the rohan theatre band

A Brief History of the Rohan Theatre Band

From its foundation in 1891 the Rohan Theatre has always had a house band, although the role of that band has changed and developed considerably over the years. Initially a traditional theatre band, accompanying songs, dances and melodramas, the collapse of the theatre building in 1892, and the company’s subsequent radicalisation of the notion of theatrical presentation soon necessitated an equivalent re-evaluation of the role of the Rohan Theatre Band. Edgar Wimble, the first Musical Director of the band (1891-1904), proposed that it should become a chronicler of events surrounding Rohan Theatre productions, and to this effect he penned a number of songs including the 1895 Music Hall hits “This Building is Collapsing” and “What Use is a Dwarf With No Legs?”


During the years 1892 – 1914 the Rohan Theatre Band performed regularly in Music Halls around London, acquiring quite a following through its unique combination of social satire, righteous indignation and empirical philosophy. By 1910 the popular expression “well call me Rohan and sing me a song!” (meaning “I’d never have believed it and yet it turns out to be true”) was common parlance amongst members of both the working and middle classes. However, this period of popular acclaim was soon to end with the outbreak of the First World War, and the subsequent shift in audience tastes towards the comforting and jingoistic. Finding themselves rapidly falling out of favour, in October 1914 the entire band volunteered and before long found themselves in the trenches at Ypres, where they continued to give performances of their “greatest hits” to the largely Canadian and Scottish troops whose condition of mortal danger made them more open to the often discomforting tenet of the songs. The bands most notable performance during the war was to take place on December 24th 1914, when they crept into No Man’s Land and, in a typically cryptic statement calculated to challenge popularly held conceptions, began singing Christmas carols in German, inspiring retorts in kind from both sides of the barbed wire which ultimately led to the now famous “Christmas Truce”. Though to historians this event is often referred to as a triumph of Humanity over the chaos of war, to Philip Duncan, the then Musical Director of the Rohan Theatre Band, it was to be the cause of much mental anguish which saw him spend the last twenty years of his life in Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, due to the guilt he felt at the extreme backlash of the authorities against fraternisation with the enemy which resulted in many hundreds of troops on both sides being summarily executed.

On their return from the war in 1919 the four surviving members of the band found that the public taste for challenge and indignation had all but disappeared, and with the arrival of cinema their particular brand of cathartic entertainment was no longer at all in demand. Now under the direction of Walter Wrenfield, and facing a lack of interest that would drive any ordinary band to give up altogether, they instead expanded their forces and went underground, often quite literally, performing exclusively on the periphery of Rohan Theatre Productions, and frequently without an audience. In time they were devising their own sardonic performances. In 1923 John Davey, lead banjo player, and a trained civil engineer, discovered on an old map a direct passage between the Westminster sewers and the crypt of Westminster Abbey, which resulted in their longest running musical production: “The Ghost of Sir Henry”: on the second Sunday of every month for the following 32 years members of the band (in various incarnations) would hide in a walled up room behind the tomb of Henry Purcell and perform a set of songs based largely on corrupted versions of Purcell’s own Drinking Songs. Before long rumours of the “haunting” had spread right across London and by the summer of 1924 regular ghost tours were being conducted at which ladies of note would be seen to faint with terror. It wasn’t until 1955, when restoration work on the sewer walled up the passage, that the performances stopped.

Throughout the second half of the 20th century the Rohan Theatre Band continued in its endeavour to “recast popular song in a serious mould”, and by 1960 it was unquestionably the most influential unknown band actively working in Britain. When in 1965 George Martin introduced The Beatles to a number of recordings he had made in secret of their project “The Necessity of Indolence” their influence upon the evolution of popular music was assured, and it is now widely accepted amongst those in the know that the song “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is a direct tribute to them and their works.

The increased commercialisation of popular music throughout the 80s and 90s pushed the band once more into the fringes, and yet it continued, without compromise, to influence the music and song writing of more serious artists, such as David Bowie, Björk, Tom Waits, and more recently Nick Cave and Pulp through acts of subtle implication and passive suggestion.

Probably the most remarkable achievements of the Rohan Theatre Band are its incredible longevity, and its ability to maintain a consistent identity despite the many changes of personnel over the years (there have, since 1891 been 107 band members and 18 Musical Directors). Regrettably, for aesthetical reasons they were entirely unwilling to participate in the world of corporate music production and hence they made no commercial recordings throughout the 20th century (although a number of their private recordings have turned up on the internet despite various threats of litigation on their part). It was not until 2001, when the Rev. Rohan K. was appointed Musical Director, that they decided to present their works directly to the public on the grounds that musical sensibilities were changing, and the world was again in need of their inspiration and guidance. Regrettably, after his disappearance in 2008 the band fell into considerable disrepute, and has not been heard of since their disasterous final performance at the Bucket of Blood in January 2009.

Listen to recordings made under the directorship of the Rev. Rohan K.


Will all patrons please remain seated
Whilst I belittle myself to amuse you
For I've tried pretty metaphors and sensitive rhymes
But the effort just seemed to confuse you
Rev. Rohan K.

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