Edward II have been blending the rhythms of the Caribbean with traditional songs from the British Isles since the 1980s. Dormant for several years, the band recently reconvened for Manchester’s Improving Daily – an ambitious project which presents new settings for a series of tunes written in the northern city during the Industrial Revolution.
Published as broadsides – cheaply produced song-sheets sold to the working class – they cover a variety of topics including local landmarks, the first balloon flight, political demonstrations and a natural disaster.
For the album, the band – John Moore (guitar), John Hart (guitar, trombone), Simon Care (melodeon), Tee Carthy (bass, vocals), David Henry (drums), Elston McKenzie (guitar, vocals), Glen Latouche (vocals) and Gavin Sharp (sax, keys) – have presented their modern arrangements with original renditions by Bury-born balladress Jennifer Reid. The package is completed by a 48-page booklet featuring essays on each track.
“They tell of hardship, politics, social justice and good times as experienced in the 19th century,” says Gavin. “By adding our own musical soundtrack to the songs we hope, not only to bring snippets of Manchester’s social history back to life, but keep them alive for many years to come.”
You announced you were reforming in 2009 “for one year only”, returned in 2012, and here you are again. What led to this latest return?
We discovered the book by Harry Boardman called ‘The Manchester Ballads’ which was full of folk songs (called broadsides) about our home town which we had not really been aware of before. Most of the Edward II repertoire had been based on rural folk songs and this was something quite different, with an urban edge to the songs which highlighted many social and political issues from the Industrial Revolution. It just felt too good to let pass, and so we all agreed it would be worth getting back together to work on as a project.
I understand that there were some 35 songs in the Manchester Broadsides collection; so how did you go about selecting the songs that made the album?
I pretty much sat at the piano and just played through them before sitting down with Glen (lead vocals) and Tee (bass & MD) to start turning into arrangements. Some were rejected and a few others adopted as we worked through them, but the core are pretty much the one’s we identified as being the best to adapt for Edward II.
In the past, Edward II’s repertoire has been based around rural songs – had you purposefully avoided urban/ industrial material?
Not really, it’s just that Simon (melodeon) comes more from the rural tradition and back when we were writing tunes (which is a long time ago now), Simon was the source for the folk element, so naturally tended towards the songs he was most familiar with.
Did adapting the material into a contemporary format – lyrically and musically – present any specific challenges?
The main challenge was turning the songs from (very long) rolling versus into more of a modern verse / chorus / middle eight format without losing the essence of the stories or message within the song. We went backwards and forwards quite a bit on which lines to keep, and how much of the original vernacular we retain, but I think we got the balance about right. Several of the songs are still quite long, but to some extent they had to be if we were to tell the story. Certainly Peterloo felt long right the way through rehearsals (It’s still just over five minutes), but it really had to be if the story is to be told in full and the emotion expressed in the original was to be retained. Personally I think it really works on the final recording and is one of my favourite tracks on the CD.
Any idea of the shelf-life of some of these songs when they were first written? Would they have been superseded within a few weeks of publication?
The songs were reported to have a short shelf life, but personally I can’t help but feel that whoever the actual songwriter was of the original songs (especially some of the better written ones), that too much effort and passion was put into them to believe that they really thought they would just disappear. I am sure like any modern artist they would hope that the songs would continue to be sung well into the future. You have to wonder what they would have thought of the Manchester’s Improving Daily project and the idea that someone would be singing them 200 years on!
Having spent so much time examining the source material, do you have any particular favourite … ?
Personally I really love Ragbag – it just really feels as I hoped and the strings sound great – pretty raw, but really well played at the same time, and conjures up the sentiment and humour of a lot of the tracks. I love the lyrics on Victoria Bridge On A Saturday Night, it just brings the whole wild scene to life. We wanted to create the sound of a street orchestra and I think we managed to do that pretty well; I also love how it comes out of Jennifer’s a cappella version – it really highlights what the project is all about. However I know other members of the band are equally enthusiastic about tracks like Love Vigilantes, The Flood and A Humorous And Interesting Dialogue, but to be honest it’s how the whole thing hangs together that we are most pleased with. The melody on Peterloo appeared in a few of the original scores and so we used it as a motif which appears throughout the record – it’s worth going through and seeing how many times you can spot it!
The album comes in a DVD-sized package complete with 48 page illustrated booklet – was having a physical product (when so many other artists are simply treating the ‘physical’ as secondary to the ‘digital’) something that was important to the project / you?
Yes, it really had to be something more than just a recording and we wanted it to look and feel consistent with the project and really contextualise the material. We also wanted people to really notice the packaging and instantly get a feel for what the project was about and that these songs really exist as one off physical artefacts. However the digital content on the website (and to some extent the Facebook page) are equally important – the interactive map and Manchester’s Improving Daily blog on the website really help to create the context for the songs, and it’s worth going and having a look at them both.
Although it’s described as a collection of songs from the industrial revolution, two tracks seem to jump out: Ewan MacColl’s Dirty Old Town and New Order’s Love Vigilantes (previously covered by your old Cooking Vinyl label-mates, The Oyster Band). How did these songs come to be included?
We wanted to show that there is a continuing narrative and in many ways a writing style that connects right the way back to the Broadsides and is reflected in Mancunian culture, language and humour to this day. Actually the difference in terms of time is not as great as you might imagine, and time difference between the earliest and latest broadside is less than that between the latest broadside and Dirty Old Town, so they still fit and make sense within the collection.
You have some live dates over the coming months, concluding with Towersey Festival …
We always love playing at Towersey – in many ways it has often represented the end of the summer touring period and is a bit of a party for us. Lots of old friends and acquaintances tend to turn up and we generally get to play a decent length set which is nice after a summer of often playing reduced set lengths. Last time we did it  the audience sang along to many of the songs, which we thought was pretty amazing as we had been away for so long, but I think that Towersey really is the festival for our core audience who have followed us over the years, and we are really pleased to be back there this year with such a great new set of songs.
What does the future hold for Edward II after your Towersey appearance? Are there more plans for Edward II shows or projects on the horizon?
We have a few ideas bubbling but we all have quite a lot going on at the moment, so it might be a few years years before we do, unless one of us finds a bit of spare time to organise everything – we had kind of forgotten how much goes into writing, recording, distributing and promoting your own records! In the meantime though, we are going to put out a full CD of Jennifer Reid songs, so that should keep the interest going for a bit.
Interview by: Dave Freak
Edward II appear at Towersey Festival on Saturday 27 August 2016. For more details, including full line-up and tickets, see: www.towerseyfestival.com
Edward II Presents Manchester’s Improving Daily is out now via Cadiz Music.
Available via Amazon
For their latest news and details of all their tour dates visit: edwardthesecond.co.uk