovely On The Water
TSDL222 THE CHEVIOT RANTERS The Cheviot Hills
TSDL229 VARIOUS ARTISTS English Country Music From East Anglia
TSDL230 VARIOUS ARTISTS The Lark In The Clear Air
TSDL237 THE OLDHAM TINKERS Best O’ T’ Bunch
TSDL240 VARIOUS ARTISTS Boscastle Breakdown
TSDL247 JOHN KIRKPATRICK & SUE HARRIS The Rose Of Britain’s Isle
TSDL250 SEAMUS ENNIS The Wandering Minstrel
TSDL251 THE RUSSELL FAMILY Of Doolin, County Clare
TSDL253 VARIOUS ARTISTS Songs Of The Open Road
TSDL256 ROY HARRIS Champions Of Folly
TSDL274 BOB DAVENPORT Down The Long Road
TSDL275 BOB CANN West Country Melodeon
TSDL276 THE OLDHAM TINKERS For Old Time’s Sake
TSDL277 ARCHIE FISHER Will Ye Gang, Love
TSDL286 GEORGE MAYNARD Ye Subjects Of England
TSDL295 JOHN KIRKPATRICK & SUE HARRIS Among The Many Attractions At The Show…
TSDL297 THE HIGH LEVEL RANTERS Ranting Lads
TSDL305 THE O’HALLORAN BROTHERS The Men Of The Island
TSDL306 JIMMY POWER Irish Fiddle Player
TSDL307 BELLE STEWART Queen Among The Heather
TSDL315 DICK GAUGHAN Coppers & Brass
TSDL316 ROSE MURPHY Milltown Lass
TSDL318 BOB DAVENPORT Postcards Home
TSDL319 BOB SMITH’S IDEAL BAND Ideal Music
TSDL323 THE OLDHAM TINKERS Sit Thee Down
TSDL335 TOMMY HEALY & JOHN DUFFY Memories Of Sligo
TSDL337 JACK & CHARLIE COEN The Branch Line
TSDL350 BOB DAVENPORT & THE RAKES 1977
TSDL355 JOHN KIRKPATRICK & SUE HARRIS Shreds & Patches
TSDL361 BOB ROBERTS Songs From The Sailing Barges
TSDL362 MARY-ANN CAROLAN Songs From The Irish Tradition
TSDL366 DAN SULLIVAN’S SHAMROCK BAND
TSDL371 ALISTAIR ANDERSON Corby Crag
TSDL378 VIN GARBUTT Eston California
TSDL380 SHIRLEY & DOLLY COLLINS For As Many As Will
TSDL382 NEW VICTORY BAND One More Dance & Then
TSDL385 VIN GARBUTT Tossin A Wobbler
TSDL388 THE HIGH LEVEL RANTERS Four In A Bar
TSDL392 WALTER PARDON A Country Life
TSDL398 JOHN DOHERTY Bundle And Go
TSDL399 THE OLDHAM TINKERS That Lancashire Band
TSDL403 ALISON McMORLAND & PETA WEBB
TSDL405 CILLA FISHER & ARTIE TREZISE Cilla And Artie
TSDL408 JOHN KIRKPATRICK & SUE HARRIS Facing The Music
TSDL416 UMPS AND DUMPS The Moon’s In A Fit
TSDL430 MARTIN SIMPSON Grinning In Your Face
TSDL435 CURLEW Fiddle Music From Shetland & Beyond
TSDL438 MARTIN SIMPSON Sad Or High Kicking!
TSDL441 BILL CADDICK The Wild West Show
TSDL446 MARTIN & JESSICA SIMPSON True Dare Or Promise
TSDL447 ANDREW CRONSHAW Till The Beast’s Returning
TSDL453 JOHN KIRKPATRICK & SUE HARRIS Stolen Ground
What makes a good CD box-set great? When it comes as beautifully packaged as this 70th Anniversary Topic Records collection. The wow factor comes from the moment you first open the book that includes seven…yes, seven…CDs highlighting arguably the best British folk record label ever. Although I was aware of the label for some years previously (put off mainly by the cheap look of the album sleeves) I was first properly introduced to the company when I visited the Free Reed record shop in Camden in 1977. At the time I was (and still am) heavily into Celtic music but on talking to Doug who was running the shop at the time it was suggested I should try some of the Topic catalogue. Of course I wasn’t disappointed and eagerly clutching June Tabor’s “Airs & Graces”, Martin Carthy’s “Crown Of Horn” and Dick Gaughan’s “Coppers & Brass” headed home with a grin as broad as the proverbial Cheshire cat. I also remember thinking that English music was at last now as well represented as the Celtic based American record label Green Linnet. The record sleeves by this time were far better represented by Tony Engle’s excellent photography superseding the bland two colour efforts originally utilised by the company and certainly provided a far classier look that heralded the albums enclosed. The history of Topic Records is well documented by Tony Engle and David Suff in the 108 page book that accompanies the CDs from it’s humble beginnings representing the Workers’ Music Association to it’s current status as the longest surviving independent record label in the world and who would blame them for blowing their own trumpet at such an achievement? A sense of nostalgia will wash over those of you of a certain age as you cast an eye over the list of who’s who of the British tradition and Revival with 144 tracks providing but a snippet of the many albums that the company has produced over the years. Artists the calibre of Ewan MacColl, A L Lloyd, Pete Seeger and longest serving associates The Watersons to more recent recruits including Eliza Carthy, Tim Van Eyken, Martin Simpson and Bob Fox have all graced the label with their sparkling performances and, as the saying goes, it makes you proud to be British!
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