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ALAN BELL - The Cocklers

ALAN BELL - The Cocklers
Greentrax Recordings CDTRAX394

I have to declare an interest: just hearing the name Fleetwood, puts a chill through me. It was there at the Pier Head on Sunday January 3rd, 2010, stepping off the bus from Blackpool Travelodge at the terminus stop of the bus route, that I realised I was parted from my wallet/purse, which contained all our £350+ holiday money, eight credit cards, driving licence, bus pass, English Heritage and National Trust membership cards ...the lot. They’d been with me, resting on the front flat panel dashboard of the otherwise empty top deck, less than 3 minutes before, where I’d stupidly placed them while taking pictures of the Golden Mile. Nothing was ever recovered. As we stood shivering and literally penniless outside the North Euston Hotel, we were thankful to the next bus driver for his humanity in believing our story, and getting us back gratis to the warmth of our Blackpool pre-paid £9 a night Travelodge room. After informing the police, the next day meant a truncated holiday and an immediate drive back home. I have never been able to go back to Fleetwood since. Maybe, because if ever I were to again meet that first bus driver, murder might be on my mind.

So, when this CD arrived on my desk, it presented a real challenge. For I had forgotten that Alan Bell is – along with Alfie Boe – the most famous musical son of the town. I had first seen him nearly half a century ago, as a member of the Blackpool Taverners, and despite his formidable running of Fylde Folk Festival, had always wrongly pictured him as a Blackpudlian. But, putting this disc into my CD player, what the heck, I thought: it was time to be casting these “Fleetwood” demons out of my subconscious! It was time, seven years later, to start the rehabilitation of the town in my mind.

And guess what? Yes, this CD by its 82 year-old veteran of a myriad Folk stages, has been a welcome step in the healing process. Twelve tracks, none of them duds, all sounding crisp, on clean-as-a-whistle recordings at Chris Carter’s Bluebird Recording studios in Preston. And if you want proof that this is a pukka album, just look at the label: Edinburgh’s Greentrax Recordings don’t put their name to anything less than top-drawer.

I was very taken by Bell’s voice – in his ninth decade and sounding like he was 45 – and his backing musicians, amongst which, the fiddle of Sue Jennings and the accordion of Nancy Langton, really stand out.

Lots of his “greatest hits” are here, along with one or two songs new to me. Not sure the title song about the 2005 Morecambe Bay disaster was the album’s high point, but one well understands the sound marketing sense in putting its title on the cover of the CD. That said, the song has a wonderful intensity, and a magnificent William Wilberforce image toward the end.

But there are some songs that spades. Farewell Harry Patch takes my vote for the best track, just pipping the track preceding it...There Was A Day. The Patch song describes a remarkable Passchendale survivor who died in 2009, aged an astonishing 111 years old. And all of us who saw Mr Patch on our TVs, will long remember the man’s remarkable lack of bellicosity and his determination to talk about the sheer obscenity of war. And Bell here captures the very essence of the man.

As for There Was A Day: it is not just an exercise in nostalgia for the events of VE Day 1945, but a subtle look at the social changes since. And it is a song with a great singalong quality to it, as indeed have most Alan Bell songs. That is his hallmark as a writer. Oh, that one could say the same for all performers...!!

And one final thought: this reviewing lark might be an unpaid job, but it can bring with it untold benefits. Look, I have just used it as therapy here: Alan Bell has made me feel good about Fleetwood mean feat.

Dai Woosnam

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This album was reviewed in Issue 118 of The Living Tradition magazine.