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+ {Fiddler’s Dram} + {Alan Prosser} + {John Jones} + {Ray Cooper}

Right up there with folk-genre-busting icons RICHARD THOMPSON, The CHIEFTAINS and The MEN THEY COULDN’T HANG, The OYSTER BAND (as they were known in their 80s heyday) might never have happened but for the perseverance of die-hard group musicians/singers such as Welshman John Jones, Midlands man Alan Prosser, Scotsman Ian Telfer (of New Celeste) leading the way.
However, the roots of this punk-fuelled trad-folk outfit partly stemmed from 1976 and Canterbury’s unfairly lambasted novelty one-hit wonders, FIDDLER’S DRAM, a group famous (or infamous) for their Xmas 1979 Top 3 hit `Daytrip To Bangor (Didn’t We Have A Lovely Time)’; messrs Prosser, Telfer and Jones were apparently present and correct. Once led by fiddler extraordinaire Dave Arbus (formerly of `Jig-A-Jig’ hitmakers EAST OF EDEN), the ensemble was really the inheritance of singer Cathy LeSurf, bouzouki minstrel Chris Taylor, John Taylor, Will Ward and said Oyster players.
As a breakaway act, the renamed OYSTER CEILIDH BAND attempted to combine the energy and invention of the pop/rock scene with the spirit and instrumentation of traditional folk; one LP was released JACK’S ALIVE (1980) {*4}, while Cathy and Co decided to carry on with the flagging FIDDLER’S DRAM. When she left to join folk veterans The ALBION BAND, The OYSTER BAND were now in full swing; albeit without Ward and bassist (at-the-time) CHRIS WOOD who’d made way for London-born multi-instrumentalist Ian Kearey.
Following a series of fair-to-middling independent LP releases, the band – with drummer Russell Lax superseding Taylor – signed to hip roots label Cooking Vinyl, releasing their first proper/bona fide album STEP OUTSIDE {*7} in 1986. Awash with a sprinkling of traditional cuts (`Hal-An-Tow’ among them) alongside mainly Jones-Telfer originals (`Another Quiet Night In England’ and `Liberty Hall’), the CLIVE GREGSON-produced quintet acquired a much-needed commercial boost from favourable reviews; BOWIE’s `Ashes To Ashes’ was a cover CD outtake. The following year they were pitched alongside BILLY BRAGG and LEON ROSSELSON on a one-off collaboration, `The Ballad Of A Spycatcher’, a single that defined their intentions and earlier promise.
With a vocal style at times not too far removed from RUNRIG’s Donnie Munro, John Jones was the heart of the band, while Telfer, Prosser, etc., were acknowledging the probable musical re-alignment of Celtic-folk (and folk music in general). The highly in-tune WIDE BLUE YONDER (1987) {*7} was a prime example of how far they could stretch the boundaries between trad/roots genres, songs that appealed to a new generation of Celtic crusties were `Generals Are Born Again’, `Oxford Girl’, plus versions of NICK LOWE’s `Rose Of England’ and BRAGG’s `Between The Wars’.
With Ray “Chopper” Cooper on board (Kearey had teamed up with Gerald Langley of The BLUE AEROPLANES), RIDE (1989) {*6} was one rollicking rollercoaster of an album, The OYSTER BAND were taking folk-rock in new directions and not all of them worked. While one could commend the band for giving us the boisterous hoedown of `Polish Plain’ (but not the reggae-fuelled `My Dog Knows Where The Bones Are Hid’) and taking on trad cut `New York Girls’, it went awry on attempts of PF SLOAN’s `The Sins Of A Family’ and NEW ORDER’s `Love Vigilante’; their B-side of SAM COOKE’s `A Change Is Gonna Come’ might’ve been a proper inclusion.
A better gauge of the group in the late 80s came through part-live set LITTLE ROCK TO LEIPZIG (1990) {*7}, a record combining golden “Oysters” next to reinterpretations of PHIL OCHS’ `Gonna Do What I Have To Do’, SONNY CURTIS’s `I Fought The Law’ and an a cappella take of Kay Sutcliffe’s `Coal Not Dole’; by the end of a busy year, the group had teamed up (and not for the last time) with JUNE TABOR on a celebrated collaboration album `Freedom And Rain’.
Taking the slightly adjusted moniker of OYSTERBAND, Jones, Prosser, Telfer, Chopper and new percussionist Lee Partis delivered DESERTERS (1992) {*7}, an album that was more subtly introspective (check out `Diamond For A Dime’ and `Elena’s Shoes’) and commercial with SEEGER’s `The Bells Of Rhymney’ closing the set. HOLY BANDITS (1993) {*7} kept momentum on a high, only `Rambling Irishman’ was sourced, while they stepped up to the mark on the fiddle-friendly `When I’m Up I Can’t Get Down’ plus Celtic-esque `The Road To Santiago’ and `Gone West’.
Showing the vitriol and vitality of a combined “Celtic” CLASH and POGUES (the latter coincidentally struggling at this point), THE SHOUTING END OF LIFE (1995) {*7} was described as “the thinking man’s folk-punk”, while Jones, Prosser and Telfer never so conscientious and politically assertive than on `Jam Tomorrow’, `We’ll Be There’ and the LEON ROSSELSON cover `The World Turned Upside Down’; one can also vouch for their uplifting rendition of BRUCE COCKBURN’s `Don’t Slit Your Wrists For Me’. DEEP DARK OCEAN (1997) {*5} was a little disappointing by comparison, their edge somewhat disparate and delicate on dirges such as REV HAMMER’s `Drunkard’s Waltz’.
With Celtic/ceilidh/folk more in vogue than ever (although English-based, the OYSTERBAND had been a catalyst amongst its pigeons), the quintet continued to strive amidst the many new kids on the block, HERE I STAND (1999) {*6} – recorded in various houses! –
another step up the ladder to eternal folk-rock accolade; RISE ABOVE (2002) {*6} reconvened and once again set the bar high. Over the years the OYSTERs have also covered `Valentine’s Day Is Over’ (BILLY BRAGG), `All Tomorrow’s Parties’ (The VELVET UNDERGROUND), `Night Comes In’ (RICHARD THOMPSON) and `Lullaby Of London’ (The POGUES).
The trad collaborative THE BIG SESSION – VOLUME 1 (2004) {*6} produced many a muckle duet with the likes of STEVE KNIGHTLEY, ELIZA CARTHY and others, while competent solo sets from Jones And Cooper followed on from, what’s become a worthy latter-day album, MEET YOU THERE (2007) {*6}. A subsequent departure from Partis left the group in limbo for a bit, but with Dilwyn Davies completing the line-up for gigs the following year, OYSTERBAND continued to sail with the tide.
In 2011, the 5-piece re-united with the great JUNE TABOR on the collaborative and award-winning “Ragged Kingdom” set. When further personnel changes arose through Chopper departing, the arrival of former JAMES multi-instrumentalist Adrian Oxaal found glee among their ye olde-indie contingent of fans. His 5th/6th member appearance (alongside producer/bassist Al Jones) on the folk band’s comeback set, DIAMONDS ON THE WATER (2014) {*7}, probably secured the album its near Top 50 placing. Apart from the sole traditional piece, `Once I Had A Sweetheart’, their lyrical pearls of wisdom came no better than the simply gorgeous `A Clown’s Heart’, `A River Runs’, the title track and `Lay Your Arms Down Gently’.
© MC Strong 2003-2011/GFD2 // rev-up MCS Feb2014

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