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Issue 7 - July 1972
The High Level Ranters
On Thursday evening 6th July the High Level Ranters played at Newcastle's Norwegian Festival which was held at the Guildhall, down by the quayside. The lads had kindly arranged with their Muther to say a couple of words.

Johnny Handle - accordion / vocal
Tom Gilfellon - guitar / vocal
Colin Ross - fiddle / whistle / Northumbrian pipes
Alistair Anderson - English concertina

First of all I spoke to Alistair and Tom in the Crown hotel, just up the road from the Guildhall.

Tom GilfellonMG: Do you think you could say how long the Ranters have been going?

Alistair: It grew very much out of the Bridge folk club which has been going much longer than the group ... about 15 years. The group started around the people on the platform; Johnny, Colin, Tom ... There was a guy called Tony Wilson living here at the time, he used to play. He had nothing to do and Johnny wanted to introduce him to things so he played guitar for six months. There was Foster, John Doonan and me, we all played and so it was a very large and loose combination at first. It wasn't until a little before the first record that it got anything like settled, the first record out was the four of us plus Foster. Then I suppose about 9 months after that Foster decided that it was getting a bit much up and down the country, so he dropped out. Since then it's been the four of us which is fairly stable, it's a full five years ago now.

Tom: We're still not a typical folk group by any means, we all have well defined roles which actually makes it harder in many instances for the band to come together. We're still fighting to get the sound we want and this doesn't always mean that the four are in because none of us believe that it is necessary to have all four of us in for a particular sound. So we still retain this individualism. We're trying to get things involved with all four.

MG: I think that kind of thing splits up a lot of groups, particularly folk groups because the artists are more individualists than in any other type of music. There's that much more strain, it's quite amazing how you've managed to stay together.

Alistair: Perhaps because when the group is on stage in a concert or whatever, one person stands forward to take a solo then by and large the other three are very much respectful of the musicianship, vocalist technique or whatever, you know, we all still feel very strongly that we know the value of the other members.

MG: There's an immense amount of folk groups in the area now. How would you advise them to go about researching their own material?

Tom: Well I would advise 80% of them to pack in.

Alistair: You rotten bugger.

Alistair AndersonTom: Seriously. The standard of musicianship is so poor. The scene around this area, with all its much vaunted greatness ... When I go to other areas of this country I just have to say 'for God's sake don't come up to the north-east' because it's not good. Four years ago there were a lot of keen musicians in the area. They've got married, got other jobs and moved out of the area. It was a much healthier scene. There are some young musicians but I can't think of too many that are going to the sources, to the museums, to the libraries, to the easily available books, learning to read music and taking them out.

Alistair: One thing you do straight away is to join the North-East Federation of Folk Song Clubs and say 'I want to help collecting'. They have a good tape recorder provided by Northern Arts, tapes ... they'll be publishing stuff as soon as they get it collected. They need people to help them.

MG: So where would you go to hear good music?

Tom: I'd possibly go to Northumberland and find the box players and fiddlers and pipe players still knocking around. These are the people I want to listen to and learn from. I wouldn't go to the clubs at all.

MG: Do you think the thing about mass media is that any sort of aspiring musician feels he's not really made it unless he's accepted by the mass media?

Tom: You're damned right man. We're still excited when we get a gig on Sounds of the Seventies. We've been lucky in this last year to have been approached by what we consider are pop disc-jockeys. To do programmes, like John Peel, we've just done another one, I think it's out next Thursday for Pete Drummond. Sometimes I find this laughable and other times I find it very enjoyable. I grew up in the era when I worshipped Buddy Holly so the fact that I'm now on pop programmes is quite a boost to my ego.

Later on in the evening I was able to talk to Colin, Johnny and Alistair for a short time before they were due to perform.

MG: Do you think you could say then personally what kind of influences affected you in terms of the music you're doing now?

Johnny: Well there's a sort of standard hierarchy of musicians who you hear on records - we've listened to people like Sean Ryan and P J Maloney, I suppose Ivor Smith of Shetland, in the early days Dave Swarbrick particularly influenced me with his free playing ... But there's a growing desire, a collective interest to try and use arrangements and harmonies and to some extent sets of variations to make the tune more interesting than the basic sound of a country dance band all playing the same note at the same time.

Colin RossColin: Yes, I think that's the important thing because the country dance band was the initial impetus that got us going. Like the Cheviot Ranters which characterises the sound of the country band, but we feel that because of our resources we should take it a stage further, the ordinary country band couldn't, we feel that we possibly could because of our various backgrounds and interests in our particular instruments that we hope we've taken to a fair degree of performance.

MG: Have you got any particular feelings about folk as a media?

Colin: Well, basically folk is still basically non-establishment and because of that you can say things that people would tend to get embarrassed about or tend to think are too risky to put on or too advanced to put on in a normal sort of television show. This is why folk doesn't get, I'm sure about this, shown on television in the North, not just our group but other groups.

Johnny: It can fit into niches you see. If you've got a group that produces choruses and produces what seems to be a happy and naive sound without making too much of a social statement then this is accepted as entertainment.

Alistair: I think that classical music is made by the middle classes for the middle classes ...

Johnny: But within its own music it's very exciting. We still have this problem of the folk club and the folk cult being an artificial one, where it's the done thing to go to a folk club every night, you're getting through to only the folk clique. Because many of the events organised outside the folk clique are to very small numbers.

MG: I think probably somebody who's broke through that is Alex Glasgow ...

Johnny Handle

Johnny: But they're sneering and unconstructive his songs and I don't think in life one should go around doing this. I think one should make a comment and if you can, try to make a happy comment. You shouldn't say 'I can't make a happy comment because I'm here to criticise'. I've written satirical stuff aimed at what I feel is a society in turmoil but I wouldn't turn away from writing about normal events.

MG: Yer, as you say, there is a need to be affirmative, it was good to have a screw 200 years ago and it's still good to have a screw now but at the same time there's still a hell of a lot of nasty things going on.

Johnny: But do you not think that you should find your relationship to your own part of the community and involve yourself with that?

Alistair: Yes, but perhaps Alex things that his role is to try to get something stirred so that something will happen. If he believes that he can get involved in a community and better the lot of that community by singing songs about it then isn't that justified?

(This interview was edited because of lack of space - Alan)