Horsham Accordion Band: The Last Waltz?
There was a time when the accordion was a definitive instrument in British music. From the 1930s to the 1950s, the accordion provided a soundtrack to the British way of life – holidays on the coast, donkey rides, Punch & Judy shows, deck chairs, strolling along the bunting-laden promenades.
But in the 1960s Britain began to experience a cultural revolution. Rock ‘n’ Roll bands such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones entranced a new generation. It left little room for the accordion – the sound diminished, and over the next fifty years the instruments were consigned to lofts and were soon forgotten.
It comes out for folk festivals, and briefly threatened a revival thanks to Dexy’s Midnight Runners, but the accordion player is an endangered species. So it may surprise you to know that Horsham has its own Accordion Band. It meets once a week in the quaint United Reformed Church in Slinfold, and performs occasionally at fetes, markets, parties and functions. The band recently performed at a Jubilee Tea Party hosted by Horsham Lions, and will be at the Carfax bandstand on 29th September.
But these are not good times for the band. There are fewer than ten members today, and it’s becoming harder and harder to attract new players. Only two members are below the age of 40.
Anne Hunt said: “The accordion was a big instrument in the 1950s but then in came The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and the instrument seemed to be from a different time.”
Band Leader Mags Fisher said: “There are so few people that play these days. There are a few people that play behind closed doors, but that’s it. It’s a shame, but it just isn’t an ‘in-thing’ to do at the moment. I expect when it’s nearly died out somebody will re-discover the accordion.
“I think my interest in the accordion started when I went on a trip with the Trinity Youth Club. The priest organised a social evening and a couple of accordionists came in. That got me really interested in the instrument as I already played the piano. I walked by a second hand shop called Pass It On and they had a pre-war accordion for sale, so I bought it.
“It sat at home untouched for ten years, and then I found John Coles from Broadbridge Heath, who taught the accordion. He formed the band in 1987 and asked if I would like to come along. I said ‘yes’ and have never left!
“I took over (as leader) by default, as the previous chairmen became ill or stepped down due to age. Eventually, as you get older and frail a lot of people stop, which is a tragedy as emotionally and mentally they don’t want to. But physically it becomes challenging as it is a heavy instrument to move around.”
This is not so much of a problem for the younger players, but they are few and far between. Kevin Rowley is, at 36, a pivotal part of the band, whilst John Adams is very much the spring chicken of the group at 22.
Kevin was given an accordion when he was 12, and joined the band whilst still a teenager. He often finds himself playing the keyboards to lead the band at practice. He said: “The group had about thirty members back in the mid-1990s and we used to go on foreign trips, but now we’re down to a handful. It’s really hard getting the interest now – we tried to recruit but it’s not an instrument that young people know about. It has that old British sound, but there is an accordion world out there.
“John, for instance, is a young player, so it does happen. But it’s hidden and not many people know about it.
“We normally play old songs as people like to hear songs they know of course. We’ve tried new songs but they don’t really work. We’ve got up to The Beatles, but that’s about it! The thing I like about it is that it’s an independent instrument. You can play it as a standalone. You can be a one man band.”
It’s the one man band element that has ensured that the accordion is still occasionally used as a busker’s instrument. John Adams, who lives in Brighton, has performed on stage at the Odeon in Leicester Square and Brighton Dome with his accordion. But he has also played on the streets, and says that the instrument still has its fans.
John said: “I’ve played since I was 13. It was a spur of the moment thing for me. I woke up one day and
decided I wanted to learn how to play an instrument, but wanted it to be something really different that nobody else was playing. The accordion was perfect.
“I’ve been with Horsham Accordion Band for nearly four years. It was nice to meet other accordion players.
“I’m always working with music as my job is repairing and restoring player pianos and pipe organs, but I like the sound of the accordion. It’s like having a portable piano as you have the treble end and the bass end.
“My mates think it’s amazing that I play the accordion as it’s weird and different. I think it’s quite a cool
instrument as it looks complex.
“People talk to me whilst I’m busking but it’s not everybody’s cup of tea. People have come up to me and ask where I learnt to play, as they have an instrument and are interested in playing it. It’s starting to be used more in modern music. It was at its peak in the 1950s and faded away, but now it may be slowly coming back.”
Horsham Accordion Band would welcome people if they have an accordion and would like to try it out. It may be a good instrument to learn if you can already play the piano.
For more details visit www.habmusic.co.uk or call Mags Fisher on 01403 790717.