It is probably safe to say that Skyclad, or the ideas that would become Skyclad, were formed when Martin Walkyier stormed out of British thrash legends Sabbat after a disagreement about the increasingly religiously pagan nature of his lyrics (though it's hard to see what caused the disagreement after songs like Horned is the Hunter and Mythistory). Doubtless seething, Martin got together with Steve Ramsey, the former guitarist of Pariah, and no poor replacement for Sabbats Andy Sneap, and the two concieved of a truly pagan metal band: this was in 1989, it must be noted, before Bathory had forged Viking Metal with the immortal 'Hammerheart', and their idea was something fresh and entirely unique: it is with a straight face that Skyclad have since called themselves the original folk metal band, and with the general popularity of pagan metal in general and folk metal in particular on the rise, mainly due to the booming popularity of Finnish acts like Ensiferum, Finntroll and Korpiklaani, it is increasingly criminal that Skyclad are so little known.
And nowhere more so than in the country that gave them birth, Britain. This is, in a way, exceedingly ironic: Skyclad have never played a major British festival, and scarcely even tour here, having enjoyed the height of their popularity in Germany and Greece during the mid-nineties, this being despite the fact that Skyclad are almost insanely British. Not only is the subject matter of most of their songs often very specifically related to this country, but their lyrics are also littered with gypsy slang, archaic expressions and numerous examples of multi-layred wordplay that must, at the very least, bemuse most foreigners.
The lyrics are, maybe, what people will first jump to in Skyclad, especially of the 'classic' period (1990 - 2001) during which Martin Walkyier fronted the band (though it must be said that the bands new lyrics seem to represent a very conscious effort to emulate his style and subject matter). This is because they are both very good, and also more transparently socially conscious than the great majority of metal lyrics, rooted in punk and new wave (the band covered both New Model Army and Dexys Midnight Runners) as well as the political thrash of the eighties. It is certainly hard to imagine many other British metal bands penning songs about factory closures, runaways, fox hunting, Portland Down or any of the other topics Skyclad attacked. Neither is it easy to imagine many other metal lyricists writing songs about their grandmothers: Martins lyrics were intensely personal, which made it so much more of an insult when the other members of the band didn't give him a writing credit on 'No Daylights...Nor Heeltaps'. Having listened to, admittedly, probably quite unhealthy amounts of Skyclad I personally feel almost as if I've gotten to know Martin Walkyier: his hopes, fears, obsessions, views and so forth. It helps that he shares many of these with me.
But it is not of course just the subject matter that dignifies Martins lyrics with Skyclad: it is the verbosity, the love of the English language, and the strange, but highly original concepts of songs like 'The Sinful Ensemble', where the human condition is summarised by painting a surreal image of a pub full of dead dictators telling racist jokes and selling stolen goods, with Thatcher serving at the bar and the lions and the christians playing on the telly, after which Martin proclaims:
"This is far more than just a joke,
Can't you see the fire for the smoke?
Go to any public house you please
And find dictators such as these"
Or how about 'The Womb of the Worm', with its powerful images of hard drug addiction, deified as a new-age Beelzebub:
"Shepherd of a flock of black sheep - he knows his charges well
Their thirst for life is drowning down in his snow filled hell...
Slaves to the only God they know,
Drawn by the song of the cosmic diva
The lord of the flies is a dandy beau
King of the hill in the new bohemia
Where does he come from, their redeemer?
Where does he dwell? They never learn
What is the prize for the true believer?
Rotting away in the womb of the worm!"
We can also see Martins grasp of the form of lyrical poetry, employing flow, alliteration and internal rhyme in ways too often ignored by other lyricists. And flow really is a good word: at times he can put any rapper alive to shame, spitting out certain verses of songs like 'Skyclad' and 'Spinning Jenny' at about 250 wpm whilst clearly enunciating every syllable. Also evident is a huge streak of humour, often pitch black, leading to glorious songs such as 'Great Blow for a Day Job', in which an accountant sells out to satan himself to sing in a fiddle band:
"Hear my tale - I'm norman normal, always humble, mild and meek.
In my bank a lowly banker - run-down brach on nowhere street
'till one day a stranger called - a fetid bible black he laughed,
said "Sonny I don't want your money, I don't need an overdraft.
Boy you have a great potential, don't you let it go to waste.
My offer ends - so it's essential that you hurry on (make haste!).
For a life of milk and honey sign along the dotted line...
Thirty years of girls and money - at the end your soul is mine!"
No one can dissuade me - I'm donw on my knees,
my conscience says "No" - my libido "Yes please!"
If I put my pen to paper for eternity I'm damned.
If I don't I'll never be the singer in a fiddel band.
Can anyone blame me? - I don't think they'd dare,
my soul says "No way" - But my mouth cries "Oh yeah!"
Here I am - your good friend norman, not so humble anymore.
Others age - but I look younger, stronger that I did before.
I used to drive a Fiat Panda - now a lime green Cadillac.
Guess my story goes to show not all the 'devils' own' dig black.
I know there is a price I must pay for my thirty years misspent,
when my satanic manager recoups my soul (100%).
I'll meet him at the crossroads, midnight chimes - my time has come
to party with the 'porno-queens' down by the shores of acheron.
I'll party on in acheron!
No one could dissuade me - I fell to my kness,
my conscience said "No" - my libido "Yes please!"
I have put my pen to paper and eternally am damned,
I've squandered my immortal soul by singing in a fiddle band.
Could anyone blame me? - I don't think they dare,
my soul said "No way" - but my mouth cried "Oh yeah!"
'Evil I did dwell - Lewd did I live' -
It's a small price to pay for the gift that he gives.
Was it all worth it? - I'm too drunk to tell,
I swap my cocaine for the brimstone of hell."
I might as well point out right now that I have already claimed 'I'll party on in Acheron' as my tombstone inscription.
There's a lot more I could say about Skyclads Martin-era lyrics, as the vast majority of the songs are completely brilliant, but I will not. For it is not just Martins lyrics, nor his manic singing, that recommend Skyclad. Not at all. Skyclad also possessed intense musical innovation, coming from almost pure thrash with dashes of folk on 'Wayward Sons of Mother Earth' to folksy prog metal by 'Oui Avant-Garde a Chance'. There were acoustic EPs, experiments with trumpets and bagpipes, spoken word, drum machines, field recordings, duelling guitar and violin solos, and all other manner of awesomeness. Skyclad songs run the whole range from a mournful piano ballad about a child vampire who preys on paedophiles ('Catherine at the Wheel') to a blistering thrash/punk/folk assault on EU beuracracy ('Desperanto') to an epic, militaristic fantasy metal song personifying the conflict between nature and industry as an epic, lotr style pitched battle ('The Disenchanted Forest').
Basically, what I'm saying here is this: Skyclad is really really really fucking good and you need to buy everything they ever released. Right now.
Sorry I had nothing better to write about.