Orchestra of Fools. Tosh Ryan, John Scott et al

Through some jerking flashback’ at Manchester Polytechnic perhaps, or The Factory Club, or both, A thumping funk; a screech of sax and some wild Beefheartian rambling. Even in a post-punk Manchester teaming with experimental sub-funksters in short back and sides, it appeared extreme. The band, such as it was, had been named ”˜Prime Time Suckers’. It was a band that centred around Manchester music legend and saxophonist, Tosh Ryan and musicianly collaborator, John Scott. It might have been the moment when the Ryan-led Rabid Records ”“ Slaughter and the Dogs, Jilted John ”“ morphed into the less definable, Absurd, where anything and everything was possible.

To some, the Rabid crew, given their inability to take themselves remotely seriously, laid the template and had the edge over the embryonic Factory Records. Prime Time Suckers was just a moment within a moment but, within that flash, came some kind of release, not least for the musicians involved..
The spirit of Prime Time Suckers, dormant for three decades, has enjoyed an unlikely resurrection, albeit within the vague concept of band who appear only to gig once a year”¦and that appears to be in the pre-Christmas insanity of mad-Friday, Last year’s debut outing for the new unit, now named Orchestra of Fools, proved triumphant despite the prevailing madness”¦and despite the largest single day snowfall in twenty years.

This year’s Orchestra of Fools event takes place on December 23 (8pm) within the tight, evocative circus at The King’s Arms in Salford. (The very first night, incidentally, that the new King’s Arms owner, Paul Heaton ”“ yes, the very same ”“ takes control over the pub).
Despite all this and despite attending a pre-rehearsal banter involving a bundle of silvered reprobates before last years event, I still couldn’t get a handle on just what, where, who and how and why? They appeared cheerfully on that pre-rehearsal, swapping musicianly banter within the Kings Arms, like a craggy street gang as if captured in oils by some East End painter. They certainly seemed to be up to no good,
It was fun but, as snow and whisky kept me away from last year’s actual event, I hadn’t been introduced to the music”¦some kind of George Clinton-like aural funk assault”¦some kind of Beefheart come Ornette Colemen, I reasoned?
So, as this year’s event loomed heavy, I decided to me a sample from their cast, who gathered around an austere table in a studentland bar. Tosh Ryan ”“ his chortle arriving before sighting, John Scott, Bernard AKA Gordon the Moron from the Jilted John days. (For those not so sadly steeped in Manchester music history, it might be noted here that Ryan’s tale, in particular weaves deeply into the fabric of Manchester culture. Indeed, stretching back to the days when, as a precocious Wythenshawe wannabee, he played saxophone in a dance band at Burtonwood aerodrome. Later he would run the influential Music Force promotions agency alongside Martin Hannett, kick-start Rabid Records, initially as a vehicle for Slaughter and the Dogs, organised an extensive fly-poster operation, make innumerable films, videos and”¦oh and a plethora of other stuff. John Scott, equally, provided a musical base for Rabid Records, performed as a member of Alberto Y Los Trios Paranoias, Jilted John, a variety of flickering acts on the Absurd label and, among many recent outings, as integral aspect of CP Lee’s now defunct ”“ and profoundly so ”“ Salford Sheiks. Needless to say, almost every member of ”˜the Fools’. Brings a similarly lengthy legacy ”“ Victor Brox, Dave B. Lunt, Bob Dickinson and so many more. Two drummers with full kits and three percussionists, for starters. So how many are there, in this band?

John Scott: “20 or 30, or something like that. We are not entirely sure. Some will be arriving on the day. It’s a bit loose.”
Tosh Ryan: “It’s loose and getting looser. I terms of things like band membership, and pitch and tone and timing and musical style”¦er we don’t know. I mean, I can even remember what we just did in rehearsal, so it will be a bit of an eye-opener.”

But, I venture, 20 odd musicians who have played together more or less for 35 years…well, they will be able to spark off each other. Isn’t that the point?

Ryan: “I wouldn’t claim that. Do you know that programme, The Choir, where that young lad assembles a lot of people who have never sung before and gets them to perform at the highest level? Well, Orchestra of Fools is the opposite of that. I can’t hold a fucking note right now.”

That, I thought, was mere whimsy, if not a reverse braggadocio. A whole lot of talent packs into Orchestra of Fools which, when all said and done, is something of an ironic title. And, with so many musicians scattering the stage and, frankly, as most are faintly silvered in hair hue, one might sense that there is little room for ego?

Ryan: “There’s egos all over the place. We are exploding with ego. Maybe that’s partly the point. WE all have issues in this band. None of us are over it at all. And mental illness. This is a band that has loads of mental illness.”

I must admit, at this point, I didn’t think Tosh was selling the concept particularly well although, as John appeared to be endorsing every point, I let it pass.

“There are some people in the band who have no experience,” continued Ryan.
“Last year we had this printer who had never played trombone in his life but wanted to be a part of it. So he just turned up and played”¦and it was fine. In fact, I have no idea why it went so well. Maybe a collective hatred of the kind of music that most people seem to like. I mean, fucking hell, The Stone Roses?”

Tosh’s dislike of many of the beacons of Manchester music history is well-known, if not well documented. He never regretted turning down Joy Division, for instance and, to this day appears to scoff at the enduring ”˜qualities’ of the Factory legacy. However, while he will talk freely and favourably about his favourite musician, J.S. Back, alongside John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and chunks of Northern Soul, I have also caught him feverishly YouTubing Sad Café – it’s a long and gloriously inept story ”“ George Michael and occasional blasts of Motorhead. One might say that his relationship with Manchester is complex and fraught with experience. Although living a safe distance from the city ”“ in Anglesey ”“ he is still often spotted in Manchester, albeit more in theatre, cinemas and upmarket eateries. But a passion for music burns on. Any visit to his home will be sound tracked by endless YouTubing and whoops of delight as he recognises some gargantuan jazz or funk moment from the past. So is that it? Is a burning latent passion the reason behind Orchestra of Fools. The fact that, in truth, nobody else is doing this”¦this”¦whatever it is. (And whatever it isn’t, it is certainly ”˜off the cuff’). There isn’t one musician in this extraordinary and massive band that hasn’t, at some point, been hurt by those who have seized the glories of Manchester and claimed it for themselves. No need to go into details here but that, alone, provides heart and soul to this band’s camaraderie.

Dipping into a point of deep, technical musicality for a moment, I enquire if there is a lead singer?
“Well”¦not as such,” replies John Scott. Although Bernard is writing the lyrics.

Ahh. This appears to be some kind of breakthrough. Bernard, who is still recognisable as Gordon the Moron ”“ although I have seen the tag annoy him on occasion ”“ “I am called Bernard now”¦ hat’s all in the past,” he once snapped at a book launch ”“ will not accept the role of lead singer, although happily scribbles occasional lines of lyrics”¦but, about what?
Tosh: “You know, I have no idea what the lyrics are about even though, last year, we were all given lyric sheets on the night. They could have been about ANYTHING.”
Bernard: “Well they are mainly about contemporary social things. Cameron, Clegg, the riots. Stuff like that but they are also odd lines and words just thrown in.”

Very Beefheartian, then?

John Scott: “I remember back in the Prime Time Suckers being compared to Beefheart’s way of things”¦and that went down really well with me.”
There will be such elements, I am sure. And shards of jazz, punk, funk, soul and little bits of stuff picked from a broad spectrum.
Tosh: “well there will be a couple of John’s songs and a few other new ones we have written”¦well, not actually written but borrowed”¦enhanced”¦emulated”¦”

Stolen?

“Yes, if you want to call it that.”

One thing seems certain. It will be like no other gig you have ever seen. A band of, maybe 30, crammed into The King’s Arms, no doubt flowing into the audience, rekindling a spirit that has been lost, somewhere, in the shadows of Manchester hype.

The Orchestra of Fools play at The King’s Arms on December 23 at 8pm. Entrance just £3.

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