Manchester-based folk parodist Les Barker is, perhaps, the trad scene's equivalent to garage rock's Billy Childish -- an absurdly prolific songwriter, poet and comedic performer, Barker has written over sixty books of poetry and prose, and recorded numerous high-concept, low-budget, middlebrow albums, often with the help of some of England's greatest trad-folk talent. Barker's Mrs. Ackroyd Records is named in honor of his late (yet beloved) pooch, Mrs. Ackroyd, who was infamous for her folk club appearances, onstage naps, and occasional nips. Barker's work is certainly an acquired taste, but with pals like June Tabor, Pete Morton, Martin Carthy and the whole Waterson clan in his camp, the guy's gotta have something going on... Here's a quick look at Barker's unusual and idiosyncratic ouvre.
Les Barker "Mrs Ackroyd Superstar!" (Free Reed, 1978)
Les Barker "The Mrs Ackroyd Rock'n'Roll Show" (Mrs. Ackroyd, 2001)
A studio album, with the help of Coventry band Quiet Riot... Uh, no, not that Quiet Riot!
Les Barker "Dogologues" (Mrs. Ackroyd, 2001)
A live solo album.
Les Barker "Earwigo" (Mrs. Ackroyd)
Recorded at Bromyard Folk Festival; Les Barker performing solo and also with a band including Steve and Lesley Davies and Ian Blake.
Kashmir "Stay Calm" (Mrs. Ackroyd)
Steve and Lesley Davies, longtime cohorts of Barker, also have their own band, Kashmir.
Various Artists "The Stones Of Callanish" (Mrs. Ackroyd, 2001)
A folk opera with words by Les Barker, performed by Lesley Davies, June Tabor, Fiona Simpson, Cathy-Ann MacPhee, Rod Paterson, Jim Sutherland, Phil Cunningham, Savourna Stevenson and others...
The Mrs. Ackroyd Band "Oranges And Lemmings" (Mrs. Ackroyd, 2001)
Les Barker, Lesley Davies, Chris Harvey, Alison Younger, Martin Carthy, Norma Waterson, Eliza Carthy, June Tabor and Bernard Wrigley perform Les Barker's comedy songs.
Les Barker "An Infinite Number Of Occasional Tables" (Mrs. Ackroyd)
Another live solo album...
Various Artists "SOME LOVE: SONGS OF LES BARKER" (Mrs. Ackroyd)
Les Barker's (mainly) serious songs, performed by Roy Bailey, June Tabor, Pete Morton, Eliza Carthy, Norma Waterson, Martin Carthy and others... A heavyweight cast, but also heavy content-wise -- a bit of a downer, actually. Songs about nuclear poisoning, war, poverty and class-based oppression. Whee.
The Mrs. Ackroyd Band "Gnus and Roses" (Mrs. Ackroyd)
Les Barker, Lesley Davies, Chris Harvey, Alison Younger, Martin Carthy, Norma Waterson, Eliza Carthy, June Tabor and Martin Allcock perform Les Barker's comedy songs.
Les Barker "A Cardi And Bloke" (Mrs. Ackroyd, 1996)
A live solo album
Les Barker "Up The Creek Without A Poodle" (Mrs. Ackroyd, 1996)
A series of live recitations, delivered to an adoring, guffawing audience... Barker's punning and daft, limerick-like jokes are broadly drawn and telegraphed from miles away, but that's part of the charm. That, and his un-London, somewhat Scottish accent... Some skits are too on the nose, but others are crisp and compact, particularly "An Admission," (Barker's skewering of the national lottery) and the imaginative (but elemental) pseudo-science of "The Science of Unclear Physics." Some of these poems have the feel of classic, bad jokes, knee-slappers you can't help but be drawn into, such as the story of the man who named his dogs "Go, Stay & Fetch," or the travails of the fellow who bought a phoenix for a housepet... But for a glimpse of a good-natured modern humorist at work (or is it play?) these live albums are a hoot.
Various Artists "THE WINGS OF BUTTERFLIES" (Mrs. Ackroyd)
A well-realized song cycle about war and it's economic, environmental and human repercussions. Another all-star cast which includes Pete Morton, Norma Watersonm Martin Carthy, Fiona Simpson, June Tabor, Dave Burland, and a large choir of eminent folkies. Musically and lyrically, this contains some of the finest of Barker's work, although I personally find the choral/operatic pieces that dot the album to sound quite irritating. The more stripped-down acoustic numbers are very good, though, particularly tunes like "Chaos," "Earth" and "War Horse Town." For the politically minded and squishy-left among us, this is definitely an album to check out.
The Mrs Ackroyd Band "Tubular Dogs" (Mrs. Ackroyd, 1999)
Possibly Barker's best album, musically speaking, this features heavyweights like June Tabor and Cyril Tawney along with Ackroydians David Knutson, Eileen McGann, Alison Younger, Hilary Spencer and others -- including Barker himself -- performing comedic material of various stripes and sizes. Many of the songs are parodies of traditional and folk tunes, some more obscure than others, but the most obvious references, such as the pun-filled "Sloop John A," "Will The Turtle Be Unbroken," and "I Live Not Near The Louvre" are sure to provoke an involuntary groan/laugh or two. Plus, it's a rare opportunity to hear June Tabor let her hair down on a tune like "Get Along Little Dogie" (a fairly straight rendition of the American cowboy classic), while Barker makes a convincing, Horton-like case for the little guy in the daft wee song, "Krill." If you want to give Barker a fair shake, this is probably one of your best bets.
Les Barker "Arovertherapy" (Mrs. Ackroyd, 2001)
Perhaps his best collection of spoken word performances, with much of his best-written and most shamelessly pun-laden material, with daft conceits such as "Guide Cats For The Blind," "Blessed Are The Meek" and gentle nigh-tech rants such as "AncientMariner.com" and the sadly-apt "Reinstalling Windows." What's best about this disc is the confidence and flair for performing that Barker has acquired, and the concision of his delivery. Barker's doubletalk tour-de-force is "Inconsonants, in which the head-shaking puns come one on top of the other, while on "Detritus" he turns dozens of aphorisms and cliches on their heads. It's also amusing to hear the squeaking of distant fiddles as Barker, off on a second stage at this folk festival or that, draws his loyal crowd away from some band or another. This is a genuinely witty and effective comedy record, thankfully shorn of the moldy poo-poo jokes and "hey, did you ever" premises that typify most standup acts these days. Recommended.
Various Artists "Airs Of The Dog" (Mrs Ackroyd, 2002)
Alison Younger, Chris Harvey, Annette Batty, Steve Tilston, John Nielson, Steve Gillette, Cindy Mangsen, Eileen McGann, Lester Simpson, Artisan, David K, Fiona Simpson, Chris Leslie, Hilary Spencer, Mike Silver, June Tabor & Mark Emerson perform Les Barker's seriously slow songs.
Various Artists "Guide Cats For The Blind (Songs And Poems Of Les Barker)" (Osmosys, 2003)
The Mrs. Ackroyd Band "Yelp!" (Mrs. Ackroyd, 2004)
Les Barker "The War On Terrier" (Mrs. Ackroyd, 2004)
Various Artists "Guide Cats For The Blind, v.2: Missing Persians File" (Osmosys, 2005)
Les Barker/Various Artists "Twilight Of The Dogs: Songs Of Les Barker" (Mrs. Ackroyd, 2006)
Various Artists "Guide Cats For The Blind, v.3: Top Cat, White Tie And Tails" (Osmosys, 2007)
Mrs. Ackroyd Band "Dark Side Of The Mongrel" (Mrs. Ackroyd, 2008)
Jez Lowe, June Tabor and others are part of "the Band" this time around...
Les Barker "Probably Best Album Ever Made By Anybody In Our Lifetime" (Terra Nova, 2001)
Well, sure... If they say so!
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Top photo used by permission.