Not a great year musically? True there’s much that is best forgotten, but in the crevices that were opened by the punk explosion of the late seventies those energised by The Clash were taking that energy and, rather than applying it to raw rock and roll, were creating fusions with other musical traditions. Often the original intent of those who formed these bands was that they would burn bright in the instant, revolutionise the musical landscape – and, who knows, maybe the world – before burning out just as rapidly. Who knew they would still be a creative force thirty years later?
The Men They Couldn’t Hang formed from the remnants of a number of bands, including Shanne Bradley from Shane Macgowan’s Nipple Erectors. As Phil ‘Swill’ Odgers tells it: “Paul and I knew each other from a band we had in Southampton in the punk days: Catch 22. Just like TMTCH we had a string of drummers; my brother Jon in Catch 22 was also the original drummer with TMTCH for the first five albums or more. I met Cush when I moved to London and we started busking together. I learned three chords and we hit the Hammersmith subways. After a while Paul joined in and it all went from there. We gelled through a common interest in music, a serious lack of cash and nowhere to live. It’s a winning combination. Time moved on and the combination of personalities and shared experience just locked in. We love each other and work so well together it still amazes me; the sum of the parts and all that stuff….”
Singer and guitarist Stefan Cush agrees that somehow the “collective psyche” of TMTCH is responsible for this longevity, however multi-instrumentalist Paul Simmonds’ explanation betrays his penchant for the gothic: “TMTCH is like Hotel California. You can check out but you can never leave.”
They weren’t the only band furrowing the rich seam linking punk and folk music, many like The Pogues achieved more mainstream success, but TMTCH seemed to connect more directly with the political undercurrents that ran through the folk tradition from Guthrie and Seeger to Gaughan and Moore. Rather than jumping on some cow-punk bandwagon there was a genuine awareness of the historical roots of the music: “I’ve always been interested in the folk scene and was brought up on a diet of Scottish folk when I was a bairn in Oban which stuck with me”, says Swill. “The birth of punk was my musical awakening and I would listen to John Peel avidly on my little transistor radio when I was a teen. Punk has got to be the same as folk in as much as it’s the voice of the people. Punk inspired me and gave me the confidence to get on stage and sing in front of people. I’m not a big fan of the idea that you have to be a musical academic in order to write and perform – whatever it is, if it comes from the heart then it hits home. I love to be somewhere where people of all ages just suddenly get up and sing.”
Paul Simmonds, who has penned the majority of TMTCH’s songs, has always explored history for its contemporary political parallels: “I think history illuminates the present and the future. It’s not about sitting down and trying to write a lecture. Most of the time I’m trying to educate myself and sharing the process. If people can use songs as a gateway to knowledge then that’s brilliant. If there is an exciting story to tell then that’s really the key. That’s folk music really: telling tales and yarns, making our history exciting and vivid, as if you are right there in the moment. That’s the intention. I do research thoroughly too. I recently wrote a song about the English Civil War that had a verse about Quakers in Cromwell’s Army. A guy wrote to me saying that was impossible; they hadn’t been named at that point. Maybe he is right but I still went online and found an excerpt from the Oxford University Press history of the Civil War which clearly stated that there were Quakers in the ranks of the Parliamentarians. I showed it to him too! If I ever slip up I just pull out the old Bob Dylan quotation: ‘Songwriting isn’t just about what happened. It’s also about what should have happened and what could have happened.’”
There was a time, around the late eighties, when TMTCH were nearly famous. Despite being a paean to revolution the superb ‘The Colours’ charted and, although even typing this now seems surreal, I saw TMTCH support David Bowie at the Milton Keynes’ Bowl. But by the end of 1991 the band had called it a day. Swill says of this close call with fame: “We were too busy to notice the potential. Also there were other driving forces at work, our hormones had seriously kicked in at that time, we must have been late developers or maybe it was that we had never had those opportunities before. Our manager was not happy with some of the life choices we made.” Somehow the band couldn’t let them go, and after Swill and Simmonds regrouped in Liberty Cage and performed together as a duo – Preacher Jethro Brimstone and the Watermelon Kid – and in 1996 TMTCH reunited permanently.
Over thirty years the band has worked with a wide range of collaborators. Swill mentions how “working with Nick Lowe, producing and playing, was amazing. We also collaborated with country singer Lucinda Williams, she sang joint lead vocals on ‘Kingdom of the Blind’ for our album The Domino Club but her vocal wasn’t used. How stupid was that? Recording now lost! I duetted with Michelle Shocked on a campfire type tape, recordings also now lost. Have worked with Mick Thomas and various members of Weddings, Parties, Anything. Billy Bragg joined us on stage a few times and so did Elvis Costello. The Pogues too come to think of it. All of those were great experiences.” Cush adds: “As a band we tend to plough our own furrow. However we’ve always had a varied host of friends, family and musicians featuring on every album we’ve recorded, from members of The Pogues on Night of a Thousand Candles to Nick Reynolds from Alabama 3, blowing sublime harp on new album The Defiant.” Both mention “the ubiquitous Bobby Valentino” on violin.
The Defiant is a definite return to those folk-punk roots. Cush explains: “Our latest offering was a conscious effort to return to more acoustic and folk orientated roots. We’ve always incorporated our own ident of folk sensibilities on each of our albums . That said, our output in the nineties and noughties – Never Born To Follow, Cherry Red Jukebox, Six Pack – featured a more abrasive sound, reflecting the harsh urban experience of the times. Also we had two hardcore rock drummers on board.” Swill adds: “I think The Defiant encapsulates our ethos: it’s folk, it’s punk, it’s rocking.” Simmonds’ favourite track on The Defiant is ‘Silver Chains’ which “has come out exactly the way it was intended. That’s pretty rare.” Swill acknowledges Simmonds’ as a “genius songwriter” on ‘Scavengers’ as “it’s just so right for us. To be fair though I’m very fond of Cush’s ‘Turquoise Bracelet Bay’. Proud of my own ‘Raising Hell’ too.”
Cush, Swill and Simmonds, whilst maintaining their commitment to TMTCH, have solo projects and side bands. Often this has involved bringing their bandmates into their own projects. “In my mind TMTCH is very different to any of our solo records in as much as when you record solo you are, for better or for worse, holding the reigns. It is what it is. What I miss on solo recordings is the ability to turn around to Cush or Paul or Ricky and say, ‘How was that? Does it work?’ or to get a compliment or back-up from someone in the band,” Swill explains. “It’s often hard when you’re on your own to even know if it’s any good. Sometimes you get those ‘eureka’ moments where you just know you’ve done something really good, but other times you just can’t tell at all. I think that’s why some people spend way too long on recordings. I guess I miss the comradery. I also miss going down the pub after and gabbing about it until the wee hours.” The solo projects can also enrich TMTCH as Swill describes: “recently I was extremely privileged to have Eliza Carthy and John Jones join me on Godforsaken Voyage and that showed me a whole fantastic new way of working. I learned a lot from them.”
It is, however, the passion and the rabble rousing that is the key to the longevity of TMTCH and to the commitment of their fans. In The Guardian Robin Denselow describes The Defiant as “impressively energetic, rousing and angry.” Swill is initially uncertain of his favourite TMTCH track, “I still have a warmth for ‘The Greenfields of France’ for many reasons”, but finally settles on ‘The Colours’ “the reason why is I love to hear a TMTCH audience singing along with us and to watch a passionate crowd sharing that emotion.” Simmonds’ picks “the live version of ‘Whisky With My Giro’ from 1985 – it’s on the 5 Go Mad On The Other Side compilation we put out. It’s such a shot of pure adrenaline. If I wasn’t playing guitar on it I would have been jumping around down the front.”