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SONGS AND POEMS BY LES BARKER "Guide Cats For The Blind" Osmosys osmocd0202

Is there anyone out there who doesn't love our Les? Maybe, but I'm still to meet him/her. And Barker's vast legion of fans will pounce upon this double CD, even though they will be very familiar with 95% of the material.

And here's why. Not just because a percentage of the profits from this release go to a good cause - The British Computer Association of the Blind - but also because it is very much an album with a difference. You see, whilst Les tops and tails it with track one and track 40, the 38 tracks in between are given over to a dazzling array of mainly household names. So the album has real curiosity value.

Now, all that said, let me level with you: I reckon that Les Barker's body of work is hugely uneven. But that said, the comment isn't as damning as it seems, because at his best he is an inspired genius (so it is only natural that most of his work cannot achieve the same dizzy heights as 'Déjà vu', which remains his finest poem). The only man in Barker's lifetime who could produce work to match 'Déjà vu' was the late great Spike Milligan, and heaven knows, his work too was jolly uneven in quality. So maybe such variations in quality just 'go with the territory'.

In this album, the Great and the Good seem to be queuing up to pay homage: luminaries such as Terry Wogan, Sir Jimmy Young, Ned Sherrin, Ken Bruce and Charlotte Green are amongst those delivering poems. Every five poems or so, comes a Barker song parody, usually sung by the person whose original is being parodied e.g. Cyril Tawney (twice), Bill Caddick, Galliard, June Tabor. Of these, only one really comes off: Martin Carthy's version of 'Hard Cheese of Old England'.

Some of the poems are very good indeed, and the gum has not lost its flavour due to constant chewing. Mind you, Terry Wogan disappoints slightly with his reading of the truly wonderful 'Have You Got Any News of the Iceberg?'. He does a decent enough job, but somehow, knowing Wogan to have such a capacity for humour, one expected slightly more from him

Other readers are even less 'at the races'. Johnnie Walker doesn't really make a decent fist of 'The Man Next Door's a Burglar', and a strangely subdued-sounding Roy Hudd (can it REALLY be him?) never gets to grips with 'An Infinite Number of Occasional Tables'.

One real plus though is the fact that Barker is not reading. How come that's a 'plus'? Isn't Barker the best reader of Barker? Well yes, but the two excerpts of his are taken from live performance, and anyone who has been to a Les Barker gig, has the unenviable job of listening to some of your fellow audience members trying to outdo one another, by seeing who can get the joke first. And then laugh most raucously, and still be laughing long after the joke has subsided.

So, as the other 38 tracks do not have a live audience, one can appreciate the poems for what they are. And some of them are glorious flights of fancy.

A must for the serious Barker fan.

Dai Woosnam.

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This album was reviewed in Issue 54 of The Living Tradition magazine.