For many, Joy Division’s masterful swansong, Love With Tear Us Apart, is sacrosanct. Untouchable. It’s a song dozens have tried to interpret – from ’80s Smash Hits cover star Paul Young (woeful) to French bossa nova combo Nouvelle Vogue (slight). Even peers The Cure (lacking) and Simple Minds (tragic) have had a go.
Yet against this background of largely uninspired, misfiring and lacklustre interpretations, June Tabor and Oysterband have delved deep into the song to find something new, something unheard. In reinventing a post-punk powerhouse anthem, they’ve done the impossible … and somehow made it their own.
“It was a song we’d wanted to do for some time,” explains Oysterband’s John Jones of the Ragged Kingdom album track. “There’s a thread of Oysterband listening that’s outside of its own evolution, that’s into Tom Verlaine and Television, the Velvet Underground, a dark, hard, driven music that we’d also heard in Joy Division. We don’t play that music [live] but we like it. Just as we recorded Love Vigilantes by New Order, you hear something … something beautiful, bittersweet.”
Reimagining the song as a gentle, acoustic duet between John and June, it’s a tearful ballad.
“When we looked at Love With Tear Us Part’s lyrics, we saw this other song. It took two or three years to say ‘right’ and another two or three years to nail it. We stripped it down to the bare minimum and it’s so intense. It’s like listening to people’s thoughts about a relationship … you hear every thought, and June’s every breath in the song.
“If you’re going to do a cover, you have to be different to the original version.”
The song is one of several highlights from an album which few saw coming. Back in the early ’90s, Freedom And Rain marked the first collaboration between Oysterband – who’d risen from their Ceilidh Band roots two decades earlier to become one of the UK’s biggest folk acts – and equally respected singer June Tabor. Featuring cover versions of tracks by Shane MacGowen, Billy Bragg, Richard Thompson and the Velvet Underground, it proved to be a notable success.
Now, over 20 years later, a belated sequel finds the two artists sweeping the boards at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, as Ragged Kingdom (Topic Records) earns them Best Group, Best Album, Best Traditional Track (Bonny Bunch Of Roses) and Folk Singer Of The Year (June). And once again, it steps outside of the ‘traditional’ folk world for source material, selecting the aforementioned Joy Division classic alongside PJ Harvey and John Parish’s That Was My Veil, ‘60s soul standard The Dark End Of The Street and Bob Dylan’s Seven Curses.
“You can’t make this up,” says John of Ragged Kingdom’s unplanned and unforeseen success. “You leave something for so long and … you finally get together. Sure, we kept in touch and we knew June was in good voice. You have a difficult time finding songs, and the song selection is very very important. You throw ideas at each other. We just wanted to make a good album. What we got out of it – the awards, appearing on Later with Jools Holland – it doesn’t go that far when you’re making the record. It’s just a surprise… and you take it when it comes, but you can never predict it or expect it…”
Despite Freedom And Rain’s reputation, the idea of a follow it up was never seriously considered.
“In that 20 year gap, we were incredibly busy and June pursued her own path. We didn’t expect to do it again. After 21 years … there is no plan! It’s more about coincidence, or timing, of inclination and ‘we can still do this’. Playing together at The Roundhouse [in London] gave us a touch of magic. I said to June, ‘…why not?’ It took us by surprise.”
Such is Ragged Kingdom’s success, it’s even inspired its own beer. Described by Midlands brewers Phipps NBC as ‘light tawny harvest ale’, it’ll makes its debut at Oysterband’s revived music jamboree, the three-day Big Session Festival* (15-17 June 2012).
“I’m desperate to taste it!” John cries with clear enthusiasm (and, perhaps, a dry throat). “I’ve got a party at my home at the weekend and was hoping it would be ready for it … but not yet. But I’ve got some orders in for after the festival. So I shall be in the bar tasting it with everyone else.”
Launched in 2005 and inspired by late night singing and drinking sessions (possibly not in that order), The Big Session Festival spent several fine years at Leicester De Montfort Hall before relocating to South Derbyshire’s Catton Hall this year.
“It enables us to grow, be our own bosses,” says John of the “adventurous” move to a rural site on the banks of the River Trent. “De Montfort Hall was well liked, but we can play late at Catton Hall. There’s also Summer Sundae at De Montfort, and to an extent that’s more of a Leicester festival than we were. We now have a chance to expand at our own site. It suits our ambition. We wanted to move forward. In a sense, yes, we’ve lost a great site … but also found a great site. We can make this site our own. We’re rebuilding The Big Session ….”
With a line-up that includes Chumbawamba, Chris Wood, Lucy Ward, Eddi Reader, Leisure Society, Jesca Hoop, Martin Simpson, Abandoman, Show Of Hands, Scott Mathews and Roddy Woomble, along with such rising West Mid’s talent as Dan Whitehouse and Boat To Row, the Oyster’s will be performing twice: once with June and once performing a special ‘Fans Request Set’, complete with guests from their past.
The polls are now closed, the votes have been added up, but John isn’t revealing anything about the winners or losers.
“I’m one of the few people who know how the voting went,” he teases. “There are 20 [songs] on the list and another 40 that were very close. So we have a Top 20 that I’m putting into a set now. It’s all there, very full, but we’re keeping it close.”
Are there any surprises?
“There are two surprises, where I thought ‘wow!’ There’s definitely a request for a tougher version of one song. People have gone back to the original, versions they heard when they got into the band [which] we’ll have to go back re-learn,” he laughs. “People really responded to the idea to vary it too as you do need light and shade.
“In a sense … it goes back to the early/mid-‘80s with some clear live favourites, and there are songs from just about every album. Over 130 songs have been requested. It’s incredible really. There’s probably a B-set of nearly/ didn’t-make-it songs that would be just as popular. There were not many votes between those that made the list, and those that didn’t.”
At present, the only chance to hear this set will be the first night of The Big Session.
“I had wondered about replaying the set … but really we haven’t thought much past The Big Session Festival. It’s a striking set and I’m sure there’ll be requests to do it again though.”
Post-Big Session are several other festival appearances (including Cambridge), Canadian and Danish tours, and a last hurrah for Ragged Kingdom with a June/Oyster’s UK tour, which concludes with shows at Gloucester Cathedral and Exeter Cathedral.
“Then it’s back to our days jobs,” says John who adds that they’re hoping to start work on the next Oysterband long-player in September.
“I can’t say much about the new album. We have lots of songs, lots of ideas. We might put some ideas up on line so people can hear how they change. I don’t like talking about things at this stage as you never know how it will end up, but it has to be different from Ragged Kingdom.”
* The Big Session Festival, Friday 15 to Sunday 17 June 2012, Catton Hall, Walton-upon-Trent, Derbyshire DE12 8LN. Tickets: Full weekend tickets from £92.95 (adult) and £32.95 (child). Day tickets from £32.95 (adult) and £12.15 (child). Includes booking fees and charges. Concessions available. Camping and non-camping tickets available. For more information, email: firstname.lastname@example.org ; tel: 01629 827012 (info), 023 8071 1818 (tickets) ; Web: ww.bigsessionfestival.com
Interview by: Dave Freak