Islington Folk Club

History of the club by David Campbell

'There have been three separate clubs all calling themselves The Islington Folk Club. But without Bob Davenport and The Rakes at The Fox, none of the rest would have happened.' -- Ken Lees

The Fox and the King's Head

The original Islington Folk Club was founded in 1964. Local citizens Arthur Roberts, Noel de Berry and Ernie Groome wanted to start a folk club at The Fox, Islington Green, and approached Bob Davenport and Reg Hall to be the resident performers. Bob and Reg were prominent figures on the traditional music scene, but didn't care for the folk clubs they knew, so agreed on condition that they would run it their own way. Reg's dance band The Rakes were installed as resident band and Bob was resident singer until he dropped out in 1967. The club closed the following year.

There were many folk clubs in the area during the late '60s, but the IFC at The Fox had made a deep impression on the young musicians and enthusiasts who were its members. Peta Webb, Tony Engle and Rod & Danny Stradling, who became well known as the band Oak, started a club at The King's Head to continue the spirit of the Fox. It ran from 1968 to 1970, and booked most of the available traditional singers of the day.

The new Islington Folk Club

Ken Lees, another ex-Foxer, ran an informal gathering of local musicians (of all kinds) at The William IV in Canonbury, for about a year; but, successful as that was while it lasted, Ken hankered after the kind of evening provided by the original IFC. He and a friend, John Cattini, determined to recreate it, and found a room at The White Horse on Liverpool Road. Tony Engle and Peta Webb gave much encouragement and advice, and Oak was the guest on opening night, Tuesday 15 February 1972. Tony prompted Ken in his choice of floorsingers, who included Vin Garbutt, Luke Kelly and Bob Davenport.

One of the important distinguishing features of Islington Folk Club, established at The Fox, is the involvement of a proper resident band - a rather different thing from what was then called a folk group. The new club's first resident band was called The Doodle-angle-doo Band, and came to the club via Ken's sessions at The William IV. It was led by singing fiddler Lena Lovich, a gloriously eccentric young woman who, after a spell as a belly dancer in Italy, was to become one of the most flamboyantly quirky pop stars of the era. The club's taste for the less ordinary is another feature that was established early on.

After about eighteen months, there was a change of landlord at The White Horse, and the club moved (a constant theme throughout its history) to The Florence, whose landlord and staff had previously run The William IV.

Flowers and Frolics and the Empress

Sometime in 1975, an Australian called Graeme Smith started attending the club, and introduced the musicians of his morris side, Angel Morris, who were based around City University. Some of them formed the band Flowers & Frolics, and took up residence. A couple of years later, impressed by the band, Bob Davenport was persuaded to join them as resident singer. They shared a taste not only for no-nonsense dance music but also for music hall and variety songs, a combination that firmly set the tone of the club.

The next move, to The Empress of Russia in April 1978, was suggested by Roger Digby of Flowers & Frolics. As Ken Lees says, 'It had a better room, a great landlord and the beer was better. (It just happened also to be Roger's local!)' It was during this, the first and longest of three spells at The Empress, that the club enjoyed its greatest popular success, hosted as it was by a singer of long-established national renown and a band that had been prominent in the English dance revolution of the '70s. In November 1981, the club was able to promote a month-long festival of events taking place on Thursday and Friday evenings and Saturday lunchtimes.

Together with its excellent resident bands and singers, Islington Folk Club has always presented at least one paid and advertised guest every week. Bob and the band came increasingly to influence the choice of guests, which always included what strictly traditional singers and players were available, but also extended to performers from what was then called the alternative cabaret circuit. After twelve years as the club's organiser, Ken Lees withdrew from the role during 1984, leaving Bob and Roger in charge of bookings. By then, however, Flowers & Frolics had started to disperse across the country, and the club closed in March 1986, on the retirement of the Empress's landlord, Aubrey Meredith.

The club reborn

Fortunately, a hard core of active members and regular performers declined to accept the closure. John & Joy Abbott, Linda Fornal & Trevor Bennett, Andrew Frank, Ken Hall, Ken & Sue Lees, Diane Moody, Martin Nail, Gordon Potts and Bernard Puckett met and resolved to restart the club. They reopened in April at The Horseshoe (the very same), where the club lived until the following October, when a new landlord at The Empress lured it back.

During that first six-month stint at The Horseshoe (there was no summer break in those days), Ken Hall was the regular master of ceremonies, and did the bookings. He'd been manning the door for several years, by then, and had been known as the Singing Doorman since plucking up the courage to sing. Who served as resident band at this time is something of a mystery. Several people remember Dan Quinn taking charge of that role, with whichever musicians he could round up at the time. Dan has no such memory, and insists that he was no longer attending, by then. It was a long time ago - and, as Dan points out, drink had generally been taken.

Ken Hall's fondest memory of Islington Folk Club is of an evening with the great Irish singer Margaret Barry which took place during that Horseshoe period. Ken and Martin Nail remained the keenest champions of traditional performers, a necessary counterweight to the growing influence of Andrew Frank, whose background and preferences were theatrical, and Bernard Puckett, a performance poet who had found the club a congenial alternative to the cabaret scene.

Bernard Puckett and Andrew Frank

Bernard first attended IFC one night in 1981 when the guest was Adrian Mitchell, and evidently made a good impression with his first floorspot. He immediately became a regular, and paid close attention to the way Bob Davenport ran the night. On the first return to The Empress, Bernard was encouraged by Freddy McKay (a great club favourite from the earliest days until he died) to take the reins. He became, and has remained, the club's main MC. Bernard's personal style, together with his close adherence to the principles established by Bob Davenport, has played a large part in creating and maintaining IFC's highly distinctive atmosphere.

Andrew Frank had arrived in 1976, shortly after touring with the musical Godspell. The warm reception given to him, and to Bernard (and John Hegley, and The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, to name only the most celebrated of the many wonderful oddballs embraced by the club), demonstrates that IFC has never limited itself to the kinds of performance that might be thought proper to a folk club. Entertainment has always been the first priority. This emphasis was naturally reinforced when Andrew took charge of booking the guests. Neither he nor Bernard has much knowledge of traditional music, so the period in which Andrew did the bookings and Bernard became the club's public face was one in which the club moved increasingly from the traditional to the eccentric. Andrew is rightly proud to have introduced many exciting turns - Pookie Snackenburger, The Panic Brothers and Benjamin Zephaniah, for instance - but his taste for female vocal harmony groups was not generally shared. Or perhaps that's just me.

The 1990s

When IFC returned to The Empress (or around then), Diane Moody took responsibility for providing a regular band. She and Gordon Potts, Ian & Hilda Dedic and Martin Nail did the job until 1999, when the demands of child-rearing meant that neither Diane & Gordon nor Ian & Hilda could commit themselves any longer to attending every week. During their long time as resident band, they didn't have a name. Later, when they were booked as guests, it became necessary to call them something. As they used to be part of a much larger ceilidh outfit, The Committee Band, they became known to us as The Subcommittee Band. The Subcommittee's singer and concertina-player is Martin Nail, whose continuous active involvement in the club (since 1973) is the longest of anyone's; he has served for many years as treasurer, doorman, webmaster and voice of reason.

Ken Hall enjoyed many of the club's more bizarre offerings, but wanted to concentrate on the traditional music that had drawn him in at the beginning. In 1990, he joined with Peta Webb and Keith Summers to found the Musical Traditions Club - a determinedly traditional club which meets monthly at The King & Queen, Foley Street. 'The Musical Traditions Club,' says Peta, 'was directly influenced by The Fox, Florence, Empress of Russia, in its format and ethos. So there's another branch of the IFC in Fitzrovia!' 'Although the booking policies of IFC and MTC may be different,' says Ken, 'the way we run the evening is much the same ... Always start on time; one song at a time from floorsingers; always have a good band to start the evening and provide continuity.'

An odd element of continuity in IFC's history is its relationship with Angel Morris (who finally retired in 2003). Graeme Smith, who introduced the Angel Morris musicians to the club, was introduced to the morris side by Alex Szyszkowski, one of the large group of young players associated with the side. Alex had spent a year in Australia and was a co-founder with Graeme of the Melbourne Morris. He also sold Dan Quinn his first melodeon (it was a two-row, which Alex had decided was 'fascist'). Alex didn't join Flowers & Frolics, and found the atmosphere at The Empress too smoky (those were the days!), but he carried on playing for the morris through many years when he didn't attend folk clubs at all. When The Subcommittee withdrew, Angel Morris again came to the rescue: Alex brought in several of their players, accumulated several more, and has led The Angel Band ever since. The band is excitingly variable, comprising however many players turn up on the night.

A personal note

I'm the new boy; although an occasional visitor in the days of Davenport and Flowers, I didn't attend regularly until 1990. I sang regularly from the start, and occasionally stood in for Bernard as MC. Around 1994, I took on the bookings when Andrew bowed out of his active involvement in the club. Some five years after that, I passed the responsibility to Bernard, who has booked the guests ever since. Unfortunately, I had to return to my native Birmingham in 2008, so I'm back to being an occasional visitor for the time being.

David Campbell
27th November 2011

Thanks to Andrew Frank, Ken Hall, Reg Hall, Peta Webb and, especially, Ken Lees, for filling the new boy in.

Page created by Martin Nail. Last revised 7th December 2018