Author: Suse Coon

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Wednesday, November 4th, 2009 at 8:57 pm
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Temple Records and the Man Who Makes Them

Nestlng in a quiet valley in Midlothian lies what was once the heart of the Templar organisation – no, not Rosslyn Chapel but a ruined church in the conservation village of Temple. Across the road from this still beautiful church is another church which is now the headquarters of Temple Records, who are celebrating 30 years of recording and producing Scottish and Irish traditional music.

With about 2 dozen artists on the books and over 100 albums in the catalogue this is a company which is dedicated, rather than commercially inclined, to producing Good Music. You can hear the initial capitals as owner Robin Morton delineates this history of the company and its raison d’etre.

The most well-known of Robin’s line-up would have to be the Battlefield Band (he just calls them Battlefield) with whom he has been involved for three decades, first producing, then publishing under the Temple Records banner, and managing. Robin’s own musical past is not to be sniffed at – he’s a former member of the Boys of the Lough and was Director of the Edinburgh Folk Festival for 3 years.

Born in Portadown, Northern Ireland, Robin played the cornet in a brass band and wanted to be Louis Armstrong. During his teens he began to listen to Blues and American Folk artists such as Woody Guthrie but during a spell in hospital after a rugby accident in 1963, he began to record and collect Ulster songs. While at University  he also discovered jazz and played the guitar, concertina and bodhran and learnt the music of the Liverpool Spinners and Ewan McColl, whose circle he became part of while at University in London.

Ewan said that people should sing the songs of their own areas, so Robin went off to the BBC repository and found a very fine collection. He learnt that Ulster was the centre of Irish singing and, inspired, he returned to Belfast “with fire burning in my eyes”.

Creative People
At Queen’s University he found himself amongst a group of interesting, creative people, including the actor Stephen Rea and poet and novelist Seamus Heaney. Through his uncle, who took him to the right pubs, he further explored the world of Irish traditional music and thought it all wrong that it wasn’t being heard and appreciated. “In those days, folk music wasn’t taken seriously,” he says. “Oh sure it was democratic, because anyone could get up and play, and they could get away with not being terribly good. But the down side was that the good players were undervalued.

“Musicians and singers performed separately in those days, so you went to a singers’ club to hear singers and a musicians’ club to hear musicians. I was an organiser, the catalyst who brought them together.”

Robin started two Folk Clubs during his two spells at Queen’s and began to organise concerts to bring traditional music to the attention of a wider audience. In that audience although more often on the stage, were Cathal McConnell and Tommy Gunn, with whom he formed a groundbreaking folk band.

“It was great fun – we were the first ever folk band that brought singing and playing instruments together. We began to get more popular and one time we were booked to play at the Aberdeen Folk Festival. The organiser asked us what we called ourselves and on the spur of the moment we came up with the name The Boys of the Lough.”

In addition to studying and playing with the band, Robin had never lost his passion for collecting Ulster folk songs and had been recording them and publishing books, of which he is very proud to this day, on and about folk music, as well as producing a number of albums for Topic Records. By the end of the 1960s, he felt that the music was safe so switched emphasis from saving it to continuing it. He had paid his way through his second stint at Queen’s by working for BBC radio on human interest stories but turned down a permanent job in favour of a good degree. This enabled him to go to Edinburgh to undertake a PhD.

Tommy retired, leaving Robin and Cathal to continue until they met another duo at the Falkirk Folk Festival, Aly Bain and Mike Whellans. The foursome gelled to such an extent that Robin invited Aly and Mike to play a gig in Newcastle with them and the rest, as they say is history.

A Change of Career
But the decision to turn fully professional and abandon his PhD was not taken lightly. For someone who has turned his back on social work in favour of music, Robin still believes his theory of how to manage madness is the right one.

On leaving school Robin had worked with mentally handicapped children before seeking formal qualifications. From his own early observations, he could never understand why mentally handicapped people came under the care of psychiatrists, as though they had a disease that could be cured. He saw madness as a social definition rather than an illness but struggled to explain his discomfort with the terms and practices employed at the time. He studied various aspects of Social Work and Psychiatry in Manchester, at Queen’s University, Belfast and at the London School of Economics before returning to Belfast to work as a child psychiatrist for a couple of years. After returning to University to study Economic History at Queen’s, he then came to Edinburgh to pursue a PhD themed “The Treatment of Lunacy in Scotland in the 19th Century” – his difficulty being that he did not believe in madness. One evening he met a lawyer in Sandy Bell’s pub in Edinburgh who pointed him in the direction of labelling theory which, he says, “would have been the doorway to finishing my PhD,” but by that stage, music had become too much a part of his life and the PhD had been abandoned. Aly and Mike were professional and it needed 100% commitment from Robin and Cathal. “I’d had 10 years of University one way or another,” Robin says. “That’s not bad going for someone who hadn’t ever meant to go!”

Boys of the LoughThe Boys of the Lough were touring overseas, spreading the gospel of Irish and now Scottish music, well beyond their native shores. The combination of fiddle, flute, bodhran, concertina, guitar and voice that was at the disposal of the Boys gave them a flexibility and dexterity that was unique. They loved their music and their own enjoyment was infectious. The modern folk scene was booming thanks to writers like Bob Dylan and everyone was welcome. The band toured in America and shared a stage with many of the great names of the time.

There were few regrets but turning down a recording contract with Polydor, because they were ‘a big capitalist company’, was one, and Robin admits now that he wishes he had swallowed his political pride and taken the opportunity. Instead the band went with a smaller folk company which did not serve them well.

While touring in Shetland, Robin met harpist Alison Kinnaird and by 1972, the couple were married. Alison travelled with the band sometimes, but had her own career, which she put on hold while their two children were small. But Alison enjoyed buying up interesting properties and in 1974, an old church in the village of Temple came on the market. Since then, this has been not only their home, but their place of work.

Temple
By the end of the seventies, Robin felt that he had gone far enough with Boys of the Lough. By then he was managing the group as well and he felt that this was all too onerous. In 1979, he bought some recording equipment and the Temple recording studio came into being. “I could barely switch on the machines,” he recalls “but our first recording was Cilla Fisher (for Topic Records) and that became the folk album of the year. The next was Dick Gaughan’s Handful of Earth, which was voted Folk Record of the Decade.

“Our own first album was The Harp Key by Alison. It was an unusual choice, because the harp was considered a very middle class instrument, one that the ladies played in the drawing room, and Topic didn’t think it would be popular. But I really admire the way Alison plays. She plays like a man and she’s done a lot of research into the history of the harp so she plays with great understanding and respect. That pushed us into publishing.”

Another seemingly odd choice for Temple was Christine Primrose, who sings in Gaelic. “People asked us why we were putting out a gaelic song when we’re a folk label but we just said, it was great music and should be listened to. I don’t understand gaelic but you can get the gist of the song because Christine is one of those singers who ‘tells’ the song. She uses her personality to express the song rather than the song to express her personality.”

By that time there were a few other folk bands on the scene, in particular one that Robin admired. “When Battlefield Band came along you could tell by their attitude that they were going to blow us away. They wouldn’t have, of course, but the time was right for me to leave Boys of the Lough and when they heard that they asked me to manage them. I didn’t want the responsibility of other people’s livelihood so I said no, but we did some albums for them and I changed my mind and took them on. We’ve been together for 30 years and I still love their music.

“I always say that Temple records doesn’t release albums, they just sort of escape. It’s important music, not fashion music. I suppose Battlefield Band is the nearest to fashion but they’re doing what they like and want and they probably created the fashion in the first place.”

Temple Records StudioThe Future
Like other publishing companies, whether musical or print, Temple Records are having to adjust. “It’s good music, but it’s hard to sell CDs these days,” Robin says. “I spend a lot of my time chasing up performing rights cheques.” So on the web site you have a choice of purchasing the CD or a digital download.

Keeping the company small and manageable and sticking to music that is important in its own field is the key to survival. Apart from Robin, there are two part time members of staff, Denise who came as a YOP and Ewan, who is a recording engineer. As more of us download music from the internet, or listen to it on the internet, there are indeed fewer CDs being sold and all this has to be considered. Bands expect to make their income from ticket sales, but this means a lot of touring. “I’m lucky I have had an understanding wife,” Robin says. “Alison has never tried to hold me back, either as a player or as a manager. And when I’m home, at least we can have quality time together because she’s there, not out at work somewhere else.”

Whether the future lies with CD sales or digital downloads or Spotify, the music that Temple Records has promoted and made available is worth listening to. And if you have any doubts, there are ‘free samples’ on Temple Records’ website.

Convinced? Then you might like to drop in to one of the two gigs Battlefield Band are playing in Scotland in November to promote their latest release Zama Zama Try Your Luck.

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