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Robb Johnson, A Break in the Clouds

Man Walks Into a Pub

IRR077: MAN WALKS INTO A PUB

Released on 20th September 2010, this is a solo acoustic album. Listen to free sample tracks (latest ones added 20 September), watch the video on YouTube, or download publicity photographs by Agata Bogacka. Lyrics and backstories to each track are offered here; follow the links in the Track List to go to the relevant pages.

Buy "Man Walks Into a Pub" from Amazon with free postage!

You can also buy it from iTunes or Napster or HMV or Play or Tesco or 7Digital.

TRACK LIST

  1. Man Walks into a Pub
  2. A True History of Couscous
  3. Les Deux Magots
  4. Dark Star
  5. A Bracelet from Paris
  6. A Very Small Piece of the Real World
  7. Charlie
  8. The Wrong Train
  9. Thomas Among the Dandelions
  10. Someone Else Can Save the World
  11. Stay Free
  12. A Place in the Country
  13. The Justice Bus
  14. Pennypot Lane

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NOTES ON THE NOTES AND BACKSTORIES

Back in the days when dogs could talk, my first two LPs came with attractively presented lyric sheets. LPs were like that: huge great artefacts that encouraged elaboration on a large scale. They were also bloody heavy to lug around and they got bent and useless if incorrectly stored, so on the whole, CDs can be considered something of a logistical if not aesthetic improvement. But now we're talking booklets, rather than sheets: smaller, neater but somehow also a little bit less exciting. So, when I did my first CD, rather than lyrics, I included a booklet of notes, that gave the listener a handy snapshot of the backstory of each song, and if the lyrics were a little obscure / unsuccessful these notes also told you what the songs were supposed to be about. They told you, politely, what to think.

This approach got repeated on several other albums. With "Man Walks into a Pub" there was a temptation to repeat this practice; after all, an album of just voice and guitar, you should surely be able to make out the words, and for anybody whose first language isn't English, I could stick the lyrics up on the website. But notes on songs... these are starting to remind me of that boast of Owen Glendower in Henry IV Part 1 where he says "I can call monsters from the vasty deep" and Hotspur replies "So can I … but will they come?" Telling people what I think the songs are about is a little like calling monsters from the deep: do they actually turn up? That's why there aren't any notes in the album packaging, to let the listener decide for themself first if there are any monsters turning up. Then, if they're interested, they can refer to the backstories, notes and lyrics on the website.

There is a tendency to take an interest in the autobiographical connections between the work and the worker. When I first read Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" I was convinced that Andy must have been writing this very much with a particular coy mistress in mind, and the possibility that it was mere fabrication, an exercise in wit, somehow made it to my teenage mind less valid, a bit of a disappointment; so it was something of a paradoxical revelation to me when I got my breath seriously taken away for good by Shakespeare, who clearly had never been King Lear, or Falstaff, or Titus Andronicus; and the same is true of Jacques Brel, who as far as anyone knows, never contracted VD in a mobile army brothel etc. Nonetheless, it's probably true that no work of creativity entirely escapes the conditions of its production, so to that end the notes may or may not prove interesting if you happen to be passing the time listening to this small collection of songs and associated writings. You can't always rely on writers telling the truth when they present their backstories, either; whether consciously or inadvertently, we all edit our histories both according to how we saw things and how we would like to have things seen.

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ABOUT THE SONGS
(subverting the dominant paradigm once a month)

One of the good things about where I live at the moment is the proximity of several decent public houses. In 2008 my favourite was The Eclipse, an old school street corner facility serving a good range of Harvey's beer, with a public bar for builders, pool, TV football and concomitant industrial strength swearing, and a saloon bar for resident alcoholics and philosophical discourse. I'd noticed the mysterious appearance of A4 photocopy posters advertising a monthly folk club in the upstairs room, but never quite managed to find the relevant Friday night free. After having missed Jez Lowe, I asked Jimmy the cheery barperson how the night went. Jimmy replied that it seemed to have gone rather well, but that the organisers had decided the venue was too far away from the centre of the Brighton universe, so were relocating to another club closer to the centre. Before I fully considered the consequences of volunteering, I said, well, if the pub was interested in being the proud possessor of a folk club, I could probably continue running it.

The pub was, and I did, and continue to do so, despite some difficult months when a change of landlord led to the whole of the pub being swamped by swearing builders, who erupted from the public bar like an aggressive and very lively plague fuelled by Stella engaged in a constant friendly competition to see who could use words that rhymed with “duck” and “punt” the most frequently and at the greatest volume in the shortest space of time. Diamond geezers one and all, and when the landlord insisted that the band play in the saloon bar when we had a folk club “weekender” (so called to avoid using the word “festival” in order to discourage sandal-wearing yoghurt-weaving itinerant hippies) we had a rattling good evening, despite some decidedly dodgy moments. If folk music is going to be worthy of its name, then sometimes it has to haul itself out of the cosy upstairs rooms and rainbow-trousered camping weekends it usually inhabits and go down the mean streets where most of real life spends its Friday nights.

Nonetheless, we lost a lot of audience, and I was finding setting up on the monthly Friday nights a bit of a dispiriting experience, what with dysfunctional toilets and the barmaid constantly telling me there was no Armada Ale on every time I asked for it, because there was no call for it.

Fortunately, in November 2009 Harvey's took the pub back, cleaned it up, mended the toilets and reopened it with a full range of beer, so we all lived happily ever after all.

The point is, however, that running a folk club again, I decided that I would write at least one new song for each monthly session, and this resolution - and deadline and purpose – took over from the poetry just when that particular initiative was grinding to a halt. And probably, I am better at writing songs than poems, perhaps because songwriting for me also involves the guitar, and another consequence of this folk club thing has been me rediscovering how much I love playing the acoustic guitar. When I first started going to folk clubs in the late 70s they were such exciting places to be – you could see acts as diverse as Hot Vultures, Martin Carthy, Shirley Collins, Jo-Ann Kelly, Martin Simpson, John James... and many of them played beautiful stuff on the acoustic guitar. After a while, probably after going to too many Martin Simpson gigs, I gave up trying to play like that, and settled for the post-punk agit-prop three-chord thrashing that seemed better suited to overthrowing Thatcher, apartheid and all the other rampant manifestations of capitalism that the 80s were afflicted with. However, writing for Hove Folk Club has reacquainted me with the possibilities of six strings and a wooden box, and the democratic ethos of a folk club has given me the confidence to write and play things that express my perspective, my position, my... erm... self, regardless of whether or not what I do sounds “as good as” anybody else.

And that's what's great about folk clubs. They are brilliantly democratic, one of the best ways of subverting the dominant cultural paradigm of The Spectacle, which is present in everything from the concept of a Folk Aristocracy to Britain's Got Talent.  Folk clubs put things in a proper perspective; instead of passive consumption, you have a situation that facilitates participation, development, risk-taking. I thought a lot about naming the club something else... “acoustic club” seemed likely only to encourage people using an acoustic guitar as an excuse to warble about how they're a bit unhappy with their relationships, and then sod off without listening to anybody else. “Roots” (particularly without the “f” word) has always suggested a reggae club or either an interest in gardening or an academic consideration of the provenance of certain forms of popular culture. So, although the word “club” sounds a bit excluding, I decided that by calling what we do a folk club - and it is a collective enterprise that depends upon the contributions of everybody who turns up – I would be reclaiming the title on behalf of the revolution of every day life. And I think, by and large, that's what we've done.

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ABOUT THE RECORDINGS AND GUITARS

The songs were recorded over a weekend in March by Ali Gavan at Transmission Studios Hove. I had thought about recording these songs with Roger Watson on melodeon, and John Forrester on double bass, but in the event, partly because of the difficulty of co-ordinating people and partly because I hadn't done a solo album for a long time, and these songs had been written for one man and his guitar, I decided to record them just on my own. I also decided that I'd record the guitar part first, then the vocals, to allow me to concentrate on both parts – previously I'd recorded guitar and vocals together with Ali, and whilst this was good for capturing spirit, it also was good for capturing those bits where – particularly in singing – the spirit  triumphed over technicalities like singing in tune.

I wanted to use both the acoustic guitars that I own that are clearly far too good for the likes of me and my three-chord buffoonery. They are a Brook guitar (named after some river the name of which I can never remember), that was commissioned by me and made for me by the lovable Brook craftpersons in a barn in the middle of nowhere in Devon to mark the auspicious occasion of my 50th birthday. It's beautiful; when it first arrived the soundboard looked almost breathtakingly white, and the back is made of walnut and looks like a pair of lungs. It has a very bright sound, and I planned to use it for the strummed songs. I also wanted to use my venerable Thornbory acoustic, that was made for me by Nigel T in 1979, for the finger-picked tracks. The Thornbory, it's like playing a piano. I even remember Nigel approaching me at the end of a Staines Folk Club night, and informing me it was time that I thought about playing a real guitar, and he'd be willing to build it for me at a reasonable price. At the time I had a handmade maple box of unknown provenance; Nigel was making guitars for Ian A. Anderson and Maggie Holland of Hot Vultures, so I felt myself duly honoured, and unable to refuse. I don't think Nigel, or anyone else for that matter, has ever made a better guitar. Perhaps the only drawback is the very wide fingerboard Nigel built for me in recognition of what a clumsy bastard I am. That was one of the factors that led me to stop playing it in the mid 90s, as I was getting a bit of repetitive strain problems, plus of course it is EXTREMELY LOUD which may also explain why my voice became a bit knackered – by the mid 90s it had had to cope with the demands of teechin, serious bronchitis and years spent trying to sing over an EXTREMELY LOUD piano - and in the Ministry of Humour, there were three of us bashing away on Thornbories on pickets and demos. Nigel built it for me when I was doing a lot of (clumsy) blues and ragtime and jazz-chord fingerpicking. Who would have envisaged in 1979 that this guitar would spend most of its working life banging out three thrashed chords in a principled attempt to overthrow the evils of Thatcherism?

Anyway, all went well with the recordings until I started listening closely afterwards. I noticed that the bottom E string on one of the Thornbory songs was noticeably out of tune. Then I noticed that this was particularly evident on the instrumentals. So I got the Thornbory guitar out of its sticker-festooned Calton case: the intonation was definitely out. I took it along to Guitar Junction in Worthing, where a quick inspection by Mike Watt the Guitar Expert noticed that in fact the whole bridge section was lifting away from the body. So in April I spent another day in the studio re-recording the instrumentals and a couple of tracks that I felt I could do better. I used the Brook because the Thornbory hadn't been mended by then. Hopefully, the Thornbory tracks we used on the album don't noticeably feature a dodgy bottom string... me and Ali don't think so....

Final note for guitar anoraks: apart from one song, the tuning is  the standard Johnson “2 Es dropped to D” tuning.

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ABOUT THE POEMS
(the long dark bus ride of the soul)

The album started with the poems, really, and I started writing them because I couldn't write anything else. At the start of 2008 I found I was up against that black dog of silence, not writing any songs, not able to write any songs. I think writing gets harder the older you get - you don't honestly want to repeat yourself, and in any case there is only a certain amount of variation you can employ with whatever three-chord melodic trick comes naturally to you. Soon you even exhaust the strategies you can employ to outwit these conditions. In addition to this, at the start of 2008 I was saddled with a five-day-a-week day-job, that further crippled the ability to be creative. I had assembled a collection of songs to record with the band; often there is a pause in my writing after an album is assembled, but usually something happens to start me writing again. This time, nothing happened.

So, we were in Paris, and I was feeling pretty desperate, and then in this rambling stationer's in the Place St Michel I find this revolving display stand containing a series of rather self-consciously serious looking notebooks. They present themselves as discreet but authoritative. The accompanying text informs me that they have been used by a variety of eminent writers in the pursuit of their craft. They cost a bit more than the usual school notebooks I was currently using. They reminded me that once I always carried a blank writing book that was more than just an anonymous ringbound collection of lined paper. So I decided to invest in one of these Moleskin books, and discipline myself to filling it with writing, to write something everyday, no matter what, as if ever I am unlucky enough to have to do a songwriting workshop (how can you workshop something as magical and individual and creative as writing? It's not like showing someone how to play the bagpipes) I think the only really useful thing I can say is that writing is like using a muscle, that if you do not exercise this muscle it becomes flabby and useless.

I started writing, usually taking myself off to a café close to midnight, sitting down with the Moleskin, a biro and a Pelforth Brune for company, and then combing these elements into words on a page. Apart from the first poem about the sparrows, which was a lucky start, most of what I wrote wasn't worth letting anybody else read. But it was a start, and some phrases emerged occasionally that fed into subsequent pages that grew and developed towards something later on that turned into a usable idea. However once I got back from Paris and swamped and hammered and dulled by the day-job, it was more and more difficult to write every day, and also to write anything at all without the writing being a repetitive howl of anger and resentment and misery. So I hit upon the idea, the challenge, of writing a poem those days when I took the bus to work, based upon the headlines announced that day for the local paper, the Argus. That explains why some of the poems in the booklet have references to dates and headlines.

After a while, however, maybe it was me not quite escaping the subjective condition of the day-job, or maybe it was just the objective fact of the nature of newspaper headlines, I noticed the poems, like the headlines they were based on, became pretty much another repetitive howl of anger and resentment and misery; and if you think the poems in the booklet are generally somewhat on the bleak side, I have to say that I tried to make as balanced a selection as I could manage. You should see – or perhaps best not – some of the pointless bile and despair I left festering in the Moleskins.

Gradually, I gave up trying to turn the daily catalogue of sorrows that make up local paper headlines into poetry. I tried to play with words a little more for their own sake, and tried writing with a regular rhyme scheme. Even so, I felt that this particular bus ride was coming to a dead end, that again I was exhausting possibilities.

And then, by accident, I started running a folk club again. and things changed, ever so slightly but significantly, for the better.

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NOTES ON SOME OF THE POEMS

I think these should be kept to a minimum, except to say that, looking at the notebooks again, I now find that I started writing on 20/2/08, and it took ten pages of verbiage before - the following day - I managed the first usable poem “Happy as Sparrows” that starts the booklet.

Also, unsurprisingly, “Rats in the Kitchen” is incorrectly dated, that was written in response to a headline in the Argus on 28/2/08 not 09 (that’s why I am reluctant to attempt another song book - it takes forever hunting down the errors and mistakes and typos).

“On Top of the World” gets its title from that great blues song of the same name by the wonderful Mississippi Sheiks, plus - bizarrely – a bit of John Masefield’s “Cargoes” creeps in, I have no idea why except I can still remember it from when I read it in Primary School.

“In Flanders Fields” was actually a song, and owes much of its shape to Annie in Ieper, in whose safe house I was staying in February 2009 when I wrote it. I played it on that little half-term tour of Belgium, and it was that month’s song for the folk club - except I never recorded it, and now can’t remember how the melody went.

Although the last poem in the booklet was written in November 09, and it ends the collection nicely, the last poem written was “Outside St Faith’s” on 24/4/10. Again, it makes a pretty good penultimate statement I think.

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