Topic Records: Three Score & Ten - A Voice to the People

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Topic Records: Three Score & Ten - A Voice to the People
70 Years of the Oldest Independent Record Label in Great Britain
Book and 7-CD Set
Topic Records (

Marking Topic Records’ seventieth anniversary, Three Score & Ten is a gorgeous and loving tribute to the history of this remarkable independent English label. David Suff, artist and Fledg’ling Records founder, has worked with Topic Records’ guiding light Tony Engle to produce a hardbound, 108 page book on heavy, glossy paper. The text is accompanied by seven themed CDs, which fit snugly into the interior of the front- and backboards of the book. In addition, the “Topic Records Complete Catalogue 1939-2009” is included, presenting all of the Topic Records releases chronologically on vinyl, CD, and according to associated labels such as the ‘Topic World Series’ and ‘Special Delivery.’

"The Man Who Watered The Worker's Beer"
Three Score & Ten recounts the story of the Topic Records label, and the origins of Topic are particularly fascinating. Initially, the organization from which Topic would take root was the Workers’ Music Association (WMA), founded in 1936 as “an educational offshoot of the British Marxist Party.” (p. 5) The Workers’ Music Association was created to aid in the struggle against the fascism and totalitarianism that had arisen in the 1930s, and also to provide an outlet for workers to express themselves through music. From the beginning, intellectuals and artists joined together in this effort, under the organizing influence of the composer Alan Bush. In 1939, the first record released by the Workers’ Music Association was a 10” 78rpm disc entitled “The Man Who Watered The Worker's Beer” attributed to Paddy Ryan, backed by a performance of “The Internationale.” This record was issued under the Topic imprint as TRC1, indicating the ‘Topic Record Club,’ a subscription method of distribution for the music to be issued by the WMA. Both of these early recorded performances are available on Disc Six, a themed collection called “The People’s Flag,” of Three Score & Ten. The message is clear: from the beginning, what would become Topic Records was a label committed to social justice, and to the sounds of indigenous folk forms.

Interestingly enough, while the early Topic was also releasing licensed political and Soviet items as part of its educational project, the details as to why some of the early records were released have disappeared into time. But post-World War II, the influence of A. L. Lloyd and Ewan MacColl on the English folk song revival began to be felt. Topic Records’ development was also aided by the addition of Bill Leader as production manager, who recorded Jack Elliot and Dominic Behan early on for the label.

The remainder of Three Score & Ten moves quickly as the folk revival gains steam, and readers are treated to a number of notable features. The photographic documentation of the book is beautifully done. There are fantastic pictures of Shirley Collins, June Tabor, Anne Briggs, The Watersons, and a whole plethora of other artists and revival luminaries throughout the text. Full-page profiles are provided for essential figures in Topic’s history (e.g., A. L. Lloyd, Tony Engle), and full-page or double-page spreads are provided for essential releases on Topic Records (e.g., The Watersons’ Frost & Fire, Nic Jones’ Penguin Eggs). Gorgeous full-color images of Topic Records’ releases adorn the pages, too, showing that there was a significant amount of artistic consistency across the LP covers, which were often two-color prints.

"A Place Called England"
(June Tabor)
What is absorbing to follow in the text is the ongoing development of the Topic Records recording process: as a small independent label, sometimes the recording sessions were done in recording studios, but they were also often done in homes, or out in the ‘field,’ or in basements converted to makeshift studios. Throughout Three Score & Ten, there is a consistent thread of the tenacious nature of the Topic label, with recordings being made in an environment of excitement and an awareness that the music was worth taping and documenting. Of course, along the way, a number of tremendous artists were brought under Topic’s wing that would prove revelatory for folk song: Anne Briggs, The High Level Ranters, Dick Gaughan, Martin Simpson, The Watersons, Shirley Collins, Peter Bellamy, and Martin Carthy, to name but a few.

Another interesting insight provided by Three Score & Ten is the rate at which Topic Records released music. One of the amazing facts about recorded musical history is that we only have a fraction of the total amount of music produced by people across the millennia. As recording technology became better, and as Topic Records solidified into a stable business, Topic Records was in step with the modern world by offering a wide variety of releases. The label also provided forays into other world musics. Hence we see a number of classic albums emerge through the 1960s (e.g., The McPeake Family, Shirley Collins, Dave & Toni Arthur), but even more offerings through the 1970s as the revival continued to bear fruit (e.g., The Cheviot Ranters, Frankie Armstrong, Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick), and the 1980s (e.g., Nic Jones, Dick Gaughan, Brass Monkey), the 1990s (Eliza Carthy, The Albion Band), and into our current era (e.g., Tim Van Eyken, John Tams). Topic Records has also continued to reissue a number of classic performances by artists who were experts at entertaining the people, such as the concertina master Scan Tester, and to package early recordings in a way so as to provide a wellspring of inspiration for the current robust revival (e.g., the epic 20-volume Voice of the People series of traditional music).

The 7 CDs included in this handsome set are arranged thematically, and each could stand alone as a superb compilation. The first disc ranges through some ‘treasures from the Topic catalogue,’ and includes Mike Waterson’s stunning 1977 ten minute solo rendition of “Tamlyn.” Disc Two covers the English revival, and one can listen across the years to the English country dance stylings of Oak, and on to the brass arrangements of English folk song on Brass Monkey’s landmark “The Maid and the Palmer.” Disc Three is devoted to Topic’s Irish roster of artists; Scottish music is the focus of Disc Four. Disc Five focuses on the singer-songwriters that have graced the Topic label, while Disc Six explores the political and activist songs dear to Topic Records’ history. Disc Seven is another varied mixture of song and tunes, but includes some of the world music beyond the U.K. that has also been released by Topic Records.

"The Maid and the Palmer"
(Brass Monkey)
"Boi Se Otvori" (Roza Tsetkova)
As an introduction to the Topic label’s myriad treasures, it is hard to imagine a better compilation of documentary material that appeals to both the eyes and ears; and even if one is familiar with Topic’s legendary roster of artists and albums, the connoisseur is sure to find the content of Three Score & Ten moving and informative. What this project does is celebrate the Topic label through its history, through choice tracks, and through archival photos of artists and label personnel that are positively a treat. Three Score & Ten is not, however, a critical, modern academically-oriented assessment of the English folk revival such as one might find in Michael Brocken’s The British Folk Revival 1944-2002 (Ashgate 2003), Britta Sweers’ Electric Folk (OUP USA 2005), or Georgina Boyes’ The Imagined Village (Manchester University Press, 1993). Boyes presented the English folk revival as rent by numerous contradictions as key figures in the revival (such as Cecil Sharp, and later, Ewan MacColl and A.L. Lloyd) sought to fight for control over defining not just the ‘proper’ performance of folksong and its collection, but also who were actually the ‘folk’ in England. Boyes’ book, which has carried tremendous weight amongst the contemporary wave of the English folk revival, tells a tale in which women’s opinions on folksong were often pushed aside by men seeking to preserve a questionably ‘authentic’ version of English culture; the ‘folk’ of England became, essentially, a social construction – an ‘imagined village’ -- suitable to concerns and worries over English nationalism, and of a modernizing society pushing the working classes and the rural countryside to the margins.

In Topic’s Three Score & Ten, the history of the label is presented in a heroic light, with little darkness shed on the pioneers and contemporaries who have worked to preserve the folksong of the U.K. and beyond. This is precisely how this beautiful and lavish production should be. Contradictions be damned: if not for managing slender finances carefully; arranging recording sessions in basements, houses, and studios; fostering talent; establishing labels, and helping to distribute other independent roots music purveyors; and of course, the pure love of the music itself, the groundbreaking survey of Topic’s legacy that is Three Score & Ten would not have been possible. It may be fashionable to speak of the constructed nature of ‘Englishness,’ or of the ‘imagined village,’ and that authenticity in folk music is as much an applied role as any rock star pose. But at the end of the day, the music speaks for itself, as traditions are passed on to avoid death through inertia.

I’d say that in many ways, Topic Records is akin to a soul label, providing a reservoir of deep feelings and timeless experience. The reader and listener to Three Score & Ten cannot help but feel indebted to the tireless efforts of the Topic Records team across the years to help make this music live and grow. – Lee Blackstone :

Audio samples and book/CD set available at cdRoots cdRoots

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