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MIKE BUTLER - Sounding The Century: Bill Leader & Co / 1. Glimpses Of Far Off Things: 1855-1956 

MIKE BUTLER - Sounding The Century: Bill Leader & Co / 1. Glimpses Of Far Off Things: 1855-1956 
Troubador Books ISBN: 9781800460768 

The genesis of this book goes back to 2009 when a press copy of Three Score And Ten, the official history of Topic Records, arrived on the desk of Mike Butler, a journalist on the Manchester Evening News. Discovering that Bill Leader had only recently retired as head of the audio department at Salford University, Mike pitched a story idea to his editor - an interview with Bill Leader – “his name appears on more classic albums than Phil Spector and George Martin combined.” This book now reveals that there was no audio department at Salford University and that Bill was never a head of anything (Bill’s words), but the pitch was made and the editor responded with a request for an 800 word interview. Mike soon realised that this would be totally inadequate to even scratch the surface of the story and that a book would be required. Wind forward a dozen or so years to the present and we have the publication of the first book in a projected 10 volume series titled 1. Glimpses Of Far Off Things: 1855 To 1956.

Since 2009, Mike Butler, armed with a business card with ‘Mike Butler, Bill Leader Biographer’ in bold type, has interviewed an astonishing number of people and has brought all the skills of an investigative journalist and writer to the table. It would be misleading to think that this is simply a biography of Bill Leader. By proposing Bill Leader as an ‘everyman’ figure and by linking him to a longer chain of familial / professional ancestors and successors, Mike Butler reveals a hidden history of Britain reflected through the prism of music.

There is lots here that will interest anyone with connections to folk music, but the book will have far wider appeal than that. This initial volume starts with the present and tells the story of Bill’s EFDSS Gold Badge Award celebration. Subsequently it tells of Bill’s time in the army, his involvement with the Workers Music Association, the early days of Topic Records, and the birth of the recording industry. It is a fascinating read which will add colour and context to whatever understanding you have about folk music and the times we have lived through.

From permission for an 800-word interview, this has become a mammoth task, and a life’s work for Mike Butler. Starting off his writing, Mike spent a year living in an attic in Madrid. Three more volumes are scheduled for publication in 2022 with Volume 10 listed on the website with November 2025 as a prospective publication date.

Mike is a detail person and meticulous in his research. The index to this first volume is comprehensive and the index for the whole series when completed will be an amazing resource. It has taken over 10 years for this first volume to be published, but the full series is now mapped out in detail, so an enormous amount of research has already been done. Mike’s method of working involves detailed transcriptions of interviews, then joining them together in a cohesive narrative. His idea is to maintain the illusion of a single interview unfolding in the present moment and the matter under discussion is in the past tense.

There is a section at the end of this book entitled Possibly Significant People. I’m guessing and hoping that this will be continued in future volumes as I really enjoyed this section, being reminded of people I know about and being introduced to people who I wish I knew about. To give you a flavour of this section, people covered range from Stanley Accrington, Gloria and Karl Dallas, Tom Dryburgh, John Foreman, Martin Hall, Mike Harding, Alfred Hitchcock, Dick Swettenham and Eric Winter.

The book extends to over 300 pages and presumably the whole series will extend to over 3000 pages. This first book stands alone as a good read. Sounding The Century promises to be a major and important piece of work. I eagerly look forward to future volumes and congratulate Mike Butler on the story so far.

Pete Heywood


This review appeared in Issue 142 of The Living Tradition magazine