FolkWorld #76 11/2021
© Iconic Music & Media / Kairen Kemp PR

Oysterband’s Timely Message


One of the UK’s foremost folk rock bands Oysterband has never held back from confronting politically sensitive issues. With the eyes of the global community focused on how world leaders can agree a plan to address climate change the release of the band’s newest song ‘The Time Is Now’ couldn’t have been timed more perfectly. The lyrics are a stark narrative on the impact we are already seeing as a result of humankind’s blatant disregard for the planet and its future. Its anthemic driving beat carries an air of urgency - a call to action.

Written by Ian Telfer he describes how the song evolved “I started writing this set of words years ago, and Alan (Prosser) sorted out music for it not long after, so we knew it was a goer as a song. But having nailed the upbeat bridges and the chorus, I found the world kept changing in dramatic and alarming ways and the more I read and heard, the more I wanted to rewrite the verses to reflect events. Eventually the guys said, “Look, you’ve got to stop somewhere!” So this is what I had earlier this year. But if I was writing further now, during COP26, I’d make it angrier, for sure!”

The song is one of ten new songs recorded for ‘Read The Sky’ the band’s first studio album since ‘Diamonds on the Water’ which was released in 2014. - The album is due for release in March 2022 and will be supported by a full UK tour during April and May. Confirmed dates will be announced shortly.


Artist Video Oysterband @ FROG

The Climate Change Conference closes on Friday 12 November, but the work to address the problem has to start now. Given the relevance of the song ‘The Time Is Now’ it will be exclusively premiered during BBC Radio 2’s Folk Show on Wednesday 10 November. The song will also be premiered on Oysterband’s YouTube channel from 22.00hrs on Wednesday 10 November.

Currently Oysterband consists of founder members John Jones (vocal, melodeon), Alan Prosser (guitars, vocal), and Ian Telfer (violin, keyboard, vocal) with Sean Randle (drums), Al Scott (bass guitar, mandolin, vocal), and Adrian Oxaal (cello, guitar, bouzouki, vocal).

At first - around 1978 - purely a dance band ("The Oyster Ceilidh Band"), we soon started experimenting with radical arrangements of traditional songs and with home recording, and even put out 4 albums in the early 80s. These sound harmless enough now, but at the time their home-made, try-anything attitude was controversial. We were determined that traditional music should not be just a branch of the heritage industry.

Other musicians came and went. The name shortened to The Oyster Band. We began to learn how to write songs. In 1985 we met a new roots-music label, Cooking Vinyl. Step Outside (1986), with Ian Kearey on bass and Russ Lax on drums, was their first release. We went on to make 9 studio albums with them.

In the late 80s we toured almost continuously. As well as territories opened up by our new record company in Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and North America, and shows with similar-minded artists such as Michelle Shocked and Billy Bragg, we toured for the British Council in India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Morocco. Travel on this scale had a powerful impact on our attitudes to the world and on our songwriting.

It also made normal domestic life difficult. First Ian Kearey left in 1988, to be replaced by Ray Cooper; then when Russ Lax left in1990 Ray called up his old friend drummer Lee Partis. The name shortened again at this point to Oysterband. Russ's last act was to record Freedom And Rain with us and the great English folk diva June Tabor. Although it was essentially a covers collection, the songs were shrewdly chosen, and the album was very well received, particularly in the US. "Imagine if Aerosmith and Madonna announced they were to tour together??!!?" said Rolling Stone, excitably.


Meanwhile in the UK the ground was shifting. As we were expanding from a folk background, others were expanding from a rock background in a folk direction, and the convergence became a new scene. The Pogues, The Levellers, The Waterboys, Celtas Cortos....we found ourselves working in a different context, often called "Celtic" (though the word seems to mean something different in each country). The US became harder, but we acquired new audiences in the UK, Germany and Spain. The high-point of this period is probably Holy Bandits (1993); the first song "When I'm Up I Can't Get Down" was later a substantial hit for Great Big Sea in Canada. (Thanks, guys!)

By 1997 our relations with Cooking Vinyl had cooled a little. We didn't seek a new contract, but we co-operated with the preparation of a "Best Of" 2-CD collection, Granite Years (2000), covering the years 1986-1997.

In 2003 we were honoured to receive the "Good Tradition" award at the BBC Folk Awards, and in 2005 were voted "Best Group".

Lee Partis spent some years training as a counsellor/therapist, even while drumming and singing for Oysterband. In 2008 he fulfilled a long-term ambition and left us to work in a prison in the north of England, possibly a first in the history of the entertainment industry. The very experienced Dil Davies then took over the drummer's stool, and when Dil retired Pete Flood, formerly of Bellowhead, joined us.

In recent years, we've consciously tried to evolve our songwriting beyond the clichés of the "Celtic" style, and with Rise Above (2002), Meet You There (2007) and Diamonds On The Water (2014) we think we're getting somewhere. Meet You There was hailed widely at the time as our best recording ever.

June Tabor

However, just when we were thinking of taking a tea-break, everything was turned upside down again by the remarkable success of our reunion album with June Tabor, Ragged Kingdom, released in 2011. Waiting 21 years to make a follow-up to Freedom & Rain may seem perverse, but hey! both parties were seriously busy. We'd never lost our friendship with June in the meantime, and we'd even played the occasional show together; and one day the time just seemed right to try recording together again. Ragged Kingdom gained us 3 more BBC Folk Awards (Best Album, Best Group and Best Trad Track, plus Folk Singer of the Year for June). We toured it very enjoyably through 2012 and 2013 and featured on BBC TV's Later....with Jools Holland. When in 2016 fROOTS Magazine asked its readers to vote on the "Best of the Best" albums of the last 30 years, to our gratified surprise Ragged Kingdom was voted no. 4 and Holy Bandits no. 5 in a list that began with Buena Vista Social Club and Paul Simon's Graceland.

In 2013 Ray Cooper left Oysterband to pursue a solo career, and we replaced him not with a bassist/cellist, but with a bassist and a cellist - the former our long-time producer and friend Al Scott, the latter Adrian Oxaal, probably better-known as electric guitarist with British indie-rock band James, but also a seriously good cello player.

In early 2014 we put out a collection of new songs, Diamonds On The Water. The 6-piece line-up with Al and Adrian is getting well bedded in, and gigs are possibly even more fun now than they've ever been.

A new Best-of collection to cover the period since 1998 was released at the end of May 2016 as a double CD/download under the title This House Will Stand.

Somewhere during the lockdown era, Pete Flood left us to pursue for a while his other great love, botany, and Sean Randle took over the drum stool. Sean is now working with us on a new studio collection Read The Sky, to be released on Running Man Records (RMCD8) in early 2022.

Even after so long a career, fruitful things are still happening!

Photo Credits: (1ff) Oysterband (unknown/website); (4) Featuring June Tabor (by Walkin' Tom).

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