Back in 1963, the celebrated dramatist Dennis Potter wrote a review for the Daily Herald about a play by Ron Watson called Man of Brass.
It starred Jimmy Edwards, a B-flat bass player called Ernie Briggs who preferred playing in brass bands to staying at home with his wife. Potter captured the tone of the play by writing “this ‘northern saga’ grimly celebrating slate-grey rain and polished euphoniums was firmly in the eh-bah-goom heritage of North Country humour.”
Modern commentators on the brass band movement are quick to evoke stereotypes of class and region. In spite of brass bands being a national phenomenon, there’s no shortage of ways to identify the brass band as a representation of the working class North.
The rhetoric that the brass band is an agency for expressing Northern working class life culminated with the 1996 film Brassed Off. The film followed the fortunes of Grimley Brass Band (Grimley being a thinly disguised version of Grimethorpe in South Yorkshire) and its efforts to win the National Championship. The film was well received in mining communities who felt that it reflected the hardships and suffering they had experienced during the decline of the mining industry, particularly under the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major.
However, the brass band community was hostile to what it saw as another misrepresentation of a great movement. Musical aspects of the film were wildly inaccurate, people said. But musicians who criticised mistakes were, as academic Trevor Herbert has argued, missing the point of the film. It was not a musical documentary but a snapshot of a place and time. The place was a community in which a brass band had thrived because of the employment that was provided by industrialisation.
Herbert argued that “symbolically, this was a time when history and tradition confronted modernity”. In other words, the local brass band not only represented an industrial working class town but also the decline of a working class way of life that was associated with that industrialisation. The film portrayed the end of an era, and the brass band was its cultural reference for community.
But what of the genesis of the so-called ‘Northern’ brass band? The roots of this cliché can be found in the 19th century from the 1840s onwards. The manufacture of instruments utilised contemporary manufacturing techniques, and instruments were durable and affordable. Through a mixture of loans and philanthropic and fundraising finance, Northern bandsmen had access to instruments to lay the foundations for a popular working class pursuit. The success of ‘crack’ bands from the manufacturing districts of the Southern Pennines – Black Dyke Mills and Besses o’ th’ Barn, for example – resulted in other bands copying their playing style. In other words, the most famous bands, trained by the most influential trainers, meant that reporters noticed the industrial North.
The contest brought this pastime to the attention of largely London-based commentators. In an age when people loved to read and write about music, the competition – often compared to football matches – was viewed anthropologically; the bandsmen and their followers were examples of the working class at play.
Consider this: in 1898 a Manchester correspondent for the Pall Mall Gazette wrote about bands in the North. The piece was called Where the Brass Band is Beloved. The prominent element in the article was the emphasis on the working class membership of the bands and their followers.
For this reporter, the bands were fixed within the culture of their wider working class audience. The author’s tone showed the difference between middle class culture and working class leisure. Middle class Manchester had, for example, art galleries, literature and philosophical societies, together with musical pastimes such as Hallé Orchestra concerts, which were areas of display and status. In parallel, for the Northern working class, the brass band was where working people practised music as an escape from the ennui of manual labour. Although playing in a brass band had close links with the workplace, as an activity it was a release from work, an arena where bandsmen could gain cultural satisfaction from a working class pursuit. Significantly, the writer noted that brass bands appealed to working people alone.
The correspondent wrote: “The brass band is not the object of every man’s adoration, nor its music of the kind which soothes every savage breast. But with the north country man the love of the brass band is a passion. These bands are composed of workmen, without exception, and workmen are their chief admirers.”
Other reporters penned pieces such as Music for the Working Man, Music for the People and so on. Bandsmen were seen as the ‘Sons of Toil’, workers who were involved in every aspect of manual labour.
The Northern cliché in Brassed Off is, I would argue, an invention of journalists. It was the largely London-based press which created the cliché still with us today.
By Stephen Etheridge
Stephen Etheridge is currently volunteering as a research assistant for the Royal Northern College of Music’s Music-Making in World War One project. The blog and some of his articles can be found here.
To read Northern Soul’s interview with the writer and director of Brassed Off, Mark Herman, click here.