Colin Harper, the hitherto (mostly) non-performing songwriter/musician behind the Legends of Tomorrow, ruminates on over 25 years of this curious entity that finally nudged above the radar with the national release of The Weather at World's End: 1997-2022 in March 2023.
Colin Harper, 1997, Rotterdam Bar
Colin Harper, 2022, his back garden
That was how my enigmatic friend Jules Maxwell began his sleevenote to the first Legends of Tomorrow album Nothing Is Easy in 1997. Twenty-five years on, one could make a case for that statement remaining accurate – and one could also make a case for it being wholly trounced by the evidence. For a band that never existed, we’ve made a lot of music.
That supposedly one-off assemblage of recordings involving 33 musicians and two gigs – four songs at the Belfast Empire in March 1996 and something similar at the Rotterdam Bar a year later, at a private party to launch the completed short-run cassette album – proved to be the start of something that, like the Cheshire Cat, came whimsically into view every so often and then disappeared again. The winding path of my desire to scratch a creative itch every so often has combined with an archivistic bent and a feeling of great camaraderie towards a wide circle of musical pals in Northern Ireland and abroad. Consequently, there have now been seven albums that are effectively Legends of Tomorrow projects – even if other names were occasionally used, sometimes even my own – along with scattered tracks on various-artist sets, digital singles, an EP and unreleased things that never stay buried indefinitely. As the discography herein hints, I come back to things periodically – remixing, repurposing, re-recording. Any excuse, really.
So, is this a ‘best of’? Well, of a sort. When I realised it was 25 years one Saturday in August 2022, I wondered what an anthology might look like. It could have been a collection of more or less acoustic / singer-songwriter-ish tracks; it could have been a collection of instrumentals; or it could have been a collection of old-school pop/rock toe-tappers. Somehow, a list ticking that last box began to compile itself. Really, it was all there on paper and in a rough sequence of WAV files in a couple of hours. Some of the compositions that I might regard as my best are in the other two camps, but a few are in this one. If much of the music sounds like a Bert Jansch fan with a soft spot for the Who, that’s exactly what it is. It’s not reinventing any wheels but likewise those are not wheels that often spin together. Music by the Legends of Tomorrow always has a flavour of its own, even if thus far it’s not proved an especially popular one!
One of the things I do for a living is curate box sets of vintage music. At the time of writing, for instance, a colossal Martin Carthy anthology is in the works. Anthologising other people’s works is easier than doing the same task for oneself. For a start, concision is required. The world needs a lovingly crafted 20CD Martin Carthy at the BBC collection; it does not need any sort of collection by the Legends of Tomorrow. So, why is there one? It’s down to art for art’s sake. In essence: why not?
Back in the 1990s, as a full-time writer on music for national and regional newspapers and magazines at a time when the 20th century model of the music industry (and the media) was still intact, there was a perceived divide between those who did and those who wrote about it. This vague stigma and a lack of confidence was why Nothing Is Easy was a discreet cassette-only affair. Really, it was enough to have done it – creativity satisfied, fun had, a great adventure with musical friends. A similar sense of satiating the creative spirit by stealth marked Freedom & the Dream Penguin in 2008, with collaborators old and new and a momentary new moniker. A reappearance of unease carried over into the rush of creativity that led to Titanium Flag and Rust in 2010, albums existing only as ‘private pressing’ CDs, in the parlance of 1970s record collectors, although at that time the cause was a public-sector workplace situation that was going rapidly down the plug hole and taking my confidence with it.
From 2012, I reverted to self-employment as a writer of musical history books, academic proofreader and, increasingly, curator of vintage music releases and my world became sunnier – in parallel with the wider world becoming darker. Or maybe I had just had more clarity of thought to look upon the works of the mighty and despair. Nevertheless, I had a much improved sense of worth about what I was doing in all fields of endeavour – books, music and the legacy curation of others’ music. The mostly instrumental Sunset Cavaliers (2016) is like a musical diary created during a period of working on several books and vintage music projects, involving guests pertinent to several of the above. Titanium Flag: Remastered & Expanded Edition (2017) redressed my lack of confidence from 2010 and presented the album to the world, with bonus tracks newly recorded by the reassembled team and ancient maps of the Arctic. In my opinion, it’s my best piece of musical work – and being all-instrumental, it falls outside the bounds of this collection.
A few songs herein may be rather slight examples of songwriting, but I love them as ‘records’ – as recordings with energy or with performances that I hold dear from singers or players I also hold dear, as artists and as people. It all works as a set of musical missiles from moments in time – combinations of often disparate individuals from folk, trad, punk, jazz, rock or blues crafting something that had not previously existed. These are moments of happiness and sorrow, whimsy and rage. If one keeps conjuring, the chances are there might be magic. And often, I think, there is. From the present standpoint, there are no longer any rules about who is or is not allowed to make music. With all of the arts under crippling pressure – from practitioners to infrastructures to media – and with music creation slipping from what we can now see as a momentary period of transactional equilibrium and cultural centrality in the late 20th century, if anyone has music to make, and the means to present it, let them do so.
We cannot do without art. Mine is not great art, but it is art, nonetheless. After the angst of youth maybe there is some wisdom of age in there. And if it’s only rock’n’roll, that’s still okay. For the people who comprise the Legends of Tomorrow, it is the Hotel California of bands – very few ever leave. It’s also a wonderful community. I was thrilled when so many vocalist Legends of yore immediately agreed to an anniversary photo session, along with the three friends I regard as my key collaborators: Cormac O’Kane (1997–present), Mark Case (1997–present) and Ali Mackenzie (2000–present). It’s been a great adventure and it continues to be so.