Song-writer for Living Archive Productions from 1992
Kevin Adams has been fundamental to the music created for Living Archive documentary dramas over the last twenty years. His compositions have both integrity of feeling and variety of form; his live performances – on the fiddle, guitar, mandola, mandolin and vocals – energise Living Archive songs; and his music production achieves a professionalism of sound that in the early days we could only dream about.
His many Living Archive songs, based on the life experiences of Milton Keynes people, range from the passionate 1st World War anthem – ‘Bright Battalions’ – to the street-wise wit of hapless London settlers in 1960s Bletchley – ‘What Do They Think We Are?’ His recording productions include the Living Archive Band’s definitive double album CD ‘All That’s Changed’ Vols 1 &2. Currently (2012) he is working on the radio ballad ‘Calverton Manor Farm’ based on the reminiscences of former farm workers near Stony Stratford. Kevin is mixing interview extracts with sound effects and new original music – much of it his own – to provide enduring evidence of Milton Keynes citizens’ unique heritage, and also of his special talents. It is hoped that the programme will be available as a download or CD in 2013, with live performances also envisaged.
I am a Kentish Man (not a Man of Kent; look it up!) I lived in Wilmington, near Dartford until the age of six, when we moved diagonally across London to Hertfordshire. I went to school in Watford, and then returned to Kent to go to university in Canterbury. My first working years were spent teaching on the Isle of Sheppey. By now married to Ruth, who I had met at university, and also a teacher, we moved to north Bucks in 1982 to take teaching posts in and around MK.
I remember seeing several Living Archive/Stantonbury Drama productions at Stantonbury Theatre and thinking ‘I’d like to be part of that.’ The way I finally fell into was quite by chance, meeting musician and erstwhile LA band leader Neil Mercer in a totally different musical context (playing Old Time American string band music for Appalachian step dancers). Neil had become involved with the musical preparations for ‘Worker By Name’ and asked me along. I’m eternally grateful for this happy conjunction of events.
My musicality comes from home – my mother in particular. She was a good piano player and church organist. A strong memory of childhood is falling to sleep in my bedroom which was directly above our dining room where mum would play in the evenings. I heard and learned to love Chopin, Beethoven, Liszt and so on in this osmotic way. Mum taught me the rudiments of music and tried to start me off on the piano. I didn’t get much further than ‘The Fairy Wedding Waltz’. Regular practice was not my thing. It still isn’t. But my dad, who had no formal musical training, would sit at the ‘joanna’ and thump out boogy-woogy stride style things, making it all up as he went along. I used to enjoy sitting at the piano and just letting my hands find nice sounding chords and melodies, and Dad encouraged this. Mum couldn’t play a note without sheet music. Dad couldn’t read a note. So genetically I think I was lucky to get both the formal, academic side and the busking side of music mixed up together.
The next great thing was singing. During my last year at primary school I discovered the joy of letting rip in the hymns, when most of the other boys were getting self-conscious and becoming more inclined to mess about and do anything to avoid singing.
Mum got me to join the choir at our local church. Almost at the same time I went up to the Grammar School and joined the choir there. In both choirs I sang alto. I had found harmony- although really I’d found it several years earlier via Messrs. Lennon McCartney and Harrison. I found the English Hymnal and saw the name Ralph Vaughan Williams for the first time. I encountered the great English composers like Tallis, Byrd and Gibbon. I also found Handel. ‘Messiah’ has been with me ever since, as has RVW and a love of English folk music.
There was still some thought that I should play an instrument. I had become haunted by the sound of the oboe, and wanted one. Being told that we couldn’t afford it, I was given instead a trombone, which came from my uncle. He played lead cornet in brass bands, like his dad (my grandad) before him. The trombone came free, on loan. But a trombone is not haunting in the way that an oboe is.
Not being a member of an orchestra, I was expected to parp my way through ‘A Tune a Day’ on my own, and very soon tired of it.
I could have been a violin player. Frank Thomas, Latin master and music teacher at WBGS, approached me one day and said, “You boy, would you like to play the violin?” This way of suddenly pouncing on boys to try to recruit them to the Junior Orchestra was renowned throughout the school. I was delighted to become part of the legend, but turned him down, of course. Why would I want to play a violin?
At the age of sixteen I announced that I should like a guitar. “It’ll be another five minute wonder,” said Dad. I resented that. The trombone might have only lasted five minutes, but no way was it a wonder. The guitar, which duly appeared, has lasted far longer and was a wonder of wonders. I went through “A Tune a Day” books 1 and 2 in the first weekend and went from there.
At eighteen it was off, guitar in hand, to study History at The University of Kent At Canterbury. I discovered folk clubs and began doing occasional floor spots. I found real folk music- unaccompanied singing, fiddle playing – the lot. After ten years or more of folk clubs and a pub residency in Whitstable, singing crowd-pleasers alongside a chap called Pete Smith, (who had sung with Kip Stewart, who had been in the Overlanders, who had had a hit with their cover of Macca’s ‘Michelle’) we moved north and Ruth joined a morris side.
This was the real epiphany.
The morris dancers needed more musicians, so I went along with my guitar and mandolin. Neither instrument is suited to morris, so I finally took up that violin.
This opened up all sorts of doors, via ceilidh bands in particular, to playing festivals, folk clubs, arts centres and all sorts of weird and wonderful venues here and abroad, for twenty-five years or so.
The best thing about hooking up with the ‘Worker by Name’ production was that it really kick-started my song writing. I had always written songs in a sporadic sort of way, and some were actually quite good. The majority of them weren’t. Often I wasn’t really clear of what I was trying to say, neither had I the editorial skills needed to turn out a decent, properly finished song. Writing for the Living Archive gave me a precise brief for what a song was to be about, and taught me those editorial skills. This in turn reflected back into my non-Living Archive writing.
My musical influences are very varied and impossible to list, but here goes in some sort of order of importance which quickly becomes meaningless:
The Beatles; Ralph Vaughan Williams; Fairport Convention; The Grateful Dead; JS Bach; Richard Thompson; My Mum; The Bothy Band; Ronnie Lane; Flanders and Swann; Stackridge; Brian Wilson; Richard Sinclair (Caravan/ Hatfield & The North); Dave Swarbrick; Neil Innes; Christy Moore; Sheena Masson; Yes; Miles Davis; Planxty; Genesis (earlier stuff); Nick Drake; GF Handel; John Tams; Steely Dan; James Taylor; Neil Young; Martin Carthy; Led Zeppelin; did I mention the Beatles?; Blowzabella; The Old Swan Band; Dave Jolly; Paul Clark; Ossian; June Tabor; The Oyster Band; Aly Bain; Finzi, Moeran and Holst; Debussy and Ravel…
Kevin’s website: www.kevadams.co.uk
The Kevin Adams songs for Living Archive productions
1992: For Worker By Name
The life of Stony Stratford resident Tom Worker was dramatised in this play, from his schooldays and working life at Wolverton Works to the harder times afterwards.
- Tom Worker’s Song: This ballad of Tom’s life traces his life from the excitement at getting an apprenticeship to the burdens of hardship during the Depression
- Little By Little: A young housewife contemplates the relentless difficulties of making ends meet
- Bunny Run: Young men and women contemplate each other in the courtship parade of ‘Sunday afternoon…’
1993 For the revival of Days of Pride
Created from the taped memories of New Bradwell resident Hawtin Mundy, the show focused on the Great War of 1914-18. It was first staged in 1981, and revived in 1993 with the addition of Kevin’s new song to provide a powerful and poignant finale.
- Bright Battalions: An anthem commemorating the thousands of young men who died in the trenches: ‘They shall not grow old…’
1994: For The Works and The Fabric of Milton Keynes
The Works was co-produced by BBC Three Counties Radio and Living Archive. The original broadcast (now also a DVD) includes first-hand accounts of life in Wolverton Works and the changes experienced over 50 years.
- Worksong : A mixture of pride and resentment about The Works – once the nation’s major carriage-works, downsized in the 1980s to a nonentity.
The Fabric of Milton Keynes was a one-off unforgettable event in Christ the Cornerstone Church in CMK and broadcast live on BBC radio – where people from all over the new city came with their artworks, tapestries, dance and music.
- Emberton : The tapestry which was created for this North Bucks village is celebrated in a song tracing its history through the centuries.
1996: For Bigger, Brighter, Better!
Devised by Rib Davis and Roger Kitchen, this documentary musical play traced the lives of the people who lived through, and fashioned, the town’s development from the 1940s to the late 1960s – all from recorded interviews and contemporary newspaper reports.
- The Flies: A plague of flies in the new (1954) Manor Farm and Water Eaton estates is commemorated in a rock song, teddy-boy style
- Come and See What We’ve Done: The pride of the new community is on display for the visit of HR Queen Elizabeth II to Bletchley in 1966
- What Do They Think We Are? Hapless London settlers despair of encountering any neighbourliness in their new community, Chas-and-Dave style.
- Settling In: A newcomer delights in the joys of a new house, new friends, a new life, a new future.
- The Night the Stones Rolled into Town: (co-written with Neil Mercer) A memorable night is recalled from 1964 at Wilton Hall when a then-teenager witnessed the advent of the new ‘pop’ phenomenon of The Rolling Stones.
1999 For the revival of All Change!
This story of the London–Birmingham railway coming to the Milton Keynes area in the 19th century was first staged in 1977 and again in 1988. In 1999, it was the first drama to be performed at the new Milton Keynes Theatre and included Kevin’s new songs.
- The Permanent Way: The new railway linking London and Birmingham is acclaimed in a rhythm-and-thrill song celebrating steam locomotion
- All Change! A chronology of the huge changes experienced by agricultural communities in the early 19th century – when the hitherto unquestioned status quo was challenged and transformed forever.
2008/9: For projects still waiting to be created and produced…
The Enigma Project… to be based on the Bletchley Park Story
- I Know You’re Waiting For Me (Safety in Numbers): A poignant and skilfully worded exposition of Alan Turing’s ‘life of deception’ – both in his work at Bletchley Park and in his personal life
The Farmland That Became CMK… farming memories as a backdrop to the new city
- Sheltermore: Set to David Bodley’s music, the song traces the unchanging rhythms of the fields that later became the site of Central Milton Keynes.
Calverton Manor Farm – a radio ballad
Based on reminiscences of former farm-workers of Calverton Manor Farm near Stony Stratford, the voices of interviewees are intermingled with a dozen new original songs.
- The Ghost of Lady Bennet: A murder in the manor house means being hanged on Galley Hill for the 17th century local butcher who committed it and fear for the 20th century boy who later became the owner of the farm.
- Field Song (music by Rod Hall): The old field names around Calverton – Gib Ground, Thistly Piece, Bushey Field, Big Meadow – are fondly commemorated.
- Rover: A celebration of the Webb family’s favourite farm dog – rabbit-catcher, guard-dog, loyal friend.
- Who Could Want For Better? Life in a farm-labourer’s cottages was hard, but this whimsical reminiscence shows some of the positive aspects
- Masters and Servants: An impassive depiction of the rigid delineation between the two strata in the traditional farming community
- Snowflake (music by Rod Hall): The warm remembrance of a farm-horse
- Incidental music – Overture; Autumn Jig; Spring Polka; Summer Waltz
Kevin’s Living Archive Recording Productions
- Bigger, Brighter, Better (1996): mixed and produced with Neil Mercer and Brad Bradstock. Originally a cassette tape, the music can now be accessed from the Living Archive website.
- All That’s Changed Volumes 1 & 2 by the Living Archive Band. In 2008 The Living Archive Band set out to record a selection of the best songs from all of the projects in which it has been involved. A list of more than sixty songs was whittled down to a final selection of thirty, deemed to ‘stand on their own two feet’ out of context of the play for which they were written. These were then divided between two CD ‘volumes’, which were completed in 2009. Kevin recorded, mixed and mastered the whole thing. The songs can be heard on the Band’s website.
Kevin’s Song-Writing Commissions (other than Living Archive)
Maids Moreton Millennium Pageant 2000 A local pageant produced by the North Bucks village of Maids Moreton, it tells the story of the village from medieval times up to the present.
Kevin adds: Too many other non-LA songs to mention, plus of course dance tunes. Some of the tunes and at least one of the songs have gone into the ‘folk tradition’.
Kevin’s Recordings (other than Living Archive Band)
Solo: The Common Land and Waiting For the Word – two collections of Kevin’s compositions, performed, recorded, mixed and mastered himself. A Shirefolk review commented: ‘Kevin Adams is a songwriter of rare quality… The songs mainly have a traditional feel, with an eye to the history that really matters – the experiences, good or bad, of real people. Kevin does it so well.’
Stocai: Champagne Brawl and After the Brawl- ‘eclectic English ceilidh music… direct to your feet!’ Kevin plays fiddle, mandola and mandolin.
Stömp: Machine Without Horses and I Claim My Five Pounds from ‘a high energy English ceilidh band’. Kevin plays fiddle, mandola and electric guitar.
The Song Thief’: Incidental music for the Radio 4 play in 2009
My Grandads and Afghanistan: Incidental music for the Crimson Cats audio book.
Jenkins Ear 1st (eponymous) CD – a group with ‘a very large repertoire of British, American and French shanties, forebitters and sea songs’
Kobold demo – an acoustic trio with ‘music to make your ears melt’: www.kobold.org.uk/hear
Dave Jolly’s first solo album (just completed): By Land and By Sea.
‘Here is Jack’ by Kevin Adams
This video created by Roger Kitchen for Living Archive for the Discover Milton Keynes exhibition Milton Keynes at War when Kevin describes the provenance of, and performs, his song about his grandfather, Here is Jack.