...has, alas, been ended for a few years now. We have some CD stock of the last album, Turn Things Upside Down, with Robert Wyatt guesting on the title track: click here for details and an order form.
The band was started in 1983 by Mat Fox with the slogan "making politics swing". Inspired by Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra, it swiftly became a large, loose and freewheeling ensemble. Despite the instrumental line-up (saxes and brass, plus vibes and accordion - up to 24 musicians at its largest - ), it was never a jazz big band as such. But it drew on that tradition - occasionally satrically, always humourously. In its more organised moments it could echo Basie or Ellington's classic hard-swinging punch, in its more disorganised ones Sun Ra's high-energy and joyful cacophony.
Source material was drawn from the political left: the songs of Bertolt Brecht (with both Kurt Weill and Hans Eisler), Maoist anthems, Chartist protest songs, Cuban rhumbas, miners' anthems, South African township jazz, Irish jigs. The essence of The Happy End was in delivering this music with humour and energy rather than dourness or overt preaching. Many early gigs were part of the mid-eighties anti-Thatcher movements, the Miners' Strike and the GLC (Greater London Council) included; the band was also involved in the burgeoning alternative comedy circuit, especially at Roland Muldoon's Hackney Empire. At its best, a Happy End gig was a genuinely celebratory experience.
In a spirit of musical collectivism, the band contained less-experienced players alongside more polished ones, and combined skilful arrangements with organised chaos so that both could thrive. The musicians were also evenly balanced between men and women. (Belonging to a big band that wasn't for once all-male should have made life on the road more civilized, but often didn't.)
The original vocalist was Sarah Jane Morris, a singer with an extraordinary contralto range who left the band in 1988 to work with The Communards. Since then she has developed a successful solo career in the jazz/soul area. The Happy End was lucky enough to find another singer with a wonderfully powerful and expressive voice, Bernadette Keeffe, who was with the band for its last eight years.
The first two of the band's albums, There's Nothing Quite Like Money and Resolution, and a casette-only live compilation of Brecht material, Song Of The Big Shot, are unfortunately no longer available, though you might strike lucky if you scour the second-hand and bargain bins. (Try under "Jazz", "Big Band", or "Experimental".) CDs of The Happy End's final album Turn Things Upside Down can be ordered here.