Snowflake

CoverAnd so I sat down to write Where Tina Goes. Romantic as that sounds, it wasn’t at some antique writing desk, or in a room with great natural light and a pretty view, it was on the 06-something Chingford to Liverpool Street train for the first day of a course I was on.

It went pretty much to type. I got my thoughts down in order, the rhymes fell into line without too much force, the song had a beginning, a middle and an end; and said what I wanted to say. Standard Steve White/Protest Family fare. But something nagged at me that it wasn’t right, that I could do better.

I let myself stew over it for the day and went back over the words that I’d written that evening. And started crossing stuff out. Not the ideas, they were sound, but everything that the ideas didn’t need in order for them to come across far more succinctly and powerfully than they had in their longer form. “Martin knew something was wrong, but Tina was pretty cool” says so much more than what I’d originally written, by saying less. It was the lesson that I’d learned writing From the Euro to the Pound learned all over again. Billy Bragg says something similar when drawn out over the art of songwriting, just listen to the opening of Levi Stubbs’ Tears for quite how evocative a few well chosen words can be.

But if me at my most verbose is your thing, fear not. This double-EP also contains a classic piece of my writing. Think Like a Taxpayer is wordy, rhythmic, full of rhyme and slap-bang in the middle of Protest Family territory, protesting about tax justice very much in the vein of Pay Your Tax, with a nod to Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book.

Yes, From the Euro to the Pound is here too. I had a long debate with myself about whether there should be a solo release of this song. There’s a lovely Protest Family version already worked out, with Maddy Carty sharing the vocals with me, that (in my opinion) is the definitive version, and I think those of you that have caught us performing it live will agree, but it sits at the heart of a shift in my writing style and introduces the characters that also appear in Children in the Crosshairs and Royal Wedding Tea. I think I owe it to you to let you hear all three songs and get to know this couple as well as I have.

From the Euro to the Pound finds them split up, with a young family, in a cloud of austerity, redundancy and domestic violence. Children in the Crosshairs is later, speaking of separation and shared experience while Royal wedding Tea visits them sooner, still together and happy, despite some differences in their ideas about the Royal Family.

Past solo releases from me have generally filled the gap between Protest Family albums and given me the platform to share the songs that I like to play solo that will never make it onto a Family playlist. While that’s still true to an extent with Snowflake, we are a little way off the band hitting the studio. Doug’s struggles with illness and the benefits system, bringing Simon in in his absence, Andi’s (admittedly very quick) absorption of the Family’s back catalogue and our negotiations/coming to terms with percussion have all slowed us down, so there are more songs on this solo effort from me that either are, or will be Protest Family songs, and the better for it when they are.

You should really know by now what you’re getting with a solo release:

I play the bass, but not as well as Doug or Simon play the bass.

I play mandolin family instruments, but not as well as Lol plays them. (Although I’m still the band’s Irish bouzouki player, officially).

I play percussion, but not as well as Andi plays percussion.

(I’m probably the fourth best guitarist in the current Protest Family line-up, but they’re all playing other instruments, so hey, look at me!).

I don’t play the banjo.

I write a bit.

Flippancy aside, I think that what I’ve done is of value. To me, to us, to the movement, to the struggle for a better, fairer, nicer, more just world and way of living. And it’s shared with you in that spirit: pay what you want, pay what you can afford, pay what you think it’s worth, pay nothing with a clear conscience, I’m happy to give it to you, but listen, enjoy, share and pass it on. What the internet and social media gives us is double-edged; we can share our art, our craft, our work with the world so easily, but so does everybody else and it’s instantly diluted. I’m genuinely excited by the message and presentation of Where Tina Goes, the songs that started with From the Euro to the Pound and all the others, but people who aren’t me and you need to hear them if they’re going to make a difference, so please share them on if you feel the same.

Steve

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Fake News From Nowhere

Fake News From Nowhere

Well we ought to know how this works by now. There’s a period between Protest Family albums where I’m working on new songs, some of which I like, but either the band don’t, or there’s no time to learn it, or it’s just not Protest Family material, and I get itchy feet,  record it and put it out myself. But we’re slowing down. The next Protest Family album is still only on the distant horizon, and there will definitely be a more than two-year gap between it (working title: Snowflakes) and Protest For Dummies, and the in-between album’s not an album, it’s an E.P. But anyway, here it is:

The death of facts

Sparked off for me by Michael Gove’s comment that the people of this country have had enough of experts.

Fake news has been around a long time. The authorities claimed in the aftermath of the Peterloo massacre in 1819 that the troops and yeomanry had been attacked by the protesters. Protesters including women and children, all in their Sunday best who had marched formally and respectfully to hear speeches about the struggle for their right to vote. Fake news. A century later The Sun and Margaret Thatcher used the same smear tactic to blame the victims of the Hillsborough disaster, leading to the 27-year long fight for justice for the 96.

What makes today different is the internet, the speed with which fake news can be disseminated, and the dilution of trustworthy news sources with sites peddling unintentional and deliberate mis-truths (or alternative facts if you work for Donald Trump). The opinionated bloke in the pub, who’s wrong but influential, has become a whole online business.

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Gove: “The people of this country have had enough of experts”

 

So that, and the need to kick back against the system that gave you austerity without understanding how the system works, but knowing that it sounds like it knows better than you, gives you the environment in which you believe the facts you want to, irrespective of the evidence. No one honestly believes that the Tories will invest £350 million a week in the NHS when we leave the EU, but it didn’t hurt to keep saying it. I desperately want to believe that David Cameron put his penis in a dead pig’s head, but I know that the story was made up, and, despite emerging evidence to the contrary, people that wanted to believe that Jeremy Corbyn walked past dozens of empty seats in order to be filmed sitting on the floor of the London to Newcastle train, still do.

My facts are indeed better than your facts.

Don’t look down

The challenge was to stop sloganeering for a few minutes. We all want change, but it can be scary, right?

So don’t look down.

If the queen had a hammer

I just don’t get the Royal Family, I really don’t. They even bow and curtsy to each other. It’s just weird and stupid and wrong and what makes them so much better than us that we keep them in the lap of absolute luxury?

The question of whether the queen casts a vote or not (she doesn’t) would be idle musing

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“It’s my country, so fuck you”

if it wasn’t for those pictures of her attending a cabinet meeting during David Cameron’s government, and the exposé of Prince Charles’ interference in parliamentary matters protecting interests close to him.

 

Does she have a pound? Well, she famously never carries any money, but her picture is on every last piece of it.

The patriotic working class? Yeah, I know. I didn’t make it up; it’s flag, faith and family stuff like “former Labour heartlands” and “traditional working class values” and the old favourite “metropolitan liberal elite”.

Heroes of the Peasants’ Revolt, Wat Tyler and John Ball get a mention, and rightly so. Let’s not forget Tyler’s big failing that lead to his ultimate downfall. He trusted the Royals.

Children in the crosshairs

Yes, I realise that it’s perverse that you can hear the follow-up to From the euro to the pound before you can hear the first song, but that’s how band stuff works. The Protest Family have adopted From the euro to the pound, so you can hear it live, but we won’t take it into the studio for a while yet, unless there’s pressure to release a single (remember them?). The life of a solo artist is much simpler and more immediate.

Both songs are attempts to see life and events through someone else’s eyes, in this case a couple, no longer together but bound together by their children. We know quite a bit about them from their two songs, but the key thing is that they don’t do politics (even when politics is quite clearly doing them), which means that they’re definitely not me.

I sort of understand Americans’ second amendment rights to bear arms against their government (I just wish they’d get on with it) but, like most non-Americans I really don’t get their gun culture, their obsession with guns or the enormous power of the gun lobby. I’d like to point out all the evidence that less guns equals less deaths by shooting, but we’d just recycle the fake news argument, and we’ve had that already.

Warning: It’s a sad song.

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A song for Saint Patrick’s Day

You know it’s not just Cambridge Analytica poring over all the stuff that you put on social media, it’s songwriters too, and when I saw that “somebody on the internet” had posted “Why don’t Irish people celebrate St. George’s Day?”, the blue touchpaper was lit. Your choice, a 1500-word essay on oppression, imperialism and privilege, or a three-minute sing-along folk song?

OK, not your choice, mine.

Saints

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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.

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

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

 

Burston At The Seams

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Hardwork

Alright, so Burston’s the scene of the longest running strike in this country’s history. The Burston tale is one of militant teachers, nasty bosses, a pantomime villain power-hungry preacher, the kids showing extraordinary solidarity and mettle, and the trade union cavalry charging over the hill to save the day. You might have bought a brick at Brisbane Road but Tolstoy sponsored one in the Strike School.

 

The sun shone on this year’s rally, the queues for selfies with Corbyn were long*, the ones at the bar appealingly shorter and we had a great time despite me breaking a string AGAIN. It was great fun too to join Attila the Stockbroker at the end as invited** backing singers on Prince Harry’s Knob. I’m not sure he was expecting the harmonies.

The Corbynmania thing’s a bit weird. We’re all behind JC for obvious reasons but it’s odd seeing him whisked in by car and surrounded by pink-jacketed Unite stewards when you’re used to seeing him just turn up on the bus with everybody else.

I did write about him recently, so if you’re thinking about writing a song about how the whole of the mainstream press, all of the BBC’s politics department and most of his own party appear to be against him despite his enormous public popularity, in the style of Kent Walton commentating on tag-team wrestling, to a country and western themed sound track, don’t worry I’ve got you covered. I even used a line from Tag Team Time in a Facebook status update about Jeremy’s late addition to the Strike School Rally’s line-up of speakers.

You’ll get to hear Tag Team Time (plus our tribute to the Punk Waltham Forest tributes) if you manage to get along to our StowFest gig next week.

Failing that, Lol and I are out being pop-up folk-punks at a Corbyn-supporting show at Nambucca on Wednesday, I’m in Nottingham on October 7th and then it’s all systems go for my birthday bash on October 15th.

So, see you out there somewhere.

Steve

* We didn’t get one, we’ll have to settle for my picture with John McDonnell from the Redbridge Momentum meeting.

** We’ve done it uninvited loads of times.