Sound and Vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

Introduction

Discover more about the British Library's 6 million sound recordings and the access we provide to thousands of moving images. Comments and feedback are welcomed. Read more

19 September 2020

Glastonbury New Bands Competition Collection: Unlocking the dreams of unsigned bands

By Karoline Engelhardt, UOSH Cataloguing Intern, and Andy Linehan, Curator of Popular Music.

On this day in 1970, as chance would have it a Saturday just like today, around one and a half thousand people assembled on the green fields at the rural Worthy Farm near the village of Pilton in South West England for what was then known as the Pilton Pop, Blues & Folk Festival. The event, organised by dairy farmer Michael Eavis, was not an instant success but laid a foundation for something that over the following decades would become the leading fixture of the British live music and festival scene.

Fifty years on, the Glastonbury Festival has evolved into arguably the world’s most popular music festival. Headlining one of the main stages has become an indicator that one has made it in the industry and getting to perform at Worthy Farm is now a dream many bands pursue.

The festival has a long history of supporting a diverse range of performing artists which is evident in its infrastructure. Along with the famous Pyramid Stage dozens of smaller stages are scattered all over the festival site which provide a platform to (relatively) unknown performers to showcase their talents to a wider audience.

In the early 2000’s Glastonbury took its support of aspiring bands and musicians to another level by calling out for unsigned acts to enter a competition which offered the chance to perform on one of the festival’s main stages. The Emerging Talent Competition, launched in 2004 as the Glastonbury Festival Unsigned Performers Competition, is still part of the annual festival today.

From 2010 onwards applications were processed online but up until 2009 emerging acts had to physically compile an application bundle consisting of an entry form, giving details about the performer and their music, a biography and a demo CD containing no less than two or three of their best songs. A selected team at Glastonbury would listen to the demos, shortlist their favourites and invite the successful candidates to perform in a final at Pilton Working Men’s Club.

Demos and documents on the shelves at the Library

Above: Demos and documents of the Glastonbury New Bands Competition collection stored at the British Library Sound Archive.

From 2004 to 2009, excluding the fallow year of 2006, thousands of applications found their way to Glastonbury. CDs, documents and additional items that were often added to the applications, such as band merch or press cuttings, started to fill a growing number of boxes stored at the festival offices. They could have stayed locked behind those office doors, never to be seen or heard again, but luckily the organisers understood the potential value of what they had in their possession. In search of a permanent home for the recordings they eventually got in touch with the Sound Archive at the British Library, whose Popular Music department was thrilled to acquire the collection.

A contemporary witness of the music created at the beginning of the 21st century by unsigned bands and musicians in Britain and beyond, the Glastonbury New Bands Competition Collection (C1238) not only offers the opportunity to reflect on the current state of various music genres, but also provides a valuable representation of youth and DIY culture at the turn of the century, captured through the demo designs and song lyrics.

In the first three years of the competition contestants were offered to choose between four stages for which they wished to compete: the Dance Tent/ Dance Village, the Acoustic Stage, the World Stage/ Jazz World Stage and the New Tent/ John Peel Stage. This approach resulted in a refreshing mix of musical genres amongst the submissions. The overall winner would appear on the Other Stage, situated right behind the Pyramid Stage, following in the footsteps of established performers such as Iggy Pop, Massive Attack or the Chemical Brothers.

The Subways performing on the Other Stage at the Glastonbury Festival 2004

Above: The Subways performing on the Other Stage at the Glastonbury Festival 2004 following their win of the first competition. © STUNPHOTO

English rock band the Subways were the first to win the overall competition in 2004 and are only one example of an act that went on to establish themselves after entering. Amongst others, the collection includes some rare first attempts by Scouting for Girls, Liz Green, James Blunt, Smoke Fairies, Newton Faulkner, Wild Beasts and Ashok, a band featuring Florence Welch, subsequently of Florence + the Machine. Not all of these acts would emerge as winners or even get invited to the finals of the competition – which only confirms that determination and stamina go a long way. Many bands vanished after a few years, some never found fame but still enjoy performing together today. Other contestants found success pursuing other professions outside the music industry and this collection adds a piece to all of their biographies.

Listen to '1AM' by the Subways - the first track from the band's demo submitted to the competition in 2004

British Library ref. C1238/2540, (p) 2006 The Echo Label Limited (a BMG company).

Consisting of more than 4600 demos, the Glastonbury New Bands Competition Collection has been selected for the ambitious Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project (UOSH), which is part of the Save Our Sounds programme led by the British Library. Involving ten further hubs across the UK, UOSH aims to preserve nearly half a million unique and at-risk recordings and to make them accessible to the public. The project solely focuses on collections that have been stored on analogue recording formats. These are prone to two possible risk factors: the sound carriers are physically vulnerable; and the means to play them back are slowly becoming extinct.

Demo CD submitted by Ashok

Above: Demo submitted by Ashok featuring Florence Welch who went on to form Florence + the Machine. ‘Happy Slap’ is an early version of their debut single ‘Kiss with a Fist’.

In this particular case, CD players are still widely available and most PCs even have an inbuilt CD drive. However, the vast majority of the demos submitted to the Glastonbury competition were on CD-R. Different from mass-manufactured commercial CDs, the digital information on CD-Rs is burned into a layer of dye on the bottom side of the disc. The results of this procedure are strongly dependent on the device used for the burning process, the quality of the blank disc and the speed at which the information has been written into the dye. Furthermore, the dye simply fades away over time and exposure to daylight can speed up that process.

All of these aspects make this large collection particularly vulnerable and therefore call for a pressing need to digitise these recordings in order to eliminate the risk of losing their audio content forever. At the same time the UOSH rights clearance team is in contact with individual artists to make this collection as accessible as possible.

The Glastonbury New Bands Competition Collection will be fully preserved by the end of this month.

Key discovered in the collection

Above: Discovered amongst the collection documentation items: a contestant quite literally put the key to their dreams in the hands of the competition organisers.

Keep an eye out for Nina Webb-Bourne’s forthcoming blog, she will be sharing the story behind the winning demo submitted by the Subways to the Glastonbury Festival Unsigned Performers Competition in 2004, featuring an interview with the band’s lead singer Billy Lunn.

14 September 2020

Recording of the week: Another side of Laurence Binyon

This week's selection comes from Steve Cleary, Lead Curator of Literary and Creative Recordings.

Portrait of Laurence Binyon
Portrait of Laurence Binyon - lithograph by Sir William Rothenstein, 1898. © The Trustees of the British Museum, released as CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Poet and scholar Laurence Binyon (1869-1943) spent 40 years working for the British Museum as a leading authority on Chinese and Japanese art.

As a poet, he is best remembered for these lines from his WWI poem ‘For the Fallen’, which was first published in The Times of 21 September 1914:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

In 1914, Binyon himself, though over-age for military service, volunteered for the Red Cross, and served at the front as a medical orderly.

For this ‘recording of the week’ we present the poet reading a lesser-known work, ‘Pine Trees’, one of a group of four poems recorded for the Columbia Graphophone Company of Japan.

The original 10” 78 rpm disc, from which this is dubbed, is so rare that the sound archive does not actually hold its own copy. The date of recording is unknown.

Laurence Binyon reads 'Pine Trees'

Pine Trees

Down through the heart of the dim woods
The laden, jolting waggons come.
Tall pines, chained together,
They carry; stems straight and bare,
Now no more in their own solitudes
With proud heads to rock and hum;
Now at the will of men to fare
Away from their brethren, their forest friends
In the still woods; through wild weather
Alone to endure to the world's ends:
Soon to feel the power of the North
Careering over black waves' foam;
Soon to exchange the steady earth
For heaving decks; the scents of their home,
Honeyed wild-thyme, gorse and heather,
For the sting of the spray, the bitter air.

 

Follow @BL_DramaSound@BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

08 September 2020

The Political Lives of Postwar British MPs: An Oral History of Parliament

Emma Peplow and Priscila Pivatto write about the History of Parliament Oral History Project and their new book 'The Political Lives of Postwar British MPs'.

Front cover of the book 'The Political Lives of Postwar British MPs'

It may seem strange to explore the lives of politicians through oral history. More often it is used to create sources for communities whose narratives are traditionally unheard, whereas MPs are some of the most well-recorded individuals in our society.

We have Hansard, voting records, press reports, memoirs and media interviews. Yet there are many aspects of life in Westminster and beyond that these records can’t quite capture. To try to fill these gaps, since 2011 the History of Parliament Trust’s oral history project, in collaboration with the British Library, has been interviewing former MPs about their experiences.

Out last month, The Political Lives of Postwar British MPs acts as an introduction and guide to the archive of over 175 ‘life story’ interviews with people who witnessed British politics at first hand and offer unique perspectives on parliament’s history.

There are certainly particular challenges to overcome that emerge from interviewing those who are used to public scrutiny. In our experience, working with politicians means that we regularly encounter well-known issues for oral historians such as ‘practiced narratives’ and ‘legacy building’. Politicians are used to speaking in public and well aware that their words will shape the writing of British history. Many interviewees have their favourite stories rehearsed and retell them frequently. When asked about her first impressions of parliament, Diana Maddock (Liberal Democrat, 1993-97) recognises her own practiced narrative:

Diana Maddock, C1503/157, Track 3 [00:09:05 - 00:09:35]

Because I won the by-election […] I had to go and talk to every local party dinner everywhere about what we did, and they used to ask “what’s it like?” And I used to say, I had a sort of patter after a while, and I said: “well, it’s a bit strange. I’m not a lawyer, I wasn’t in the guards, I didn’t go to a public school and I’m not a man. So it’s a pretty strange place.”

Previous research helps our interviewers to notice these stories and then, if possible, begin to unpack them. Some politicians might also be tempted to use the interview to portray their actions in the best possible light. Again, we encourage our interviewers to question these narratives and pursue deeper reflections. The way they justify a controversial vote, the reasons why they accepted a post, their involvement in scandals or even how they dealt with everyday life in Westminster are valuable to analyse how they understand the past and the gradual changes in acceptable and unacceptable behaviours inside the institution (for more see our recent article in Oral History Journal, 47, 2).

Despite these issues, our archive sheds light on a wide range of political experiences and offers a glimpse of life ‘behind the scenes’ at Westminster not captured elsewhere. It is an intimate perspective on British politics and Westminster’s culture in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

The archive includes as many former MPs as possible – not only the famous, not only the long-serving, but also those whose contribution is little known. Even in the case of prominent politicians, the whole life story approach gives us the most lively sense of what these people were like, their motivations, ambitions, achievements and regrets. There is a great sense of character in the interviews.

Photograph of John Cartwright standing in front of a houseJohn Cartwright, Labour/SDP, 1974-92

One example was the formation of the Social Democrat Party (SDP) in 1981 and why moderate Labour MPs chose to leave or remain in the party. MPs had to decide based on their personal loyalties, their calculations for their political future and also take into account the nature of their constituency party. Each decision was an individual one, as described by John Cartwright (Labour/SDP, 1974-92):

John Cartwright, C1503/94 [00:34:05 - 00:35:50]

That was the key thing, the Limehouse Declaration, and it was a question of who joined and who didn’t after that. I wrestled with it for a long time. I found it incredibly difficult because, as I said, I grew up in the Labour Party and I couldn’t see what life was going to be like outside the Labour Party. I also thought the chances of holding a safe seat like Woolwich, for this curious new organisation, were about nil. […] There were two issues, one: the left had been ganging up on my constituency for quite some time. Not just the Tribunite left, I could handle them, but the hard left, the Trotskyite left. […] My friends were saying to me “look, it’s getting difficult, more and more of them are arriving, we are losing control of various committees, you need to do this, you need to do that.” I said: “hang on a minute, yes I will do all those things, but what you are going to do?” “Oh, it is very difficult for us, we are borough councillors.” I thought “why should I? Nobody is going to fight for me.” And then I thought, well I could wait and if they deselect me I could jump then, then I thought well I am damaged goods if I do that, that is not very sensible. But what it came down to in the end was that I felt I couldn’t stay in one political party if my heart was in another. And once I was convinced they really were serious about establishing a new political party I knew that’s where my heart was. And come hell or high water that’s where I had to go.

The archive provides a sense of emotion in politics, what things meant to politicians and the diversity of their personal understandings of the role of an MP. In the extracts collected in the book, MPs describe being fascinated, delighted, passionate, excited, angry, nervous, frightened, disillusioned, exhausted and many other emotions. Some narrators’ voices still broke years later when speaking about specific pieces of legislation, constituents’ casework or the impact of a political life on their families. If some were cynical political operators, most entered politics with ideals in mind. Despite different political views and life experiences, the voices valued parliamentary democracy, as John Allan Stewart (Conservative, 1979–97) remembers:

John Allan Stewart, C1503/72, Track 2 [00:02:10 - 00:02:55]

People in the House of Commons generally believe in politics. I believe there is only two ways to run society: you either run society by politicians or men with sub-machine guns, there’s no other way. So I have a great respect for the process of politics and therefore the people who practice it. Now that’s not a very fashionable thing, the fashionable thing is to attack politicians and say they’re all in it for themselves and so on and so forth. I think that some of them are, but generally that’s not true. Generally people are there because they believe in things, and/or they believe in the process of politics.

The stories build a picture of British politics over the period, from manoeuvring at constituency party meetings to Northern Irish Republicans and Unionists singing carols together in Westminster bars. Parliament’s distinct and at times baffling mixture of conventions, precedents and ‘the way things were done’ are put on full display in the interviews, as are the reactions, both positive and negative, to them. MPs could fit in and use this culture, try to subvert it, or try to meet it head on, all in order to make their mark or further their political causes.

The memories included in the book The Political Lives of Postwar British MPs are just a flavour of the History of Parliament Trust’s growing archive in the British Library, many of which can be listened to online at British Library Sounds. We hope it will be a guide for others to explore the recordings for themselves: to listen to the voices, the significant pauses and the emotions that give first-hand experiences of life in Westminster.

Dr Emma Peplow is Head of Development at the History of Parliament Trust, with responsibility for developing the Oral History Project. Emma has worked on the project since joining the Trust in 2012, conducting interviews and speaking and publishing on the project. She has previously coordinated oral history projects for the Marylebone Cricket Club Museum/University of Glamorgan and has a PhD in International History from the London School of Economics.

Dr Priscila Pivatto is a Research Associate at the History of Parliament Trust and since 2011 has coordinated to the Oral History Project. She has also conducted interviews, trained interviewers, published and presented papers on oral history, parliamentary proceedings and history of political thought. She has a PhD in Public Law from the University of São Paulo, Brazil.