The Men They Couldn’t Hang

1984.

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.”

Doozer McDooze – Not Going Back To That

From R2 Magazine September 2016

Thrumming his guitar with a rhythmic energy that demonstrates little concern for the guitar’s safety Paul Short – AKA Doozer McDooze – is the bastard love-child of Rory McLeod, Billy Bragg and Lonnie Donegan. There is an irrepressible energy on Not Going Back To That: direct, open and in your face. Doozer wears his heart on his sleeve, places his tongue in his cheek and opens his emotions to the listener.

Doozer’s Essex origins mean comparisons with Bragg are inevitable and he sounds like early Bragg on ‘Searching’ as he searches for a life where ‘I don’t have to be bored anymore.’ There is a political edge to songs like ‘Consumers’, but for much of the album is really personal, often with a penchant for lengthy song titles, for instance ‘To Everyone I Upset And Really Didn’t Mean To’ reveals the fragility at the heart of his world view due to his ‘skin made of tissue paper’; matched with a desire to ‘try to live my life the best I can’ as in ‘Let’s Not Forget’.

It is this matching of the personal and political which makes Rory McLeod a touchstone; and a total commitment to the music, as in the title track and the final three songs which outline his personal manifesto that ‘It’s Nice Down Here’,

Peter Tomkins

Attila The Stockbroker

Book review from R2 Magazine – November 2016

ARGUMENTS YARD

Attila The Stockbroker

(Cherry Red Books) www.attilathestockbroker.com

ISBN 978-1-909454-30-9Softcover. 298pp

I’m not entirely sure how for thirty years I avoided actually seeing Attila The Stockbroker live. I was aware of this ‘ranting’ poet and remember discussing his ironic fascination with Albania with friends who had seen him in the mid-80s. I think I had dismissed him as some kind of rabid apologist for totalitarian regimes and then forgot pretty much all about him until Blyth Power’s thirtieth anniversary concert where it gradually dawned on me that the gnarly grey-haired chap compering was, in fact, Attila himself.

Firstly I was taken in by the humour and wry approach to politics: this was clearly someone who saw the absurdity in everything, including himself. In fact especially in himself. And then he read a poem that made me cry; it’s included in this autobiography and is about his difficult relationship with his step-father: ‘But later we learned so much/and something new began/And here’s a poem I wrote for you/you decent, gentle man.’ There were layers of complexity here that I had foolishly dismissed. I think it comes down to the quotation on the T-shirt Attila wears on the cover of this book. It is Liverpool poet Adrian Mitchell’s manifesto for poetry: ‘Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people.’

Firstly the book is well written, after all Attila clearly has a way with words which is why he’s a poet. The only minor niggle I had were the number of times a person or incident is brought up in the narrative for the reader to be told, ‘But more of that later.’ Secondly this goes well beyond the realms of simply telling the Attila story and is more a social history of the punk and radical left scene from 1980 to today: from the angry young ‘ranting poet’ of the early-80s to the contented middle-aged performance poet of 2015. Although I guess ‘contented’ is hardly the right word.

There are some interesting diversions along the way. Although the miners’ strike, the battle of Wapping and the dissolution of the Eastern bloc are hardly diversions for a leftist in the 1980s. One of the most fascinating chapters discusses Attila’s experiences touring in the pre-unification German Democratic Republic. He is not blind to the failings of the state, but is disappointed when the possibility to create a new kind of society as the Soviet bloc disintegrated was lost by a mindless stampede towards western capitalism.

Along the way we find out about football, particularly Attila’s dedication to Brighton and Hove Albion; his family, including one very moving chapter dedicated to a poem about his mother’s experiences with Alzheimer’s; and some bit parts from other ‘ranting poets’ including Steven ‘Seething’ Wells, Porky the Poet (now Phil Jupitus) and R2’s own Nick Toczek.

What is most impressive is that, despite the disinterest of record companies and publishers, Attila has continued his tongue-in-cheek criticism of capitalism through self-publicity and cottage industry.

Peter Tomkins

King Lear

The Teacher Introduction to my King Lear activity pack in preparation for publication by Zig Zag Publications

It is the moment when Lear returns to the stage in Act V that gets me every time. Shakespeare has just held out the possibility of a happy ending, the ending we are expecting from this fairy tale of a foolish father and his daughters: Edmund the bastard has just confessed to sending a murderer to the prison to kill Cordelia and Lear. Edgar, the valiant, honest and brave son of Gloucester is dispatched to save Cordelia and Lear and the audience wish, above all, for their survival.

Lear appears at just the point when the audience are about to achieve their deserved catharsis after suffering alongside Lear and Gloucester. But all is not as the audience hope: Lear is bearing the dead body of Cordelia, howling with animal emotion. I know I have seen this same scene countless times since I first saw it thirty years ago, but every time I see the play I wish it will end differently. I know that, despite being a hardened, middle-aged English teacher, I will cry. I can honestly say that no other play of Shakespeare’s has ever reduced me to tears: I sit dry eyed through the accumulation of bodies at the end of Hamlet; shed not a tear at the suicides of Lady Macbeth or Antony and Cleopatra; and remain as dry as a stone during the shaming of Hero. But there is something about Lear’s suffering that appeals to my humanity. Kent says it best: ‘Is this the promised end?’

And no, it isn’t what we had expected from this fairy tale. In fact the ending so troubled the audience that sixty years following its first performance and fifty years after Shakespeare’s death Nahum Tate rewrote the ending so that Cordelia survived and married Edgar. It was this version of Lear that dominated performances for the next 150 years. But this happy ending effectively neuters the play turning it back into the folk tale from whence it originated.

King Lear’s rejection of happy endings is liberating to us as teachers. The play is clearly not about giving the audience what they want so what is Shakespeare exploring? This is the point at which the play explodes with possibilities: family; social class; ideology; gender roles; fate; truth ………………….. It is an endless and continuously expanding list of possibilities.

Peter Tomkins

Emily Barker and the Red Clay Halo

From R2 Magazine – July 2013

It may be Emily Barker’s Australian roots that have led her to base herself in the English outback, Stroud in the Cotswolds, over 10000 miles the “tiny little country town” of Bridgetown in Western Australia where she was born. Emily’s latest album, Dear River, explores ideas of emigration and how we define the concept of home: a song cycle exploring Emily’s own experience of migration and drawing in the experiences of others, including her Dutch grandparents who in 1952 moved to a new country to forge a new life.

Emily explains that basing an album around the exploration of an idea arose from hearing PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, which she describes as a “lyrically conceptual album”. She had “been pretty preoccupied with ideas of home since moving to the opposite side of the world and Dear River is a concentrated effort to answer the questions where is and what is ‘home’. Starting in Australia, which was my first home; journeying around the world, which was my second idea of what home was; and choosing to settle in the UK. But I have taken on board other people’s stories as it is people who give you a sense of place.”

Bridgetown, named after its defining feature, might sound rather bleak, however Emily talks of the blues festival, the river and how it has “become quite an artist’s haven.” The river is an important motif on Dear River, the title track describes a yearning for the simplicity of childhood as represented by the River Blackwood. Emily’s childhood home was full of music: her mum played guitar and used to “sit us children down and teach us how to harmonise and sing old folky songs” and she was heavily influenced by her father’s “great record collection” of folk revivalists, singer songwriters and rock. She was particularly inspired by soul singers and as a teenager used to lock herself in her bedroom “and try to sing like Aretha Franklin.”

On Dear River Emily also explores the idea of home from the perspective of Australia’s indigenous people. “As I was growing up I realised that I am of European ancestry and yet I am living in this place that was originally the land of the indigenous people and as they weren’t considered citizens until 1967 and weren’t able to purchase land they were effectively told that Australia couldn’t be their home.” The quiet force of the album underlines the strength of Emily’s feelings: “There are so many injustices and so much oppression still there.”

It might be a reaction to the open skies of Western Australia that has inspired Emily, with her musician and ‘theatre-maker’ husband Dom Coyote, to create Folk in a Box. It is, she claims, “the smallest music venue in the world.” The box is an architect designed white wood structure that resembles a confessional: the performer enters from one side and the audience member enters from the other. “A one on one musical performance; they hear one song then leave the box”. The idea came about when they took over a “failed camera obscura” at the Standon Calling festival a few years back and is currently touring the country, most recently at the Spittalfields’ Festival in East London.

Emily has garnered quite a high profile of late, appearing with Frank Turner at the Olympic Opening Ceremony and providing music for the TV programmes Wallender and The Shadow Line. She has contributed a couple of songs to The Keeping Room, a film to be released in 2014 and is interested in composing for film and television work. She also plays with a Swedish/Anglo side project band, Vena Portae, who will be releasing an album next year.

Peter Tomkins

Shakespeare – A biographical note

A mini biography of Shakespeare from my King Lear Activity Pack currently in development for Zig Zag Publications

Shakespeare is a very elusive historical figure. We know him through his plays, however actual historical evidence of his existence is limited to a handful of legal documents including registers of births and deaths and contracts.  There are six surviving signatures of Shakespeare that are included in four different legal documents.  He spells his name slightly differently in each signature.

The paucity of historical evidence has led many people to believe that the William Shakespeare presented in most biographies is not the person who wrote the plays. A number of alternatives have been suggested including Shakespeare’s contemporary the playwrights Christopher Marlowe and Francis Bacon; the Earl of Oxford; and even Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway and Elizabeth Tudor, Queen of England.  It has even been suggested by Muammar al-Qaddafi that the Arab scholar Sheik Zubayr wrote the plays thus demonstrating how political Shakespeare studies is.

Many of the competing alternative authorship theories seem to be driven more by snobbery than historical evidence. Since the earliest publication of the first folio of Shakespeare’s collected works some people have refused to believe that someone from a mercantile background, in a provincial market town and without a university education could have written plays and poetry that are reckoned amongst the best ever produced.  This lack of solid historical evidence has even led conspiracy theorists to suggest that Shakespeare worked as a spy for Elizabeth I.  Personally I believe that the plays were written by the same person who shot president J F Kennedy, whoever she was.

Shakespeare’s Early Life

William Shakespeare’s birth in Stratford-upon-Avon was registered on 26 April 1564, but it is often suggested that he was born on 23 April, the feast day of St George, the patron saint of England.  (His death in Stratford in 1616 was also on 23 April.)  His father was registered as John Shakespeare, a wool merchant who held civic office in Stratford, first as the Ale Taster and later as Chamberlain of the Borough.  John was married to Mary Arden who came from a wealthy family of landowners in Warwickshire.

Although no records exist regarding Shakespeare’s education it is generally agreed that he attended King Edward VI Grammar School in Stratford.  His education would have included Latin and Greek, including the study of classical literature.  We do know, however, that William Shakespeare was withdrawn from school at the age of 14 as his father was facing financial problems.  John Shakespeare ran a sideline as a money lender and was brought to court twice for charging interest above the 10% legal limit (apparently he charged 25% interest, somewhat below the rates charged by payday loan companies in 2017!)  In 1578 John had got behind with his taxes and William did not continue his education.

Shakespeare’s Marriage

At the age of 18, on 27 November 1582, William Shakespeare married the 26 year old Anne Hathaway. Just under six months later, on 26 May 1583, his first child Susanna was born.  It has been suggested that this may have been a ‘shotgun marriage’, however there is no evidence for this.  In his last will and testament Shakespeare’s bequest to his wife was the ‘second best bed’.

William and Anne had twins, Hamnet and Judith, in 1585. Hamnet died at the age of 11 in 1596 during one of the frequent outbreaks of bubonic plague.  It seems, however, that Shakespeare spent most of his working life as an actor and playwright in London whilst Anne stayed at home in Stratford to raise the children.

The Lost Years

Between leaving school in 1578 and Henry VI, Part 1 being performed at The Rose Theatre in 1592 we know very little about Shakespeare other than his marriage and the birth of his children.  At some point he moved from Stratford to London and joined a company of players – a surprising move for the son of a merchant as actors were considered very low in the social scheme of things.

This lack of solid evidence has, again, led to some entertaining theories. Many of these arise from critics surprise about the range of knowledge that Shakespeare seems to demonstrate in his plays from an in-depth knowledge of legal matters and seamanship to astronomy, military matters and an awareness of Italian society.  This has led to suggestions that Shakespeare either worked as a lawyer’s assistant or, more extravagantly, spent time in Italy.  The answer is probably more prosaic and he either worked in his father’s firm or as a school teacher.

One interesting story, built on stories reported in the few years after Shakespeare’s death and some inventive reading of puns in The Merry Wives of Windsor, tells how Shakespeare fled Stratford for London after upsetting the local politician Sir Thomas Lucy by either poaching a deer from his estate or writing a satirical lampoon of him.

We do know that by 1592 he was in London and the writer Robert Greene, in his pamphlet ‘Groatsworth of Wit’ referred to the actor William Shakespeare as an ‘upstart crow’.

Shakespeare the player and playwright

Between 1592 and 1610 Shakespeare lived the life of a successful man. His plays were performed by the best group of players in the country; monarchs watched his plays; he part owned theatres; and, in 1597, he bought the second largest house in Stratford-upon-Avon for £60.

This is the time when the plays and sonnets were written, however only the sonnets and poems were published during his lifetime. Plays were to be performed rather than read and Shakespeare never imagined them surviving beyond the performances.

Shakespeare in retirement

In 1610, after nearly 20 years living and working in London, Shakespeare seems to have retired to his house in Stratford.  He was a rich and successful man.

His last plays, including Cymbeline and The Tempest were first performed in 1611.

Shakespeare died at the age of 52 on 23 April 1616. There is a story that his death followed a night of heavy drinking with Ben Johnson, however he had made his Last Will and Testament on 25 March 1616, less than a month before his death, and this may suggest that he knew he was ill.

Peter Tomkins

Brian James (The Damned)

An interview with Brian James, the original guitarist with The Damned, from R2 – October 2015

The word raconteur could have been coined to describe Brian James; one of the easiest interviewees I’ve ever had. Drop a name into the conversation and he’s off: fascinating insights into the 1976 punk scene; playing with Iggy Pop; his latest projects. Somehow the barrage of noise associated with those early albums by The Damned, his work with Stiv Bators (with whom he was recently delighted to discover he shares a birthday) in The Lords Of The New Church, and exemplified on latest album The Guitar That Dripped Blood doesn’t fit with this bluff and friendly chap.

“It’s not something I have a choice about,” he counters when I ask about forty years of writing and recording. “I constantly pick up the guitar and play. I’ve always got music going through my head. I’m always writing things.” He certainly hasn’t taken an easy path. After leaving The Damned following writing most of the material on their first two albums, he formed the short-lived Tanz Der Youth which he says now was a mistaken concept, “Those gaps in rock and roll which makes the music special were all filled with synthesiser. It didn’t really work.” Then a spell playing with Iggy Pop, of which he says, “We were Iggy’s band. We did what he said. He recruited us all because he liked how we played. But the first few times we were a bit restrained. When we grew in confidence that Jim liked what we did it was wild.”

A long spell followed with Stiv Bators, from The Dead Boys, and former members of Sham 69 and the Barracudas in The Lords Of The New Church who took the basic wall of guitar sound purveyed by James and filtered it through a range of musical styles. After ‘The Lords’ James worked with another early influence, Wayne Kramer from the MC5s. More recently he rerecorded some of The Damned’s early material, readdressing Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason’s “ropey production”, and playing with The Damned’s drummer Rat Scabies. Along the way he has also recorded Chateau Brian showcasing his “take on acoustic blues and taste for red wine I gained living in France”.

The Guitar That Dripped Blood is, he says, “like coming full circle. Back to those influences like Detroit garage rock. Early Stones. The first Stooges album I heard was Fun House. I loved Iggy’s voice, but wasn’t overly taken with Ron Asheton’s playing, all that wah-wah. I really liked Scott Asheton’s drumming though. Such power. Then I heard Raw Power and what James Williamson was doing, wrapping the guitar around Iggy’s voice. That was amazing.” The influence of Raw Power and early punk is the bedrock of this latest James’ album.

Malcom Mortimer, who drums on the album, is a childhood friend and James credits Malcom’s parents as having a big influence on his musical development. “I used to hear these jazz records round at his house. And his dad would say you liked John Coltrane last time you were round here. Now try this one. And he’d play me some Thelonius Monk. It all fitted in with the blues musicians I was researching myself.” He is also returning to the crooners his parents listened to “when you listen to Frank Sinatra sometimes his voice sounds almost like a sax.”

Currently James is writing an autobiography of his formative punk years. “A few years back my wife did a university course and there were people there writing theses on punk. I thought what reference have they got to use, maybe Jon Savage’s book about Malcom Mclaren. But there was so much that is undocumented. The whole scene. If you wanted clothes you didn’t buy them in [Mclaren’s] Sex because you couldn’t afford it so you made your own. A real DIY ethic which translated to the music.”

Peter Tomkins

PETER ROWAN, TEX LOGAN AND GREG DOUGLAS – Revelry

It Started With A Disc from R2 September 2014

 

Throughout the 70s and into the 80s country music – it was usually Country & Western – was anathema to me. In my mind it meant schmaltzy songs about love triumphs over death and loss or the multiple woes of the congenitally lovesick. As far as I could see it was sung by right-wing, flag-waving good ol’ boys who would want to beat up a 14 year old punk kid like me into The Ramones, The Clash and The Dead Kennedys. My secret love of a pedal steel and a fiddle was a constant embarrassment to me. I watched The Dukes of Hazard not for the muscle cars but because I loved the Waylon Jennings’ theme tune.

My music education was provided by the Reading Central Lending Library. On a mezzanine floor above the cavernous Victorian hall of cast iron and polished hardwood shelves were inclined tables with racks containing library cards. Each library card represented a vinyl disc behind the counter. There was something magical about taking a card to the desk: the vinyl came from one shelf and was paired with a cardboard sleeve from another. I’d take home something new and thrilling to drop on my turntable. YouTube and iTunes has destroyed the whole mystique around music. The whole point was that no one else knew these records; I was part of the musically educated elite.

I admit it. The library made me into a musical snob; thirty years later I have not fully recovered. My friends were listening to Duran Duran and Haircut 100 whilst my musical explorations took me from Derek and the Dominoes to Howlin’ Wolf to Charley Patton. The blues were cool. So was jazz. I listened to Dexter Gordon and Art Pepper. In 1984 I heard The Pogues’ Red Roses For Me and learnt that folk music went beyond sticking your finger in your ear and singing in a nasal drawl. Lots of folk music, I learnt, was as politically committed and anti-establishment as the punk groups I loved. I was seventeen and new musical possibilities involved blurring these discrete genres. But through all this I still knew that Country, far worse than not being cool, was actually seriously uncool.

In 1985 the Reading Central Lending Library moved to a new purpose-built building and the racks of cards were replaced in the Record Library by deep wooden trays containing the album sleeves. Some of the myth and mystery evaporated with the card index; but now there was a discrete section labelled Country. I was too scared to approach it in case I was mistaken for what I imagined a C&W fan to be: middle aged, dressed in a Stetson and humming a Box Car Willie song.

Occasionally I would glance over at the Country section as I thumbed through the Chess Records Anthologies in the Blues sections, but I didn’t dare approach it and consoled myself instead by listening to the Rolling Stones’ ‘Sweet Virginia’ and ‘Dead Flowers’: the acceptable face of country music.

Eventually I found a way to rationalise my desire for ‘honky tonk’ music. I told myself that I was attracted to ‘American folk music’, which sounded less corny than Country and Western. I plucked up courage and looked in the Country tray. Sitting at the front was black album sleeve with three musicians on the front. Two were younger, one in a western shirt with an acoustic guitar and one dressed like a double glazing salesman with an electric guitar, the third was an older guy in a Stetson holding a fiddle. It was called Revelry and above the title it said: Peter Rowan, Tex Logan and Greg Douglas. It seemed as good a place to start as any other.

I took it home, dropped the needle and it was a revelation. Peter Rowan turned out to have a voice that sent a shiver down my spine: from high lonesome yodel to passionate protest. Greg Douglas’s finger-picked and slide-guitar work was as intricate as any of the blues guitarists I’d heard. And Tex Logan and his fiddle seemed as coolly authentic as any jazz musician.

The album included a number of songs I have come to know as country standards: ‘Lovesick Blues’, ‘Mansion On The Hill’ and ‘Sitting On Top Of The World’. I have yet to hear better versions. The sound was clear with unadorned arrangements: just guitars, bass and fiddle. There was a talking blues where Tex Logan tells us how he persuaded Rowan to leave ‘that rock and roll stuff’ and return to playing bluegrass leading into a storming breakdown version of ‘Black Mountain Juice’: my first introduction to this totally mad genre.

The two tracks that completely took my breath away were both written by Peter Rowan. One told the story of their journey to Ireland exploring links between their music and Celtic folk. The second, ending the first side, was ‘Rising O’ The Bones’ referencing the Kent State massacre showing that country music wasn’t as reactionary as I’d believed. When the Mekons embraced country music I realised that I wasn’t the only one making this musical journey.

Dead Kennedys – Frankenchrist

It Started With A Disc From R2 September 2017

 

It wasn’t my first experience of the Dead Kennedys. That had come a few years earlier when – I know this sounds a little crazy – I was walking in the Black Mountains with the scouts and one of the scout leaders saw my Walkman and leant me three tapes: Bruce Springsteen’s The River; the soundtrack of The Great Rock And Roll Swindle; and Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables by the Dead Kennedys. I guess neither of us really belonged in the scouts. I loved The River and now I still see the hills and trees of my first listen. I could take or leave much of the Sex Pistols: some great recordings and much padding which made little sense outside the film. The Dead Kennedys, however, were a total revelation.

I was a quietly anti-establishment fourteen year old with a wont to gently undermine authority: pushing the boundaries without ever really getting into trouble at school because the teachers didn’t expect this quietly academic boy to challenge their authority. It was this joy at causing offence which appealed to me about the Dead Kennedys: the very name was a poke in the eye for the American establishment. Songs like ‘Kill The Poor’ were clearly played for laughs, but underpinned by a real burning anger at the iniquities of society. And Jello Biafra sounded scarily enraged. When I heard the scathing attack on middle class liberals that was ‘Holiday In Cambodia’ I was totally won over.

Musically the surf-punk sound had roots in The Ramones, but with such sonic attack that it often obscured the lyrics. This was a more subtle sound than simple punk thrash; but with a high octane ninety mile an hour delivery.

Fast forward to 1985 and I had started at university, had a bit more freedom to poke at the underbelly of conformity and pomposity: but I never really had the confidence to do anything genuinely outrageous. The Dead Kennedys were my outlet. When I first heard Frankenchrist I could hear the subtlety – yes, I know you have to listen hard for it – that had always been there. The music brought the wit, irony and satire to the fore all drenched in righteous indignation; hatred for a system that destroyed individualism.

The dystopian vision in these songs was genuinely frightening and intrinsically part of the eighties: the death throes of the cold war; the power games played out in the middle-east by Western ‘democracies’ (consequences still with us); and the unholy combination of Reagan and Thatcher. Jello Biafra was puncturing the posturing of mid-America. The slow degeneration of the sixties dream of social cohesion was described in ‘This Could Be Anywhere’:

My dad’s a vigilante now

He’s bringing home these weird-ass friends

Like the guy who fires blanks at his TV

When Kojak’s on

Or the guy who shows off his submachine gun

To his sixteen-year-old daughter’s friends.’

There were songs which poked fun at the worst excesses of American society: the mindless pap of MTV – how accurate was Biafra’s prophecy that ‘The lowest common denominator rules’?; the mindless bigotry and violence of Jocks and Goons who become the business leaders and politicians: ‘The future of America is in their hands/Watch it roll over Niagara falls’. The songs were slower, but the guitar no less jagged and the drums beaten with no less force. There was even a trumpet.

What about the blasphemy of the album title? They’d already released an EP titled In God We Trust, Inc exploring religion as a justification for big business. The album’s title clearly referenced the use of religion to justify the greed of man and ‘A Growing Boy Needs His Lunch’ asked ‘Will Elvis take the place of Jesus in a thousand years?

The whole album package was designed to push the boundaries of what was acceptable. The cover showed a group of Shriners, a sub-group of the Masons, in mini-cars with each driver wearing a fez; so far beyond caricature and satire that it needed no comment. Inside was a pull-out reproduction of an image by artist HR Giger, who designed for the film Alien, simply called Landscape XX, more commonly ‘Penis Landscape’. The intention was to offend the sensibilities of the right wing moral majority. And they succeeded. In ways they might not have predicted.

The final track of Frankenchrist is an extended anthem to an anarchist future, saving America from nihilistic destruction. Biafra’s manifesto if you will; he would later run for President as the Green Party candidate. ‘The Stars And Stripes Of Corruption’ goes beyond the realms of much politically inspired hardcore and tries to suggest solutions. Okay these solutions may be trite; but this is a song and call to arms, not a political tract.  It includes these lines: ‘I’m thankful I live in a place/Where I can say the things I do/Without being taken out and shot.’ Unfortunately for the Dead Kennedys the moral majority, in the form of Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center, led a prosecution of their record label for obscenity. HR Giger’s painting which was completely devoid of eroticism, rather a literal representation of a society based on how we can screw each other over.

The band collapsed under the pressure and then further tore the remnants apart years later in a fight over publishing rights and royalties. Frankenchrist, however, remains a high point of American punk. No the lyrics weren’t profound, but they were witty and incisive, and the music was defiantly hardcore, but inventive and creative.

Peter Tomkins

 

Stuart Turner and the Flat Earth Society

As a reviewer you sometimes come across music that you simply can’t get to grips with however much you try. And sometimes you have to say things that not everyone will like such as below from Stuart Turner’s website:

6th review of the 4th album

Sad to report that we have had our first bad review in years. Not since the second Stuart Turner solo album has anyone gone to the bother of putting in print their qualified dislike of what they heard. Which is four albums and quite a lot of reviews ago. So this came as a surprise, especially as all the other reviews had been both glowing and focussed on how melodic the vocals were relative to earlier, more guttural albums. Maybe we should send the fellow one of those? Anyway, here is what appeared in R2 Magazine (formerly Rock ‘n’ Reel, who had previously refused to review us, so progress of a sort):

“Stuart Turner has a voice that takes some getting used to. At first you think his is a voice that will just take a bit of time to love, like the growl of Tom Waits or the sneering snarl of Lemmy. So I listened to Turner’s explosions and snorts knowing that in time it would all start to fall into place and I’d see how this fusion of English pop and delta blues made sense. It didn’t.

There are great songs on this album which take folk and blues stylings and tie them to some very English melodies: echoes of The Kinks and 60’s psychedelica, and some darker elements of the folk tradition. The playing is spot-on and enlivened by John Whitakers trumpet. It is, however, Turner’s spittle-filled bark that cuts through the unbridled joy of the music and brings it back to earth with a considerable wallop.

There are a couple of interludes provided by James Worse’s Medway-flavoured nonsense poetry: a kind of Kentish Jabberwocky. In many ways these serve merely to highlight the problem I faced with the rest of the album. I am sure Turner’s voice is an acquired delight; but I have failed to acquire it.”

Peter Tomkins, Sept. 2016 edition, R2 Magazine