From the euro to the pound

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From the euro to the pound, it’s debt that makes the wheels go ’round.

If my inbox bulged a little with enquiries as to where my Brexit song was, I can only imagine what Billy Bragg’s looked like as he headed out on the Shine A Light tour with Joe Henry. We know his answer now, it’s Full English Brexit, addressing not his own feelings about the outcome of the EU referendum but attempting to deal with the increasing polarisation of British society that the result has brought. In his own words:

 

“Brexit and Trump are manifestations of the failure to build a society that works for everyone. Both offer answers, but only to their own supporters. I believe that if we are to overcome the mistrust and disdain that has divided us, to take the first steps towards building that inclusive society that reflects both the traditions and diversity of our country, we need to have some understanding about where our opponents are coming from.

My new song “Full English Brexit” was written in that spirit.”

And that’s the thing. I have no intention of re-hashing the longest essay that I ever wrote on social media, my reasons for voting how I did, or your reasons for voting how you did, but the polls suggest that we’re becoming entrenched, people’s opinions are unchanged and unchanging, and how do we progress as a society when the 48% are writing the 52% off as racists and the 52% are complaining that the 48% are just bad losers? So I’m with Billy here, our response as artists needs to be about building bridges and understanding, and re-discovering our common cause.

To be honest, the whole of the next album was written in the shadow of Brexit. That is to say the shadow of the outcome of the referendum, not the shadow of leaving the EU, which we haven’t even done yet, and it’s presence is felt obliquely in several of the new songs. To deal with what I wanted to deal with meant more of a departure for my songwriting though. The funny-but-true lampooning of people with power, staying true to the axiom of always punching up, wasn’t going to work here.

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“Welcome to postcapitalism”

Writing characters happened almost accidentally. Having written a verse and most of a chorus sketching out her life (inspired in part by something that Paul Mason says in PostCapitalism about how “a single mum on benefits, forced into the world of payday loans and buying household goods on credit, can be generating a much higher profit rate for capital than an auto industry worker with a steady job”), I spent a sleepless night wondering where the father of her children had got to. Getting up with the second verse already written in my head, I got it down on paper and thought about where I wanted to go next.

 

My intention was to make some more general points about debt and the EU which made Greece the obvious setting, but the characters weren’t letting go, and the third verse became her memories of a family holiday in better times. The fourth wrote itself moments later and wrapped up the tale, such as it is, in one line.

They don’t have names yet, this couple. I don’t know if they ever will, but I do know a great deal about them: their looks, attitudes, character, and some of their past. I feel as though I’ve got to know them as they’ve written themselves, with a little help from me.

I have no tune to share with you at the moment. There is one, but I’ll let The Protest Family work their magic on it before setting it free. I can, however, let you have a read of the lyrics:

She drops her eldest at school
Old enough to remember when her dad still lived at home
Sticks the younger in her buggy
In no kind of hurry as she wheels her into town
Looking for another payday loan
A bit of credit for her phone
Looking for a stay of execution
While she finds a solution
For the payments on the washing machine
Before the money’s all gone

But she’s the engine of the economy
She’s the grease in the machine
Every fiver that she borrows
Is a tenner on a banker’s screen
Forget about productivity
In a greed-based society
From the euro to the pound
It’s debt that makes the wheels go round

It was a decent enough job
Until redundancy came his and his mates way
It’s easy to blame the migrant worker
When you’re called a shirker by the paper that you buy every day
Looking for someone else to blame
Drinking away his pain
But when the words won’t come
But the punches will
It’s the ones you love
Who are standing in the way

Now he’s the engine of the economy
He’s the grease in the machine
Every fiver that he borrows
Is a tenner on a banker’s screen
Forget about productivity
In a greed-based society
From the euro to the pound
It’s debt that makes the wheels go round

There was that holiday in Greece
They had a bit of money for a place in the sun, if only for two weeks
They were better times
She wonders about the people that they met in foreign climes
Looking for some happy memories
But the pictures on the TV
Say they’re struggling
And just as broken
As she feels on days
On days like these

They’re the engine of the economy
They’re the grease in the machine
Every fiver that they borrow
Is a tenner on a banker’s screen
Forget about productivity
In a greed-based society
From the euro to the pound
It’s debt that makes the wheels go round

There was that holiday in Greece
He had a bit of money to take the family to the beach
They were happy times
And the people that they met all seemed fine
Looking for the reason it all changed
Still looking for someone to blame
In all the wrong places
In all the wrong faces
And wondering
Is she still the same?

They’re the engine of the economy
They’re the grease in the machine
Every fiver that they borrow
Is a tenner on a banker’s screen
Forget about productivity
In a greed-based society
From the euro to the pound
It’s debt that makes the wheels go round

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The Crematorium and Other Stories

Crikey, no-one’s posted on here in months!

In fact, the last post was a Tolpuddle preview.

I think it’s fair to say, looking back on it now that we had an amazing Tolpuddle performing as Maddy Carty & The Protest Family and as Workers Playtime, plus the almost-part-of-the-Tolpuddle furniture Unplugged session, and obligatory selfies with Jeremy Corbyn. I was going to write something about Tolpuddle Unplugged. In fact I still might, but suffice to say that every year I worry that it’s going to be a disaster, and every year it’s the opposite. I might have even figured out how it works, or at least I think so. The premise is ridiculous: Run a stage at a small but popular festival with no budget, no acts or amplification. Where do you start? Well, give it to a couple of chancers from an East London folk/punk band who’s main talent appears to be making friends, and chuck them into a field full of like-minded people who’ve stepped out of the struggle for the weekend to enjoy each other’s company while imagining a better, fairer world. It seems to work somehow.

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Tolpuddle Unplugged: I think I know which side they’re all on.

The band has, though, been quiet since the summer, some of it planned and some unplanned. In a fallow year for Protest Family albums, you may have expected a solo effort from me, along the lines of somethingweirdgoingoninmyhead or Check Your Stereo. Well, the new songs are coming, a bit slower maybe, but there’s some work on it’s way that I’m already quite proud of, even before the rest of the band get their mucky paws on it and work their magic. You might have got some titbits from social media when I’ve got impatient and stuck myself in front of a live camera, or on YouTube where I’ve parked some sketches of songs where they’re easy for Doug, Lol and Russ to find, or if you’ve caught me giving some songs a run-out on my solo travels.

The Crematorium is of course the most immediately pressing message to get out there, but the song’s not going to go away, anymore than the Justice4Grenfell campaign will. We did knock up a terrific version of it for Tolpuddle with Robb Johnson on lead guitar and Maddy Carty’s amazing backing vocals, but the regular Protest Family line-up’s version is yet to be unveiled. Expect to hear it on November 14th at Ye Olde Rose & Crown as we raise money for striking workers at Whipps Cross Hospital.

Although The Death of Facts has been around since I played it at Punk 4 The Homeless in Nottingham last year, it’s not on the band’s radar yet, but I think it will be eventually. What is coming up soon (see above for when soon is) are Protest Family versions of Supersonic (using supersonic passenger flight to demonstrate that progress isn’t linear) and Han Solo (using the films of Harrison Ford to talk about consent. A chat that the actual Harrison Ford could’ve done with, by all accounts).

There’s enough love out there for If The Queen Had a Hammer that I think there will be a band version of it and, although I’m yet to share it with them, I think there’s a future for my song about Frank Turner (cheekily titled Thatcher Fucked The Kids) too. However my Blue Labour anthem Flag, Faith, Family & Fried Chicken may well fall by the wayside. It’s funny, true (look them up) and in the Protest Family style, but I think I’m tiring of it before it’s crossed the finish line. Maybe a new arrangement will give it a new lease of life. We’ll see.

Also queuing up to hit your ears is a Steve White/Russ Chandler collaboration called Winter of Discontent. Featuring Shakespeare’s Richard III re-cast as a trade union leader in the dying months of the Callaghan government, it’s the first time that I’ve put anything out there in iambic pentameter. The song will feature on a winter-themed compilation with a worldwide distribution deal* very soon. I’ll point you in the right direction when it comes out.

So, there’s songs, there’s big ideas, but maybe a lack of a vehicle to get them to you. Yes, gigs are a little thin on the ground but we do have a cunning plan or two, so (WATCH THIS SPACE).

Steve

 

*Everybody with an internet connection and an upload button’s got one.

Maddy Carty & The Protest Family

We first met Maddy Carty about two years ago.  We were both playing for the Show Culture Some Love campaign.  The Family were struck by her remarkable, strong yet vulnerable voice and sophisticated modern soul-based songs.  We immediately suggested her to play at the Matchwomen’s Festival a few months later.

During a rehearsal (yes, we do rehearse), we were trying Right To Strike (from Drums Ruin Everything).  It didn’t sound quite right.  Someone suggested that it might sound good with a female voice doing harmony, like… Maddy Carty.  We warmed to the idea that she might play keyboards on it too.  A few days later, she agreed.  More than that, she really wanted to perform Have I Got News For You with us.  By the time we met up, she was playing on four songs.  She joined us on stage at the Matchwomen’s Festival in July – and it was fun.  We did it again at the Leytonstone Festival the following week. A couple of months later, Steve and Maddy did a couple of songs together in central London.

Madd y and Steve Paul Rutland mod
Steve and Maddy  (Pic: Paul Rutland)

Meanwhile, a new movement had been brewing.  It was We Shall Overcome: hundreds of gigs across the country on the same weekend, protesting against austerity, and raising money and collecting food for those hardest hit by it.  We wanted to do something special for that – but what?  Well, who else would we call?  So in October, Maddy Protest joined us for our entire set at the Rose & Crown for Walthamstow Folk’s contribution to the weekend.  It was a great night with an enthusiastic crowd, but…

Discussing it afterwards, we felt that something was a bit off.  Was it Doug’s socks?  No, not this time.  It boiled down to this: we had used Maddy as a piano player and a backing vocalist.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  She’s fine as a piano player.  She’s fine as a backing vocalist.  But she’s got so much more.  She was easily the best singer present on stage that night (sorry, Doug), but her terrific voice was always in the background.  Also, she’s a very strong songwriter, but we played none of her songs at all.  She was happy to play that night, but on reflection it seemed to us to be a bit of an insult to her talents.

Fast forward to 2016.  We had a better idea: how about having Maddy join us properly for a one-off gig?  This time, she could back us on some of our songs – and we would back her on some of hers.  But she let us down badly, pointing out that she was getting married on the day that we’d planned for the performance. How selfish can you get?

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Marriage: selfish

Now it’s 2017 (check your phone if you don’t believe me) and we’ve forgiven her for that snub.  It’s finally going to happen.  On Sunday 16th July at the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival in Dorset, Maddy Carty & The Protest Family will take to the stage.  It’s going to be different.  Come and join us.

Lol

(Main pic: Thee Faction)

That Round-Up That They Do Every Year

routenoteCrikey, what a year: Brexit, Trump, Corbyn and the coups, Syria, the destruction of The Jungle, Theresa May. If you’re a political band of any description you’d better be able to say that you know a song about some of that, and yes we do.

Like it’s predecessor, Protest For Dummies was two years in the making but hopefully it sounds like it might all have been written yesterday, opening as it does with a song about the royal family just as the government announced nearly £400 million pounds worth of public money heading towards repairs to Buckingham Palace. No space or resources for refugees, but millions of pounds to spend on all those empty rooms? Yeah, we might’ve mentioned that.

As political commentators talk up our post-truth, fake news existence and the world experiences an alarming rise in right-wing populism, there’s work to do for the likes of the Protest Family. If the facts don’t matter any more how do you challenge popular opinion or widely held beliefs? Well maybe if you can make the facts rhyme, dress them up with a chorus and mandolins and stuff, then maybe, just maybe people will be humming the truth on their way to work before they realise they’re supposed to have a post-fact reaction to the news.

The hard bit as ever is to get your work into the hands and ears of a wider audience and not just the folk who already share your point of view, hence our decision this time round to distribute the album more widely online, including on Amazon and iTunes. I’ve always avoided the big players before, didn’t want the purity of our art tainted by doing business with them and I’d have felt a bit of a hypocrite doing so, but I’ve been convinced (by the others mainly) that it’s part of reaching as many people as we can, and maybe placing songs about tax justice on an arch tax-dodger’s website is exactly the kind of subversive act that we should be engaged in. Mind you, the bonus track is only on the CD or on downloads from the band’s Bandcamp page, so there’s still a little reward for taking your ethics record shopping with you.

Obviously there’s nothing new about challenging the world we live in through song, as I was reminded listening to Tom Robinson sing Power In The Darkness at the Reminiscences of Rock Against Racism  book launch at Conway Hall in December. It was an extraordinarily powerful song then and it remains so now. Roger Huddle and Red Saunders’ book tells an extraordinary tale too, through the stories of some of the people that were there, including Tom of course. Did I mention that he borrowed my guitar?

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And only one cover version all year.

But never mind Tom (unless you want to drop him a line about listening to Protest For Dummies), what did we do in 2016? Well 46% of our gigs last year were outside the M25 and only 15% were in Waltham Forest (and they were less than a month apart). 15% of last year’s shows were in Hertfordshire and another 15% were in Derbyshire. Nearly 8% featured Jeremy Corbyn on the supporting line-up, but none of those were in Waltham Forest, Hertfordshire or Derbyshire. 15% of appearances were at Labour clubs and 23% were at festivals. (How I’ve got this far without a Venn diagram, I don’t know). 23% were in July and 15% in venues beginning with C….oh, enough.

Anyway, we had a nice time and hopefully made the world a better place by a percentage point or at least a bit of one.

2017? Who knows? It looks like there’s some strike benefits on the horizon and that’s no surprise. There is a surprise planned for July, but more of that later, and otherwise? Well as one reviewer put it, we’re alive and kicking, and definitely kicking.

Happy New Year!

Steve

Rocking against racism

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In 1976, in the middle of a rise in moronic nationalism and outright racism led by the National Front, Eric Clapton delivered a horrific, racist rant on stage in Birmingham. Walthamstow lad Roger Huddle and three pals wrote to the NME in disgust. They did far more than that, though – with the same letter, they launched Rock Against Racism.

Within a couple of years it had grown from a few pub gigs to huge events across the country. In 1978, there was a crowd of over 80,000 to see The Clash, Steel Pulse, X-Ray Spex, The Ruts, Sham 69, Generation X and the Tom Robinson Band at Victoria Park in Hackney, east London. The crucial point was that vulnerable young people could see their heroes backing anti-racism – this was a serious youth culture response to the boneheads. The National Front shrank and splintered.

Roger Huddle and fellow founder Red Saunders have edited a book about Rock Against Racism to be published on 5th December. It’s not simply their view of what happened, but a mix of memories and ideas from a range of people, famous, little known and maybe even infamous.

Memories of the past?  Yes, but here’s the thing: the same ‘blame the wrong people’ ideas are growing today. They’re in small groups of nationalist knuckle-draggers, of course, but now… well, they’re lurking in UKIP. They’re lurking in speeches by the Conservative Prime Minister. They’re given airtime via a French fascist leader on a prestigious BBC political interview programme. And, as if we could forget, racism was a key part of the election strategy of the incoming President of the USA.

Anyone who’s even vaguely progressive has some tough battles ahead – that’s for certain. But we can all learn something from the successes of the past. That’s why we’re looking forward to this book.

In fact, we’re honoured to have been asked to do a few songs at the launch. It’s at Conway Hall in Red Lion Square in central London on 5th December. It’s free, but you’ll need to book a place if you’re coming. Folk punk against racism? You bet.

Lol

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Half a century

Our Steve turns 50 (fifty) this week.  It’s a difficult age.  It’s a time when you really, really have to accept that you’re never going to play for England (or even Holland), never going to come up with a coherent Theory Of Everything, never going to the Moon.   (Some of us still haven’t got over that last one.)

He wasn’t always a songwriter.  He only started this nonsense in earnest about 10 years ago.  Since then, Steve’s written songs about all sorts: broken hearts, socialism, police violence, tax dodgers, clownish politicians, fast food, racism, Santa, merchant bankers, picket lines, UKIP, revolution, resistance, cancer, refugees, fox hunting, truth, gluten, death, swearing, cycling, a fizzy drinks company, the misappropriation of language, Hank Marvin, anarchy, monarchy, gentrification, Walthamstow, Chingford, Leyton, Orient, Leyton Orient, health & safety legislation,  piracy (arrrrrrhh!!) and even, rarely, about himself.  Yes, we know a song about that.  Sometimes you think that the songs are too simple to work.  But they usually do.

When I first saw Steve perform live, he was solo (or with Chris Da Lipz), handing out buttered chunks of home-made bread at gigs.  Me and Doug joined up with him in 2009 and what soon became The Family has been on an adventure ever since.  We’ve played in the east, west, south and north of the country and in Northern Ireland.  We’ve had Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn as support acts.  We’ve performed with an ex-Sex Pistol.  We’ve had talents as diverse as Louise Distras, Attila The Stockbroker and Maddy Carty playing on stage with us.  Yes, we’ve argued, fallen out, sulked and fallen back in again.  Most of that happened in one row about a count-in.

We’ll start recording our third studio album soon, and once again all of the songs will be written by Steve.  The rest of us chip in musical bits and pieces and even the occasional word, but they’re his songs.

So you’re all invited to come and join us in celebration on Saturday night at What’s Cookin’ in Leytonstone.  Watch the bands.  Raise a glass to our bandmate – our mate – Steve, who in his personal, professional and musical lives strives to make things a bit better for other people.  And most of all, sing his songs along with us.  See you there.steves-birthday-bash-whats-cookin-oct-2016

Lol

 

Funky Lol’s Picket Line

Most of our songs are pretty easy to understand, but people sometimes ask about Funky Lol’s Picket Line (from This Band Is Sick). It was written by Steve, but it’s got my name in it. Here’s what it’s all about.

It’s a true story from 5 years ago. I was working at a Further Education college in London. We were on a national strike over extra pension contributions. It meant an effective pay cut of £500-£1000 per year for each of us – worth fighting against.

The college was open from 7am-11pm. We had an uneventful picket line in the morning, when most staff and students would have been going in (few did). The strike continued, but the picket line rota wound down early to allow many of the strikers to attend a union event in central London.

I discovered to my surprise that the local Labour Party were planning to hold a fund-raising dinner in the college’s training restaurant that night, with Shadow Minister Carrie-Anne Slate* as guest speaker. I passed a message to a prominent local Party member, assuming that they would want to postpone the event to support us. His reaction was non-committal. So I went to Labour’s constituency office and rang the bell. I had to speak to an intercom: “Will Carrie-Anne Slate* cross our picket line tonight?” They invited me in and took my details, but did nothing. Later, I was phoned by the local MP’s agent. He had a superior tone and seemed mildly irritated.

Eventually, I began to realise that I’d have no choice but to reassemble the picket line. I made a couple of phone calls, sent texts and started walking up the road to the college. As I was walking, I got a call from the MP, India Empy*. She bent my ear for fully 19 (nineteen) minutes. Whenever I tried to speak, she interrupted with, “No, listen…”

She told me that she had known about the strike a week in advance. She had checked with the Principal of the college (“spoke to the wrong fella”), who doubted that we would continue it into the evening (“said it would be over by tea time”). He was wrong, of course (“you know a strike’s all day when you’re losing a day’s pay”). She hadn’t bothered to check with us. Either we were unimportant to her, or she didn’t want to hear the answer we would have given.

Anyway, she made me an offer: if we let the dinner go ahead, she would invite one of our pickets to cross our picket line. They could then explain to the diners who had crossed our picket line why they shouldn’t have crossed our picket line. Okay, read that again. Got it? Did we accept the offer? As if.

The picket line reconvenes
The picket line reconvenes

The picket was back in place. By now, we had supporters from the local Trades Council, including the impressive Daryl O’Levely*, and from other unions, including current members of the band. We were incredulous at the actions of our local Labour Party – the party formed largely from the trade union movement.

Confusion reigned as some people arrived for the dinner. A small number went inside the college. Niall Gerald*, the former MP for the area, turned up and began to help turn people away. There was no sign of India Empy* or of Carrie-Anne Slate* (I discovered months later that the Party feared a photo of a Shadow Minister crossing a picket line). We eventually found out that what was left of the guests, including Empy* and Slate*, had gone to an Indian restaurant a few miles away to try to salvage the chaos (“better go for a curry instead”).

We had seen off the disgraceful threat to the strike. We disbanded our picket line and went to the pub (“you know this story ends up in the Rose & Crown”).

Those involved in organising the shambles might consider this: they could have postponed the whole thing a week before the event, held it on another night and raised some funds. Instead, they chose the dishonourable path and lost both money and credibility.  And Steve White & The Protest Family gained a dance number.

Lol

*Names changed to protect the innocent.  And the guilty.

Top picture: legalcheek.com.