Friday, 28 November 2008


A depressing part of modern life is the selling of culture at Christmas. Celebrity biographies, compilations of the years hits, all at a discount, with a few days shelf life, before they end up, at best, in Oxfam shops.

Chumbawumba’s latest CD cover has a cultural manifesto on it, part of it says, “The boy bands have won, and all the copyists and the tribute bands and the TV talent show producers have won, if we allow our culture to be shaped by mimicry, whether from lack of ideas or from exaggerated respect. You should never try to freeze culture.”

When working class culture has been reduced to voting for the underdog on X-Factor (or celebrity Come Dancing) here is a serious cultural discussion on a CD cover! How can they do this?

Thanks to the label! Every aspect of the music’s production, from the writing, the collaborators, the recording, the cover design, is under the control of the artist because one of the important things about this classic Sgt Peppers of an album is the record label itself. Boy Bands is NMCD 28 on the No Masters Co-operative Limited.

No Masters contradicts the idea that there is nothing more utopian than an artists co-operative. With a dozen members the co-op shows that artistic creation can be a genuinely collective effort.

In 1990 having written a batch of songs, Jim Boyes, showed them to John Tams. Tams says you should record them and I’ll produce the album. Getting a record deal for radical folk songs proved a non starter so they set about building their own label and with the help of the Sheffield Co-operative Development Agency the No Masters label and its publishing arm Voice publishing was born. Since then they have, “sought out writers, performers and musicians who were, in their various ways, seeking to celebrate and extend those bits of the people's tradition invariably described as 'radical' or 'political'.”

NMCD 1 was Out the Blue by Jim Boyes, he was soon joined in the Co-op by Mike Waterson, Jo Freya, Lester Simpson, Barry Coope, Fi Fraser and Ray Hearne.

Ray (NMCD17, Broad Street Ballads) has been chair of the Co-op from the beginning and has a new album out in the spring. Sadly Lal Waterson who was part of the co-op and one of England’s finest song writers died in 1998 but her talent is celebrated on Lal NMCD27, with Jo Freya utilising all the skills of co-op members.

Stalwarts have been Coope, Boyes and Simpson, probably our best vocal harmony group. Their work covers classic folk to original compositions with interesting explorations of the song of the First World War and of Christmas. Their original material is based on sharp social observation NMCD20, Twenty-Four Seven is a particular favourite of mine freshly pertinent in the present global financial meltdown.

They have explored traditional Christmas music as you will find on NMCD25 a selection of Midwinter Songs and Carols or earlier collections NMCD13 A Garland of Carols, and NMCD21, Fire and Sleet and Candlelight a delight. The trio are joined by Fi Fraser, Georgina Boyes and Jo Freya to sing songs that you will not hear in a shopping mall but that are in some parts an organic part of the Christmas season. The Christmas albums are something special - even well-intentioned people find them difficult to understand if they don't know about the tradition of working-class writers of Christmas hymns and carols and popular performance that continue into the present day in the North Midlands, Yorkshire and the South West of England. It's very much a working class tradition - with very local live performances (where else do you get four-part harmony roared out in pubs today?) The men and women who wrote these hymns cum carols were radicals in their own way too - this was and is a do-it-yourself culture in the way that the Punks did it for themselves - they said what they thought.

Today the songs of World War One are an integral part of our culture. NMCD14, Christmas Truce, Kerstbestand, a partnership with Belgian choir, Wak Maar Proper, is a collection of songs that mark the 1914 Christmas Truce another collaboration is on Private Peaceful NMCD24 with Michael Morpurgo. The inspiration is Morpurgo’s fictional anti-hero representing soldiers executed for desertion or cowardice. "Private Peaceful" was originally written and then recorded as part of the campaign to get pardons for FirstWar soldiers shot at dawn and several of the other recordings were commissioned by Peace Concerts Passendale.

Their work with Morpurgo continues with On Angel Wings NMCD30, a re-telling of the Christmas story through the eyes of a young shepherd. Indeed they complete their heavy late autumn touring schedule with a performance at St Pauls Cathedral, no less, on December 21st, with readings by Joanna Lumley and James Naughtie.
Co-op members since 2006, Chumbawumba’s, first offering was NMCD23 ‘A Singsong and a Scrap’ which co-operatively includes vocals by Coope, Boyes and Simpson. Some think it possible to separate song and politics but we know all culture is political. The Chumba’s make great pop songs like On eBay about the trashing of the Baghdad Museum found on NMCD26, Get on With It. They say,”Becoming part of the No Masters collective has been an entirely logical step for us in Britain. It suits what we want and what we think, both about the music industry and about the world. We feel like we're amongst like-minded people.”
No Masters has a stream of new material, Jo Freya who was a member of the Old Swan Band, Blowzabella and Token Women. With the freedom of the label has produced what she calls her first genuinely solo album NMCD29 Female Smuggler which explores her huge musical vocabulary.
No Masters is a real co-operative all major decisions are taken collectively and all profits are recycled back into the business to produce more music. The production and creation of all aspects of the music from engineering the sound to designing the CD sleeves is all done by sharing the skills of the co-op members. No crude division of labour here this is a true combination of art and craft.

So for some truly co-operative culture that will last beyond Boxing Day the NO Masters CD’s are a must you can find them at: where it says, “No Masters celebrates song writing that addresses issues: that is rooted in its time and its communities: that is engaged with the struggles confronting and reshaping those communities: that pays homage to its traditions by reworking them; and that is unafraid to take sides whilst eschewing propaganda. It is a unique force in folk music.”

Just the antidote to Christmas with Ant and Dec.