I recently caught up with poet Ian McMillan backstage at The Civic, Barnsley where he, myself and a whole theatre of participants were to create a recording of The People’s Poem for Experience Barnsley, the museum which will open in Barnsley Town Hall next year. I wanted to speak to him about his experience of live music in Barnsley and how that influenced the music and poetry he made.
Tell me about your first encounter with live music in Barnsley…
There were bands that used to be on at The George in Low Valley, between Darfield and Wombwell. I remember going to see a fantastic Ramones style punk band there in about 1975 but I don’t remember their name. I remember seeing people like Dave Burland, Derrick and Dorothy Elliot – Yorkshire Relish, Mike Harding, Bob and Carole Pegg who weren’t from Barnsley but they had a band called Mr Fox that I saw at The Civic.
How did you come to join Oscar the Frog?
When I formed Oscar the Frog in 1970 in mi mate’s front room, we did it because that’s what we thought that people ought to do. It’s what we had to do. My mate Martyn Wiley, he had a bass. We rehearsed at his house. I was to be the drummer but I had no drums. All I had wa’ mi mam’s Tupperware. I didn’t have any drumsticks either. All I had were some knitting needles. I went to Jax’s Music Shop and bought a cow-bell and a set of bongos because I thought they sounded good. Steve Sutcliffe played the guitar and fiddle.
What kind of band was it and what kind of music did you make?
We used to rehearse at the church hall in Darfield. We thought we were a kind if progressive rock band because that’s what we were in to.
We went to The Civic to see Mr Fox and that would have been about 1971. Mr Fox were a fantastic band. Bob and Carol Pegg, Barry Lyons and Alun Eden on bass and drums who also formed a band called Trees. I remember it was so anarchic. I remember Bob Pegg running back on stage on the encore with part of The Civic pantomime set. We thought this is the kind of music we want to play.
We did our first gig at a jumble sale at Darfield Church Hall. We got drums at this point. We were so bad. Folk didn’t even look up to watch us, they just carried on buying. We played at various folk clubs; The King George, The Wheatsheaf at town end and the folk club at the Centenary Rooms, here at The Civic. And then they sacked me and Martyn because we weren’t very good. Somebody said, ‘I saw your band the other day and you weren’t in it,’ and that wa’ it. So we then formed a duo called Jaws that went round folk clubs. We were called Jaws because we talked.
In them days there was a big burgeoning folk scene in Wath, the Royal Oak at Wombwell; and that’s where you’d get up to sing. It were a very welcoming scene. You have someone doing a traditional song, us doing a poem, someone singing a song they’d written themselves – very welcoming.
They still do that. Every Monday night at The Trades.
That’s right. You have people like Johnny Walker – is he still around? Ray Padgett, The Barnsley Lads. That was my first live music. Folk.
You formed folk/poetry duo Jaws with Martyn Wiley after Oscar the Frog. What originally inspired you personally to fuse poetry with music?
Like ah seh, when we first started, we didn’t know what to do. I didn’t really want to do poetry with it. Because we were fifteen, we knew we had to be in a band. The models that we had were Jake Thackray, and so Steve Suttcliffe wrote these quasi-Jake Thackray songs …and folk rock. We went to see Steeleye Span at The Civic Hall and Mr Fox and Fairport Convention.
When we got the sack from the band, me and Martyn would go around folk clubs and read poems and then we saw that folk clubs were ripe for satire. We sang a version of Summer Nights from Grease. We did a terrible version of Streets of London by Ralph McTell, where we replaced every noun with a part o’ body. So something like the Feets of Shinbone. It were absolutely terrible. We did daft things like, our mate Sess – Andrew Cartlidge from Darfield, would appear half way through a gig with his piano accordion, pretending to be late because he’d missed his bus and we’d sack him on the spot. We thought it was funny, but it wasn’t. It was crap. We once sang Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree backwards, whilst eating two bags of crisps. It was ridiculous student humour but it seemed to go down well.
After Jaws we formed Circus of Poets, which was me, Martyn and a guy called John Turner from Rotherham and a fella called Dave Amour from Doncaster. It was like a four man performance poetry group. This was the really early eighties. That carried on until ’89. It was great. Four poets and a drum machine. We did close harmony poetry and it was at the same time as John Cooper Clarke, Attila the Stockbroker’s Seething Wells; there was a big performance poetry scene at the time which was called Cabaret Poetry.
After that, me and Martyn went out as Yakety-Yak! Again, just talking fast poetry in the days when rap was just coming to the fore – people like Grandmaster Flash.
Then after that, I formed The Ian McMillan Orchestra which is my band at the moment. I said to my agent, ‘I like working with musicians’ and so we put a band together. Me, Luke Carver Goss, a squeeze box player, fiddle player, a hurdy-gurdy player but because of living in different parts of the country – South Yorkshire, Wales and London, it’s really hard to get together to rehearse and it also makes it expensive. After that, me and Luke are going to work together on a poet and music.
In fact, thinking about it, the inspiration for all that, poetry and music, was a fella called Pete Morgan from York. He did a poetry and jazz album, which the Yorkshire Arts Association put out. I bought a copy recently off of the internet on vinyl (Pete Morgan & Robert Shaw with the Dick Hawden Quintet – Poetry & Jazz On Record) and I might play it when I guest on Stuart Maconie’s Freakier Zone of Radio 6, next week. It’s summat like Ginsberg. It’s fantastic. I’ve always liked working with musicians in that way. Those were long answers to short questions.
Ian McMillan, commonly known as The Bard of Barnsley, is a poet, musician, playwrite, broadcaster and journalist. He is a regular contributor on BBC Radio and write a regular column for The Barnsley Chronicle.
You can keep up to date with Ian’s work and live appearances at www.uktouring.org.uk/ian-mcmillan/index.html
Words and interview by Jason White