Caught by the River

Radio On

Andy Childs | 5th October 2013

Whilst taking a break from writing the Music Book Reader Bulletins, Andy Childs is going to be writing for us about the very best broadcasts emanating from the FM frequencies (and, more than likely, the world wide web a few hours later). Here, he writes about Tom Ravenscroft’s One-Man Band, originally broadcast on Sun Sept 22 1.30pm Radio 4.

One of the many pleasures of Radio 4 are the occasional half-hour documentaries on various enigmatic musicians and arcane styles of music that generally elude mainstream attention. Recent favourites have been a celebration of what would have been the great Ivor Cutler’s 90th birthday, an affectionate portrait of Greenwich Village legend Izzy Young, and a particularly poignant resume of the blighted career of folk singer and guitarist Nic Jones. For the most part these broadcasts are intelligently presented, concise, informative and lack any of the gimmickry and superficiality that seems to have infected most TV documentaries.

Earlier this week another programme joined the above list with Tom Ravenscroft’s tribute to the art of the one-man band (produced incidentally by an obvious chancer going by the name of Jo Meek!). Having inherited his Dad’s gift for radio commentary as well some of his vocal inflections, Ravenscroft is an engaging and sympathetic guide and conveyed genuine enthusiasm and respect for the mostly eccentric and idiosyncratic bunch of outsiders that have found meaningful musical expression in the art of the solo, multi-instrumentalist. My own appreciation of one-man bands had previously only encompassed the likes of “king of the buskers” Don Partridge, who actually had two Top 10 hits in 1968 with ‘Rosie’ and ‘Blue Eyes’, the infinitely more credible Hasil Adkins, and a handful of other lesser-known street performers and I had no idea that it was now such a buoyant, worldwide scene that embraced so many different styles of music and attracted so many young, innovative performers. The kind of names that these people adopt – Bob Log III, Leiderhosen Lucille (yes, there are thankfully plenty of one-women bands as well), Bloodshot Bill, Lonesome Organist, Washboard Hank, Dennis Hopper Chopper – would indicate a somewhat singular world view and when listening to Ravenscroft interview them it becomes clear that we are amongst loners, control freaks and cultural outlaws, all in the nicest possible way of course.

Ravenscroft records a lot of the programme at what seems to be the world’s most prestigious gathering of unattached multi-instrumentalists, the Festival de Musique Solitaire in Montreal – 4 days, 60 artists – and what emerges is a portrait of a musical discipline born out of necessity as well as love for the form and the independence it affords. Bob Log III relates how he was pressed into being a one-man band when, as a duo, his drummer quit suddenly minutes before a gig. “Sheer panic” was how he described it but it obviously turned out OK for him. Other performers seem to be disgruntled ex-band members who just got tired of unreliable, unpredictable associates (drummers again) and decided to do it all on their own. As with every other style of music there are also prejudices and strongly-held views about what actually constitutes a genuine one-man band. Pre-recorded tapes, looping pedals and most forms of electronic wizardry are predictably frowned upon by the old guard who generally hold the view that “one-man bands should be able to play lots of instruments simultaneously”, but in the spirit of innovation and improvisation that hatched the form in the first place, the new young generation of performers such as Liederhosen Lucille with her spikey brand of punk-pop use every modern technique they can to get the sound they want. There is definitely a set of values though that does seem to unite them – they all think of themselves as full bands and of their instruments as band-members (some even give them names), they have a totally uncompromised individual perspective on what they do, and far from being just a light-hearted musical contrivance often ridiculed and not taken seriously their chosen mode of performing is seen as an important strain of musical expression with a global history dating back to mediaeval times. Unfortunately not nearly enough time could be devoted to actually playing any music on this programme so that we could judge for ourselves, so we only had Ravenscroft’s enthusiastic endorsements to convince us of its worth, but he did enough to persuade this sceptic that it might be one of those musical backwaters that could throw up all sort of delights. For further investigation it might be useful to start with Dave Harris’ book – ‘Heads Hands & Feet’ , which features over 900 one-man bands. (he also features in the programme), and two films, one by Derek Emerson – ‘Let Me Be Your Band’ and the other by Adam Clitheroe – ‘One Man In A Band’
There’s also this 2009 Guardian article.