At the start of the 80’s during the glorious and exciting anarcho-punk days, Joseph Porter was the drummer on two of the best bands of the scene, The Mob and Zounds; but a personal, weird and rich songwriting talent and a need for singing took him in 1983 to form his own band Blyth Power, named after a steam engine, an innovative and unique blend of folk and punk energy and attitude since day one, surely hard to be comprehend by many straight punk minds. Despite years of difficult relationships with the record label and the music business, oddly enough marked by the release of some of the band’s best albums, in 1993 a disillusioned Joseph Porter opted to go independent and kept following his lights and inspiration in telling his unique, witty, odd stories about historical themes, Medieval folklore and trains until the present time, strongly still one of the most quintessentially English musical voice around.
On May 1st Blyth Power will be one of the leading players at Mayday Special gig at The Continental in Preston along with fellow 80’s post punk legends The Nightingales and Blue Orchids; The too often humiliated workers’ day couldn’t be in better hands…
Many thanks for the interview. Let’s start from the times of punk explosion, where punk also meant that all was up for grabs. The idea to make your life as a musician was purely incidental? Did you already dream of it in your teens and what were your inspirations?
I had no interest in music until my brother started buying punk records in 1976 – 77. Before that I was only interested in trains and planned to go on the railway after I left school. Music didn’t interest me at all. The first The Clash LP had a big impact on me as a teenager though. That and ‘Live at the Roxy WC2’.
Joseph, in the early 80’s you lived in Hackney I guess, and started as a drummer in two, but I should add Null & Void too, of the best bands of the anarcho scene, Zounds and The Mob, with whom you recorded that unsung little gloom punk masterpiece titled ‘Let The Tribe Increase’. What are your abiding memories of those early days? Do you also have any fond memories of playing along the likes of Poison Girls, Rudimentary Peni, Flux Of Pink Indians, Omega Tribe, etc.?
I liked the sense of an endless hot summer that period of my life has left me with. Lots of good friends and a strange insular underground world in North London divorced entirely from the rest of the world. I smoked a lot of dope with Zounds. We toured with Crass and Poison Girls briefly and they were all wonderful – rehearsing with Zounds at Crass’s residence was always an experience as well. I never knew any of those other bands as Zounds never really gelled with the anarcho punk scene on account of being old hippies. The Mob rarely ventured out of London so most of the bands/musicians I remember best are not really remembered now…
The drummer role was too small and your own songs didn’t fit properly, so you decided to form your own band with a sound that has been defined “Steeleye Span meets The Clash”, surely the latter was an inspiration, and I read that Joe Strummer produced the last Null & Void single too, but from where did the folk elements come from? You undoubtedly followed a different path than that of Mekons or The Pogues…
The folk element crept in spontaneously as I never listened to any prior to around 1985. Subsequently I listened to Martin Carthy a lot but it’s more the shape and form of the songs than the sound. Early Blyth Power was hardly a folk sound by any stretch of the imagination.
In 1986 the band signed for Nick Ralph’s Midnight Music, a semi-professional label with a remarkable roster of excellent bands and quirky Englishmen like Robyn Hitchcock too. What was your relationship with the label? Which bands of that roster did you like most? Your Midnight period is considered your most prolific and creatively inspiring one, what are your highlights and lowlights of it?
The whole thing was a disaster. Whoever rates it that highly won’t have heard the recent recordings. Nick Ralph was a great guy and a brilliant engineer but not a great businessman. My abiding memory of our involvement there is the fact that we lost several copyrights to Cherry Red when they went bust. I never listened to any of the other bands as music was purely something I played rather than listened to. I just wasn’t interested.
In those years the sadly departed and main player in the UK anarcho/DIY punk scene for many years, Martin “Protag” Neish, was a member of the band, could you share with us your best memory of him?
Hmmm. Probably the time I got him to admit he was wrong over the etymology of the word ‘Guillemot’…
In 1993 you decided that the best way to create music for yourself and with your own rules was to set up your own label Downwarde Spiral Records, in 2014 you released your eleventh studio LP ‘Women And Horses And Power And War’. It was the best choice, in retrospect, also in longevity terms, wasn’t it?
It wasn’t really a choice. No one would touch us with a bargepole. We were regarded as being past our sell-by date and what little attention we got from the music press was derogatory. We formed the label because we had to. It has had its benefits but was never my first choice. Too much organisation, paperwork and pains in the backside. All I wanted to do was play music and photograph trains.
Politically and economically, there are parallels to be drawn between the present day and the early 1980s – do you think there’s been any great societal progress in the last thirty years? Today it seems even worse, with less hopes and more cynism and a neo-liberalism more brutal than ever.
I don’t think much has changed though – it’s just that tools like the Internet and modern communications allow us to micro-analyse it all. The 1970s/1980s was as grim a time as you could wish for – but so much happened behind closed doors.
I grew up listening to socially committed punk bands, I can easily affirm they had, and still have nowadays, a profound effect on me as individual, nowadays rock’n’roll is no longer a motivating force for youthful rebellion? Maybe music has lost the value and relevance that previously had; What’s your opinion about this?
Music is just as capable of inspiring rebellion and attitude as it always was – Punk didn’t change that. There were underground bands before and after and there still are now. The mainstream music scene has always been a waste of time and space. You just have to look under the right stone and find what inspires you.
I’ve recently read that people under the age of 24 do not have a physical connection to music and they’ve never had to make an investment, financially or with their time, to listen to it. Also that 48% of people who buy vinyl do not actually listen to it. How do you see the current state of music?
To be honest I don’t see it as important so I don’t care. I have no idea what is happening in the ‘‘music scene’’. We have operated for decades without it and continue to do so…
You often use to play stripped down acoustic sets in tiny places as duo Annie Hatcher’s keyboards; Well, as many say, folk music is all about telling stories, yours are historical and trains inspired ones. It’s a challenging task, isn’t it? How much of your acoustic sets are improvised?
Nothing is improvised. We rehearse alternative arrangements of songs to allow us to play in different venues and to different types of audience.
Could you talk about your annual August mini-festival, the “Blyth Power Ashes”? What about the next 2017 edition?
The Ashes was a way of keeping in touch with friends and people who liked the band after we stopped touring so much. It grew into the four day sleepover it now is, but it was spontaneous and unintentional. 2017 will be the same as ever – we will be performing the entire ‘Guns Of Castle Cary’ album on the Monday night, and this year the campsite actually has a shower – so we are evolving!
To celebrate the nowadays ‘trampled’ workers’ rights, next May 1st you’ll be playing a May Day Special gig at The Continental in Preston along with The Nightingales and Blue Orchids. Did you already share the stage with them back in the days? What should the fans expect?
I think we supported them back in the mid 1980s – but we were a different band back then. Basically we’ll be doing a mixture of songs spanning over thirty years of the band’s history, but using the greater skills and knowledge acquired over the years. Don’t expect the basic grungy mess we were back then. Blyth Power only looks forward – our history is past and Ι am content for it to remain there.
Many thanks for being our welcome guest, just the last questions about your very next plans?
Plans for another Kickstarter project soon to fund a new CD. It’s all written and partially rehearsed and it will be the best one yet.
Photo credits: Teq (1st one)