The Black Meadow, Chris Lambert and The Soulless Party

A disclaimer: I am in love with the North York Moors. This vast sweep of bleakly beautiful countryside, occupying a remote corner of North-Eastern England, was virtually my childhood playground. Sunday afternoons were made for family yomps around the heather-coated hillsides of Carlton Bank and Roseberry Topping, while school trips and Outward Bound courses began to introduce tantalising hints of sometimes-invented folklore. Did I ever get to the bottom of the ‘Black Heart of Whorlton Castle’, a terrifying, medieval ghost story set amidst the crumbling remains of this overgrown, 12th Century ruin? Yes, 25 years later, when I tracked down my former teacher, Mr Hirst, and he all but admitted that he’d made the whole thing up.

But that was part of the appeal: landscape attracts stories. Both ancient and modern. And now, when I tramp around the same desolate hillsides and ancient ruins as a middle-aged, weekend dog-walker, I take as much pleasure and inspiration from the folklore attached to the landscape as I do from those spectacular surroundings themselves.

Clearly Chris Lambert and Kev Oyston feel the same. Around five years ago, I became aware of their musical collaboration as The Soulless Party, and the folk-influenced electronica that claimed to take its inspiration from the sinister stories attached to The Black Meadow, an area of the North York Moors centred around the famous RAF Fylingdales. I knew, of course, the story of this mysterious military base; its legendary “golf ball” radomes had comprised arguably the most recognisable Cold War missile warning system in the world. Though these infamous spheres were demolished in the mid-1990s, and replaced by a sleek, concrete pyramid, the base remains an iconic local landmark.

I was, however, utterly unaware of the wealth of local folklore that Lambert and Oyston seemed to have unearthed. The Black Meadow was a name unfamiliar to me, as were its accompanying tales of a village that appears only “when the mist is high”: a darkly mystical community existing in a supernatural netherworld of pre-industrialised folk ritual and superstition. Just who was the “Rag and Bone Man”? Did the mysterious “Brightwater Archive” really attempt to document these stories in the 1930s, before being inexplicably shut down? And did Roger Mullins, a visiting professor at York University, genuinely vanish in the area while attempting further investigations in 1972?

Lambert and Oyston presented books, music, photographs, websites, blogs, lectures and even a “lost” 1977 Radio 4 documentary to reinforce the veracity of these stories, expertly blurring the lines between genuine folklore and invented fiction. I’ve since come to know them both well. I’ve interviewed them many times for BBC Radio Tees, and I’ve even collaborated with them on certain projects. Sometimes they admit to wild invention, other times they’re tantalisingly vague. It’s all part of the fun. And the project has been expanded further with the release of two new instalments: a wonderfully atmospheric album – largely by Oyston – and Lambert’s accompanying book, where tales of the “Ticking Policeman”, the “March of the Meadow Hags” and the “Village Under The Lake” further explore the legend.

Both book and album are entitled The Black Meadow Archive Volume 1, and both are available now.

I spoke to Chris Lambert about the whole Black Meadow phenomenon…

Bob: For those unaware, tell us a little bit about the Black Meadow in your own words… as far as you’re concerned, where exactly is it?

Chris: The Black Meadow is an area of land on the Whiteway Heads Road, between Sleights and Pickering on the North York Moors. RAF Fylingdales, once of the iconic “golf balls” missile warning system, is located on the Black Meadow. For centuries, the Meadow has been a hotbed of strange phenomena, mysterious creatures and bizarre happenings. The most famous of these, as everybody knows, is the village that appears when the mist is high. I first found out about it when a colleague of mine, Kev Oyston, was investigating a lost Radio 4 documentary, Curse of the Black Meadow, and asked me to assist him in his research. After that I was hooked.

Do you find that area of the North York Moors especially fascinating? It provides a direct link between ancient landscape – with its associated folk stories – and Cold War paranoia, in the shape of the aforementioned RAF Fylingdales. Is that a combination that you find particularly irresistable? 

It’s completely fascinating. It’s the incongruity of that vast landscape and the stark, strange pyramid that now sits atop it. The golf balls too were an eerie sight… even more eerie in the memory, and in faded photographs, now that they are gone. I grew up at the tail end of the Cold War… though excitingly it is threatening a comeback, which will be a real boon for us Threads fans. But I remember living with a slight sense of dread constantly in the back of my mind. I think that’s why I’m drawn to these places, and to these types of stories.

Just down the road from where I live, in Berkshire, is RAF Greenham Common, the now-decommissioned American missile base. That also holds a real fascination for me. And the silos were used as a location for Star Wars – The Force Awakens! I also love the pillboxes that are dotted along our local canal, to defend us against attacks on our waterways. Any site where there is a strange, seemingly anachronistic incongruity attracts me. That juxtaposition of the natural against the artificial, particularly in places where nature has actually won. That shows that these terrors are fleeting, and that the life of our planet is beautiful.

I think this might also be because I read a lot of John Christopher as a child, and loved the images of the decayed modern cities in The White Mountains, from the Tripods trilogy, and Beyond the Burning Lands, from the Prince in Waiting trilogy. Or the desolation in Empty World. More recently I read his adult novels The Death of Grass and Wrinkle in the Skin. They also scratched this itch, with their exploration of a vastly altered landscape.

What’s your own connection to the North-East? Were your parents from Teesside?  

My mum grew up in York, and her parents were from that area. My Dad was the vicar of the parish church in Saltburn in the 1960s and early 1970s, before I was born. He then moved the family down to Shaftesbury in Dorset, which is where I appeared! Interestingly, Shaftesbury is the home of Gold Hill, where the famous Yorkshire-set Hovis advert, directed by Ridley Scott, was filmed. So, quite aptly, I lived in an imagined Yorkshire, in the south of England. Interestingly my Mum told me just at the weekend that she never wanted to move south. She absolutely loves the north of England, and I suppose that enthusiasm has rubbed off. 

I know you had quite a religious upbringing, and I’m guessing traditional folklore wasn’t a big part of that. Is there an element of researching and writing about supernatural folk stories makes them almost “forbidden fruit” for you? 

Oh, my goodness. All of it! I think I appear to be very overexcited about things when I discover them. I don’t have the same cultural references as Kev Oyston or your good self, because I wasn’t allowed to watch, listen to or read quite a lot of things when I was little. My Dad would put the TV in the loft or in the cupboard during the week, and I would sneak an extension lead up there if they were out, and watch Alas Smith and Jones. It was a real pain when Doctor Who moved from Saturdays to Tuesdays and Thursdays.

I did a talk about burning my Fighting Fantasy gamebooks when I was a young fundamentalist – I was led to believe that they would do me spiritual harm. So any folklore was off limits. Anything occult-tinged was a no-no. I remember my mum warning me about the dangers of Dennis Wheatley… who I had never heard of, but she made him sound very exotic and interesting. I still haven’t got around to him, as I don’t believe he could live up to the hype! I was brought up on the aggressive anti-gay/catholic/muslim/occult tracts by Jack Chick, and the only comics I read were Archie and the (now that I have revisited them) utterly appalling and deeply offensive Crusaders comics. With the exception of Archie, these comics introduced me to imagery of hell, torture, possession and demons that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Lucio Fulci or Armando de Ossario film. So oddly, it was these terribly written but evocatively illustrated works, intended to lure me away from Satan and all his works, that stuck in my head. I wouldn’t have known about these things if I hadn’t read them. Such a strange bubble to live in! 

So sometimes there is a little wicked part of myself that thinks – would this get burned? Is this a bit naughty? If it is, I’m more likely to research it or write it. This sounds a bit like rebellion but it doesn’t feel like it, I just write what comes into my head. But I can’t deny the influences of my childhood.

You’ve lived in Berkshire for many years – was there ever a temptation to write about Berkshire folklore, or is there something specifically about the North-East, and the North York Moors, that you find lends itself to strangeness?

I am very interested in Berkshire, and have written a kid’s play called Deadman’s Lane which, like The Black Meadow, is about a world hidden inside another. A re-imagined geography. Deadman’s Lane bisects the school grounds where I work. I’m also working on something based in my own immediate locality, which I plan to start if the Black Meadow ever frees me from its misty embrace. That said, the North York Moors do attract me hugely… partly because they’re physically distant, and so they give me the opportunity to imagine myself there. It’s the desolation of the moors that I love, that vast sweep of heather, interrupted by that strange pyramid and the floating mist. They’re a favourite place to holiday, too.

How did you first start writing about the Black Meadow? And what were your ambitions for it at the start of all this? It’s become quite a sprawling, multi-media project… 

The project began when Kev and I worked on the radio documentary, The Curse of the Black Meadow. Kev had created/discovered the theme tune for Tales from the Black Meadow and it was already growing into a larger project in his head, so he invited me to help write the documentary for which this would be the theme. As I was creating that, I decided that one of the key players, “Philip Hull”, would mention, off the cuff, several folk tales… such as “The Shining Apples” and “The Devil and the Yoked Man”. I then realised that these tales needed to actually exist to add weight to the documentary. So I began to create/discover them. Firstly for the documentary, but then as we went on, more were unearthed/written.

And I had no real ambition at first! We just sort of went in the direction the meandering paths took us, having fun. After that it evolved into the book and album, but I certainly didn’t envisage at the time that that little documentary would end up leading us here…

Can we talk about Kev Oyston himself? How did you meet, and what’s the division of labour like between you and Kev? 

It’s really interesting for me to pull this apart! We met online, of course. It started because a friend of mine, Dave Yates – aka Dolly Dolly – had done a track for Kev on his Electronic Encounters album, and sent me the link. I loved the album, and was fiddling about one day and decided to make my own Close Encounters-influenced track, Follow the Toys… which I then took a punt on, and sent to Kev. He was kind enough to pop it on his Electronic Encounters Special Edition. We then bandied tracks back and forth, and he sent me a couple of instrumentals that I added lyrics to… like a latter-day Vince Clark and Andy Bell. And then Black Meadow happened. He made an evocative video to accompany his track, and invited me to do the documentary.

The division of labour for the first album was, with the exception of one track, that he wrote the tunes and I wrote the stories. As the project progressed, the process became more knotty. Kev would write a track and send it – and the title – to me. From the title and the mood of the track, I would then write a story. However at the same time I would be writing another story which he would read, and then use the title for another track. I’m now not entirely sure who started which stories! I think he definitely wrote The Black Dog, from which I wrote the story… and I wrote The Shining Apples first, because Philip Hull mentioned that in his interview.

For this second album we used a similar method. I would immerse myself in the music and extrapolate a story from that and the title, or Kev would come up with a tune, from the story and title I’d provided. I have fond memories of listing to The Maiden of the Mist on repeat, while I worked on that story. I have the album on repeat when I’m writing, editing and typesetting, just to stay in that world. The second album has been a much longer process because Kev kept writing more music, and I kept coming up with more stories. It got so thorny that I had to make a spreadsheet just to keep track. Which Kev ignored on several occasions! Hence the thickness of the book.

What kind of reaction does the Black Meadow evoke in people? Do people generally believe it all?

We tread a fine line. When I do a talk I introduce myself as “a teacher, a writer and a liar”. I often have the word “LIES” on a screen behind me. But even though I say that, people still ask me if it’s all real. I had one person ask me if they should contact their MP about the disappearances on the moors… I actually didn’t give a her a definite “no”, as I was quite tempted to see what would happen.

I had a very strange conversation with one chap. I remember starting a sentence with “I made all this up…” and he asked me in the next sentence if what I was saying was true. I then told him “No, I made it up…” and carried on to another bit of folklore which I also preceded with a disclaimer. He then asked me about again about the truth of it all. This went on for the entire conversation… which I enjoyed immensely.

I think the issue is that people want to believe. There are also so many weird blimming things going on that they think it is all inspired by real occurrences. It’s a very interesting time to be doing a project like this, with all the talk of “fake news” and “alternative facts”. I never set out for this to be some sort of critique of that. But when you use real places, add dates, and use phrases such as “everybody knows” or “it has often been said” before telling a story, people seem to accept it as the truth. Even if you explicitly tell them it’s a lie.

Have you met sceptical souls?

I have met sceptical souls, but they tend to enjoy the wink and the nudge of it all. I often say that if you do even the tiniest bit of research this will all unravel, but most people can’t be bothered and would rather enjoy the fun.

Is blurring the boundaries between reality and fiction part of the appeal for you? How far will you go to achieve that?

I am very much into the idea of mythogeography, projecting a story onto a landscape and exploring that landscape through a different lens. We all do it to a certain extent… for example, we get a little frisson of excitement when we visit a film location. Gloucester Cathedral cloisters are the location of the Hogwarts corridors in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. So if you visit, you can picture the martyrdom of Bishop Bonner alongside the petrification of Colin Creevey. And when I visited Cheddar Gorge in Somerset the guide on the bus tour talked of how the two tall columns of stone influenced J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers. I don’t know if that was true at all, but even if it wasn’t, I could still picture Orcs peeking out from behind the stones.

It’s the urban myths told around camp fires: “It was just half a mile from here that his body was found, and it is said that….” So yes, it’s a huge part of the appeal. I think some of that comes from playing as a child in my garden. I was lucky enough to have a big, vicarage garden and would spend hours on my own imagining myself in epic fantasy adventures. I would make tunnels in bracken and bramble, and fashion maps where corridors and cave-like openings would have grandiose names.

The strange thing is, I visited the Black Meadow over a year after I had written the first tale and I was struck by how very real the stories seemed to be, and how they fitted with the landscape. It was very strange. I’m delighted that every time I’ve been there, it’s been shrouded in mist.

How far would you take the illusion? There is actually a little plaque on the moors, isn’t there… where – ahem – did that come from?

How far would I go? I think there’s a mischievous side to me, but I would be utterly appalled if we hurt anyone’s feelings or upset anyone. So Kev and I both err on the side of caution. We aren’t planning to do an Area 51 style storming of RAF Fylingdales, for example. That said, the plaque commemorating the disappearance of Roger Mullins, which you can indeed find on the North York Moors, was put there by the Brightwater Archive and Roger’s family. It has nothing to with me or Kev, so I don’t know what you’re talking about there.

Back in 2017, you brought a party of drama students up from your Berkshire school, and performed a Black Meadow stage play at Caedmon College in Whitby, a stones throw from the meadow itself! I was there, and it was amazing. How on Earth did you persuade your head teacher to give the green light to all this?  

My school is great. I’ve worked there for over fifteen years, and have always been given the space to innovate. Before I was a teacher, I worked as a playwright, but I moved into teaching when I began to starve to death. From the start, I was getting the students to perform at local venues and trying out strange and wacky ideas. From medieval mystery plays around the whole school site, to a Deadman’s Lane radio play and a Zombie Walk!

Before we got to Tales from the Black Meadow – The Play, I had been working on a series of productions to try and get more boys into Drama. We went down the horror route and that did seem to work. I worked on a three-year “Trilogy of Terror” (without Karen Black or crazed African wood carvings) which started with an adaptation of The Midwich Cuckoos – right up your misty alley – followed by the aforementioned Deadman’s Lane, and then topped off with Night of the Living Dead for Kids. To promote the final play of the trilogy we did that Zombie Walk for charity and then, erm… I somehow persuaded the Parish Council to let the cast shamble after the runners when the Olympic Torch was passed through our village, in the lead-up to the 2012 Olympics.

So taking the cast of Tales From the Black Meadow to Whitby? It wasn’t really a surprise. The head teacher just rolled her eyes and gave us her blessing. I think the parents thought we were mad, though… and they were probably right, the students still talk about it. My only regret is that they didn’t get to see Whitby, because we had to leave at 5am, get off the bus at 12pm, get into the school and set up, perform at 2pm, then get back on the bus… we did however drive through the Black Meadow to get there, and the mist was up.

How do you think the performance went down? Do modern kids understand that 1970s “haunted” feeling that we still seem to feel so profoundly?

It’s always interesting performing a play to complete strangers. Caedmon College were so kind to accommodate us, and gave us lovely feedback. We could have done without our smoke machine setting off their fire alarm in the first ten minutes, though! The students really got the play, but it’s hard to say whether they get our haunted feeling. I’m just an old man to them, and they aren’t bothered by our past experiences. In the same way that weren’t bothered by our own parents’ stories when we were kids. They live in strange times though, so maybe they’ll look back on this era in a similar way, with that nostalgia for dread. We had the Three Day Week, the Cold War and Public Information Films. They have Brexit, Trump and internet memes… something weird is going to be born from that, I’m sure.

Any future plans for the Black Meadow project?  

We plan to produce the next volume of the Black Meadow Archive soon, but there are rumblings from Whitehall that we won’t be given access to their files, so there could be something of a delay whilst we sort that out. The amount of back and forth we had, trying to get the latest publication past those censorious civil servants, beggars belief. We’d love to make a film or a radio documentary, too. I guess whatever the government allows, will happen.

The Black Meadow Archive Volume 1, by Chris Lambert, is available here…

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Black-Meadow-Archive-1/dp/1688953167

And the accompanying album, by The Soulless Party, is releases on Castles In Space, and is available here…

https://thesoullessparty-cis.bandcamp.com/album/the-black-meadow-archive-volume-1

The Haunted Generation in the Fortean Times – Issue 387

As well as this weekly blog, the Haunted Generation is also a bi-monthly column in the Fortean Times magazine, rounding up new releases and forthcoming events. This was the most recent feature, from issue 387, dated Christmas 2019.

THE HAUNTED GENERATION

Bob Fischer rounds up the latest news from the parallel worlds of popular hauntology


“I suffered from night terrors,” explains Richard Littler, “and I’d leave the light on so that I could see the happy cover of my Disney annual as I tried to sleep. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen from countless horror films, juxtaposing something creepy with something innocently childlike tends to somehow make matters worse…”

We’re discussing the inspirations behind the new Scarfolk Annual. Since 2013, Littler has been the self-appointed “Mayor of Scarfolk“, the grim, North-Western town that has provided the setting for a cavalcade of spoof information posters, book covers and magazine advertisements; one of which (“If you suspect your child has RABIES don’t hesitate SHOOT”) was even mistakenly included in the Civil Service Quarterly as part of a 100-year celebration of bona fide Goverment posters (see FT 377:8). This new publication sees him turning his genius for pastiching the clunky, washed-out design and authoritarian tones of 1970s information culture into a magnificently dark homage to the hardbacked World Distributors annuals of his childhood.

“Another oft-thumbed annual was Ghost Special No. 2,” he continues. “Which is where, as a six-year-old, I first encountered Borley Rectory. A factual feature alongside Shiver & Shake and Monster Fun-style cartoons. There weren’t any ghostly photos – just pictures of rubble and remains – but it still unsettled me…”

This 1970s predilection for providing primary school-age children with laughably inappropriate reading material is sent up with unerring accuracy in the Scarfolk Annual. The gung-ho Commando-style comic strip ‘Waugh in War’ sees unhinged army officer Ben “War” Waugh determined to execute his own soldiers; elsewhere there are illustrated guides to identifying “Council Surveillance Agents”, and advice on “How to Survive a Nuclear Thing”, reassuringly explaining that “national security terminology typically employed to describe the stages of a nuclear threat will be replaced by pleasant, friendly words. If you hear ‘Flopsy Bunny’ you should expect catastrophic, irreversible annihilation.”

“The 21st century is getting closer to Scarfolk – or any number of dystopias – than it has been for a while,” laments Richard. “If real-world events start echoing motifs from dystopias, many of which are cautionary tales, it’s time to make sure that totalitarian and socially-extreme ideas don’t start to become normalised.”

And on a lighter note, the scariest member of the troupe of Play School toys, as parodied in the grisly ‘Scar School’?

“Hamble,” he replies, instantly. “She’s a cursed toy. She’s supposed to be a baby, but she looks about 80 years old. She’s like a witch, or the dwarf in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now.”

The Scarfolk Annual (“Does NOT contain the original toxic inks”) is out now, published by William Collins.

It’s been a bumper few weeks for fans of Littler’s unique brand of dystopian satire, as October also saw the release of the pilot episode of his animated series Dick & Stewart. A disturbing twelve minutes of lovingly-crafted paranoia, it uses to great effect the gentle pace and limited colour palettes of such teatime favourites as Mr Benn and Mary, Mungo and Midge to lampoon the rise of 21st century surveillance culture. Narrated – in gentle homage to 1970s voiceover king Ray Brooks – by The Mighty Boosh‘s Julian Barrett, it follows the adventures of innocent schoolboy Dick and the sentient eyeball Stewart; all that remains of Dick’s former best friend after a mysterious playground accident. Together, they are ensnared by a sinister “man” who encourages them to play “a special game of I-Spy… all you have to do is watch and listen to everything your Mummy and Daddy do and say, and write it all down for me.”

“I loved the cartoons you mention,” says Richard. “I also liked The Magic Ball and anything by Smallfilms… Ivor the EngineBagpuss etc. The slower pace gave many of the animations a dreamlike quality, which I responded to. Compounded for me because I was always off sick with colds, flu or fevers, which cast a surreal and sometimes dark shadow over the programmes. I still remember that, during one fever, the weird, unblinking eyes of the background characters in Mr Benn unsettled me…”

A woozy, analogue synth soundtrack is provided by Chris Sharp, in his guise as Concretism, further consolidating the atmosphere of 1970s unsettlement, although – again – Littler is adamant that his creations are very much concerned with contemporary, 21st century issues, particularly those of control and surveillance. “We’re frequently at risk of signing away our privacy,” he says. “I don’t think law has caught up with technological advancements yet, so there’s a constant tug-of-war between what is legal and what isn’t or shouldn’t be. Reality TV and phone cams have also normalised the idea of constantly being filmed and broadcast.”

And indeed, as the cartoon Dick is confined to bed, a camera emerges from his mouth, microphones from his ears, and a transmission aerial sprouts from the top of his head. The pilot episode can be found on the newly-founded Dick & Stewart Youtube channel.

Meanwhile, those seeking a more rural brand of wrongness will be delighted to hear of further developments on the Black Meadow. This bleak, secluded area of the North York Moors, in the shadow of the iconic RAF Fylingdales early warning station, has long since provided the inspiration for a multi-media exploration of dark folklore and Cold War disquiet, helmed by writer Chris Lambert and musician Kev Oyston. “For centuries the Meadow has been a hotbed of strange phenomena, mysterious creatures and bizarre happenings,” claims Chris. “The most famous of these, as everybody knows, is the village that appears when the mist is high…”

A visit to the Black Meadow website at blackmeadowtales.blogspot.com will confirm that both Lambert and Oyston are masters at blurring the lines between genuine folk tales (both ancient and modern) and outright invention. Did folklore investigator Professor Roger Mullins, of York University, really vanish on the moor in 1972, and become the subject of a lost Radio 4 documentary? Make your own judgements: Lambert coyly describes himself as “a teacher, a writer and a liar”. His new book, The Black Meadow Archive, will be available in early January, and is a beautiful collection of surreal and grisly folk talks; where ‘the Blackberry Ghost’ meets ‘the Ticking Policeman’. And a new collection of similarly-titled music by Oyston – recording as The Soulless Party – will be released at the same time.

Oyston has also been busy compiling an LP of original music inspired by Stephen Brotherstone and Dave Lawrence’s Scarred For Life book. The book, published in 2017, is an exhaustive compendium of the 1970s TV programmes that traumatised their respective childhoods, and the album invites veterans of the haunted movement to contribute music inspired by their own memories of the era; either alternate themes for existing programmes, or invented title music for fictional shows. The results are tremendous fun: The Heartwood Institute‘s ‘Women Against The Wire’ sounds like the opening to some hard-hitting BBC2 investigation into the Greenham Common peace camps; The Home Current‘s ‘Summer In Marstrand’ is pure half-term Scandinavian animation (think Moomins, but intent on evil); and Keith Seatman‘s ‘Words from the Wireless’ recreates the terror once instilled in him by the (literally) dream-like 1972 series Escape Into Night.

The album concludes on a poignant note: ‘Be Like A Child’ by Carl Matthews is a genuine piece of beautifully melancholy 1984 electronica from an artist whose life was cut tragically short by cancer; and all proceeds from the album are going to Cancer Research UK. It’s available now, on the Castles In Space label.

Elsewhere, it’s always a delight to welcome new material from Jon Brooks; often to be found recording for Ghost Box Records in his guise as The Advisory Circle, but new album Emotional Freedom Techniques is freshly available to download on his own Cafe Kaput label. A beautifully soothing and meditative collection of ambient electronica, it both evokes and creates a perfect sense of stillness and stasis. It’s available from cafekaput.bandcamp.com. I can also recommend Hattie Cooke‘s album The Sleepers, an evocative synth-heavy concept album detailing the consequences of a mysterious, worldwide sleeping sickness; and the self-titled debut album by The Central Office of Information, a beautifully-packed collection of entrancing melodic radiophonica and ambient disquiet, all produced by Kent-based artist Alex Cargill.  

And what better way to round off the year than with a brace of releases from… well, A Year In The Country? Stephen Prince’s ongoing quest to explore the shimmering connections between folk music, electronica and a sense of lost pastoralism has borne fruit in the shape of a new book, Straying from the Pathways, a typically comprehensive collection of essays on some of the movement’s more esoteric influences, from Detectorists to Edge of Darkness. And a charming new album, The Quietened Journey, invites contributors including The Heartwood Institute and Howlround to create music inspired by memories of abandoned railway lines, stations and roads. Anyone looking for a dose of bucolic calm amidst the frenzy of the festive season would be well advised to use it as the soundtrack for an icy ramble amongst their favourite overgrown sidings.  

Scarred For Life, Kev Oyston and Memories of 1970s TV

All hail Stephen Brotherstone and Dave Lawrence… the square-eyed Liverpudlian duo who, staggered that nobody had yet written a book about the welter of disturbing TV shows, films and – ahem – ice lollies that traumatised our collective 1970s childhoods, set out to fill the gap. The resulting doorstep-sized tome, Scarred For Life, has become a sales sensation, and a follow-up volume, detailing the Cold War-infused minutiae of their 1980s adolescence, is due in 2020.

And the book has now inspired a compilation album of original music, all influenced by those lingering memories of childhood disquiet. It includes new tracks by the likes of Vic Mars, The Home Current, Pulselovers, The Heartwood Institute and Polypores, and has been compiled by musician Kev Oyston, who – in his guise as The Soulless Party – also contributes the title track. It’s the start of a busy period for Kev, whose multi-media Black Meadow collaboration with writer Chris Lambert, detailing the dark folk stories of the North York Moors, also sparks back into life in early 2020.

But the Scarred For Life album, released this week by Castles In Space, comes first, with all proceeds heading to Cancer Research UK. It’s a beautiful collection of evocative music, and I asked Kev about the inspiration behind it…

Bob: Where did the idea for the Scarred For Life album come from? I assume you bought the book, and enjoyed it?

Kev: Yeah, I bought the book. It appealed massively to me straight away. Although I was born in 1975, a lot of the early to mid 1970s Public Information Films, schools programmes and children’s programmes were still being re-shown throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, so a lot of the content of the book rang a big bell with me. I’ve always been fascinated with the dark, weird and ambiguous output of 1970s TV.

Which TV programmes or films from the era really scared you?

My earliest memories are basically from Doctor Who and those Public Information films. Being rather mesmerised by Tom Baker, who himself was pretty scary. I actually remember the reveal of Scaroth at the end of the first episode of City of Death – that absolutely terrified me. I was four! The other Doctor Who cliffhanger that traumatised me was the end of the first episode of Logopolis, where the Master shrunk Aunt Vanessa and the policeman, and left them like lifeless dolls in the car.

The Public information Films that got to me were the ones with the drivers’ faces being smashed through the car windscreen in very weird slow motion. There was also one with a mother and her little boy, where he runs out into the road and she drops her eggs as he gets run over. I used the think the eggs were the contents of the boy’s head!

And the infamous Apaches, which warned of the dangers of playing on a farm, absolutely gave me nightmares… especially the shot of the boy sinking and drowning in the slurry pit. It was just so lifelike! But that was the idea wasn’t it? To scare you away from doing daft and silly things on roads, or swanning around near farming equipment.

Did other things get to you as well? I found it hilarious that the book’s writers, Stephen and Dave, were scared by “Dracula” ice lollies and “Horror Bags” crisps… 

I can remember this quite vividly, and it still gives me chills now… my parents used to threaten me with the rag and bone man, saying he was going to take me away if I didn’t behave. Honestly, that worked a treat because every time I heard him at the bottom of our street shouting, “RAGBONE!!” I’d be off like a shot! In fact I’d hide under my bed!

I think it was his voice, the way he shouted. It was quite snarly and bellowing. I really do still shudder thinking about it.

When, and how, did it strike you to make an accompanying album?

I hit it off with Stephen a long time ago, over our love of the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and we talked on and off for a while about different things. It wasn’t until we actually met, at their first Scarred For Life show in Eaglescliffe about a year ago, that we talked quite excitedly about the idea of doing a compilation album. I found the subject of the book to be really evocative, and thought it would carry the weight of a concept album quite well.   

At first we toyed with the idea of doing covers of old 1970s and 80s TV themes, fitting in with the Scarred For Life ethos. But after much pondering and research, I discovered that it would end up being a huge copyright headache, so we parked the idea for a bit. 

It wasn’t until I heard that the lads were working on a sequel to the original Scarred for Life book, this time covering the 1980s, that my interest in doing something was piqued again. So I spoke with Stephen and asked what he thought about a compilation album of music “inspired” by the TV and film output of the Scarred for Life era. He loved the idea, so I went away and rallied some artists.

Did you draw up a hit list of you wanted to approach? Are a lot of these artists people that you’ve known for a long time?

It all seems a bit of a blur now, but I think it was quite organic. The first person I approached, more for advice, was Colin Morrison from the Castles in Space label. I already had something on the boil with him, and thought it would be good to run this idea past him too. Before we knew it, he’d signed up to the whole thing, lock stock and barrel, and wanted to promote and push it all! I was absolutely bowled over.

A lot of the artists I approached, I’d known forever… Vic Mars, Monroeville Music Center, Pete Hackett – aka Cult of Wedge – Keith Seatman and Swimming Lesson. They all jumped at the chance to be on the album. I’d always admired the other acts too… The Twelve Hour Foundation, the achingly lovely Jonathan Sharp from The Heartwood Institute, Listening Centre, Rob from Handspan… in fact I admire everyone we have on there!

It was nice, because I proposed the idea to each of these artists, and immediately there was a mutual understanding of the premise, and the important cause that the album was for. Not only that, each individual who took part was just massively likeable, and easy to get along with. I had everyone in a Scarred for Life private group and we all just clicked. Honestly, it was really lovely. Most of the artists were already aware of Stephen and Dave’s wonderful book and were really keen to take part.

What was the remit you gave them all as a starting point for their tracks?

Because the Scarred For Life books are about to hit the 1980s, I gave them the remit of creating music that reminded them of that kind of “off kilter”, not quite right, TV shows or movies that they’d watched as kids in the 1970s and 80s. But not just the TV shows… other things besides.

Can you give us a little rundown the tracks themelves, and the inspirations behind them?

Well, I thought I’d let the artists speak for themselves! I managed to coax this out of them all the other day… here’s what some of them have to say on each of their pieces:

Vic Mars: The Time Menders

Vic Mars: The Time Menders was an early title for Sapphire and Steel, and I was aiming for a psychic paranormal investigator theme.

The Heartwood Institute: Women Against The Wire

Jonathan Sharp: The Heartwood Institute track is a direct reference to the women’s peace camp at Greenham Common, and that’s also where the sample is from:  “We are women, we are strong…”

The Twelve Hour Foundation: Belmont

Jez Butler: Our track is named after the TV transmitter near my old home town in Linconshire. Rather than being based on a specific theme tune, it’s a more generic radiophonic-inspired thing, with the focus on the sudden start – in the style of a scary 70s kids’ drama intro – and the the cliff-hanger at the end. If that makes sense!

Keith Seatman: Words From The Wireless

Keith Seatman: Words From The Wireless was inspired by the 1972 series Escape Into Night, and the book that inspired it, Marianne Dreams.  “Not the light!” 

Swimming Lesson: Superhighways

Darryl Wakelin: Mine was inspired by the excitement and dread – in equal measure – of what computing in the future would be like. A mix of Tomorrow’s World, and the machines that would destroy us, control us or be used for war. Think 2001: A Space Odyssey, Demon Seed, UFO, Space 1999, etc…  

The Home Current: Summer In Marstrand

Martin Jensen: Summer in Marstrand is inspired by growing up with the Moomins on Danish TV. I was part fascinated, and part scared senseless, every time an episode aired. Some of my childhood summer holidays were spent on the Swedish island of Marstrand, and apart from it being where I saw my very fist White-Tailed Eagle, I also remember thinking the Moomins could easily have come from there.

Handspan: Fear Follows Shortly

Rob Colling: Mine came mainly from the fact that I’d been listening to Clannad’s Legend, the soundtrack album from Robin of Sherwood, quite a lot in the weeks running up to this project. That’s why so many of the modular synth noises sound a bit like Celtic harps. It actually ended up in more of a Look And Read kind of place, somewhere between Dark Towers and The Boy From Space, hence the track title, but my initial idea was much more about forests and mist and standing stones. And terrifying early digital video effects.

Cult of Wedge: The Gamma Children

Pete Hackett: Originally I’d written an actual song, words and all, but I couldn’t sing it due to the stupid key, and time was running out, and everyone else’s tracks were instrumental… so I recorded a theme tune! It’s pretty much on a theme of The Tomorrow People, but has time travel / indigo / psychic children ideas going on. Hence the kid at the start seeing dead people…

Pulselovers: Nice View From Up Here

Mat Handley: Nice View From Up Here is my take on the theme tune for a sitcom starring Joe and Petunia from the Public Information Film series made between 1968 and 1973. I imagined a particularly un-PC studio comedy in the style of George and Mildred, but with a theme more inspired by the brilliant Ronnie Corbett vehicle, Sorry!

Monroeville Music Center: Hack and Slash

Craig Storm: I sat down trying to make an homage to Knightmare, and instead ended up with what seems like the end credit music to an educational programme’s Halloween episode, if it had spliced in eight-bit voice actor samples from a third-rate medieval adventure game. It’s no Knightmare, but it’s a show I’d like to watch.

The Central Office of Information: Puzzled

Alex Cargill: Puzzled is loosely based on the 1970s and 1980s BBC kids TV show Jigsaw, which featured the infamous character of Noseybonk. Genuinely disturbing for a young child. I tried to imitate the generally upbeat feel of the original, along with the childish sound effects. The laughter snippet is actually a sample of my late Grandad – it seemed to fit nicely and I thought it’d be nice to have him immortalised on a CD. It’s what he would’ve wanted. However, as is often the case, I couldn’t help myself from adding a little bit of acid squelch to the proceedings.

Quimper: The Runner

Johnny Vertigan: I think I was gleefully ripping off the slightly sinister library themes that would sometimes find their way onto Pages from CEEFAX. Or the kind of thing that would be used for either a forgotten, warped 1970s BBC drama, or perhaps a schools’ programme about maths. Same difference back then, I suppose.

Listening Center: Nowhere, Nowhere, We Should Have Known

David Mason: My offering is inspired by the multiple layers of uncanny-ness and the fractured parallel realities reflected in Sapphire and Steel. The title is borrowed from the final episode of the series, where (Spoiler Alert!) Sapphire and Steel find themselves trapped in a cafe, in the void, for eternity. 

Panamint Manse: Leadfield Intoxicants
 
WP Ulmer: I was channelling Harry Forbes watching The Finishing Line

The Bentley Emerald Learning Resource: Programmes For Sick Days

Benjamin Green: Programmes for Sick Days takes inspiration from “Programmes for Schools”, generally the only television available to watch for children who were too poorly to go to school that day. Quite dry programmes that perhaps seemed dead boring in a classroom would become extraordinarily fascinating and eerie in the cosy setting of the living room. My track tries to evoke the images and sounds of a morning of school programming, through the woozy haze of feeling unwell. Dosed up on children’s medicine, and safely bundled up within blankets and quilts to make a bed on the settee.

To temper the cosiness, I will add that while experiencing a proper bout of influenza for the first time as a child, I had a morbid thought during an episode of Zig Zag that I might end my days on the sofa, and these would be the last visuals and sounds I’d ever experience. And I’ve since often wondered if, for some poor souls, that may have been the case….

Polypores: Memorabilia

Stephen J Buckley: My track, as with most of my music, wasn’t really planned or thought out as such. It’s not really up to me what I write on any given day. I simply made myself available, open to suggestion, and coaxed it from the strange ether from which music comes. Basically, I was led down a Scarred for Life ether vortex, and the track just came out!

And Kev, your own theme music, the opening track to the album?

Yes, it was the main Scarred for Life theme that I tasked myself with, and I just wanted to encompass sounds and layers that echoed the likes of Denton and Cooke, and Peter Howell… with a cheeky nod to John Carpenter, too.

What’s your own background as a musician? Can you give us a little potted history, please?

I was massively into music from a very young age. I used to spend a lot of time round at my cousins’ house, and they were quite big into electronica, post-punk and ska. I was basically a sponge, and I loved everything they listened to. They had a loft conversion with lots of old synths in it, and wrote their own material as well as doing cover versions for a college band they were in. Again, I was hooked. By the age of 12 I had my first synthesizer, a Korg Poly 800. I also had a four-track tape recorder to lay down any ideas I had. I got a few more synths in my twenties, and chucked out a few demos of instrumental tracks to various people. One of whom told me that I’d be good for TV adverts or soundtrack work… however, being very young, idealistic and quite naive, I was quite put out by this! I went off to form a synth-pop band with my cousin, Rob.

I wrote all the tracks and did some of the vocals and we set out round London gigging on the – then – underground electronic music circuit for a few years. We had a nice little following, and released an album… which maybe ten people might have in their collection.

As the years progressed, I started getting into Ghost Box Records. Their output totally blew my mind and took me back to my childhood in very strange ways… to the classroom, or to a cornfield or a forest on a warm, hazy day. I just loved what I was hearing. That inspired me to go down a similar instrumental route, trying to come up with something that reminded people of the past. New music that sounded like vintage music. I think I achieved that with the Black Meadow project.

I was going to ask about the Black Meadow project. Can you tell us a little bit about this?

While I was trying to find that sound of the past, I wrote a track which I just randomly called Beyond the Moor. It ended up on the Tales from the Black Meadow album, but at the time I wrote it, I had no idea what it could be for… why did I call it Beyond the Moor? But the more tracks I wrote with a similar vibe, the more it organically fell into place. The concept came to me.

As a child, we used to drive regularly over the North York Moors to Pickering, to see relatives. We’d always pass the three huge, golf ball-like radomes that belonged to RAF Fylingdales, and – being a kid with his head in the clouds – I always imagined strange alien craft being housed there. Or something akin to Quatermass, that kind of thing. My imagination ran wild. I recalled all that as I wrote the music for the first Black Meadow album and it just gave me the impetus to keep going. I had an idea of a story, or of strange folklore, attached to this place called The Black Meadow, which was slap bang right next to RAF Fylingdales. It was to be a place of mysterious fog, creatures and a Brigadoon-type village that appeared only under certain atmospheric conditions. The village is full of weird monsters and people, and is just downright creepy.

My old partner in crime Chris Lambert took an interest in this project and my ideas, and basically wanted to put them all into proper folklore-style stories, and have them published along with the album. I got carried away with the idea, and pushed for something else to go alongside the music and the book, and that was… why don’t we “dig up” an old BBC Radio 4 documentary from 1978, all about the Black Meadow, and add it to the album? So we did.

The original Tales from the Black Meadow CD – with the music and the documentary – was released in 2013, along with the book. The book still sells well today, and sometimes I  re-release the album and it always seems to do OK. 

And there’s some new material coming in January 2020?

It’s taken a long time, but we’ve just completed the second Black Meadow project, The Black Meadow Archive: Vol 1. Again, it’s an album of music, this time on vinyl, again on the lovely Castles in Space label. And there’s also a new, jam-packed book too. We’re quite excited to release it to the world. We just hope everyone likes it! 

In the meantime, Scarred For Life is out this week, and all proceeds are going to Cancer Research UK… is it a cause that’s dear to your heart?

Absolutely. Sadly, someone very close to me was diagnosed with cancer in May and it’s been a very tough few months. Happily things are looking positive, as the treatment has done the job, and we’re hoping everything will be clear come the New Year.

Its funny how you can appreciate, yet still take for granted, some of the work these charities do. It’s not really until something affects you close to home that you start to really appreciate their work. Cancer Research UK are a hugely proactive concern… they’re a positive power for good in the search for a cure to cancer, and they provide fantastic support to those who may be suffering. They were the first charity I thought of when we were putting this album together, and it’s been brilliant to see people buying the album also getting behind the charity too.

Thanks to Kev for his time, and thoughtful replies… and to everyone else on the album for contributing, too. The Scarred For Life album is available here…

https://scarredforlife.bandcamp.com

…and it concludes on a poignant note; the closing track, Be Like A Child by Carl Matthews, is a genuine piece of beautifully melancholy 1984 electronica from an artist whose own life was cut tragically short by cancer. It’s a fitting conclusion to a wonderful collection of music.


I asked Jonathan Sharp, of The Heartwood Institute, about his memories of Carl. He replied…

“Carl is one of the great lost voices of UK synth. He started releasing cassettes from 1980 via the Mirage label – all very DIY – and continued up to 1991. You can find a big list of his output on Discogs. He was incredibly well-respected, but largely unknown. I got to know Carl around 2001 when he started making music again, and we became good friends. I encouraged him into making library, music at which he became very successful. More recently, there’d been a real interest in his old music, and he’d had Call For World Saviours released on CD and vinyl, and had appeared on several high-profile compilations too. He’d also started releasing new music via bandcamp. Sadly he died a few months ago, just as the Scarred For Life compilation was coming together. As soon as I knew it was raising money for Cancer Research UK, it seemed natural to have a track of his on the album. His family agreed, and it’s so lovely to have that track on there.”