Monday, February 18, 2008

Peter Bellamy & Various Artists

"The Transports:
The Silver Edition Of Peter Bellamys Classic Ballad O

Stephen Hunt:
1977 seemed like an important year to be a music obsessed teenager in England's green and pleasant land. The front pages of the tabloids were temporarily dominated by rock 'n' roll as (firstly) The Sex Pistols injected some actual excitement into HM The Queen's Silver Jubilee celebrations, and (secondly) Elvis permanently 'left the building.' In the midst of all the spit and tears, the release of The Transports: A Ballad Opera by Peter Bellamy didn't really register on my youthful radar. It would be years before I realised that I'd actually missed the year's most extraordinary record....

The Transports relates the true story of Henry Cabell and Susannah Holmes, convicts transported to Australia in the 'First Fleet' in 1787. If this story weren't a matter of recorded, historical fact, it would certainly be described as 'unbelievable'! Poverty, crime, death, cruelty, incarceration, love, birth, transportation, separation, anguish, intervention, reunion... you name it, it's in here, somewhere! Bellamy's telling of the tale, in the form of his 'Ballad Opera', is almost equally astonishing. Unlike the other folk and rock 'operas' of the era (e.g. Fairport's Babbacombe Lee and The Who's Tommy), the music is performed throughout by a small orchestra, while the singers perform entirely in character. That 'orchestra' is comprised of musicians from the Early Music Consort of London, directed and conducted by Roddy Skeaping, and featuring such 'period' instruments as Serpent and Garklein-Flotlein (small recorder) among the more familiar flute, bassoon, oboe whistle and cello. Dolly Collins was given the role of musical arranger -- the instrumental 'Overture', demonstrates her immense talent from the very outset.

Bellamy himself appears sporadically throughout proceedings in the role of the anonymous 'Street Singer' (accompanied by Dave Swarbrick's fiddle), with 'The Ballad of Henry & Susannah', a five-part song which acts as a narrative link between the first person songs of the characters. Ah, the character songs... this is where the fun really begins! The singers that Bellamy cast in the various roles represent some of the very cream of Brit-folk. Indeed, it's interesting to note that many of these names from 1977 are the same names that continue to win awards and garner accolades in 2004. The parts of Henry and Susannah are (superbly) sung by Mike and Norma Waterson, while Henry's mother and father are June Tabor and Nic Jones, and Martin Carthy is John Simpson -- 'The Humane Turnkey'. Hearing these familiar voices in such unfamiliar settings is an illuminating and rewarding experience. The 'sounds' of Jones and Carthy are both so inextricably linked to their instruments that it's almost startling to hear the voices without the guitars. Their performances here provide a reminder (if any were needed) that they are sublime singers. While the matching of singers to songs is effective throughout, in some cases the levels of symbiosis suggest that Bellamy actually composed his songs with the stylistic attributes of his chosen singers in mind. Cyril Tawney casts a glamour of authenticity over the ersatz sea shanty, 'Roll Down', while Vic Legg's unaffected West-Country accent and wonderfully energetic, declamatory style make him a wholly believable 'Coachman' on 'The Plymouth Mail'. Probably the least familiar name (and most unusual performance) belongs to Martin Winsor, who (as 'The Convict') sings 'The Ballad of Norwich Gaol', while A. L. Lloyd exudes roguery as Abe Carman in 'The Robber's Song'.

For me, The Transports represents a uniquely and wholly successful example of its genre. I should confess that any kind of 'musical theatre' usually brings me out in a rash, but Bellamy's masterpiece is just a colossal piece of work to which my petty prejudices simply do not apply! Likewise, writers who contrive songs 'in a traditional style' are too often posturing fantasists (guaranteed to bring bile to my throat), but these songs are tremendous, constructed from equal parts solid scholarship, empathic imagination and wonderful melodies. Then, of course, there are the actual performances and those inventive arrangements... like I said, an extraordinary record!

Onwards to 2004, and the latest re-release of this classic album by Free Reed Music -- the label that originally released it in 1977. Back then, The Transports was a double-vinyl LP set, packaged in an elaborate gatefold sleeve, complete with 'libretto' and historical background. As Free Reed went into an 'extended period of hibernation' in the 1980's, so the album was deleted, and quickly became a highly sought 'collectors item'. Topic Records released the first CD version (minus all the 'supporting paperwork') in the 90's before, twenty-five years after its original release, ownership of The Transports reverted to Free Reed. Now, anyone who's been paying attention will know that Free Reed has established a recent reputation for high quality, large-format CD box sets, so.... What's in the box?

Firstly, of course, there's a CD of that original 1977 album, re-mastered into sparkling, crystal clarity! Secondly, there's another CD here -- The Transports 2004, credited to 'Peter's Friends'. The booklet notes explain thus: 'Twenty five years on from the original Transports recordings, some of Peter's close friends and admirers revisited and reinterpreted his classic collection of songs with startling results.' Among those 'friends and admirers' are the likes of Steve Tilston, Damien Barber, John Kirkpatrick and Pete Morton. 'The Ballad of Henry & Susannah' is performed by Simon Nicol and Chris Leslie (keeping a nice continuity of Fairport fiddlers going!) who are joined by the rest of Fairport for the closing 'Convicts Wedding' dance tune. The 2004 CD contains an almost complete version of the Ballad Opera material, plus several bonus tracks, including a rare (and sadly incomplete) performance of 'Roll Down' from Bellamy's last major gig in the USA.

Finally, there is a 132-page companion book which contains: 'The full story of the First Fleet of Convicts transported to Australia, 1787-88, and of the classic ballad Opera that it inspired.' The book is probably deserving of a full review in its own write, but suffice it to say that it's a tremendous piece of work. Tony Fisher's photographs of the 1977 recording sessions are a real bonus, and the wealth of historical information is nothing short of revelatory. Free Reed's Neil Wayne and Nigel Schofield have, once again, delivered a package that is pretty close to flawless. I say 'close' as there are, in truth, one or two typos here and there. Vic Legg's album is incorrectly titled in the book, and he's the only singer (on either CD) whose name is not listed on the front of the box. While pointing out that oversight probably has me marked down as a deeply annoying pedant, I'm hopeful that the Free Reed guys will forgive me on the grounds that my particular foibles aren't, perhaps, so very different from their own! I can't think of another label that demonstrates the commitment to accurate information and comprehensive detail that Free Reed consistently applies to their recordings. With The Transports: Silver Edition, Free Reed has given Peter Bellamy's brilliant Ballad Opera the format it deserves, and presented it to a whole new audience. I hope that they sell a million!

Track Listing
1. Overture
2. Ballad Of Henry & Susannah, The (Part 1)
3. Us Poor Fellows
4. Robber's Song, The
5. Ballad Of Henry & Susannah, The (Part 2)
6. Leaves In The Woodland, The
7. Ballad Of Henry & Susannah, The (Part 3)
8. I Once Lived In Service
9. Norwich Gaol
10. Sweet Loving Friendship
11. Ballad Of Henry & Susannah, The (Part 4)
12. Black And Bitter Night, The
13. Humane Turnkey, The (I)
14. Plymouth Mail, The
15. Humane Turnkey, The (II)
16. Green Fields Of England, The
17. Roll Down
18. Still And Silent Ocean, The
19. Ballad Of Henry & Susannah, The (Part 5)
20. Convict's Wedding Dance, The

1. Black And Bitter Night - (with Cockersdale)
2. Raking The Embers - (with Jim Lawton)
3. Ballad Of Henry And Sussanah, The (Part 1) - (with Simon Nicol/Chris Leslie)
4. Us Poor Fellows - (with David Jones)
5. Robber's Song, The - (with Joel Griffiths)
6. Ballad Of Henry And Sussanah, The (Part 2) - (with Simon Nicol/Chris Leslie)
7. Mother's Song (Leaves In The Woodland) - (with Grace Notes)
8. Ballad Of Henry And Sussanah, The (Part 3) - (with Simon Nicol/Chris Leslie)
9. I Once Lived In Service - (with Witches Of Elswick)
10. Norwich Gaol - (with Chris Sugden)
11. Sweet Loving Friendship - (with Laura Hockenhull/Pete Morton)
12. Ballad Of Henry And Sussanah, The (Part 4) - (with Simon Nicol/Chris Leslie)
13. Black And Bitter Night, The - (with Damien Barber/John Kirkpatrick/The Wilsons/Grace Notes)
14. Humane Turnkey, The - (with Mal Jardine/Jamie O'Dwyer)
15. Plymouth Mail, The - (with John Roberts)
16. Green Fields Of England - (with Coope, Boyes & Simpson)
17. Roll Down - (with Kimber's Men)
18. Still And Silent Ocean, The - (with Steve Tilston/Tom McConville)
19. Ballad Of Henry And Sussanah, The (Part 5) - (with Simon Nicol/Chris Leslie)
20. Dance: The Convict's Wedding - (with Fairport Convention)
21. Black Concertina - (with Tim Moon)
22. Roll Down

Contributing Artists: Dave Swarbrick, June Tabor, Martin Carthy, The Watersons
Producer: Peter Bellamy
Distributor: RED Distribution
Recording Type: Studio
Recording Mode: Stereo
SPAR Code: n/a

Album Notes
Personnel includes: Peter Bellamy, June Tabor, Martin Carthy, Nic Jones, The Watersons (vocals); Dave Swarbrick (violin); Oliver Brookes (cello); Philippa Davies (flute); Sophia Wilson (oboe).
Recorded in 1977. Includes liner notes by Eric Fowler.


Blogger GeoX said...

Definitely a great album.

18 February, 2008 10:08  
Blogger Paul said...

I've yet to listen but it looks great. Any chance of some of the graphics, notes etc?

18 February, 2008 12:46  
Anonymous Roger said...

Have already but it is a fantastic piece of work, a remider of just how great Peter Bellamy was.

The 'new' one is very so-so but worth getting for 'black concertina' alone

18 February, 2008 21:30  
Anonymous sarcasm as wit said...

Still available from the evil multinational corporation Free Reed Records.

22 February, 2008 08:18  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this one - one of my all time favourite albums ... very hard to come by a copy of this on CD in Australia!

09 June, 2008 21:32  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please re upload it! Such a beautiful album

28 March, 2012 23:48  

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