Archive for the 'politics' Category

London to the faraway towns

8 March 2015

The story about the radio producer Charles Parker, who made the radio ballads in the 1950s and 1960s, is that he wanted to hear the voices of ordinary people on the radio, and the invention of the portable Uher tape recorder gave him the chance. His politics collided with new technology to create a new way of working – a way of working that included the songs of Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. For each of the radio ballads he would vanish from Broadcasting House for weeks on end, recording scores of hours of tape, to the chagrin of his employers at the BBC. They eventually fired him, despite his winning hatfuls of prizes for his innovative and radical work.

As Parker later recalled, in the days before the tape recorder arrived, the producer would drive into the country in a “bloody great Humber,” record people talking onto disc, transcribe their words, and hand the resulting scripts to actors. Well, lawdy luv-a-ducks, what a lark!

I came across Parker’s work, which was then out of print, while working as a current affairs producer for Radio Four. I’d read about it in one of the many critiques of media that were current in the 1980s, and promptly borrowed the recordings from the BBC Library. (They’ve since been re-released by Topic Records.)

After I left the BBC I wrote my own critique of the dominant discourse of Radio 4 News and Current Affairs, which if I recall correctly was headlined “London calling.” And the notion that “this is London” runs deep through Britain’s news and current affairs culture. It’s telling that sport and music can move to the BBC’s new centre in Salford, but news and current affairs is located more centrally than ever, TV and radio reunited in a back-to-the-future kind of a way at Broadcasting House, W1A, 1AA.

And this whole stream of personal history, long-repressed personal and media history was triggered by listening to James Robertson perform his monologue, “The News Where You Are.” No, it’s not a coincidence that he’s a Scot. The world just looks different from the far away towns.

The image of Parker interviewing at the top of the post is from the Library of Birmingham, and is used with thanks. The Charles Parker Archive Trust can be found online here.


The songs of Alex Glasgow

2 February 2015

The singer Alex Glasgow seems to have vanished from the shared memory since his death a bit more than a decade ago, which is a shame because he was a sharp observer and a fine songwriter. Even those songs which seem now to be of their time, in the ’60s and ’70s, are keen bits of social observation and social history.

Alex Glasgow was born in Gateshead in 1935, in the north-east of England, and worked much of his life in the area, at least until he emigrated unexpectedly to Australia in 1981. Certainly his most memorable work, such as the music for Alan Plater’s Close The Coalhouse Door, is deeply rooted in the culture and the history of the region. He wrote ‘Dance To Thi Daddy’ (at the top of the post) as the title song for the ’70s television series When The Boat Comes In, set in the region. He was also one of life’s radicals, with a caustic view of politics and politicians.

Plater wrote a fine obituary of Alex Glasgow in The Guardian in which he observed that the singer – described in Wikipedia*, completely wrongly, as a folk singer – was in fact a chansonnier – more like European singers such as Jacques Brel. In an English context, he’s closer to a theatre and music hall tradition; certainly a lot of his songs tell stories and many have punchlines – such as ‘Geordie Broon‘ or ‘Mummy Says‘ or ‘Festival Time.’

And although I first came across his work in Close The Coalhouse Door – for example ‘When It’s Ours,’ about the nationalisation of the British coal mines, which is a family favourite in my house – he also wrote a fine musical play about the 19th century north-eastern music hall star Joe Wilson. Since the words of 19th century music hall have often survived, but usually not the music, I think that Alex Glasgow must have put new settings to songs such as ‘Sally Wheatley.’

One of the the reasons I think Alex Glasgow’s work has disappeared from view was that it has been almost impossible to find. Last year, when I wanted to share his wonderful song ‘Socialist ABC’ with some younger colleagues, they said, ‘It must be on Youtube,’ only to find that it wasn’t.

Well, it is now – which is the reason for this post. Someone – it’s not clear who – uploaded a selection of his records to Youtube last November, including some that I thought had been deleted. I’d start with Songs Of Alex Glasgow Volume 3/Now And Then, and then move on to *Songs Volume 1 and 2, which starts with the Coalhouse Door songs. Northern Drift/Joe Lives! opens with a live recording of his live show with his long-time collaborator Henry Livings, which has good things in it, but is maybe more of an acquired taste. It closes with songs from his show about Joe Wilson.

* Yes, I know I should rewrite it. But it’s quite a big edit.

Update (3rd February 2015): because the uploads were labelled “Alex Glasgow – Topic”, I assumed in the original post that these had come from Topic Records. It turns out I was wrong about that. I have amended the post accordingly.


Churchill and his contradictions

25 January 2015

Winston_Churchill_1Everyone’s getting excited about Churchill, as we approach the 50th anniversary of his funeral in 1965, when Britain stopped for the day. And he is a genuinely interesting historical figure, full of contradictions. (I’ve written about him before here). In my upbringing, in a house infused by the mining culture of the north-east of England, his triumph over fascism as a wartime leader was always inflected by his history as Home Secretary, when he sent Metropolitan Police and troops into south Wales to “keep the peace” after rioting during a lockout at Tonypandy. (Churchill’s archive insists the notion that he sent troops to deal with the miners is a “myth”, but you can make what you will of his “personal message” to strikers: “We are holding back the soldiers for the present and sending only police.”)

And as Secretary of State for War in 1919, he sent 10,000 troops onto the streets of Glasgow in response to radical protests. It was “the largest deployment of British troops on native soil,” at least outside of northern Ireland.

It’s also true that had he died when hit by a car in New York in 1931 (curiously Hitler was also hit by a car in the same year), his career would be little more than a flamboyant curiosity: youthful promise, erratic politics, and some catastrophic failures. The Dardanelles disaster in World War 1 is still used as a case study in poor decision making.

Last year I found myself reading some of the history of Churchill’s “lost decade” in the ‘30s, in which he was right about appeasement and rearmament, foolish about India, and hopelessly misguided about the Abdication.

From that, some themes emerge. They’re below the fold.

Read the rest of this entry »

Twelve sides of Robert Wyatt

15 November 2014

wyatt1I’ve pretty much always loved the music of Robert Wyatt, who has announced his retirement as a musician at the age of 69. As he told Uncut,

I thought, train drivers retire when they’re 65, so I will, as well. I would say I’ve stopped, it’s a better word than retired. Fifty years in the saddle, it’s not nothing. It’s completely unplanned, my life, and it’s just reached this particular point. Other things have happened – I’m more taken up by politics, to be honest,than music at the moment.

The good news is that this gives me the chance to write something appreciative about him before waiting for his death. There’s a biography just come out, (reviewed here in LRB by Jeremy Harding) and, next week, a double compilation, the second disc of which has on it some intriguing looking collaborations, some of which are new to me. My Robert Wyatt playlist/mixtape is below.

But before we get to the videos, five or six things to admire about Robert Wyatt:

First, he had a terrible accident that wrecked his fine career as a jazz-rock drummer with Soft Machine, which left him in a wheelchair. He picked himself up, more or less literally, and rebuilt his career as a musician rather than feeling sorry for himself.

Second, that even in the darkest days of the 1980s, when Thatcherism and Reaganism did their worst, he didn’t give up trying or believing in the possiblilities for change. Two in particular: his 12″ EP Works In Progress was a moment of inspiration, and his contribution to Working Week’s “Venceremos” lifted the spirits. In fact, Gramsci has a famous phrase about “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”, which Wyatt’s work exemplifies. (See “The Age of Self,” below”). Typical of Wyatt that when he left the UK for Spain when Thatcherism got too oppressive for him, he went to the mining area of Asturias.

Third, and related: his relentless musical curiosity, for music from around the world, from the radical tradition, from jazz, and for music that was dowright unfashionable when he recorded it. He seems to listen to everything. The first two are exemplified by his version of “Stalin Wasn’t Stalling,” first recorded during World War II, and his covers of Victor Jara (‘Te Recuerdo Amanda’) and Pablo Milanes’ song ‘Yolanda‘ on Works In Progress. The last one covers thimgs like his recording of the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer” at a time when it was, approximately, the least cool track in the universe.

Fourth, his openness. He has collaborated with almost everyone, as far as you can tell, on the basis of the quality of the music and ideas rather than reputation. When Comicopera came out in 2007, he said in an interview, “I like the idea of the record as a meeting place, where friends wander in and out.” He worked with Ben Watt when Watt was barely known (and those recordings are among the best things Watt has done); he worked with Ultramarine on their electronic LP United Kingdoms, adding vocals to some reworkings of 19th century ballad lyrics that seem prescient in the age of the new Poor Law: “Happy land, happy land, your fame resounds from shore to shore/Happy land, happy land, where ’tis a crime to be poor”. In turn, he’s been well served by other musicians, who find interpretaive space in his music: Annie Whitehead’s live recording Soupsongs is a fine collection, and so is the record by the French Orchestre National de Jazz. Ditto, the selection of Robert Wyatt covers by the Unthanks.

Fifth, his simplicity, sometimes accompanied by a white hot political anger, always accompanied by an internationalist worldview. “Palestine’s a country, or at least it used to be”, on Dondestan. Or “East Timor, who’s your fancy friend?” on Old Rottenhat. And his complexity: he’s always experimenting with something.

Sixth, the sense of his politics infuses everything, but as a senseability as much as a sense. There are very direct political songs, yes, but there’s a more important element, that his worldview – radical, dissident, critic, outsider – infuses all of his work and many of his choices. As when he chose to record Mongezi Fezi’s “Sonia” in 1975, with Fezi and other exiled South African musicians; he’s making a political commitment as well as a musical one. (Unlike, say, Paul Simon).

Anyway, here below the fold are twelve tracks from his career, from the dozens I could have chosen, that are worth listening to. For Wyatt fans, I’ve tried to avoid some of the obvious choices.

Read the rest of this entry »

The royalty at the front

31 August 2014


It’s always useful to be reminded of the essential stuffiness of the British establishment, as I was this week watching a documentary about the late Dusty Springfield. Dusty was, for my money, and by some distance, the greatest English “pop” voice of the post-war era. The documentary followed her complete career, from the successes of the sixties to the period in the seventies when her career went astray, but in the process (because of her sexuality, and because, unusually for the time, she’d talked about it in public), she became something of a gay icon.

Anyway, in 1979 she was appearing at the Royal Albert Hall, in front of Princess Margaret, and noticed the gay fans thronging the front of the stage, and said – a prepared remark, apparently:

It seems the royalty is not confined to the Royal Box.

Simon Bell, her backing singer, re-told the story. Princess Margaret didn’t like this, or possibly a humourless Palace protocol flunky was offended on her behalf. Either way, a letter duly came from the Palace instructing Dusty that she had to apologise, and sadly the singer complied. The offending moment was edited out of the DVD of the concert.

It’s a reminder of how far we’ve come in 30 years, but the story has some echoes of John Lennon at the Royal Variety Show in 1963, which Princess Margaret was also at:

Would the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands. And the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewellery.


Lennon’s remarks were clearly prepared as well – he has a look on his face that says, “Did you just spot me pulling the tail of the bourgeosie?” just as The Beatles kick into Twist and Shout – and he was careful not to mention the Royals by name, though nobody watching would have missed the point. While Lennon’s intro is still to be found online, Dusty’s remark has been edited out of the concert DVD. But then, talking about sexuality – or joking about it – always used to get you into more trouble than talking about class. How things have changed.

The picture at the top of the post is courtesy of Wikimedia, and is used with thanks.


Losing Scotland

19 April 2014


Over at Open Democracy, Gerry Hassan has a good post offering five reasons why the Scottish pro-Union ‘Better Together’ campaign is losing momentum and losing ground. Here’s an extract:

[T]he ‘Better Together’ forces do not want this debate. They are fighting a battle which they would prefer not to, at a time not of their choosing, and when their political opponents are mobilised and galvinised. This fundamental cuts through everything that ‘Better Together’ does; behind their rhetoric they are running a defensive political contest and one of retreat. They are presiding over a virtual, rather than real political campaign: mostly without foot soldiers, made up of three party leaderships, parts of the mainstream media, and business organisations and corporate CEOs.

Some notes from me:

  1. You should never under-estimate the SNP. I met Alex Salmond in the late 1980s – in my then job as a television producer – when he led a group of 5 MPs (from memory) at Westminster and the devolution argument looked dead in the water. By any measure they have been the most successful political party in Britain over the last generation.
  2. From a Scots perspective I think the independence argument is too close to call. From the perspective of the rest of us, the best outcome is probably that the ‘Yes’ campaign loses the referendum by about 1%, creating irrestitable pressure for the “Devo-Max” option that Cameron cynically excluded from the ballot paper. Why? Because it would re-open the devolution argument everywhere else. Along with fairer voting systems. And let’s face it: the only parts of the country that have done at all well in the last decade are those that won some measure of self-control in the late 1990s. London included.
  3. There are cynics out there who think that the inept showing of the Conservatives in the campaign so far is because they’re trying to push Scotland out of the Union to enjoy an endless autumn of Conservative rule in England. I think this probably misunderstands the tin ear the Conservatives have had for Scotland ever since Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister decimated their Scottish political base. But even if it is true, there are dangers here for the Conservatives. The unionist story is part of their political identity (it is called the “Conservative and Unionist” party for a reason) in a way that isn’t true for Labour or the Liberal Democrats. And the party may be in long-term decline, despite some Gen Y straws in the wind. The combination of loss of membership and the loss of an ideological core could be fatal to the idea of the Conservative party.

The image at the top of this post is ‘Distressed Scotland Flag‘ by James Miller. His work can be found at Redbubble.

Churchill, the last Victorian

1 March 2014


I recently went to see the German historian Peter Alter, something of a specialist on the history of the modern British Isles, talk at the German Historical Institute in London on Churchill and Europe.

A couple of highlights. The first is a conversation between Churchill and the West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in 1953, when Adenauer raised the subject of Britain in Europe. Churchill drew a Venn diagram on a placemat, which Adenauer kept and included in his memoirs.

He labelled the three circles ‘Britain’, ‘Europe’, and ‘USA’, and then filled in the middle segment and said that Britain was the only one that could connect all three but that it would always be on the side of Europe. (And yes, maths wasn’t Churchill’s strong point.)

Churchill had used the same concept in a speech at the Conservative part conference five years earlier, while in opposition.

Listening to this story made me realise that as Prime Minister Churchill was the last Victorian. By the time he met Adenauer in London he was in his late 70s: he had been 26 when Victoria died. (Later, he became the only person to be elected MP in the reigns of both Victoria and Elizabeth II .) He said in 1942, “I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire,” and never really came to terms with the loss of India after the war. Peter Alter suggested that Churchill had realised at Yalta that Britain’s role in the post-war world would be marginal, but he didn’t adjust to it.

The other story Alther told was of the occasion in Munich in 1932, shortly before Hitler became Chancellor, when Churchill and Hitler almost met. Churchill was travelling privately and staying at one of Munich’s more distinguished hotels. He was approached by one of Hitler’s supporters, and eventually asked if he would like to meet Hitler. Churchill said yes, and was told that Hitler often came to the hotel in the afternoon. But then Churchill went and spoiled it by saying indirectly that he wanted to ask him about anti-semitism (which marks him out from many members of the English upper classes of the time). Hitler never showed.

Had he done so, would it have made any difference to how things turned out? I doubt it.

The image of Churchill and Adenauer is from the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, and is used with thanks.

Earning your enemies

1 February 2014

Pete_Seeger2_-_6-16-07_Photo_by_Anthony_PepitoneIt was heartening this week to see Pete Seeger, who’s died at the age of 94, get the obituaries that he deserved after a life of radicalism. I’m not going to repeat them here, but commend Richard Williams’ towering piece in the Guardian, which underlines his influence on our music culture, Dave Marsh’s long appreciation, Billy Bragg’s short memoir, and David Corn’s note in Mother Jones, along with another video-embedded piece there.

It wouldn’t necessarily have turned out this way. Blessed is the man or woman who is lucky enough to outlive their enemies; had Seeger died in the 1950s he would have been vilified, or ignored. But his persecutors then – J. Edgar Hoover, Joe McCarthy, Roy Cohn – are now both dead and discredited.

Williams quotes the British DJ Laura Laverne as saying that it was Seeger’s destiny to be “loved and hated by precisely the right people.” But you have to earn your enemies, and Seeger understood the cost of this. He had been a member of the Communist Party, and associated with a whole range of leftist organisations, although (as The New American pointed out) it would have been easy to miss this in the media tributes. Seeger confronted the House UnAmerican Activities Committee instead of pleading either the First or Fifth Amendments, and was sentenced to a year in jail for contempt of Congress (the conviction was later quashed), and he lived from hand to mouth after being blacklisted. “He was hounded”, says David Corn. It’s worth quoting what he said to the Committee, from a profile in the New Yorker:

“I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs,” he said. “I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this. I would be very glad to tell you my life if you want to hear of it.”

They didn’t. What the committee members wanted was to have him say that he had been a Communist and to give them names of others who had been, and he wouldn’t. Again and again, he said, “My answer is the same as before.”

To 21st century ears a song like “If I Had A Hammer“, co-written by Seeger with Lee Hays, sounds like a cheerful and mildly progressive singalong. But in the 1940s it was incendiary, as he explained:

In 1949 only ‘Commies’ used words like ‘peace’ and ‘freedom’. … The message was that we have got tools and that we are going to succeed. This is what a lot of spirituals say. We will overcome. I have a hammer.

Seeger was phlegmatic about the UnAmerican Activities Committee, though with hindsight he could afford to be. As he told NPR in an interview in 1985,

It feels, as I felt, that these people didn’t love America so much as their own particular version of America, which was somewhat limited, shall we say. And so those who cooperated with the committee wish they could forget it all. Those who stood up to the committee, as Lee says, if it wasn’t for the honor, he’d just as soon not been blacklisted. It was an honor.

Billy Bragg writes that,

Pete believed that music could make a difference. Not change the world, he never claimed that – he once said that if music could change the world he’d only be making music.

His music was inseparable from his activism, and as an activist, he never quit. I’ve blogged here before about his campaign to clean up the Hudson River, and at the age of  92 he was recording Dylan’s “Forever Young” with a group of kids he’d mentored. And in many ways the America of today is unrecogniseable from that of the 1950s.

People today can’t realize, though, how much America has changed as a result of the civil rights movement and one thing after another, the women’s movement. We didn’t win all the victories we hoped we would win, but we won some victories, and maybe that’s the way the world moves forward.

Bruce Springsteen takes some credit for helping Seeger regain the reputation he deserved, both in his high profile recording of Seeger’s songs, and also his part in ensuring that Seeger played at Obama’s inauguration, where they sang together the Woody Guthrie song “This Land Is Your Land”, Seeger as ever engaging the audience in the politics of the song by getting them to sing along.

By chance I once heard Seeger talk about “This Land Is Your Life” on the radio (and I won’t be able to find this). When Guthrie first played it to him, Seeger told him the song didn’t work because it was too simple. It was only later that he realised that he was wrong; it’s simplicity was exactly the reason it worked.



The photo of Pete Seeger at the top of the post was taken by Anthony Pepitone in 2007. It is published on Wikimedia Commons under a  Creative Commons licence.

The blues and the whites

13 December 2013

Watching a fine documentary about the blues guitarist Bill Broonzy on BBC4, I realised for the the first time how political he was.

Two examples. Invited to play in the Spirituals to Swing concert at the Carnegie Hall in 1938 with jazz and blues luminaries such as Count Basie, Joe Turner, Jimmy Rushing and Sonny Terry, he sang a version of “Just a dream” in which he imagined, in front of a well-heeled largely white audience, of being invited to the White House to meet the President. At a time when much of the US was still segregationist, this was incendiary stuff, in the same way that ‘Only in America’ was flammable 30 years later. But he saved himself from lynching by the construction: it was ‘just a dream’.

Broonzy served in the US Army in World War I but like other black soldiers who served (in both wars) he returned to the US to find that nothing had changed, that America was as racist as ever. His response was to write “When will I be called a man”:

When I was born into this world, this is what happened to me
I was never called a man, and now I’m fifty-three
I wonder when,
I wonder when,
I wonder when will I get to be called a man

To a whole people used to being routinely addressed as “boy” throughout their adult life, the meaning would have been obvious. As indeed it was when Dylan wrote that innocuous-sounding line – innocuous, at least, to British ears – about “How many roads must a man walk down before they’ll call him a man”, 40 years later.

Given how well schooled Dylan was in the history of American folk and country blues, it seems unlikely that he didn’t know he was quoting from Broonzy. I’m not the first person to make this connection. And as I’ve mentioned here before, “Blowing in the wind” ended up being an inspiration for Sam Cooke to write “A Change Is Gonna Come,” which in turn opened the way for a whole generation of black political music during the 60s and 70s. Culture’s always flowing, finding a way to make its own connections.

On Ernest Cole

28 December 2012


Over at The Futures Company’s blog I have a short end-of-year piece on the South African photographer Ernest Cole. It seemed a good idea to share a version of it here.

I thought I knew the political and cultural history of the anti-apartheid struggle well, having followed it closely during my teens and twenties. But I realised at the Barbican’s sprawling exhibition of ’60s and ’70s photography that I knew nothing of Ernest Cole, the black photographer who was the first to document the petty humiliations and the institutional cruelty of South Africa’s legalised racism. Cole changed his name and his history to qualify as “Coloured” rather than “Black” under South Africa’s Pass Laws, which gave him the freedom to travel. In the early ’60s he became the country’s first black freelance photographer, filming – often illicitly – life under apartheid; his work was published as a book, House of Bondage, in 1967.

The image at the top of this post, of Africans having to risk their lives crossing railway tracks to board their poorly signed and vastly overcrowded trains, is described by a commentator in the exhibition as being the single photograph which expresses the ugliness of apartheid.

Speaking truth to power comes with a price: the book was banned in South Africa and by the time it came out Cole had exiled himself in the United States, where he died in poverty in 1990, living just long enough to see Mandela released from jail. But thanks to his white South African contemporary, David Goldblatt, also represented at the Barbican exhbition, many of his originals have been rescued from the vaults.

On a related theme, I fulfilled a small ambition this year to make a video of Robert Wyatt’s version of Peter Gabriel’s song ‘Biko’. It’s on YouTube.

The Ernest Cole picture at the top of this post, ‘Train Staton’, came via the blog (Notes on) Politics, Theory and Photography. It is used with thanks. There is more (and some great links) at Colin Penter’s excellent blog, and is used with thanks. The exhibition, ‘Everything was moving‘, is at the Barbican in London until January 13th.

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