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Robb Johnson, A Break in the Clouds

Us & Them

IRR091: Us & Them

TRACK LIST

  1. Know Your Place
  2. Who Was That Man?
  3. Banks of England
  4. Terry French
  5. When I Bring You Roses
  6. The Last Good War
  7. The Losing Side
  8. Goodnight & Goodbye
  9. The Spawn of Tony Blair
  10. St Gove's Academy
  11. Barefoot in January
  12. Bob Crow
  13. That's Just Your Cigarette
  14. Win Lose or Draw
  15. Win Lose or Draw Reprise
  16. Sunny Afternoon in Ilmenau

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ABOUT THE ALBUM

"Us & Them" was at one time going to be called "Some More Recent Protest Songs", referencing my 2011 album, but that seemed a bit obvious and quite frankly a bit dull. and anyway, surely the point has already been made that songs that the media try to dismiss and sneer at with the term "protest song", songs engaging with the reality of contemporary society, are indeed alive and well and living in England. So here's another collection of songs alive and well and living in England, firmly engaged with the realities of contemporary society... getting up in the morning and getting on with it, shopping centres, food banks, yuppified pubs, the centenary of the outbreak of the disaster that was supposed to be the war to end all wars, the disaster that is supposed to be the Minister for Education Michael Gove, drunks and railway stations, Boris Johnson and UKIP, Terry French and the Miners Strike, and a celebration of the life of Bob Crow.

The songs have mostly been written over the last few years. Originally I was going to record them just with acoustic guitar accompaniment, but then I thought it might be good to pay a little more attention to the recording process, and the consequent listening experience. My dear friend Alan Levermore, who until he recently retired was also lumbered with the onerous task of being the Irregular Records label manager at Proper Records, used to say during our regular business meetings at the Wetherspoons in Victoria Station that he found more and more he was listening to recordings of solo voice or voice and guitar (when he wasn't listening to Bob Dylan, of course). I wasn't sure that my voice and guitar were that interesting, but I wanted somehow to replicate the kind of directness and passion those sort of recordings were animated by. How would Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie have done this sort of thing? How could I get that kind of energy into a record?

And In the end I decided to have my son Arv generate some excitement by playing cajon on certain tracks - Arv is just such a great musician he immediately raises the quality of any musical enterprise - and to decorate some of the songs with some strategic overdubbing of harmonica, voice, bass and dobro. But the most important point was to record the body of the song live, with me singing, playing the guitar and Arv tonking along on cajon as appropriate.  So i didn't want to close-mike the guitar and voice, or record the guitar first and then record as perfect a vocal as I could manage. I asked Ali the engineer to stick a mike up in the middle of the room, and record me and Arv playing and me singing. In the end, Ali used three mikes, one in the middle, one behind the cajon, and one sort of off to the left a bit. And having got the levels, off we went. Most of the songs are first takes, and when i added the harmonica, bass and dobro and backing vocal, i sat in the same place so you get the same sense of space.

I'm really pleased with the way it's been recorded - I think it manages to capture what I really sound like, on a good night, obviously, but generally it sounds like I sound when I play and sing live. and for good measure, there are extracts from speeches by Liz French from the Kent Miners, and Bob Crow himself, recorded at the Sussex Labour Representation Committee commemoration of the 30th Anniversary of the Miners Strike, just a few days before Bob Crow died. and both Bob and Liz were inspirational, so I am really honoured to have their voices on this album. I am also very grateful to all the people who sent photos of "us" for the cover. I won't namecheck everybody, but would like to say I am particularly pleased to have my friends Pete Crook, Mick Appleton, and Roy Chuter and Kitty there, and the students demonstrating against Hove Park being turned into an Academy on the cover, along with the English Disco League, and John Forrester's great uncle Ozzy, just before he was killed on the Western Front.

So - here are the songs, and a few bits of backstory. As always, this is just what I think they are about; probably more important is what you think they’re saying.

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ABOUT THE SONGS

1: Know Your Place

Well, I always think it’s pretty significant that in 1945 we voted Churchill out and the Welfare State in. Obviously since then, Right Wing revisionists have been trying to persuade us this was a mistake. It wasn’t.

2: Who Was That Man?

There have always been disasters in history, and most of them have probably had some unqualified, ignorant and spiteful little man involved in making clearly the wrong decision. I wrote this song in 2013, when my union, the NUT, was taking strike action against the legislation being imposed on our children and our schools by the ex-Murdoch media hack whose only qualification for the role of minister in charge of education seems to be that he didn’t do particularly well at school and has hated teachers ever since.

3: Banks of England

I wrote this at the start of 2013, when The Bandana Collective (where me and Arv play bass and drums) were doing a benefit for Fareshare, our local foodbank. I am still angry that in Britain (what is the statistic - the seventh richest nation on the planet?) we have food banks for people who cannot otherwise feed themselves and their families, and nobody in Parliament or the media seems to find this absolutely shameful.

4: Terry French

This is a true story. I got the details from Mike, the Sussex IWW organiser, in 2011, and wrote the song. It never seemed to fit on any album though. Terry was such an inspirational organising figure in the Kent Miners during the 84-85 strike, and so was Liz, his wife. I met Liz briefly at the Deal Miners’ Welfare during the Seafarers’ Strike in 1987, and yes, they ended the evening with everybody singing “The Internationale”, and it was just brilliant. I wrote to Amnesty asking them to consider Terry a political prisoner. They refused. When I wrote the song, I looked for traces of Terry on the internet, all I could find was an image of a badge with him and his tartan cap on. And then in 2014 I met Liz again in Brighton at the commemoration of the strike. I asked her if it was OK to sing this song. She not only said yes, but told me lots more stories about their lives. One day, I think she’s going to write a book. Meanwhile, this song remembers Terry French.

5: When I Bring You Roses

A love song, of sorts. With so much crap and insincerity about, when I bring you roses, those roses will be red. I wrote it in Ilmenau, Easter 2014, tried a much longer version out once at a gig in Arnstadt, and then slimmed it down and added a slide guitar part and this recording is probably the second time I played it all the way through.

6: The Last Good War

This is another song that didn’t seem to fit anywhere. I wrote it in Normandy in 2012. I always had the impression that the British had cynically thrown ordinary Canadian soldiers at Dieppe in 1942 like they were Churchill’s beloved commandos (defined by Winston as “specially trained troops of the hunter class, who can develop a reign of terror first of all on the butcher-and-bolt policy”) in the way that they used the Australians and New Zealanders at Ypres and the Polish Division at Monte Cassino - suicidal assaults being given to units that didn’t have any voting rights for British governments. I invented the first person narrator of this song, but the details come from “Dieppe”, a book about Operation Jubilee by Tim Saunders,.

7: The Losing Side

Easter 2014 I was heading for Thüringen, and taking with me copies of the ne w recording of Gentle Men. I wondered how relevant that might be for a German audience: I had read that there wasn’t the same idiotic jingoistic governmental urge to “celebrate” the centenary of the outbreak of the war to end all wars. I thought about the German cemetery at Langemark, near Ypres, how that has a sorrow that is different to the pomp and circumstance that characterises the British cemeteries. And indeed, when I played the song in Germany, I only found one person who knew of Langemark.

8: Goodnight and Goodbye

This is really for my dad, but I miss him so much I really don’t think I can write a song directly about about him. So – so anyway, I wrote this when my dad was not coming out of hospital again. I was angry to read that some right wing lawyer in Madrid was trying to get the monument to the International Brigades taken down in Madrid University, and I recalled how La Pasionaria had told the Brigades as they were evacuated from Madrid “You are history. You are legend”, and then I thought of the heroism of the PLO fighters, and their evacuation from Beirut in 1982. So partly it’s a song about how we are defeated by time, and our achievements forgotten. My dad would be furious at the way the Welfare State his generation built is being so brutally and heartlessly dismantled. But in July, I was also at the Tolpuddle festival, where you find, despite those defeats, the children of those events are supremely undefeated by them. Goodnight and goodbye... no pasaran.

9: The Spawn of Tony Blair

I would add to the vast list of crimes you could lay at Blair’s door, the creation of the selfishly affluent cool Britannians who feature in this true story of me, Arv and Graham Larkbey deciding not to have a much-needed drink in the Hove gastropub that used to be The Jamaica Inn.

10: St Gove’s Academy

You don’t really need to write a song satirising Gove’s pathetic misunderstanding of education, you just have to list his utterances and declarations and the song writes itself. The bit about the Headmaster going first class is also sadly a true story (the kids, needless to say, went second class). And the PTS qualification is of course Post Traumatic Stress.

11: Barefoot in January

Even more sadly, another true story. January 2014, it never stopped raining. I was down the Portland Road, going to the ATM; it was gone 8pm, dark, wet and bitterly cold. This battered car parks, and this battered family gets out. Dad opens the boot and hauls a couple of black bin-liners out. When I come back from the ATM, the kid, maybe nine years old, white polo shirt and grey trousers both too small for him, bareheaded and barefoot in the rain, is running down the street, on his toes, pulling the family suitcase behind him, to a doorway that leads to one of the flats above one of the shops. We go to Windsor, and there, in shop doorways along the road that leads up round the castle wall, there are people begging. Again, I wonder why no-one in Parliament or in the media seems in any way outraged by these sort of sights.

12: Bob Crow

When Bob died, someone commented that someone should write a song about Bob. Yeah, I thought, that’s what folk songs are supposed to do, write songs about the people’s heroes. But I sort of thought Bob wouldn’t think of himself as a hero, and I knew from Tolpuddle of his fondness for having the RMT brass band play loudly whenever they felt like it regardless of whatever else was going on, so I decided to start the song off the way I did. Some of the details I checked by reading my friend Guy Smallman’s obituary of Bob too. And every time I have heard Bob speak, I have felt inspired and energised, and that last time, just before he died, he was ... magnificent. Thanks Bob, maximum respect.

Of course, there won’t be another Bob Crow, just like there wasn’t another Alice Wheeldon, another Tom Mann, another Terry French. But as Bob Crow carried on their work, someone will surely carry on his work too.

And then later that week, Tony Benn died, and maybe it would just be too much, I thought, to write another song, so soon, for the loss of someone else so inspirational. So I am now playing “Winter Turns to Spring” a lot, as this was apparently Tony Benn’s favourite song. And on the cover, there’s a lovely photo of Arv and Tony Benn, taken at last year’s Tolpuddle. Arv said Tony spoke so nicely to him.

13: That’s Just Your Cigarette

Nearly a true story - well, the first and last verses, anyway. I was waiting for a train to Erfurt on a deserted Arnstadt railway station, listening to Springsteen’s “Wrecking Ball” on my phone (very unusual, me using technology!). Lo and behold, first the middle-aged drunk totters into sight - luckily he slumps down with his beer bottles on the seat behind me. Two minutes later, the teenage drunk turns up; he’s got a beer bottle in one hand and a small bottle of something extremely green in the other. He decides to sit next to me and engage me in conversation. There’s quite a bit of fascist graffiti on the wall across the tracks. It’s all been overpainted, but nonetheless... Anyway, when at last I get to Erfurt, I do indeed see this punkette festooned with Antifa patches stop and give this old grandad begging all the change she’s got. At first the song turned out a bit too dark, despite the cheery end, so I thought it might work better if it was a bit funnier, so I rewrote the two middle verses as comedy rather than tragedy. Ironically though, next time I was in Erfurt, having a beer in the Billy Brandt Cafe (that’s where the West German Chancellor made a significant appearance in East Germany in the bad old good old days), I look up and outside the same punkette, plastic binliner of belongings at her feet, is asking passers-by for money. I wonder if I should tell her she’s in a song, but by the time I finish my beer, presumably she’s got the bus fare to wherever and she’s gone.

14: Win, Lose or Draw

Charlie Waygood, Irregulars drummer and diamond geezer, said when the Condems got power (like the Nazis, you could hardly call it elected) in 2010, what people needed was A Song - so I wrote this, and we recorded it with the band, and it’s probably the last studio recording of our dear mate Roger Watson, the Jimi Hendrix of the melodeon. But it never featured on an album, although as time went on, it seemed to become more popular, not less, and there’s a brilliant version of it from Swaffham Festival last year somewhere on YouTube. So this album seemed like the right place for it.

15: Win, Lose or Draw Reprise

Liz French and Bob Crow - unbeaten.

16: Sunny Afternoon in Ilmenau

The bonus track. Well, it originally appeared in a rather ramshackle form if I am honest on the album “All That Way For This”, and I sort of soon stopped playing it, really, except when it gets asked for by friends in places like the Grosvenor in Stockwell, and apart from when I am in Ilmenau, or thereabouts, where it proves particularly popular. It’s one of a series of songs that I seem to have written about places that - unlike Memphis, New York, San Francisco, Chicago (it’s so much easier being an American songwriter - you have all that geography on your side already) - popular music usually avoids (Basingstoke, for example - and blimey, I just realise I have three songs that mention Slough!). Anyway, played it to good effect again in Thüringen this Easter, and comrades from Die Linke standing for election in Ilmenau thought it would make a really good election campaign song, so they asked me for a copy. As the album version is to me a bit ... ramshackle, I decided to record an acoustic version at the end of recording the songs for this album. It seemed a shame to just send it off to Ilmenau so I thought: “Let’s stick it on the album as well”. It sort of fits in with the general theme, and it’s good way to go out, with a cheery acoustic three-chords knees-up and singalonga chorus. Pretty much sums up my - ahem - musical career really, too.

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