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The “Majors” – a quick mugs guide - ref art006

British Open

Tennis has four of them and so has golf, whilst horse racing has five. Meanwhile, football has got two maybe three, but rugby has got a lot they lump together to call a Grand Slam and Triple Crown. If you haven’t quite caught on to what I’m talking about, then you’re either not interested in the world of sport, or not at all concerned who wins the titles, the prizes and most of all the kudos that comes with being able to describe yourself as a winner of a “Major”. If in doubt, just ring Colin Montgomerie or Tim Henman and ask them.

For bandsmen and women we have four of our very own – The Open, The National, The European and The Masters – and just like the majors in every other walk of life, to win one in a year can be seen to be lucky, two fortunate, three an achievement and all four down right near impossible.

Take Tiger Woods. The greatest golfer of his and possibly any other generation last year won three of the four majors on offer in the world of golf - winning all four was even too much for this boy wonder. Rod Laver was the last to win all four in tennis and that was in 1969, whilst it must be said that it is technically impossible for any horse to win more than three of the classics in any one year. As for Manchester United’s treble of 1999 and England’s annual cock up of winning the Grand Slam in rugby we must leave that discussion for another day.

So here’s our own analysis of the banding world’s “Majors” – starting with the oldest, The British Open.

The Open:
Like it’s namesake in golf, the Open is the oldest and most revered contest in the business, and because of this it has been seen to be immune from any form of criticism over the years. This is a pity, because for most of the 20th century the Open was a contest that was slowly but surely dying on its feet.

Mention of its name brought elderly bandsmen out in a severe case of sepia tinted nostalgia. “Oh for the magic of Belle Vue, “ they would whine. “Brilliant bands, crowds of thousands, great test pieces, the fun fair and change out of a shilling and enough money to buy a bag of monkey nuts on the way home”. This is complete trash. It’s a pity the Germans didn’t blow the whole thing up in the War, because ever since it’s final thankful death in the early 1980’s the place suffered from the terminal British illness of under investment and awful amenities all dressed up in a package that reeked of stale beer and cold urine. When the rest of the arts in the UK were demanding better facilities for orchestras, theatre and even ballet, we were condemned to play out our lives on a stage usually reserved for third-rate boxers and the wrestling seen on Dicky Davies’ World of Sport. Even the full results were never revealed.

Thankfully the move from Belle Vue coincided with the renaissance of the contest, so that today it stands proud as the foremost brass band competition in the world - not that it still has its problems mind you. The Free Trade Hall was a convenient home for a number of years, but really it was only a slight improvement of what went on before, whilst the one off foray to the Bridgewater Hall was a disaster.

No. The renaissance of the Open was only completed by its move away from what many believed was it’s spiritual home in the North and into the 21st century in geographical, musical and metaphorical terms at the Symphony Hall, Birmingham. Today the contest has regained its glory. OK, the crowds are not in the thousands and you can’t get change out of the best part of ten quid for a round of beer and a bag of salted nuts, but we finally have a contest that has a venue that is greater even than the competition itself. If they can now do something about reducing the number of competing bands, the absurd selection of the same adjudicators year in year out and the price of a pint of lager we would be very nearly in heaven.

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The Nationals:
We have a dilemma about the National Championships. The second oldest contest has always been seen by many to resemble the Rugby League Cup Final, in that it takes place in a city that has no real passion for the game and in a stadium that is fifty years out of date. It may be the Royal Albert Hall, but like Wembley the place is (until the redevelopment finally ends) a dump. It may look good from the outside, but go through the doors and you are met with a concert hall that is the size of a sumo wrestler’s jockstrap, has no warm up facilities, toilets that would not be out of place in the darkest parts of Cairo Kasbah and bars that seem to think that charging 3.00 for a pint of beer is reasonable and damned good value.

The Nationals, like the Open before it’s move to Birmingham are in need of a facelift that even Carol Smiley and her gang would find difficult to make a success. It is not that the contest is poorly run, but it’s just that the whole damn thing is held in a hall that is completely inappropriate and conducive for hosting anything other than a Spice Girls concert or tennis for the dinosaurs such as John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg.

The adjudicators box is positioned too far away, bands have no warm up area, audiences are small and getting smaller and the acoustics are well….. Ask anyone about the great performances of the last twenty years and they will reel off a list that will include Grimethorpe winning on the back of their pit closure and Dyke on Le Roi D’ys; trouble is, unless you were no more than ten yards from the stage, all you got to hear was a rumble of sound not unlike a slowed down techno beat in the back of a seventeen year olds Vauxhall Nova.

However, when you go to work on the Monday following the Finals and the young female secretary you have always hoped to impress asks what you did on the weekend, you can reply that you played the Royal Albert Hall -you know the place that Eric Clapton, and Last Night of the Proms comes from. Just don’t tell her the changing rooms were crap, the hall was half full and a vodka and red bull chaser cost a fiver.

That’s the dilemma – The Nationals sound a great contest, but in reality it’s become a bit of lottery.

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The Europeans:
Whoever had the idea for the European Brass Band Championships in 1978, must have been treated as being a genius at the time. Less than ten years before, the ill fated “World Championships” had come to an ignominious end when everyone realised that they were as much of a world championship as the Americans World Series in baseball. As there was little kudos in being better than our friends in New Zealand or Australia (we were beating them at everything at the time anyway) some bright spark told Boosey and Hawkes that since we hadn’t beaten the Germans since 1945, we’d better give them another pasting pretty damn pronto.

The Brits had invented the brass band, so why not call our own bands Champions of Europe – especially as we could then put two fingers up to our friends across the channel by showing them that Johnny Foreigner was no match for the best of Yorkshire. (Yep, Black Dyke became the Real Madrid of the competition in the early years). The whole thing took off, with band as far a field as Wales and Lancashire proclaiming themselves Kings of the Common Market – all until the Europeans decided to take the whole thing seriously.

First it was Eikanger from Norway, and to show it wasn’t a fluke they repeated the trick a second time on the bounce the following year. Now the whole thing came of age. No longer the preserve of English bands, the contest became a real test of who was the best. Europe triumphed again when Willebrock won on Francis Drakes Plymouth Ho, and ever since it has been one of the closest ran contests of the year. Even the odd result when Y.B.S. were mysteriously “Blitzed” can’t take away from a contest that now is rightly a “Major” in ever way. The chap at Booseys should be given the freedom of Brussels.

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The Masters:
Just like its golfing brother, the All England Masters is the youngest of the majors, and for many people it is the blueprint for the way in which any successful contest should be run. At first the ethos seemed to be “ what the bands want the bands get “, a sentiment that should have guaranteed success, but because of this, the promise of a competition that would radically shape the development of contesting into the 21st century has been diluted, as the bands themselves have been reluctant to accept progressive change.

Getting the bands to decide on the test piece and the adjudicators is a great idea in theory, but bandsmen are a conservative lot a heart, so the initiatives brought by Franklin and Biggs have for the most part not been a success. It certainly is not their fault, but that of the bands, as they themselves resort to stale and unambitious choices in both areas in the hope that by playing safe they won’t be putting themselves at too much of a risk of failure. That’s why given the chance to experiment and jump into the hot water two footed a-la Princess Margaret, they try just a big toe first and then pour cold water on the idea. Thus, the contest itself breaks into three parts; those who know they can win, those who think they can win, and those who wish they can win.

Therefore it is not quite a great contest yet, but a few tweaks here and there should secure its place as a worthy fourth Major. First of all the contest should be opened out to involve all top bands from Wales and Scotland and secondly, the number of competing bands should be reduced so increasing quality over quantity. By doing this they will get rid of the temptation of lesser bands to choose “safe” options for test pieces and judges in the vain hope that this will give them a more level playing field, and will enhance the overall standing of the contest.

It may have to be renamed the “British Masters” - but that surely won’t be a bad thing in the long run.

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