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Robb Johnson, A Break in the Clouds

Love and Death and Politics (IRR068) -
Robb Johnson & The Irregulars

Released 27th October 2008, Distribution by Proper

Spirit of 45

This is for my father and my father’s generation: in 1945, my dad and his comrades all over Europe were convinced they were going to be building a better place to grow up in. The comparison with New Labour is an inescapable and unedifying one.

Saturday Night in Albion

I was sat outside The Swan Public House one day when I had been accidentally booked for the Cornwall Folk Festival and found this song waiting for me. It started out a bit of a lament, then turned angry. This was partly because I found when I played it in various pubs, it was often the people it seemed to be about who sang along most enthusiastically, so it has become rather more ambivalent, defiant and noisier. Roger plays “Speed The Plough” cheerily under some of the choruses too.

Little Angels

This was an idea that acquired definition when I read that all the women working as prostitutes who were murdered in Ipswich were also working as mums…

The Bigger The Car

Drinking 10 pints of lager and then driving a vehicle at 90 miles an hour is generally recognised as a pretty stupid thing to do. Buying a huge gas-guzzling SUV the size and; price of a small village in Yorkshire is apparently perfectly acceptable. The problem is also compounded by the fact that the sad over-stuffed wallets who sit behind the wheels of these monstrosities are also usually really crap drivers as well.

Hard Money

My friend Christian got me this solo gig in the RussellPub in Sangerhausen. I was supposed to play from 9pm to 1am. It will be, he explained tactfully, something of a “hard money” gig. A good title for a song, I thought. Sangerhausen itself used to be a working mining town when it was in the DDR. When the wall came down, the mines closed down, and so did Sangerhausen.

Soweto

So… with all this freedom we keep hearing our leaders talk about, how come the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor, then? Attila does some great township viola on this track.

The Great West Road

The road in question was probably the Portland Road, but The Great West Road, that highway of light industry leading the thirties out of the depression and into suburbia, where I grew up and spent most of my life, gives it a bit more resonance, I think. Superb guest vocals from Marina. We met her through Ali the engineer, who quietly contributes a great deal to the business of getting this album to sound as good as it does.

The Prince & Pt Gentle

Pt Gentle was killed in Iraq. He volunteered to ride in a vehicle that wasn’t adequately protected because he wanted to be with and look after his mates. The vehicle was attacked and Pt Gentle died. I’ve had the privilege of meeting his mum, Rosie Gentle; she wants to have a word with Tony Blair about this, about why her 19 year old son is dead. Prince Harry, on the other hand, came back safe and sound, with an immense amount of press coverage. Unlike people like Rosie, the media doesn’t seem to want to ask anymore what these young men were doing so very far from home in someone else’s country in the first place, and why.

We recorded the bells in Geutteville Les Gres in Normandy when we had our first go at recording these songs. Chumbawamba - of course - cheekily suggested I ought to include the “back in Chelsea” reference.

Postcard from Blackpool

My friend Carmen was dying with bad cancer; I used to text her every day and tell her what I thought the sea looked like that day. My old skool friend Alan was having his 50th birthday somewhere just north of New York where he now lives and writes the occasional murder mystery, and his wife Mary asked friends to write something for him on to mark this occasion. Meanwhile, I had a gig at the Punk “Wasted” festival in Blackpool… Someone - fully mohicanned - did indeed sing “Anarchy in the UK” at the karaoke night in the Winston Churchill. The song is immeasurably enlivened by the presence of the Duke of Ellington Community Choir.

Even Steve McQueen

I was trudging from the station to the Bell in Bath for a lunchtime gig one wet Sunday in late winter when the handle came off on my resonator’s guitar case. The only thing I could think of to fix it with was gaffer tape. I noticed that my venerable plastic fake motor-cycle jacket was also held together by gaffer tape too, which I replenish every autumn. It seemed a fruitful and instructive metaphor, although not a lot rhymes with gaffer tape, except perhaps the word escape. I have always thought it ironic that England Football fans love the theme tune from the film “The Great Escape” - it’s a deliberately revisionist pro American version of events, where the Brits are all class-bound duffers, most of whom get shot, and the film’s most memorable character, Steve McQueen’s iconic and very American Hiltz, both doesn’t escape either and never existed anyway.

Play the MP3 of "Even Steve McQueen" (for Danny Cullen, 18/12/69 - 24/10/07)

I am not at War

I was noticing a tendency in the media to refer to soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan as having “fallen”. This is a neat way of further avoiding discussion about the war by conscripting the rhetoric of duty and sacrifice that has been used historically in times of war to justify not answering awkward questions and to mask the reality and mechanics of people getting killed. This is doubly dishonest at present, as we haven’t actually officially declared war on anybody recently.

The Tail End of the Miracle

This started out because I was trying to work out how to play Springsteen’s “Radio Nowhere”. Quite chuffed that after lots of years of attempting to play the guitar, I have now almost managed a Chuck Berry riff somewhere in the middle.

Two Left Feet

Probably wrote most of this driving over Devils Dyke listening to Iggy Pop everyday to go to work in Horsham. I always loved the WW1 song “Fred Karno’s Army”, and when I said I thought we could start this song with it, it turned out Roger knew a different version. It’s the version his grandfather sang, and that’s why he sings it. We recorded him singing this outside in the garden in Geutteville Les Gres. I really like the way the song ends up going out on just one chord.

Cheers

This is quite an old song that never seemed to want to get recorded. I think I may well have started it in a Youngs pub in Barnes, looking at the bottles on the shelves winking and glinting in the yellow electric light. It would have lapsed from the set but for John’s fondness for it. We tried recording it in Normandy, and it was really not very successful at all. Then at the end of recording this album, Charlie sort of steered us towards having another go at it, and fuelled by his magnificent drumming, it all tumbled into place. The Community Choir make a brief re-appearance, and assist in making this a rather surprising yet on the whole convincingly life-affirming way to end the album. We were going to fade it till Charlie, at the mastering stage, noticed my spoken cheery valedictory comment.

Buy "Love & Death & Politics" from Amazon.co.uk for £9.99 with free postage!

Deryck

Most of the guitar noise made on “Love & Death & Politics” is made by Deryck. Deryck is a black Squier Signature series Telecaster Deluxe modelled on the Telecaster Deluxe played by Sum 41’s Deryck Whibley. You can get white ones too, but I expect they don’t sound nearly so good. For the last ten years, my main electric guitar has been a very beautiful Manson Tele. I really like Telecasters. Before I got the Manson - for my 40th Birthday - I was using two black Squier Teles, that were cheap, cheerful and utterly punk rock. I have never liked Strats (Hendrix would probably have sounded just the same playing a broom, but Strats generally remind me of Eric Clapton) and have only ever been able to afford a Les Paul once. It was - of course - black, and brilliant, and sounded like a rhino being buggered.

Generally though, I’ve found Teles both more versatile and cheaper.

It was only because of one of the many cock-ups that characterised the first attempt at recording this album that I decided I maybe needed something other than the clang of a Tele bridge pick-up. We’d somehow managed to use the wrong version of “Saturday Night in Albion“ (where the guitar went out of tune) as the basis for all the subsequent overdubs. We tried to repair the damage at Transmission Studios in Hove, and as I had left the Manson at home and we were running out of time, again, I borrowed Ali’s Gibson SG. This was clearly a guitar that when you hit it, it stayed hit, and reminded me why - years ago - I’d opted to spend every penny I could scrape together on a Les Paul, because being in a three-piece and not being at all a fast riffing guitar hero sort of a guitarist, I wanted something that if you bashed it, it kept on going till you got your fingers round the next chord.

It was about then that I wound up in Winchester for Liz and Karl’s wedding, unusually early, and coincidentally also having decided that the album we had recorded so far was beyond saving, as was the big band line-up that had recorded it. With time to kill, I wandered into the Winchester guitar shop, proudly wearing my Sum 41 T shirt. Have to say I really like Sum 41, particularly much of the Underclass Hero album, and I’d enjoyed being probably the oldest bloke in the room when they’d played Southampton recently. They are a bit obvious in some respects, but — but that’s another discussion altogether. Anyway, there on the wall, as if hung there by the very hand of Destiny itself, was a white Deryck. I had a bit of a play on it, admiring the very noisy one Seymour Duncanny pick-up, and found myself looking for an excuse not to buy it. The colour was an obvious help in this respect. “Yeah, nice, but... don’t suppose you have one in black?” I said, hoping the answer would be no. No, said the bloke in the shop, but he was pretty certain they did used to make them in black too…

That was it. I actually trawled the internet for Derycks, and sure enough, he WAS available in black, and what’s more, if you went to this shop in Blackburn, black Derycks were almost unquestionably affordable. I’d never bought a guitar on the internet before. For several weeks I resisted, but late at night, I’d furtively visit the site, just to see if he was still there.

He was.

I confessed my guilty fascination to Forrester. He suggested several sites where people - primarily from the United States it turns out - put on anoraks, or the US equivalent thereof - and tell the world all about the various guitars they own and bands they play in. Perhaps I might get some guidance there? Well, there was indeed a section devoted to Deryck, but this consisted almost entirely of American gear-snobs bragging about what expensive other guitars they owned, how crap Derycks are, and how crap Sum 41 are too. I was a bit bemused that so many people could write so much and so venomously about something they obviously really didn’t like at all. One wonders if they only bought Derycks for the chance to be rude about them on the internet. There were only a couple of dissenting voices. Someone said he’s read any profits from the sale of Derycks went to the charity Canadian War Child, and someone else said that a good guitar player can make the crappest guitar sound ok.

Of course, eventually I gave in, and Deryck duly arrived, by post, in an attractively battered brown cardboard box. The intonation and action needed a bit of a tweak, but a couple of relevant allen keys came with him, so that wasn’t a problem.

And he’s great fun. He’s got one pick up and so yes, like all Teles, pretty much only one sound (I’ve never worked out what the neck pick up’s for on a Tele anyway) but if that’s pretty much the sound you want then why worry? There are some cheap cheerful aspects to it - the jack socket is a bit of a bucket, and the jackplug falls out regularly, but then everybody puts their faith in gaffer tape. I love the Deluxe idiosyncrasy, sticking a Strat headstock for the hell of it onto the classic Tele shape, the fact it’s black with a weird couple of red crosses on it, the fact that Deryck himself is banging away on exactly the same Deryck as I’ve got in the video of “Underclass Hero”…

And I love the fact that when you bash it, it keeps going till you get your fingers around the next chord.