Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



English folk band formed '78 by students at the Musical Instrument Technology (MIT) Department of the London College of Furniture, a college noted for its instrument-making courses. Founding members were David Armitage (b 11 March '51, London) on melodeon (later also bassoon and percussion), Sydney-born Bill O'Toole on bagpipes and flutes, and Jon Swayne (b 26 Jun. '40, Hereford) on flutes, bagpipes and later saxophones. Joined that year by Chris Gunstone on bouzouki and tapan and briefly by Juan Wijngaard (b 27 Sept. '51, Buenos Aires) on hurdy-gurdy and then by hurdy-gurdy maker and MIT student Sam Palmer (b 31 July '50, London). From the outset they valued unusual drone instrumentation and dedicated themselves to trad. dance music; they gigged at non-folk music festivals on stilts! Debuted as a performing band in Dec. '78. Several personnel changes followed; O'Toole returned to Australia '80 where he helped form the folk and multi-cultural group Sirocco. Their eponymous debut album on Plant Life '82 mixed British, French, Flemish and Macedonian music. By this time the group had coalesced as Gunstone, Swayne, Paul James (b 4 April '57, Southampton) on bagpipes, woodwinds and saxophones, Sam Palmer on hurdy-gurdy, Dave Roberts (b 27 June '47, London) on melodeon and piano and Cliff Stapleton (b 14 July '47, London) on hurdy-gurdy. James had previously recorded with Monsoon, best known for its singer Sheila Chandra, and fronted folk/rock group Dr Cosgill (which also incl. later Blowzabella member David Shepherd). Gunstone left to work with the White Horse and record with the East European Folk Group (see entry for Marta Sebestyen). Dave Shepherd (b 7 April '54, Sheffield) stepped in and Armitage returned in time for In Colour '83 on Plant Life. Palmer, who had co- authored The Hurdy-Gurdy (David and Charles) '80 with Suzanne Palmer, departed that year and did not appear on album Bobbityshooty '84; Stapleton and Armitage left '85 and were replaced by Nigel Eaton (b 3 Jan. '66, Southampton) on hurdy- gurdy and Ian Luff (b 4 Jan. '56, Brighton) on cittern and bass guitar. This relatively stable lineup produced Wall Of Sound on Plant Life '86 and in '87 The B To A Of Blowzabella, a self-produced double-length cassette of dance tunes on Dance Music Cassettes and a book on tunes and dances, Encyclopedia Blowzabellica (Dragonfly Music). Swayne, the last original member, departed (though he guested on their next studio album).

They made a peculiar album Pingha Frenzy in Brazil Aug. '87, released by Some Bizzare '88, recorded and produced by Charles Gray (Marc Almond, Communards, Zeke Manyika), distilled from dozens of hours of tape. The opportunity to tour in Brazil had arisen because of James and Eaton's work with Barry Smith's mixed-media puppet show adaptation of Christopher Marlowe's Dr Faustus '86, which had also received Arts Council funding; Music For Faustus on Big House '87 was the album. Jo Fraser (b 4 Dec. '60, St Albans, Herts) joined the group late that year, bringing fresh opportunities for branching out as she played saxophone and sang; the first album with her was their next studio album A Richer Dust on Plant Life '88, prod. by Charles Gray. Central to it was a suite of tunes called 'The Wars Of The Roses' commissioned by the Arts Council of Great Britain to commemorate the final battle of that civil war 500 years earlier; they performed it on the evening of the anniversary in East Stoke church near the site of the battle. Roberts contributed to English Melodeon Players '86; Shepherd contributed to the compilation English Fiddle Players '88, both on Plant Life; Eaton recorded The Music Of The Hurdy-Gurdy on Saydisc '88. To get around Equity, the actors' union, Fraser had to change her name to Freya for stage purposes. With Eaton, James worked on Silly Sisters' No More To The Dance on Topic '88 (see entries for Steeleye Span and June Tabor) and on their duo album Ancient Beatbox on Cooking Vinyl '89. Shepherd left '89, to be replaced by Andy Cutting (b 18 March '69, Harrow); Swayne rejoined Dec. '89 in time to prepare for next Blowzabella studio album, Vanilla on Special Delivery '90, which reinforced their position as a leading European folk dance band. They chose to disband at the height of their powers in Dec. '90, feeling that the group had reached the end of its natural span. Some elements were recycled into several new combinations incl. Scarp, featuring James and the folk duo Chris Wood and Andy Cutting; Freya prod. Traditional Songs Of England (Saydisc) '93 supported by Burgess, Eaton, vocalist Fi Fraser, violinist Flos Headford, guitarist Nick Hooper, cellist Kathryn Locke and Rose Consort of Viols; she co- founded remarkable all-women dance group Token Women. Eaton achieved the highest profile through work with Scott Walker, the Blue Aeroplanes, the film soundtrack The Name Of The Rose '86, duo Whirling Pope Joan with vocalist Julie Murphy, and Robert Plant. He played in Robert Plant and Jimmy Page's No Quarter project for Fontana and MTV '94 and tour '95.