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Show of Hands
by Tom Robinson -
Issue 24 November/December '97




Phill Beer of Show of HandsSteve Knightley of Show of Hands

Show of Hands are highly unusual in their breadth of lateral thinking about the business. You might imagine some techno outfit that's making dance records for twopence in a bedroom would have a radical approach - but it's the last thing you'd expect from an acoustic duo playing a traditional-based music.

Steve: A lot of our approach stems from the fact that I didn't become a professional musician 'til quite recently. I'd played the folk scene and London rock circuit but in terms of actually earning my exclusive living from music it wasn't till 1994 that I finally gave up part-time teaching. So with Show of Hands we could draw upon Phil's twenty-year involvement in the business and my observation of it.

So how did Show of Hands begin?
Steve: One day in 1987, Phil who was with the Albion Band and had some free time said "let's do some gigs as a duo: I'll get some folk club dates and we'll record a cassette over your garage in Dorset". We'd known each other, at that time, for 15 years and I'd earned quite a lot of PRS (Performing Rights Society) income from Night Ride. So in an outbuilding in the remotest part of Dorset, Phil and I put together this little studio and recorded our first Show of Hands cassette. We went out and did maybe 25 gigs a year on the folk scene to audiences of twenty people - seventy sometimes, if we were lucky. But it was all very low key.

Show of Hands really started in 1991 when Phil left the Albions and we started looking for more work. We met an excellent agent in Bridport called Peter Wilson and started playing pubs and bars all along the South coast - and that was probably the single most important factor in the 'Show of Hands' development. For example, in Gosport the chairman of the council (a visionary called Peter Chegwyn) created this policy of bringing acoustic musicians to local pubs and subsidising the fee. So you'd turn up at a pub in this scheme, full of blokes playing darts and pool and listening to the Juke box! - It soon became apparent that we couldn't do the usual singer/songwriter "My Life Is In Ruins" material. So as well as getting a set together that relied on stuff like "Summertime Blues" and "Killgary Mountains" we also started chucking in my songs.

I started formatting what I wrote just to go down well in pubs - writing in rhythms and chords people perceived as being Standards. After three or four visits the crowd still wanted to hear standards, but they'd also say "Do Cars!", "Do Tall Ships!" or whatever. So we got more and more confident about our own material. It was just a question of earning money and surviving. Our performing attitude was: go right up on the mike, play loud and play hard. So when, after two years of pub work, we took that attitude onto festival stages such as Cambridge - it worked. You could see a lot of people ...

Sitting up and taking notice?
Steve: Yeah. It was direct delivery without any endless tuning or dithering about - which immediately gave us an edge on some other English acts. We had rock/pub fitness: that self assurance that Irish musicians have. The knowledge that their music works in a whole variety of venues from the local pub to the concert stage. Plus, we had original songs as well.

The ability to deconstruct Standards, work out what it is about them that connects - and then write good substitutes, really sets Show Of Hands apart.
Steve: But it's also that question of delivery. After five years in a rock band, I now play in a very clipped, rhythmic, modal style, whilst Phil is playing what a lead guitarist would be doing. Second position chords, riffs and runs. In a sense that's our secret weapon - traditional melodic and narrative songs played with a Rock approach on a range of acoustic instruments. Now we also have a Division One sound engineer adding all sorts of echoes and effects and producing the sound as a third member of the band.

So in '94 we tried to put it all together: Album. Tour. We met Gerard O' Farrell and he has been with us ever since. He also manages our affairs and is responsible for our sound. Then we made 'Lie Of the Land' in 1995 and tried to capture our live sound by recording all the instruments D.I.'d ...

i.e. plugged in, the way people hear the sound on stage? ...
Steve: Exactly - normally when people take acoustic instruments into a studio they get the mikes out. Like, "sorry everyone - that may be what you heard live but now it's going to sound like a PROPER acoustic guitar." Gerard was saying from his point of view the D.I. is what makes us sound different and it can kick in effects at a massive rate. The thump you get from the pickup is what turns the music into acoustic rock. The record ended up being Q's folk album of the year.

And you didn't even have finger-in-the-ear voices!
Steve: I don't know when the English decided that they have to sing like that. Anywhere in the world with a living tradition - Morocco, India, Cuba, Spain. Ireland - their vocal technique is extraordinary. They love all the vocal tricks and devices. There is a delight in virtuosity. Whereas, when you actually hear the original wax cylinder recordings of turn-of-the century English traditional singers, generally their technique is very poor. So it seems to me the singing went into a stylistic dead-end where no one actually enjoyed the sound being made. My opinion is that it wasn't the war or social forces that killed off traditional music. People just said "Oh for God's sake, shut up".

I remember going on anti-apartheid demos in the eighties were you'd have a whole bunch of African exiles, ordinary citizens, down the front singing national songs of incredible polyrhythmic complexity.
Steve: Phil and I worked with some Chilean Exiles - musicians who had also grown up with vernacular music. They had a vast repertoire of rhythms and songs. Here, In pubs no one actually sings traditional folk music. They want to hear C&W, R&B, rock & roll or the latest pop, we English haven't got a bedrock of community based musical experiences.

There was stuff I remember from the family gathered round the piano - and at school - in the fifties: 'The Vicar of Bray', 'No John, No' ... stuff we don't hear anymore.
Steve: Yeah, but that was still a Victorianised and classicised approach to folk music. It wasn't what you would have heard in the fields and in the pubs. Singing these songs is like telling stories to complete strangers, you have to draw people in and try to hold their attention by using all of your craft.

But that's to do with Performance as opposed to Musicianship. A musician like Alan Holdsworth can still play a blinding gig even if no-one's there to applaud because he plays music for music's sake. Whereas at the opposite extreme there'd be no point in, say, John Otway setting up and playing in an empty hall. As a performer his gigs depend totally on audience interaction.

Steve: True ... In May we did a tour with some fantastic English musicians: Andy Cutting and Chris Wood who have an uncompromising approach: they play their music and that's it. If an audience happens to like it, that's fine. Chris and Andy regarded our crowd pleasers - songs like 'See My Baby Again' - as the crassest thing we did. But I had thought up till then "this tour, this van, this PA, this whole structure exists because of our crowd pleasing approach - playing what people want to hear at certain times of the evening." So this Performer versus Musician thing is quite close to home. We've since decided not to do that song any more (laughs) ...

You stopped doing it? Have audiences declined as a result?
Steve: No they haven't.

So in a sense they were right.
Steve: In one sense yes, but we've constantly changed and reconstructed things to evolve better ways of working and that won't stop.

Is your ideology conscious - could you state it?
Steve: Phil and I are essentially a multi instrumentalist and a singer/songwriter - and what songwriters try to do is to describe their world. Many try and make a journey to acquire a sort of international perspective - relationships occur in the universal urban environment of hotels, motorways and bars and airports, the language and the accents are a kind of Euro/American!. Almost by accident I've decided to go in the opposite direction and focus on a particular part of the West Country. I can picture exactly which side of the hill a certain song describes, which fields the hunter hunts and the poacher traps or which cliffs on Portland the preacher walks. The prosaic doesn't have to be mundane or banal - I think that whatever your world is, that's what you have to describe.

But not to your own greater glory - you're just the channel through which the story is told ...
Steve: Well in the sense that audiences care more in a song what happens to the preacher on Portland than they care what happens me. You become other people for the benefit of that song rather than singing about yourself. Coming from the English narrative folk tradition I'm used to singing stories so it seems more natural to write songs in that manner rather than talk about my personal emotional landscape.

You're much more analytical about what you do than I'd expected. Have you ever thought about what Show of Hands are selling, to whom, and what needs you're satisfying?
Steve: I think there's a type of rural English identity that hasn't been defined musically. We have no real following within the cities. People outside the urban areas seem to be trying to express a sense of their Englishness in all sorts of ways; environmentally, around single issue politics, anti-road building, local foods and ales even! ... Traditionally the countryside has been associated with Toryism, nostalgia, village green postcard stuff ... I think they're now looking for another voice. When we perform songs about poaching, farming or hunting, for example, people recognise an England that they don't see portrayed elsewhere. I see us fulfilling that sort of need. What was it Dennis Potter said? "Just connect." There are moments now when I feel a real connection with where we and our audiences are really from.

"Just connect" - that's right on the money, isn't it?
Steve: It's the only real manifesto. What surprises me is that these narrative melodic songs rooted in the west country also seem to connect with people in India, in Holland, in the U.S.A ... they all seem to respond to this landscape that we create.

Which doesn't have to have any basis in the geographical reality - you create a community of the mind
Steve: I find it absurd to see artistes at Glastonbury doing their 'Festival Set' with no sense of where they are or who's actually out there. Sheryl Crow comes out with "Hey people, You're looking good!" and we're all standing there covered in mud and standing in nine inches of shite.

Also we went to see The Prodigy. They had all the trimmings - the electric atmosphere, the flickering lights, the real edge in the crowd - very atmospheric, very tense, very urban. Their opening number was "Smack My Bitch Up" - the most evil title of a song you can imagine - played really, really loud with all the white lights full on into the audience . Then after about three numbers all their onstage MIDI stuff goes down. They're on huge video screens shrugging their shoulders and confused. Suddenly they're reduced from being Gothic cartoon figures into a shambles. It's a magnificent spectacle but it's all so reliant on the technology: they can't connect in any other way. Radiohead the next night was a different thing entirely: people felt that they really knew the singer. I didn't know the material or the band but was completely entranced - it was so uncompromising and so emotional. Just a wonderful experience. It restored your faith in the power of rock bands on large stages to make that human connection.

Earlier you mentioned the Albert Hall show ... how did that come about (Show Of Hands successfully headlined the Royal Albert Hall in March 1996 - with fans swarming in by coach from all over the country to make it their most successful show ever ...)
Steve: I was with my friend Jon Roseman (who used to manage Short Stories) and idly said 'What do you think it costs to hire the Albert Hall?' Typical Roseman - he picks up the phone and asks them. He looked at the details - thirteen thousand or whatever it was - and said 'Yeah this could work: minimum two thousand people, 18 quid each.'

So we went away and thought about it. There was only one serious player we knew on the folk scene with the expertise to make it happen - Steve Heap, who runs Mrs. Casey Music in Aylesbury. Steve said 'Yeah it could work but we need to share the risk.' So we then approached a Show Of Hands fan called Richard Patterson - he's in computer software, very successful - who said straight away 'Yeah, I'll back it.'

We didn't see it as a money making venture, more a way of raising our profile. And it really worked. Quite a lot of people now know Show Of Hands as 'Those guys who did the Albert Hall'. So it's opened a lot of doors. In India there was a tremendous cachet - we were checked out by people who came to see us just because of having played the Royal Albert Hall. In America as well. It also gave us a live album that cost 200 on the night to record and has been a great calling card to send festival promoters. So it exceeded all our expectations in that sense. What it didn't do was to get anybody talking about the music. The press were only interested if the story was that Phil and I were risking our last penny. They didn't want to hear that we had backers.

And did you break even?
Steve: Oh yes, everyone got paid the money and we even made a small festival fee ourselves for doing it. And it was a great event - people still talk about it in glowing terms.

Has it increased audience numbers?
Steve: On the strength of the Albert Hall people come along and find it easier to bring their friends. It's easier to get in local papers. But we now need to replace that with a story about the music. That's the dilemma. For now we're putting out the present single 'Crazy Boy' to see if we can get an Indie Chart placing or whatever - radio play, TV. Maybe that will be the next story, the guys who sold 8,000 singles, or the guys who got to number 50. Whatever. That's the idea for this Autumn.

I think the fact that you play benefits for Port Isaac Lifeboat Station tells people all they need to know about Show Of Hands.

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