Music: Princes and peasants of medieval pop

Musicians have long been fascinated by the Middle Ages. Perhaps it's down to the tight trousers and catamites. By Nick Coleman

A few years ago it became fashionable to observe that we are living in a neo-medieval society. The pervading language of computers was cited as one reason for this, as was a growing underclass of social and economic dissidents, whose purpose in life - in common with the heretic mendicants of the 13th century - was to rove around the landscape guilt-tripping people about their lifestyles, making an unholy racket in public places and manuring the highway with bits that dropped off their filthy bodies.

It also became plain that society had divided itself down the middle, between those who worshipped lucre and those who worshipped lucre but in a spiritual way. Also, men started to wear skirts again.

Pop musicians have been au fait with the neo-medieval thing for decades, but on a more sophisticated level than the rest of us. They have been aware since the Sixties that to be medieval is, by some curious twist, to be modern. Put another way, every phase of pop music's recent history has recognised in the medieval world-view a great opportunity for selling records.

We'll draw a spangly veil over Rick Wakeman at this juncture. His Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, though camp as a row of knightly pavilions, was entirely fraudulent, being a pantomime staged on ice and founded in the Gothic Revival idealism of Pugin and all those guys with frothy Victorian sideboards. Nothing is less medieval than a Victorian sideboard.

True pop-medievalism began in the late Sixties, with those hippies who realised that there is only a stylistic fairy-step to travel between greasily flattened Plantagenet hair and full medieval mufti: pointy shoes, tights, jerkins, hats like lava lamps and all. Many of these insightful fellows took a further step and swapped their Fenders and Pearls for lutes and tabors to convey a folksy and/or psychedelic pop-whimsy for Tolkien readers everywhere. They called themselves Amazing Blondel, Dulcimer, Magna Carta and Led Zeppelin.

To be fair to Led Zeppelin, their medievalism was only partial. However, it was their conflation of saga-boogie with hippie mysticism and tight trousers which furnished the nascent heavy-metal scene with an excuse to pursue the Harold Hardrada Method for world domination. Indeed, so all-encompassing was HM's hairy embrace of the pop-medieval reference bank that for a decade at least (with the exception of punk's very own spindly Falstaff, Edward Tudor Pole), Metal remained the sole curator of the spirit of Malory.

Chief among these scholarly types was an American group called Manowar, who first appeared carrying lumpy weapons in the early Eighties and went on to become officially the loudest band in the world, as well as the only heavy metal group to record with Orson Welles and perform the Overture to William Tell as a bass guitar solo.

The Manowar ethos was grounded in a fundamentally ahistorical, Hollywood counterfeit of the medieval fun palace - great fun but complete cobblers. Compare and contrast that fun palace with the wobbly castle that was England's Gryphon, who, in addition to wearing the togs and striking courtly attitudes, actually played medieval and Renaissance idioms on authentic instruments through thick beards on top of a prog-rock rhythm section. Gryphon were to Manowar as Thomas Campion is to Ted Nugent, and, as a consequence, sold few records to American teenagers.

However, it has never been that important to get your idioms right. More important in the feudal Eighties - perhaps even more so than the clothes - was getting your stance right.

The Eighties was the era of Serf Rock. The pointy end of the pyramid of feudal power was jostled over by a generation of silly princelings, their catamites and Cher, clad in the contents of their childhood dressing- up boxes and, in the case of Cher, platinum chainmail. Next to them on a little stool sat Phil Collins. Beneath them ranged the lower orders, the majority of which played inept R&B in pubs, or bogus pomp rock in stadiums. The whole structure was propped up by the peasants.

The peasants didn't wash. They had awful teeth, and they played guitars and fiddles while they gnashed them. Their objective was to stink the place out and bring down the government, although they enjoyed more success in the former enterprise. They were called The Levellers and they're still at it, unlike their urban jester chums, Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine, over whom Time has appeared to draw a wimple. Leather-skirted socialist pop arrivistes Chumbawumba have hits, of course, but are nowhere near low-born enough to be Serf Rock. They've probably never even heard of Wat Tyler.

The Nineties have not been a desert for medievalists, either, but an oasis of calm. Sample culture has allowed scholars to piece together old bits of Gregorian chant with rumbly basslines and sultry reverb, which go down great with a glass of chablis after a day at the office, or at the hairdresser, or on television to advertise tampons. The tragic irony is that medieval spirituality was always about lifestyle, hygiene and righteous hair. All the monks lacked at the time was the 24-track portable studio facilities and the sample technology to make those things really work for them.

Who'd have thought, then, as the millennium looms, that perhaps the best pop-medieval record ever would be released to the reedy alarums of shawms and rebecs and then ignored by all but the dedicated thousands who go to the Cropredy festival? Who'd have thought, also, that it wouldn't be a pop-medieval record at all, but a pop-renaissance one subtly fixed by its arranger to "reflect the music's obvious medieval or ethnic folk origins"?

Philip Pickett's The Bones of All Men (Hannibal) is a hearty artefact keeping faith with Pickett's origins as tooty woodwind guy in the Albion Band and as MD of early-music combo the New London Consort. It's grooved by the Fairport Convention rhythm section (Dave Mattacks being the only drummer other than John Bonham to define that rare thing, English swing), and Richard Thompson is all over it, not singing but playing twirly, wired- up electric guitar very nearly as well as he ever has done in a studio. It's an album of airs and dances, riffs, toots and jangles, that will make barbarians laugh and the rest of us marvel at how close medieval and Renaissance idioms are to those we associate with rock.

Check out the parallel fourths and fifths laid out modally across bashed syncopations, then resolved into extemporary sections for solo instrumentalists. That's rock music. Think about the way groups like Free warranted their greasy Plantagenet hair with exactly this mix of low technique and heightened sensibility, fundamentalist harmony and dance rhythm. Think about how few fairy-steps there are between this sort of thing and what the Chemical Brothers and the Prodigy are doing. And finally, think what a shame it is that the first time you hear The Bones of All Men, the second connection that you'll make is with Rowan Atkinson in doublet and tights. That's post-pop-medievalism for you.

'The Bones of All Men' is out now on Hannibal, distributed by Rykodisc.

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