Chris Guiton

Chris Guiton

Chris Guiton is an Associate Editor of Culture Matters, and a freelance writer and project manager.

Ordinary Giants: a review and an interview with Robb Johnson
Monday, 19 November 2018 11:32

Ordinary Giants: a review and an interview with Robb Johnson

Published in Music

Chris Guiton reviews a great new album by Robb Johnson called Ordinary Giants, and interviews the man himself.

The release of Ordinary Giants underlines Robb Johnson’s ability to write songs of great sensitivity which address big themes through the prism of ordinary lives. Based on the life of his father, Ron Johnson, who joined the RAF in 1939 and then worked as a teacher, it offers a fascinating perspective on the social and political issues faced by people over the last century.

A triple CD song suite, it’s a truly immersive experience which repays close listening as the story unfolds. It’s a testament to the lived experience of ordinary people as they experienced extraordinary times. Starting with the Armistice, and the false promises made to returning soldiers, it spans the experience of growing up in the interwar ears, the growth of fascism, the Second World War and the birth of the welfare state. In the course of the song suite we are treated to thoughtful glimpses into how people lived, felt and experienced the changing world around them as well as satirical asides about ruling class fear of socialism and their contempt for working class people.

The album is dedicated to his father and the generations who lived through these times to fight fascism and build a fairer society. These were people determined not just to win the war, but to win the peace as well. It reflects the struggles and disappointments of these years, as well as the aspirations and achievements.

The album is performed by a great cast of contributors, who’ve clearly added to the creative process, including Tom Robinson, Claire Martin, Boff Whalley, Roy Bailey, TUC General Secretary Frances O'Grady, MP Dennis Skinner, FBU activist Steve White, Joe Solo, Tracey Curtis, Alan Clayson, Matthew Crampton and children from the school where Robb taught. Robb’s parents are sung by Phil Odgers (from The Men They Couldn't Hang) and Miranda Sykes (currently playing bass with Show of Hands). Musicians include Rory McLeod, Bobby Valentino, Jenny Carr, and Robb’s longstanding rhythm section, John Forrester on bass and son Arvin Johnson on drums.

The album is a celebration of our hopes and dreams, and our collective power to make the world a better place, characterised by recognition of our common humanity. It is a tremendous achievement, very much for our times as, once again, the politics of hope offers a society for the many not the few.

For more information on Robb Johnson and Ordinary Giants go to www.robbjohnson.co.uk

RJ official large

The Interview

CG: Who are the main musical influences in your life and how has your songwriting evolved over the years? What was the spark that got you interested in the first place?

RJ: Well… I started out with Simon & Garfunkel & Pete Atkin… then I had the epiphany that was Ziggy Stardust, which was the gateway to Lou Reed & the Velvets, & Iggy & the Stooges. These are still pretty much my default setting; I still find I am likely to end up playing Velvet Underground bootlegs if I can’t think of anything else to listen to! I was at the Patti Smith Roundhouse gig that practically everybody who was anybody in UK Punk went to. I saw Tom Robinson in a pub in Hounslow, which was just the best gig ever, possibly. But by the time punk rock officially happened, I had accidentally stumbled upon folk clubs & acoustic music, & through that I became deeply in love with the work of black American musicians, blues singers like Howling Wolf, & that’s when I met my other default setting, Billie Holiday. It wasn’t until London Calling that I listened to the Clash, & realised what I had been missing.

There are other significant artists I should mention; one way or another I have been inspired by …Victor Jara, Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel, Johnny Hallyday, Francis Cabrel, Bruce Cockburn, Wolf Biermann… & Chumbawamba, & Mick Farren (& thereby the Deviants & the Pink Fairies) have shaped my understanding of popular culture

I think the basic narrative of my songwriting has been firstly early punk rock… acoustic folk & blues & jazz….music from a diversity of cultures (before it became WORLD MUSIC - then I started listening to South African guitar bands in the 80s cos I was involved in anti-Apartheid gigs & activities, & also living in West London I started listening to bhangra bands, & being involved in Central American Solidarity groups / Nicaragua Solidarity. I listened to music from that region, including the fabulous Godoy brothers) – then I discovered the chanson, & that really moved my songwriting along I think. I also think it probably hammered the final nail into the coffin as far as any likelihood of popularity goes!

All those people & song forms have been sparks that have excited me…I suppose I grew up with the great legacy of Popular Song (my grandad had a piano that you pedalled to play music hall melodies… my dad played Hoagy Carmichael records, & loved Stephane Grapelli & Django Reinhardt) that then fed into the sixties & pop culture… it was just (to me) so obviously the cultural language you would use to make sense of the world. Plus it was obviously OURS. All you had to do was play a guitar & you could communicate. I am sure that I have always wanted to write – I enjoy trying to make the objective code of words express my ideas & maybe also formulate those ideas in beautiful structures. I found myself reciting Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” in my head the other day. I have always believed that had they been born in the 20th Century, poets like Andy, & Billy Shakespeare & Charlie Dickens would have learned 3 chords & formed a rock group rather than write poems, plays or novels.

There is also the alternative narrative that, having had the misfortune to go to an all-boys school, playing the guitar seemed the easiest way to get to talk to girls.

Your question has got me thinking though, about how someone who started off wanting nothing more than to play “Sweet Jane” comes to write 3 CDs worth of stuff about his dad & the Second World War & the welfare state. I suppose there is a link. I have always thought Lou’s “Berlin” a work of genius. Most “rock operas” & “rock musicals” are utterly awful. “Berlin” isn’t… it is a song suite – what’s the difference between a rock musical & a song suite?

The glib answer is that rock operas are awful & song suites aren’t… I think it is more something to do with the ambition of form… classic musicals - & indeed musical theatre – at their best have a nuance & a subtlety that ROCK finds difficult to cope with. Musical theatre – it is interested in songs… rock musicals & operas are fatally limited by the feeling that they need to ROCK!!!! I love rocknroll. But it is what it is - 3 chords & a backbeat, basically. Rock musicals are like folk rock, the very worst of both worlds. But – listening to the sort of songs you hear in musicals & in chanson, you get a greater sense of what SONG can do. It doesn’t have to do it all the time, but it is possible to use songs to freight both meaning & narrative – & sometimes also poetry & nuance, & complexity, too.

RJ

CG: Ordinary Giants offers a fascinating perspective on the social and political issues faced by ordinary people over the last 100 years. What inspired you to write it, and how did you go about structuring the narrative and developing the various themes?

RJ: Thank you for the kind appreciation. I think a significant function of art & entertainment is to engage with the social & political issues faced by ordinary people. The tradition of music generally labelled “folk” is particularly well-situated to do this as it is – or ought to be – the unmediated creativity of ordinary people that is independent of court, corporation & Simon Cowell. When you look at these issues from the perspective of ordinary people rather than from the perspective of court, corporation or Simon Cowells, you usually find a narrative that challenges the dominant version of events.

I hope that Ordinary Giants is not an exercise in “folk” nostalgia, but a retelling of what happened over these last 100 years that both challenges the oversimplifications of the official history imposed as the popularised version of events, & also provides a context within which you can better understand contemporary developments. That all probably sounds a bit ambitious for a bunch of songs & monologues… but the inspiration was probably significantly generated by that kind of awareness of what songs can do, & by the writing I had previously done where songs joined up to create a narrative.

I always try to think of albums – not just if they are conscious song suites – as being more effective if they have a sense of structure, a beginning – middle – end that makes some sort of journey. The obvious reference point though is the Gentle Men song suite, about my grandfathers & WW1. I was asked to write something based on the experiences of my grandfathers, who both were present at the 3rd Battle of Ypres, for the 1997 Passchendaele Peace Concert that marked the 80th anniversary of that murderous lunacy. Having written about my grandads & WW1, it seemed logical that at some point I would write about my father & WW2.

For a long time I didn’t want to start this – I sensed it would be a challenging piece to write, & I didn’t want to get it wrong! Then last year, in February 2017, a combination of events made me decide to start writing. Firstly I found myself with an appointment opposite the school where my dad was a headteacher, & secondly I thought if I started now, the album would be out in time to contribute to the political debate in the run-up to the 2020 election. A month later, clearly having got wind of this, Mrs May promptly called a snap election for June.

Initially, I structured the narrative as a series of songs that dealt with significant events or characteristics of my dad’s life. I decided on the title “Giants” as an ironic reference to Beveridge’s “5 Giants”, the social ills of Want, Disease, Squalor, Ignorance & Idleness that were seen as impacting upon the lives of the people in the 30s, & that the creation of the Welfare State was intended to eradicate. Later that evolved with the addition of the categorical, contradictory adjective “Ordinary”.

However, as the writing progressed, I found myself pursuing ideas & inventing & pursuing a wider cast of characters than I had initially anticipated. My dad grew up in the 30s in Heston, in West London. West London enjoyed a period of relative growth in the 30s, so I found that I wanted to invent a chorus that would reference the wider social conditions that my dad wouldn’t have experienced. I created monologues for a character I called Lou, based very loosely on my great aunt Gladys, who was the only member of my mum’s family who voted Labour. I decided Lou would need to be balanced by a right wing chorus, so I invented the Utterswines, a line of Daily Mail readers that end up by 2010 in UKIP.

I found myself pursuing characters too; the song about my dad’s first years as a teacher featured a character that I called Tony Smith. I then wondered what might have happened to those children like Tony Smith, the working class kids of Brentford whose lives the Welfare State was designed to improve. Tony apparently moved to Bognor, & brought up his granddaughter Daisy, & she then gets to reprise in 2009 the song of my grandmother in 1929, “Slow Progress”. I thought it would all be over by Christmas, but songs kept on emerging… one of the benefits of taking so long to write “Ordinary Giants” was that I could reflect on its shape & dramatic structure, & add in songs accordingly.

That’s how Boff’s song “Here Comes Mr Gandhi” originated: I decided there needed to be a song that reminded the audience that Churchill was viewed by pretty much everyone as a political disaster in the 20s & 30s, so I combined that with a song that moved the narrative out of the south to give the industrial north a voice. Just when the recordings were all but finished, my mum talked about a holiday in Eastbourne & day trip she took with her cousin to France in the summer of 1939, which ended up with their boat being caught in a storm. The song all but wrote itself.

It was very difficult to stop writing. I think I did become a bit obsessed with it all; I remember catching myself walking up the stairs to go to sleep after finally fixing up a date for Swill to sing yet another last song, chuckling weirdly to myself.

CG: The song suite features a great cast of contributors. Over the years, you’ve worked with an impressively diverse range of musicians. How do you think your music benefits from this collaborative approach? 

RJ: “Ordinary Giants” depends very much on the contributors. I found myself – as well as chuckling weirdly – writing for singers & performers. For example, Swill, Phil Odgers, was just so brilliant as my dad, I kept adding songs & extra bits for him to sing. & Miranda Sykes as my mum, again, absolutely brilliant, so I wanted to write more songs for her to sing. They worked so well together; I had suggested they might try one song could be a duet – their voices interacted perfectly, so we turned another song into a duet, & Swill added beautiful backing vocals to Miranda’s song where the happy poppy 60s turn into the fragmented 70s.

I think competition is not conducive to either creativity in particular or society in general. I am appalled at the way the Right have re-introduced unnecessary & damaging ideas of competition into everything from education to cake-baking. Competition – like grammar schooling – is always presented from the perspective of the “winners”, whereas in fact the majority of participants end up losers – the percentage of us ending up with second class secondary modern education being about 80%.

As a musician, I delight in the process of interacting with other musicians. Magic happens when musicians play together, when voices sing together. I am very fortunate to have worked with lots of lovely creative people. Usually this has been around the songs that I have written, & I am always honoured by people choosing to sing them. These people – particularly singers like Barb Jungr, Roy Bailey & Maggie Holland – have also helped develop & encourage me as a writer & a performer. Working with musicians from different genres or cultural backgrounds has expanded my very self-taught understanding of music. Everybody brings their own perspective, experience & skills to those moments of collaboration. I suppose my songwriting tends to be quite an isolated process – working with different people helps to overcome my individual limitations.

I think effective cooperation & collaboration doesn’t mean we all do the same thing; like the concept of equality it isn’t effective if it is just envisaged as making everything the same. It is much more about contributing strengths together & compensating for each other’s weaknesses. Everybody has these attributes; competition – to return to the education analogy – simply tests what the test has arbitrarily decided to value. Cooperation involves engaging with you as a fully-rounded, 3 dimensional human-being. This seems to me a much better “challenge” than obsessing over who gets most votes on television. Of course, people might say – ah, but in the decades when pop music was such a vibrant cultural phenomenon, it was organised around the weekly publication of the pop music charts. But the culture wasn’t all only Top of the Pops. Top of the Pops was the muzak bizz’s attempt to re-present what was essentially a culture that they could only exploit rather than – as nowadays –determine & control. The Deviants & The Clash never appeared on Top of the Pops....

I nearly forgot – working with the Anti-Capitalist Roadshow, we developed a non-hierarchical collaborative way of performing… we sit in arrow on stage, we all take turns performing a song, & co-operate & join in or sit out if that is more appropriate to our individual skill set - & that I think is a very empowering way of performing. If I get the chance, I try to suggest this way of co-operative working (rather than sticking the “biggest” name/ego on last) in other performances too. Artists co-operating? No-one being the biggest show-off? Dangerously subversive or what?

CG: Culture is a key site of political and social struggle, which offers a powerful platform to challenge the prevailing neoliberal culture. We are very interested in what an incoming Labour Government would do to develop arts and culture policies which work for ordinary people, assert our common humanity against the divisions of class, gender and race caused by capitalism, which facilitate grassroots cultural formations and activities, and which inspire people to fight for a better world. What are your views on the culture policies that Labour might include in their manifesto? 

RJ: I think Corbyn’s commitment to returning creativity to the school curriculum is the most effective long term strategy. It’s encouraging to see this in the manifesto – the arts pupil premium. Us humans are by nature creative & cooperative. As an Early Years teacher I saw this at first hand, & then a school system organised around measurable outcomes, a restricted curriculum & competition grinds those attributes out of us & trains us to be passive consumers of processed bilge rather than active, reflective creators.

Recently there has been something of an increase in cultural initiatives that obviously link entertainment to ideas, to politics – there have been the Stand Up For Labour gigs, & the wonderful grass-roots (is that becoming a bit of an overworked term? How about the more descriptive small-scale & local) We Shall Overcome nationwide collective of performers & performances. Labour’s decision to hold a festival last year was another interesting & empowering event (am I biased because I mc’d it? I don’t think so) which involved a really good mix of performers & a lively amount of discussion & debate too.

RJ frances o grady

So these are healthy indications of a healthy resurgence of elements – participation & political consciousness – that have been missing from popular culture. I think festivals need to be treated with caution however; by their very nature they have a tendency to reinforce an unhelpful distance between performer & audience, & a tendency to celebrate the conventional. With all that investment that everybody is making, no-one wants to risk trying something that doesn’t work – which is why small-scale gigs & supportive situations (not another fucking open-mic session where the pub gets free entertainment all night & performers turn up hoping to be discovered & bugger off once they’ve had their go) are so important. We need spaces where as a performer, you can try something out, see how it works, for real, not just in your bedroom. As an audience, we need those spaces too, where we aren’t simply passively responding to a screen or a stream, but interacting with other people. For real.

I have just had a quick re-read of the “Culture For All” section of the Labour manifesto, & it seems a promising document. From my perspective, it looks like a set of proposals that may provide cultural workers engaged in those areas of culture where I work with an increase in venues & opportunities to be creative. It supports the idea that creativity is cultural work that ought to be appropriately remunerated – which is a better model than the present one whereby cultural work is the exclusive province of over-remunerated media-approved celebrities. I think that revitalising local communities & creating & supporting opportunities & spaces for performance (like the way the manifesto recognises the importance of pubs as community resources) will probably be more effective than anything administered by The Arts Council – but then that might just be me & my dislike of filling out forms & ticking somebody else’s boxes.

CG: The media often sneer at ‘protest’ singers, which I take to be a mark of their success! How do you personally combine your music and your politics, and what do think the role of musicians is in society today?

RJ: Indeed – I agree wholeheartedly: you know you’re doing something good when the capitalist bizz & media do their best to ignore &/or rubbish your work. Me & music & politics… well, that’s probably quite a complex question because – having somehow got this pigeon-hole “political artist” that’s primarily only what people hear, & what people expect to hear. Of course, what this really means is “left” or oppositional ideas – no-one ever talks about the politics of Rod Stewart’s work, because it subscribes to or can be recuperated by dominant conservative political values.

I suppose that my life experiences have confirmed in me an understanding of the world that considers every element of the human world is political, & freights political significance. When I was a student in Brighton, my friends in Hounslow who I played in a band with thought my interest in politics was something that was a consequence of my being a student, & that I would grow out of such views once I returned to the “real” world. Partly this was true – being a student allowed me to develop my thinking about the world, & afforded me more opportunity for reflection than my previous occupation, working in the carpet department & then as a toilet cleaner in Hounslow Co-op. But I had already joined USDAW, & had an instinctive dislike of the local Tory MP. & when I did finally get a job as a teacher in the “real” world, I found all the theoretical understanding of class & inequality operating for real upon the life chances of the children & the families I was working with.

So these perceptions started filtering into my songs. Thatcher & issues like apartheid & Nicaragua certainly accelerated this process; there were benefits, strikes, picket lines to play on… & in this context, pop’s perennial obsession with adolescent trouser-action seemed increasingly irrelevant. I mean… at the start of the pop culture social revolution, sex was subversive; now it just sells newspapers. And there is the problem of how do you continue writing pop songs if you DON’T die before you get old?

So – I mustn’t grumble: a capacity to write songs with a conscious political dimension isn’t all that I do, but it does mean I have kept writing & performing, hopefully refining & developing my craft, without ever having been limited to the expectations attendant upon fashionability or popularity. I think the function of musicians is simply the function of all artists – to create work that entertains (in the sense of it engaging & rewarding your sustained attention) & that expresses the artist’s perceptions in a way that inspires & moves & delights & empowers the beholder. Music has a particular language & effect &… portability that is distinct from – say – theatre or cinema or painting… you can’t dance to a painting, & you can’t sing along to a film, & you can interact with your audience directly in a way a playwright or novelist doesn’t.

CG: What are the sort of gigs you like doing best

RJ: Pubs! Well… I like playing in Belgium too; it’s not just the beer, it is the fact that audiences – a generalisation – aren’t so tied to genres, but seem interested in a variety & diversity of musical languages. In the UK, you sort of get folk audiences or punk audiences or rock audiences…. which is also one of the reasons why I like pubs; people turn up, & there you are, like Robert Johnson, playing in the corner, doing your best to entertain people without insulting their or your intelligence (well, that’s my aim anyway). I have always been impressed by that kind of model, where there is not this massive distance between performer & audience, where the music is part of the audience’s weekly world, not some massive expensive annual festival where you’re stood at the back looking at the video screens with insufficient toilet facilities, or something disposable you watch like a far distant galaxy on television, or download, tinny 2D & disposable, onto your mobile phone.

Oh & of course, I like well-organised & well-paid gigs too, where people listen attentively. & I enjoy playing at Tolpuddle, & I enjoyed Labour Live, so I am not averse to larger venues. But I am happy playing schools, kindergartens & OAP homes too. I played Broadmoor a couple of times too. It is always much appreciated to be appreciated. Really, I just like playing & singing & … in my own little way.. entertaining people. All sorts of people, all ages. Without anybody’s intelligence or integrity being insulted. I like the sort of gig where you feel you have done the work to the best of your ability.

CG: What are your plans to tour Ordinary Giants?   

RJ: Hmmmm… well, it’s a tricky one. We could tour a reduced cast version (full participants obviously 99.999999% recurring impossible) but it would be… ridiculously expensive, let alone difficult to co-ordinate. As indicated above, I think appropriate remuneration is due to cultural workers, & I also believe that everybody should be paid the same amount (here, equality does mean the same, to me, if you are playing in a band situation). Friends suggested I apply for an Arts Council Grant. I am always a bit reluctant to do this – folk music – it stands or falls on its own two feet, surely? It is not the province of kings or CEOs of Lottery Funding, surely? The Pink Fairies & The Clash never got lottery funding, maaaaaaan.

So I looked at the forms. I even made a start at filling them in. A fortnight later, when I binned them, the headache stopped & I got on with writing songs. I thought – Dickens didn’t finish “Bleak House” & think: right, now I must stage this with a cast of well-known BBC actors… I would love to see it presented as a stage performance, but – that’s certainly NOT my job at the moment. So I am back to my usual practice of emailing people & phoning people & asking for solo gigs & generally being ignored. But we are sort of sorting out a few gigs for next year that get as far east as Thuringen, including Belgium, & as far west as Vancouver Island, with Lewes & Leeds & Bolton & Glossop along the way.

Robb Johnson, Ordinary Giants: A Life and Times, 1918-2018, is released on Irregular Records.

Why the cultural struggle matters
Monday, 10 September 2018 13:12

Why the cultural struggle matters

Published in Cultural Commentary

Chris Guiton develops the theoretical reasoning for the struggle for cultural democracy.

It was refreshing to read David Morgan’s feature ‘Reclaiming the Future’ in the Morning Star. As David and many others recognise, there’s a pressing need for socialists to move beyond an often narrowly defined and reactive anti-austerity agenda and develop a progressive political programme on a broad front which presents a clear alternative to the neoliberal status quo.

In this regard, it’s worth reflecting further on Antonio Gramsci’s profound insight that culture is a key site of political and social struggle and that ruling class ‘hegemony’, the influence the capitalist class has over what counts as knowledge, beliefs and values in our society, is exercised through a range of civil society institutions, including the media, religion and education. This power is not always visible but is tremendously important in the manufacture of consent and conferring of legitimacy on neoliberal ideology.

CG Antonio Gramsci

The explosion of popular culture since Gramsci’s time of writing (the Prison Notebooks were written between 1929 and 1935) has reinforced the significance of his thinking. Corporate-driven popular culture - films, TV, music etc - produces bland, uniform cultural products that encourage passive, docile consumption of their anodyne pleasures; promote an individualised, competitive view of life; and discourage independent, creative, critical thinking.

Historically, there has been a tendency on the Left to under-estimate culture’s political importance. Its significance has either been downplayed, with culture seen as an act of often private and largely passive consumption, or it’s been viewed in instrumental terms as a weapon in the political struggle for socialism. But a more constructive, utopian perspective also exists, based on the understanding that there is a dynamic relationship between the cultural struggle and the political struggle, with socialism, ultimately, viewed as a weapon in the fight for an enriched and democratic human culture.

Building on the work of Gramsci, the Marxist thinker Raymond Williams was keen to promote the concept of a cultural revolution to accompany the economic and political revolutions. He understood this as a ‘long revolution’ leading to socialism through the extension and deepening of cultural and educational democratisation. He sought to articulate the ways in which we might give voice to our lived experiences, currently marginalised by an hegemonic, capitalist narrative. A fully developed campaign for cultural democracy plays a key role here, becoming a mechanism for resistance to and change of the dominant culture in all its manifestations.  

1024px Paul Cézanne 1892 95 Les joueurs de carte The Card Players 60 x 73 cm oil on canvas Courtauld Institute of Art London

Paul Cézanne, The Card Players, Courtauld Institute of Art

Challenging the appropriation and commodification of cultural activities by the ruling class starts from this understanding. The arts can take us into imagined worlds and enable us to understand how others live. They also have the potential to take on a more explicit counter-hegemonic character. Listening to the music of John Coltrane or looking at a painting by Cézanne can provide pleasure as well as help people deal with the alienation and oppression they encounter in their everyday lives. Culture can bring us together in shared, collaborative activities which are enjoyable in their own right. It can also encourage us to think critically, ask challenging questions and participate in the wider world.

At its best, culture not only has the potential to entertain and enlighten us, it can provide a broader canvas on which to understand historic, social and political issues, assert our common humanity against the divisions of class, gender and race caused by capitalism, and inspire radical change in the real world.

Similar benefits potentially flow from other cultural activities such as sport and religion. As well as being satisfying in themselves, they can provide multiple opportunities for social engagement, which reflect the fundamentally social nature of human beings, moral and emotional growth, and encourage a collective commitment to the common good.

One essential step is to reform the education system and replace the current, destructive audit and accountability culture, excessive testing and associated narrowing of the curriculum in our schools with an approach to education which is holistic, provides space for culture, and encourages children to think critically, questioning everything, nurturing enthusiasm for learning and intellectual curiosity.

CG culture camp images

More broadly, we need to think about ways of facilitating and encouraging grassroots cultural formations and activities. There are some very good examples of people working together at various forms of cultural activity - whether learning to play a musical instrument, paint, write poetry, cook, play football or make films - for enjoyment, education or the value generated by doing things in a social environment. These activities may not be explicitly political, linked to any defined progressive thinking or located in the trade union and labour movement. But by providing platforms for people to share their work and ideas, and by encouraging people to do things socially and collaboratively, they build confidence, promote learning and open the doors to deeper levels of cultural and political engagement.

CG clapton fc

Think of the explosive anti-establishment energy unleashed by punk in the late 1970s, the DIY cultural ethic at its best. Or the way grassroots fan clubs have sought to challenge corporate control of the bigger football clubs and then gone on to build interest in more explicitly political campaigns against, for example, racism, sexism or homophobia.        

The challenge is how to build on these foundations in a way which promotes the potential for all types of art and culture to provide opportunities for the articulation of alternatives to dominant views of society, which breaks down the barriers between ‘consumers’ and ‘producers’ of culture, and which underpins the development of a politics of radical social and political change. Whatever solutions emerge, the process must facilitate and encourage the formation of new collaborative networks at local, regional and national levels which are democratic, participative and empowering.

To return to someone we started with, Gramsci famously said:

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.

We are living in very dangerous times as the crisis of capitalism deepens, reactionary forces in society resort to increasingly desperate measures to cling onto power, right-wing extremism is on the rise and the smear campaign against Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party plumbs new depths. We are at a critical juncture in the struggle and it is essential that the labour movement seizes the opportunity to move the political and cultural battle forwards and make the case for a genuine socialist alternative.

For consideration of what a culture policy for the labour movement might look like, see here. 

Barnstormer 1649 – Restoration Tragedy
Wednesday, 05 September 2018 14:14

Barnstormer 1649 – Restoration Tragedy

Published in Music

Chris Guiton reviews the new CD by Barnstormer 1649.

Restoration Tragedy, the great new album by Attila the Stockbroker’s band, Barnstormer 1649, centres on the events of the 17th century English Revolution. This was a pivotal point in our history, part of our transition from a feudal to a capitalist state. Parliament challenged the despotic rule of King Charles I, civil war broke out between Parliamentarians ('Roundheads') and Royalists, King Charles was executed for high treason in 1649 and a republic, the 'Commonwealth', was established under Oliver Cromwell.

In the words of the famous ballad of the time, ‘the world turned upside down’. Visionary thinkers fought for radical political reform and articulated ideas of social justice and equality. Later, they turned against Cromwell: disillusionment set in as he reinforced the power of property and the landed gentry, and the lot of the common people failed to improve.

Attilla was moved to write the album through a combination of his love of local history and of early music. He says: “I have always loved early music and have taught myself to play many ancient instruments. For the last 30 years or so I have had an ambition to record a whole album combining early music and punk in the same kind of way that the Pogues combined Irish music and punk.”

Wellingborough and Wigan (Live at Rebellion 2018)

Barnstormer’s songs are about the radicals, dissenters and early communists who flourished in this period: Gerard Winstanley’s Diggers, the Levellers, the Ranters and their larger-than-life leader Abiezer Coppe, and their confrontations with Cromwell’s grandees and squires:

'The king had been beheaded, the world turned upside down/Winstanley and the Diggers cried 'the poor shall wear the Crown!'' 

They reflect on the contribution to the anti-Royalist and radical cause made by some of the key historical figures from this period: Thomas Pride, Thomas Harrison and Thomas Rainsborough. There’s a fine song about the narrow escape of Charles II after the Battle of Worcester in 1651, in a coal brig from Shoreham Port, close to Attila’s home, and the later betrayal of the Commonwealth and the restoration of the monarchy in the shape of Charles II in 1660:

‘Monck then rode the monarch’s way/Commonwealth he did betray/Lost chance to change history/Restoration tragedy/Once more things the monarch’s way’. 

The Monarch’s Way (Live at Rebellion 2018)

As you would expect from someone of Attila’s political convictions, he also draws an important parallel between 1649 and today’s ‘distressed and divided nation’, reflecting in The Man with the Beard, on the power of Jeremy Corbyn’s political vision as well as the risks of the emergence of a personality cult.

The album closes with a lovely tribute to his wife Robina.

The album features Attila (vocals, crumhorn, cornamuse, bombarde, shawm, rauschpfeife, recorders, violin, viola, mandola, and mandocello), Jason Pegg (guitar/backing vocs) Tim O'Tay (recorders/backing vocals) M.M McGhee (drums) and Dave Cook (bass/backing vocals). And there’s a guest spot from Robina, on piano, who composed one of the pieces.

Attila describes the Barnstormer sound as ‘Roundhead Renaissancecore and Baroque ‘n’ Roll’. The music combines the energy of punk with the window on the past represented by early music,  and is brought to life with a selection of historical instruments from the period. It’s a fine album and a timely reminder of the importance of understanding our history, the inspiration we can draw from our radical past, and the need to keep fighting for social justice and equality.

Oh, and the importance of drinking beer, having fun and raising a ballyhoo!

barnstormer 1649

Image based on the first 'headless' coinage minted under the Commonwealth after the execution of Charles I.

To buy a copy of Restoration Tragedy and find out about Barnstormer 1649’s upcoming gigs go to: www.attilathestockbroker.com

The Combination
Sunday, 27 May 2018 14:49

The Combination

Published in Our Publications

The Combination - A Poetic Coupling of the Communist Manifesto by Peter Raynard

£6 (plus £1.50 p&p). ISBN 978-1-912710-04-1

Culture Matters is proud to publish a remarkable new long poem by Peter Raynard written to mark the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth, and the 170th anniversary of the publication of The Communist Manifesto. 

Like the Manifesto, it protests the injustice and exploitation which is integral to capitalism, and the growing gap between capitalism’s productive potential and the unequal distribution of its benefits. And like that Manifesto, it is a dynamic and powerful piece of writing – pungent, oppositional and unsettling.

'A highly innovative long poem, loaded with history, radicalism and urgency.'
- Anthony Anaxagorou

‘This poetic coupling is something else. It's a re-appropriation, a reclamation, a making sing. It's bolshie (yes, in every sense), provocative and poignant too. It takes the Manifesto back from all that is dead, dry and terminally obfuscated. It's a reminder of reality, the flesh on the theory. It gives Marx to those of us who need him most. Not just relevant, but urgent. Not just angry, but hopeful."
- Fran Lock

Buy your copy here:

A Third Colour
Thursday, 24 May 2018 07:25

A Third Colour

Published in Our Publications

A Third Colour - Poems by Alan Dunnett, Images by Alix Emery

£8 (plus £1.50 p&p). ISBN 978-1-912710-00-3.

Culture Matters has published an outstanding new collection of poetry by Alan Dunnett. ‘These are poems of the first importance by the least self-important of writers’ says Bernard O’Donoghue in his introduction.

Through the sheen of vivid, simple narratives and vignettes, we glimpse more disturbing, ambivalent themes of alienation, dislocation and suffering, the psychological fallout of anxiety in modern capitalist culture. 

These are serious, quietly passionate poems, about topics that matter in life: love and hurt and justice. Some are masterpieces of humanity and compassion, concerned with mothers and daughters, and with brothers and sisters. Others are bitterly ironic commentaries on politics and modern government.

The subtly expressed unease and angst is perfectly complemented by the restrained, fractured images by Alix Emery, which add depth, colour and enhanced meanings to the poems. Feelings of disorientation and existential aloneness run through the images, and the repetition of red dots hint at the underpinning network of cultural control and surveillance which facilitates our exploitation and oppression under capitalism.

A Third Colour is a book of visionary, poetic parables and dystopian, uneasy images. It is a principled and skilful expression of, and protest against, the world we live in. 

The publication is accompanied by a launch at Housmans Bookshop. For details see: Housmans/events  

Bread and Roses Songwriting and Spoken Word Award
Tuesday, 17 April 2018 08:57

Bread and Roses Songwriting and Spoken Word Award

Published in Music

The Bread and Roses Songwriting and Spoken Word Award was launched by the Communication Workers Union (CWU) and Culture Matters in November 2017. It closed in February 2018. The aim of the new Award was to encourage songwriters and spoken word performers to write material meaningful to working class people and communities, and to encourage those communities to engage more with songwriting and spoken word. The Award was open to all, regardless of trade union membership.

We are very pleased at the success of the Award, which received a range of high quality submissions, often from people who might not otherwise enter competitions. The entries were judged by Chris Webb (CWU, Head of Communications), Boff Whalley (songwriter, fell-runner and formerly of Chumbawamba) and Chris Guiton (Culture Matters, Co-Editor). The judges were very impressed by the entries.

Dave Ward, General Secretary of CWU, said,

“I really welcomed this new partnership with Culture Matters. The arts and culture generally are vital to the labour movement and working class communities across the country. Proper access to the arts, sports and other cultural activities are important for all of us. State support needs to be re-balanced so that working people everywhere can enjoy cheap, accessible and good quality provision. We sponsored this Award because we wanted to encourage our members in the CWU, and working people everywhere, to express themselves creatively on themes that matter to them as workers. I think the results speak for themselves!”

Boff Whalley commented,

“There’s so much bad news in the world that it was inevitable that many artists would sing and speak predominantly about the bad stuff. But there’s also hope, pride and optimism out there. I was really encouraged that almost all the entries sounded like they were proper regional working class voices, and not just middle class writers/singers voicing working class concerns. There’s some brilliant stuff out there being sung and played and rapped and spoken.”

And Chris Webb said,

“I was taken aback by the quality of all of the entries. The level of understanding of the issues of our time mixed with the ability to turn this into the written word or song was inspirational. Music and creativity has a huge role in changing society and particularly engaging young people – it’s brilliant to witness it alive and kicking.”

The five, equal winners are:

  • Bloque Capitals – ‘That Pebbledash Finish’ 

  • Maddy Carty – Crying At the News (Justice For Grenfell)

  • Maria Ogundele – ‘Scallops with Terry and Stan’

  • Seonaid Stevenson – ‘Funeral For A Socialist’ and ‘School Pride’.

  • Warlord Baker – ‘Escape’

We are exploring the viability of producing a CD featuring the winners and a selection of the runners up. Culture Matters is very grateful to CWU for sponsoring the Award; to the judges, for all their hard work; but, most of all, to the songwriters and spoken word performers who sent in such wonderful entries.

The Things Our Hands Once Stood For
Thursday, 08 March 2018 16:40

The Things Our Hands Once Stood For

Published in Our Publications

The Things Our Hands Once Stood For - by Martin Hayes

£6 (plus £1.50 p&p). ISBN 978-1-907464-32-4.

Culture Matters has published an oustanding new collection of poetry by Martin Hayes.

Martin Hayes is the only British poet who writes consistently and seriously about work, and about the insanity of a society where employees are seen as mere ‘hands’ whose sole role is to make money for the employer.

Alan Dent, a publisher and poet himself, who writes an illuminating introduction, says, “Hayes speaks for those whose lives are supposed to be not worth speaking about. He is intent on revealing the significance of the lives of ordinary people in the workplace. When current employment relations are consigned to the dustbin of history, and are viewed as we now view the feudal relations between lord and vassal, will people wonder why so little was written about it?"

Martin’s poems are direct and simple, and full of black humour. Like the grainy black and white images that illustrate them so well, they expose and express the simple, terrible truth – that the human relation on which our society is based, that between employer and employee, is morally indefensible. The clear message of his poetry is that those who do the work should own, control, and benefit fully from it. They should, in the last words of the last poem, ‘start the revolution that will change everything’, and show that ‘all of our fingertips combined/might just be the fingertips/ that keep us and this Universe/ stitched together’.

 

Joe Solo - Fight the Good Fight!
Wednesday, 28 February 2018 15:17

Joe Solo - Fight the Good Fight!

Published in Music

Joe Solo is an award-winning musician, writer, poet, activist, broadcaster and washing machine engineer from Scarborough. He has a growing reputation as both a performer and political raconteur. Chris Guiton interviews him about his music and his politics.

CG. Who are the main musical and poetical influences in your life and how has your music and poetry evolved over the years? What was the spark that got you interested in the first place?

JS. I can remember the exact moment the spark ignited me. A friend of mine dropped the needle on 'Go For It' by Stiff Little Fingers and 'Roots, Radicals, Rockers and Reggae' blasted out. This was 1983. My whole life just went BANG and I knew there and then that what I wanted to do was give people the feeling that record had just given me. It's strange because I've never been very good at being an academic, so my politics tends to come from experiences of people and circumstances rather than dry tract. If I'm really honest, if you stripped everything down, the words to that song are probably still the basis for my entire belief system....."Equal rights and justice for one and all...." or "Comfort the afflicted and keep them from harm. Let age be protected and the infants be strong" or "Pass the bowl to make the food go round" or "Don't fight against no colour, class or creed cos on discrimination does violence breed". It's all in there. I think sometimes the headline a lyric gives you becomes a foundation to build on. That's important when you're a kid, or when you're a little lost. Politics can seem really daunting from the outside, but songs give you confidence and a little courage. They give you a place to start.

As far as influences go I'm not really sure. All kinds of things inspire me, from music and books and films to ordinary stuff, the way people find a path through hard times, the stories you never hear; the silent struggles of millions of people too ordinary to grab headlines, but all poignant and heroic in their own way. As a songwriter those are the stories you want to tell, because those are the stories that ring true in ALL our lives. They have a magic that is universal.

And how has my writing changed over the years? I think I just got better at it. I'm older. I understand stuff on levels I didn't as a kid. That helps.

CG. There’s a lot of passion and commitment in your music. What inspires you and how do you go about writing your songs lyrically and musically?

JS. I usually grab hold of a phrase and play around with it while I'm driving. My job gives me a lot of hours behind the wheel and I use that time to beat ideas into shape lyrically, then work them out on the guitar when I get home. They always start like that. I can't remember the last time I picked up a guitar to write a song, they always come formed in my head first. The passion comes from the writing. It's important that you work out what you are trying to say before you start trying to make it fit together, that way you aren't crow-barring lines in just because they rhyme; if you start doing that the song stops being believable and you can't then sing it with conviction. If you've written the song properly the emotion should be in every word right there waiting for you when you start to sing. There's no need to force a good song when you perform it, everything you need is there already. It has been written in to every line.

And as for commitment, you have to have that. If you haven't you don't stand a chance. Not just in music, in anything. As an old friend of mine used to say: "Stand up for what you're standing up for".

CG. The great singer and activist, Nina Simone, famously said, “You can't help it. An artist's duty, as far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times.” How do you define your politics – and what do you think the role of musicians and poets is in society today?

JS. Ms Simone is bang on there. Art defines our culture. It gives us signposts. We have a responsibility to tell those who come after us of our times. Sometimes we speak of them directly, and sometimes we just create a mirror which reflects what is going on around us. It's all a part of the same process. That doesn't mean everyone should be writing politics, far from it, sometimes it's what you don't say; and sometimes a 'bling and bitches' rap, for instance, tells you all you need to know about the artist and their cultural and sociological viewpoint. That does the same thing, just not in a positive way. In years to come people will hear it and think 'Could people REALLY have thought that?' and that in itself is a reflection of the times; rather like a statue of someone who history has redefined. It reminds you of your folly.

As for defining my own politics, I always describe myself as a man of the Left. As I said, I'm not an intellectual so I have arrived at this point through reason and experience, and through seeing firsthand what happens to people when bad politics are inflicted on them. I'm a Socialist, not because a book told me to be, but because shaking a stranger's hand means more to be than counting the money in my wallet. If you have that part clear in your mind, the rest is just details......and in my opinion, people get FAR too caught up in those details. That's why we always spend more time fighting each other on the Left as we do our real enemy. We forget the basics.

CG. What are your thoughts about the political situation at the moment, in particular the hope offered by Jeremy Corbyn and the dramatic shift in the position of the Labour Party?

JS. I think Mr Corbyn's arrival was both necessary and inevitable. I was 100% behind him from the start. The Labour Party had deserted the Centre Left and allowed itself to drift after an increasingly right wing Tory party. It deserted not only its traditional place on the political spectrum, but its core vote too and that part is unforgivable because it became a catalyst for apathy and alienation, and worse still, a breeding ground for far right parties who moved on to our estates and began spreading their bile. This, backed by the Murdoch press, fuelled an anger which has divided our communities along lines of race, colour, creed and class. I'm sure that wasn't the INTENTION of New Labour, but it was certainly the result; and they should have known better, they should have looked after the people who form the very backbone of the Labour movement. When Mr Corbyn arrived he proved something beyond all doubt, that if you offer people nothing but more of the same they will not lift a finger. The fight goes out of them. They get tired of being angry. But while they won't get out of their chair for more despair, they will march a million miles for hope. There was a vacuum on the Left of politics which Mr Corbyn walked into, and having witnessed the same explosion with our We Shall Overcome movement over the Summer of 2015, it was absolutely no surprise when he became leader with a landslide. People want something to fight FOR, not against. They want to feel a part of something again.

CG. At Culture Matters we are very interested in what an incoming Labour Government would do to develop arts and culture policies that reverse the impact of austerity, make the link between progressive culture and progressive politics, and support culture for the many not the few (to coin a phrase!). What are your thoughts on what a socialist arts and culture policy should contain?

JS. This isn't really my area of expertise. I think art is instinctive rather than something you can plan. I think if you set out what you want culture to look like it will rebel, that's what it does. But, on a mechanical level, I think it is vital we get funding into the arts because otherwise people are put off taking part, and there is no doubt that being involved in music, or drama, or creative writing, or whatever, enriches us as human beings and changes our perspectives on the world around us; and it does this in subjective ways, each of us sees something slightly different while sharing the same experience. This broadens our minds and opens us up to possibilities, while giving us an appreciation and respect of others. These are Socialist emotions, that is why Tory governments always try to crush the Arts. They see no commercial value in it, and the last thing they want is people thinking for themselves. They want individualism, not individuality. People get those confused, and they really shouldn't.

CG. The ‘DIY culture’ that emerged with punk is still going strong. A grassroots approach to music and poetry is a great way of empowering people who might otherwise feel excluded from society. What are your thoughts on this, and how might the trade union and labour movement best support this?

JS. Totally agree. If anything it has only grown in the age of the internet. These days you can see something on the news in the morning, write a song at lunchtime, record it on your phone in the afternoon and have it trending on the internet by teatime. There has never been a better time for using music or poetry or video blogs to spread opinion and dissent....and they know it too, that's why they will come after the internet sometime soon. It is the new mass media and it's ours.

I see the start of new relationships between the Labour movement and culture. I see unions and local Labour Party branches going back to what we used to call 'socials' and recognising the value in all getting together and talking over a few beers and a band; not only in cementing relationships between the members, but in the shared experience of the gig atmosphere there is an energy that we have missed for many years. I play a lot of these events and witness it firsthand. There is a growing sense of solidarity out there, a sense of community, and it is inspiring.

CG. You’ve been involved in some really interesting campaigns such as ‘We Shall Overcome’. What do you think are the best ways of setting up these campaigns, engaging with audiences around the country and getting people involved in the political struggle?

JS. There is no magic formula. I wish there was. A LOT of these things start up and a lot of them flounder. All you can do is put your ideas out there and hope they catch on. And don't let it defeat you if they don't. It is nothing personal. It just wasn't the right time. With We Shall Overcome we wanted to create an umbrella movement, a banner to march under. There are thousands of benefit gigs all over the country in any given year, and they all raise money for either the major charities or local causes. What we wanted was for people to march under the WSO banner while retaining the individual nature of their own events. That way you create numbers, and more than anything that is what politicians fear. If we could all march together we would demonstrate a truly mass movement against the way the world is being run. People can engage with the wider politics as little or as much as they want, but if you are running events to help people who need assistance then it is a political act in and of itself, you are recognising a need which a failure in politics has created, you are already protesting. We hoped people would see the value in standing together under the one banner and demonstrating the scale of our problems at street level. It's still a work in progress, we fight on. 

 


CG. Can you tell us something about your new album, Not On Our Watch, and how it builds on your previous albums?

JS. 'Not On Our Watch' is probably best summed up by the closing paragraph of a review on the Yorkshire Gig Guide site:

"It leaves us with the certain conviction that we owe it to those who came before us, and, indeed, to those who come after, to continue to fight oppression and inequality in all its many forms and to make the world a better place in whatever way we can."

That's what I hoped people would hear in it.

CG. How do you combine music, poetry and writing in your life?

JS. With great difficulty. Even when I'm not gigging I'm straight in from work (where I've often being writing and honing ideas while driving) and in to the other side of it all. There's rehearsing, there's booking gigs, there's promotion, there's website updates, there's Hull Pals research, there's We Shall Overcome, there's May Day Festival of Solidarity.....all on top of a wife and two teenage sons. It's often midnight before I close my laptop.....and that's a day off!

Luckily I'm good at multi-tasking and I have a high threshold for pain.

CG. It sounds like 2018 is going to be a busy year for you! Can you tell us a bit about your plans?

JS. More of the same really. As many gigs as I can fit in, as much support for Labour and the unions as is asked of me, writing, recording and We Shall Overcome. There are two new albums in planning, the first a look at how the First World War changed class politics, and the second is still circling around in my head, but the songs are coming thick and fast so watch this space.

One thing's for sure though, 2018 will not be dull!

Joe blogs at: joesolomusic.com, where you can also find information on his upcoming gigs, other news and where to buy his new album, Not On Our Watch.

 

The Mouse and the Milk
Tuesday, 05 December 2017 10:51

The Mouse and the Milk

Published in Our Publications

The Mouse and the Milk – by Mike Quille, with illustrations by John Gordon

£8.00 (plus £1.50 p&p). ISBN978-1-907464-29-4

Culture Matters has published a new version of a classic folk-tale from Sardinia, The Mouse and the Milk.

The story was written down in 1931 by Antonio Gramsci, the Marxist philosopher and political activist, in a letter to his children. The letter was smuggled out of one of Mussolini’s prisons, where Gramsci had been imprisoned ‘to stop his brain from functioning’. (In fact, as we know, his brain functioned all the more powerfully!) The story was later re-told by John Berger.

Mike Quille said, “Folk-tales are, by their very nature, metaphorical. They can be re-shaped for a contemporary audience and show the children of today how we can we make the world a better place by working collectively and respecting the environment.

“The Mouse and the Milk is a simple but very profound story. In just a few pages it expresses how practising natural human generosity and caring for the world around us leads not only to material abundance but a kinder, more just and peaceful society. At a time of growing child poverty and threats to the environment, this message could not be more relevant.”

 

JD Meatyard
Wednesday, 15 November 2017 09:15

JD Meatyard

Published in Music

Chris Guiton interviews jd meatyard, who describes himself as a left field artist much favoured in his Levellers 5 and Calvin Party days by the late great John Peel, with albums such as ‘Lies Lies & Government’ and songs such as ‘Tell Me About Poverty’. June 2017 saw the release of ‘Collectivise’ the 4th album in his current guise as jd meatyard - featured on BBC 6 Music’s Gideon Coe show. 

CG. Can you tell us something about your new album, Collectivise, and how it builds on your previous albums?

JD. Collectivise is a return to guitar, bass, drums…lo fi as a production bonus. The previous album ‘ Taking The Asylum’ was influenced by ‘songwriters’…like Cale’s ‘Paris 1919’… Jonathan Richman…Elliot Smith. For Collectivise the mood was different, darker, christ just walk out in the streets and see the despair…and the recording of the new album coincided with a family bad thing, a dreadful loss…with the personal and political in such a state the ‘tone’ of the recording added much to the songs themselves…‘songs I’d play everyday with songs painful to listen to even though I share the politics’ says one. So all in all, the songs on Collectivise reflect of course the crazy place we are now in - the horror show that is the every day for so many people… and the personal to, as ever. I couldn’t have an album with such a narrative lightened around the edges with mandolins and such - ergo guitar, bass, drums.

CG. You celebrate a diverse range of influences. Can you tell us a bit about how your music has evolved over the years?

JD. Well, with Levellers 5 (NOT Levellers!) back in the early John Peel days it was just pretty much a manic rant at times, 'like drunk kids let loose in a music store' said the MNE (true, as in we were like drunk kids…) held together by a great band. Then with Calvin Party we played the indie style of big guitars n' stuff…hey, all in all a pile of Peelie sessions n album releases, it was all a life to live. I headed over to live in Holland and packed in the ‘band thing’ as I wanted to just write songs - not songs for a band, just songs, any which way they came. So started jd meatyard…Ralph Eugene Meatyard was a photographer whose work I liked, interesting stuff for sure, and I needed a ‘name’ to be a solo singer songwriter sort of guy. It worked, we formed a 3 piece in Rotterdam, me and Johan and Nina, sparse - two guitars, a floor tom and snare…but what it opened up was the variety of song - the light n' shade maybe, loud quiet loud. It’s worked well on the albums, the eponymously titled sort of nervous solo debut, then ‘Northern Songs’ with the much demanded ‘Jesse James’ song on through to the new release…we got many indie radio show's support, and plays from Gideon Coe on BBC 6 Music…the new Peelie, which really helps!

CG. Brecht famously said, 'Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.' How relevant do you think this is now as we face a continued neoliberal assault on the 'cultural
commons', those elements of art and culture that rightly belong to all of us?

JD. ‘Art is all’, I used to believe. Problem is ‘culture’ is now a tool that we’re controlled by, there’s no argument to this…Edward Bernays pioneered such control of the masses at the behest of the New York/U.S elites early 20th Century. 'The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society'… keep us all in the mall whilst they go about screwing the planet. I do think that there is hope, the dumbing down of all culture, the collapse of the popular into little more than corporate funding is I think coming to an end…gotta say, social media has had a big part in this loosening of the reins, there is now an emerging culture of radical attack, of questioning, of challenging that hasn't been around for a long time…social media, the great channel for leaks that they can no longer control…the other day with the Paradise Papers tax stuff…no wonder they’re so frightened of Jeremy Corbyn! 

That I get hammered, and I do, for my tiny contribution - songs for Palestine, ‘4 Kids on a Gaza Beach’, for the left, ‘Jesse James’, ‘Blow it Out yr Arse’, 'St Peter at The Gate’, ’Collectivise’… people in Sheffield walking out of the show, others rolling their eyes ‘oh not more politics’, underlines the problem…the attacks I get are pretty severe at times.

CG. What are your thoughts generally about politics at the moment, in particular the hope offered by Jeremy Corbyn and the dramatic shift in the position of the Labour Party?

JD. JC has done something that I’d completely given up on, he’s energised so many people - people that had given up hope - many on the left/humanists that had walked away following Blair's band of closet neo-libs…the feeling now that there is a real possibility of success for a centre left government is astonishing given recent history. We now have a Labour Party fit for the name, a leader that matches many of us in historical choices - aye, we did play anti-apartheid shows, and shows for the miners and he/we never wore ‘Hang Mandela’ T shirts like some of the tory toffs. Yes, there is a wee political frisson about now with JC attracting crowds like never before…just as the Tories are chewing themselves up with the tax dodging and abuse charges ripping round the ether - good times…hopefully great, honest, progressive times on the way. There needs to be big changes globally. The corporate governance of the planet, profit is ALL, has worked for the elites but it has, no doubt, fkd the planet. The poor and the immigrants haven't fkd the planet the rich have.

CG. There’s a lot of heartfelt anger and honesty in your music. How do you combine the personal and the political in your songwriting?

JD. Thanks. Its easy, no? What’s the old one - ‘the personal is poltical’? I don't know how songwriters can avoid being political! Of course I get it, Ed Sheeren and the like are ‘business’ artists - they write flatlining songs for a flatlining audience - formulaic, high production and a marketing plan to suit. We don't expect anything from such artists…however, I am surprised that so few ‘serious’ artists that have the opportunity to comment don’t bother to do so - each to their own. However, for Morrissey, Radiohead and the rest who play the ‘non political’ card as an excuse to pocket the Netanyahu $$$…well, what can you say, sick. It’s my naivety I guess, I expect more from artists. For me, what else is there? The pain, the tragedies, the loves and losses…fk, it's all there in the everyday of life, to seperate politics from personal is to artificially divide reality. So, for me, there’s no contrivance, it's life.

CG. At Culture Matters we are very interested in what an incoming Labour Government would do to develop arts and culture policies that reverse the impact of austerity, make the link between progressive art and progressive politics, and support culture for the many not the few (to coin a phrase!). What are your thoughts on what a socialist arts and culture policy should offer us?

JD. Financial backing for creatives, right now there’s little or no support unless you’re already making $$$…I beg PRS now and again for support - nada, nothing, nunca. We need targeted support for those with a catalogue of, let's say, meaningful music. Sad thing is that in music particularly there’s a real dumbed down practice - the mainstream now is the aural equivilent of Enid Blyton, kids read EB, no probs, however adults listen to the aural equivalent. Little from the left field gets through…Sleaford Mods bravo. Support for ‘alt’ venues would help, this would include ‘hands on’ support in terms of creating a culture of arts/music clubs aimed at that very real alternative audience…funding for progressive ideas is what we need.

CG. What's it like working in the music scene at the moment? How has it changed over your life? What do you think of other bands and musicians these days?

JD. See above, ha. Since John Peel left us its been a struggle for many bands, JDM is lucky. I get support from many independent radio shows and Gideon Coe on BBC 6 Music has played songs from all my albums as JDM. But when Peel was around it made a difference with others who used him as a marker - so we’d get better gigs then and plays from other network DJs - it's noticeable how so may doors shut when the great man died.

CG. The DIY culture that emerged with punk still appears to be going strong. A grassroots approach to music is a great way of empowering people who might otherwise feel excluded. What are your thoughts on this, and how might the labour movement best support this?

JD. Like many, music was my door to everything else. The house as a kid revolved around C & W, played on the record player and also live by my ma n' da, brother and sister …great singalongs until the dreaded introduction of Lanliq - those days ‘buckie’. Then dub and reggae got me asking how come so many Scottish names…slave history and nasty empires entered my vocab, Lou and the Velvets blew open my eternal love of New York, and introduced me to Warhol and 3 hour long screenings of looking at the Empire State Building - the very notion of ‘alternative’ in the arts and of course in life too. Punk was such a break, the sheer bravado and ‘fk you’ attitude was so liberating and yes, empowering, as it blew away so much deadwood in music and beyond, for a moment it terrified the establishment. This is what I mentioned before - the government can, if it wants to, fund street level creativity through music and the arts by encouraging people with ideas to create spaces, small venues with real spirit, progressive places that encourage participation with artists and the public. Such activity is critical in fostering a ‘knowing’ public rather than a shopping mall mass taught only to, well, shop and little else. We need a mass of people with a critical, intelligent mindset if we are to break the corporate ruling of our lives, our world. The arts, music is central to the creation of a better future for us all - nearly said ‘for the many, not the few’ - phew! Painting, music, photography, all creatives have a critical role to play in saving the world from a
toxic culture that will see this planet drained to an empty shell - as long as they make $$$$$$…we can change the everyday from one of banal consumption at best to something more vital, a life worth living.

CG. I see you’re about to tour the Netherlands, and also live abroad part of the time. How do you find foreign audiences react to your music and does spending time abroad give you a different perspective on life?

JD. Aye, back to Rrrrrrrotterdam, what a place. I never realised the toughness of the Dutch until we moved there for a couple of years and Rotterdam, port city n' all is as tough as it comes. Holland was cool for the music, my music. They got the punk thing, shared like most northern European countries a liking for ‘alt’ stuff - so you get such acts touring these places…unlike Spain, Malaga city where the kids are into either 80s Bronx beats or the most insipid pop you’ve ever heard - ‘rock’ ground to a halt here with Duran Duran, punk never happened down this way…I get back to the UK for recording and gigs, see family. I love being back for the first few days…Pogues Irish bar in Liverool, up to Glasgow to see a game..recently discovered the wonder that is Bristol, recording the new album there...what a great city, now there’s a place that seems to be getting good culture to the centre of  things. But after the first few days I’m sort of looking for my return flight…different perspective, for sure, back to the calm of El Palo.

 “Some People is an epic track – If there was still a Peel Festive 50 it would be in the Top Ten this year”, Louder Than War. For more info and to buy his CDs go to jd meatyard

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