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Band Watching

Beginning and ending with The Beatles
A Short Appraisal of Brass Bands in Popular Music Culture

Our man John James once played drums with the Stranglers pop group, so he was the perfect man to find out how brass bands have made an impression on the Top of the Pops.


Oh, I do like to be
Beside the seaside,
I do like to be
Beside the sea,
I do like to stroll
Upon the Prom, Prom, Prom,
Where the brass bands play
Tiddely-om-pom-pom!
So just let me be
Beside the seaside,
I'll be beside myself with glee,
And there's lot of girls beside,
I should like to be beside,
Beside the sea.


English Music Hall Song
Written and composed by John A. Glover-Kind (1907)

These lyrics, perhaps some of the best known referring to a brass band, point absolutely to the culture and society of their time and are probably some of the most well known references to banding in the history of popular song.

Seventy six trombones led the big parade,
With a hundred and ten cornets close at hand.
They were followed by rows and rows,
Of the finest virtuosos,
The cream of every famous band.

Fifty years later and although more a reference to an American Marching Band than a British style Brass Band the Meredith Wilson song from 1957 and featured in the show ‘The Music Man’ has also become synonymous with the sound of a brass band.

If we come forward another seventeen years, however, these words taken from an LP ‘Concert Brass’ released by Invicta Records (INV108) in 1974 do say much about the profile of brass bands in popular music culture.

“‘Concert Brass’ is a recording which I feel sure is going to cause a great deal of interest in the world of brass banding. It is not aimed solely at the brass band fraternity but is in part an exercise to demonstrate that the traditional brass band adapts effectively to a modern style of playing without augmentation or altering the standard compliment of players and will therefore, I am sure, be enjoyed by an audience other than the converted.”
James Shepherd (1974)

Perhaps this quote highlights the fact that the music played by the brass band and the potential scope of a band hadn’t, even by the mid-seventies, been explored fully. Brass Band music just had not been embraced or come to wider public attention and was still hampered by the general perception of a brass band as illustrated in those lyrics from 1907 that were quoted at the head of this article.

The world’s most successful group The Beatles changed the face of popular music and we begin our appraisal at this point in time, when they too, as early as June 1966 produced a lyric with a pretty archetypal image of a brass band with a song that reached No 1 in the UK charts.

Sleeve cover - Yellow Submarine - The Beatles“And our friends are all on board, Many more of them live next door, And the band begins to play”- The Beatles – Yellow Submarine.

That aside though, they did really put that conventional image of brass arranging to bed, with the album ‘Revolver’ when Alan Civil overdubbed, on May 19, 1966, the famous French horn solo for the song ‘For No One’ and then later on with 'The Beatles' (White Album) conjured up a most effective brass score, performed by 14 session musicians, for the song ‘Martha My Dear’

The sound of brass must have left some impression for when they signed the deed in April 1967 that gave birth to The Beatles £800,000 ‘Apple’ business venture in 1968 with ‘Thingumybob’ the John Foster & Sons Ltd. Black Dyke Mills Band was issued as only the second ever single on the Apple label (Apple 4)

‘Thingumybob’ was a TV series theme song written by Paul Mc Cartney and given to the band who did a very ‘Pepperlandish’ rendition of ‘Yellow Submarine’ for the flip side (In the US ‘Yellow Submarine’ became the A-side). Paul McCartney produced both cuts but unfortunately the single never fired the public imagination and a follow-up was never cut.

The traditional concept of the brass band was still to the fore though and was somewhat perpetuated when in 1971 Blue Mink reached the No3 in the charts with ‘Banner Man’

So we waved our hands as we marched along
and the people smiled as we sang our song
and the world was saved as they listened to the band.
and the Banner-Man held the banner high

And the drums went Boom as the cornets play
and the tuba "umpa''d" all the way
and the kids and the dogs were laughing as they ran.

In that same year (1971) Bram Gay is credited as seeing the potential in an ‘entertainment’ contest won over the Granada group and the ‘Granada Band of the Year’ was established. It broke away from an established formula of a set or own choice test piece as each competing band was asked to provide a half-hour programme of music that would appeal to a general television audience not just a brass band enthusiast. One of the seeds that would bear fruit some years later had been sown. Interestingly Black Dyke, who had been at the heart of The Beatles endeavour to bring the brass band to ‘pop’ culture declined the invite to compete.

Peter SkellernPeter Skellern graduated from the Guildhall School of Music in 1968 where he studied piano and he shot to fame in 1972 with his UK top three hit, the ballad 'You're a Lady' which he wrote while working as a hotel porter in Shaftesbury, Dorset, a village destined to impact on brass bands a decade later. The sound of the Hanwell Band in this song was integral to the overall appeal of this record and it was probably the first major ‘pop’ record to really draw on the unique sound of a brass band to compliment a contemporary piece of music. (The track also reached number 50 in the US.)

The ‘Granada Band of the Year’ continued annually and became a byword for innovative arrangements, choreography and entertainment and there is little doubt that playing standard increased dramatically due to the new demands entertainment contests placed upon the players themselves. The BBC grasped the entertainment contest concept also and held their own television programme from the North West of England with the knockout series ‘Champion Brass’.

The ‘Concert Brass’ album referred to earlier, released in 1974 and directed by Eric Banks with all new arrangements produced by him also, had the James Shepherd Versatile Brass as the nucleus. The J.S.V.B. whilst certainly making a huge impact on the possibilities of creative brass playing and arrangements didn’t perhaps impact as much as hoped on the wider musical scene. Perhaps the J.S.V.B. most frequent airing now being their arrangement of ‘The Typewriter’ used as the signature tune of BBC Radio 4’s News Quiz.

The Cory Band National Champions in 1974 produced two albums in that year that give quite a clear indication of the music being played by brass bands at this time. ‘Sounds of Brass Vol. 19’ (SB 319) included not only the winning test piece Malcolm Arnold’s ‘Fantasy for Brass Band Opus 114’ but also ‘Hootenanny’. This arrangement ended up in probably every brass band library at this time and was one of the most featured arrangements of the day as it certainly broke the mould.

Their other album they released gave a much clearer indication of the style and music being performed being entitled ‘National Champions Salute Siebert’ (MSRS 1397).

Edrich Siebert whose real name was Stanley Smith Masters, was a flautist and a saxophonist with a military band before he fell under the spell of the brass instruments and, consequently, that of the brass band. After the war he met Harry Mortimer who recorded Siebert's novelties ‘Three Jolly Sailormen’ and ‘Polished Brass’ on the first record he made with his All-Star Brass Band. This was the beginning of a collaboration that vastly expanded the brass band catalogue. Siebert's "Black and White Minstrels", "The Bombastic Bombardon", "Brass Band Boogie" and ‘Lazy Trumpeter’ were just four of his frequently heard pieces in bands concerts, but in truth, they were never in a style likely to wet the appetites of the wider musical tastes of the day.

Brighouse & Rastrick - Floral Dance 1977
Brighouse & Rastrick - Floral Dance 1977

This all changed on the 12th November 1977 when The Brighouse and Rastrick Band playing ‘The Floral Dance’ (BIG 548) in an arrangement by Derek Broadbent and championed by DJ Terry Wogan soared up the UK charts to Number 2 and brought the brass band to an audience hitherto unknown.

This Transatlantic single with the B-side ‘Girl with the Flaxen Hair’, which was taken from the album featuring their ‘Granada Band of the Year’ winning programme (XTRA 1160), brought brass bands to the very forefront of popular music. Ironically it was Paul McCartney, who had supported Black Dyke in the early days of the Apple Corp., that kept them off the number one spot with his Wings composition ‘Mull of Kintyre’.

An album entitled ‘The Floral Dance’ (Logo 1001) followed on the heels of the single and also scored its success and made No 10 in the album charts by January 1978. It featured ‘The Lincolnshire Poacher’ the follow-up single to ‘The Floral Dance’ but this didn’t quite make the same impression on the single charts.

New arrangements from the pens of Derek Ashmore, Kevin Bolton, Bob Hartley and others came on to the market and were proving that brass bands could play popular music in the mainstream and records featuring well-known pop songs followed in this two-year period.

Highly successful record producer Mickie Most, who became renowned for his acerbic comments while serving on the panel of the television talent show New Faces, released a single featuring Tredegar Band playing ‘Send in the Clowns’ (B-side : Elite Squad) to try an capitalise on the vogue for band sounds but this too failed to gain any chart success.

The Logo label released the albums ‘Love You A Little Bit More’ (Logo 1006) and ‘Music’( Mogo 4004) both by The Brighouse and Rastrick Band whilst Chandos Records released ‘The John Foster & Sons Ltd. Black Dyke Mills Band plays Wings’ (BBR 1001).

Whilst not incorporating a brass arrangement the number 1 UK single from February 1978 on the Pye label namely Brian and Michael – ‘Matchstick Men and Matchstick Cats and Dogs’ did somewhat play on the cloth cap imagery as it opened with the opening bars of the William Rimmer march ‘Punchinello’ but it kept the Brass Band in the public eye yet again. Also, the Tredegar Town Band released a single which featured their flugel horn player, Jane Russell on "Send in the Clowns" and which was the brainchild of the famous pop promoter Mickey Most (who only died this year and was worth £50 million by all accounts). It failed to reach the top 20 though.

Brass Bands were heard in mainstream popular music with a frequency never before known in modern ‘pop’ musical culture. This though brought with it a profile that had not been exposed quite as publicly as before namely the Performing Rights Society (P.R.S.), Copyright and the Musicians Union.

As the repertoire embraced more and more popular music bands from all levels were now being called on a regular basis to resubmit P.R.S. returns and arrangers, more than ever before, had to address copyright issues. There were quite marked financial repercussions with bringing forward the modern repertoire and it took quite sensitive negotiation and some financial impositions with the P.R.S. and copyright bodies to address the issue to the satisfaction of all parties. A steep learning curve ensued that affected brass banding at all levels.

Whilst understanding the principals that lay behind the Musicians Union (M.U.) sentiments of ‘Keeping Music Live’ the professional nature of this body had not particularly affected the amateur music making of the brass band up to this time. Bands were now beginning to impact upon the general music scene and the concerns of the M.U. in protecting the rights and employment of professional musicians brought with it a call to bands to now align themselves with the M.U.

With a greater profile on T.V. and radio and the music of bands reaching a far greater audience it further pushed the M.U. to call on bands to stand with the Union in adopting membership and calling for similar remuneration as their professional counterparts.

This was a difficult time for the brass band given that the movement is essentially amateur and this, on top of the publishing issues, put bands under a pressure up till now unknown. Trying to compromise was not accepted and this made bands an expensive commodity.

As a result the frequency with which they appeared on T.V. and radio declined as the cost of such a large ensemble, up to 28 players, made them less attractive to programme planners. As a result band programming began, understandably, to decline and as the higher profile of bands fell away so it may be concluded did public interest.

Bands did not disappear entirely from popular music culture but there can be no question that it was certainly markedly affected by these factors.

The appearances and album releases declined, however, the charts did see another minor (No 60) hit for Peter Skellern - 'Love is the Sweetest Thing' in 1979 which won him a Music Trades Association Award for Best Middle of the Road album ‘Skellern’. This album featured at its heart the Grimethorpe Colliery Band and demonstrated once more that the brass band could with sensitive arrangements make a mark on the popular music scene.

The year 1979 saw Paul McCartney reacquaint himself with the sound of brass as the Wings album ‘Back To The Egg’ featured Winter Rose / Love Awake a medley of two songs. Winter Rose a sad and beautiful melody sung by Paul at the piano with nice orchestration including harpsichord and deep drumming. The sadness of the song ending with the forthcoming title, Love Awake, a gentle ballad which led back to more joyful feelings featuring Black Dyke Mills Band who added some overdubs in early 1979, adding their final section on April 1st in Abbey Road.

The sound of a brass band became the darlings of advertisers when a real upturn in exposure came in 1981 with an advert for ‘Hovis’ bread. This featured a brass band playing the Largo from Dvorak’s New World Symphony over the picturesque Gold Hill, Shaftesbury in Dorset described earlier with the music of Peter Skellern. With its distinctive monologue which started 'When I were a lad' this led to a spoof version that actually reached number 3 in the UK charts with Tony Capstick with the Carlton Main/Frickley Colliery Band.

Advertising from other sources now followed and notably when a brewery also called on a brass band in its promotional material. The Rochdale Wilsons Band recorded a promotional cassette tape featuring arrangements by Darroll Barry and issued it with it’s ‘Top Brass’ lager. This stimulated some album releases such as ‘20 hits from 20 Years’ by Brighouse and Rastrick Band (MFP41 57211) but they never fully captured the previous popularity of brass bands in the public eye.

Whilst the general music scene seemed to shift further away from pure instrumental sounds composers and musicians have continued to call upon the sounds of a brass band to compliment their compositions.

U2 - Joshua Tree
U2 - Joshua Tree

Arklow Silver were called upon by U2 and with brass arrangements and conducted by Paul Barrett they featured on one of the rock music’s most influential albums ‘The Joshua Tree’ The band featured on the song ‘Red Hill Mining Town’ and since its release in 1987 it has had sales of over 15 million with No1 album chart positions in the UK, USA, Australia and Ireland.

Whilst arrangements for band continued to improve and mature a decade of relative obscurity from the mainstream catalogue followed until in 1997 when the BBC released the song ‘Perfect Day’ as a charity record for ‘Children in Need’. A million-seller it entered the UK Charts at No 1 and combined the talents of many megastars of pop and featured an instrumental break on tenor horn played by Sheona White.

Brassed Off - Ewan McGregor, Tara Fitzgerald and Pete Postlethwaite
Brassed Off - Ewan McGregor, Tara Fitzgerald and Pete Postlethwaite

The release of the film ‘Brassed Off’ in 1997 certainly brought the brass band back into the limelight. However there were those who that felt the image portrayed of a brass band in the film did not help the movement drop the stereotyped image or bring newer arrangements and musical styles to the public ear. It included essentially music of years past including a re-hash of the single hit from 20 years earlier ‘The Floral Dance’. Whilst not unsurprisingly affecting the singles charts in any way the soundtrack did make inroads into the album listings with a high of No 36 in June 1998. The CD release gained some radio exposure, mainly on the ‘classical music’ channel but none of note on modern music stations. ‘Listen to the Band’ on BBC Radio 2 being the only remaining National contribution together with the odd few Regional programmes.

In 2002 brass bands saw their latest inclusion of a brass band in “superstar” music as Peter Gabriel has turned, as did The Beatles 40 years ago, to the Black Dyke Band and featured them on his latest album ‘Up’. On the track ‘My Head Sounds Like That’ he has used innovative digital editing and modern recording techniques to give a quite unique sound picture that was later to be heard when in multi-channel Dolby 5.1 when the Hybrid SACD edition was released in 2003.

Black Dyke Plays Beatles - Obrasso 887Black Dyke with their own latest release ‘Black Dyke Plays Beatles’ (Obrasso: CD887) bring forward new and stimulating arrangements from Barry Forgie, Alan Fernie, Bill Geldard and Goff Richards but with current popular musical output featuring essentially manufactured groups and dance beats it would appear that unless a band was to revolutionary change and embrace the newer technologies the brass band is likely to continue its less vaulted position in the general musical tastes of the masses.

Although brass bands haven't been really seen as pop musicians per se, but they have been surprisingly used many times over the years to add colour and backing to many pop releases both on singles and LP's (both now becoming defunct). It is also interesting to note that Brighouse and Floral Dance sold twice as many singles than the latest single to reach number 1 in the UK in June.

Brass bands may not be seen as the most hip or trendy music groups in the world for those under the age of 15 (this is now where the pop market is geared to), but there is little doubt brass bands have more talent than any Pop Idol, Fame Academy starlet currently singing other peoples songs on the tele. At least we can actually play our instruments.

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