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

 

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.

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.

Dandelions…

Protest plunker Russ takes some time out from trying to find where his wife has hidden his banjo to write about an extracurricular project he’s been working on…

This summer marks the hundredth anniversary of the battle of the Somme. One of the bloodiest battles in military history it cost more than a million casualties and achieved precisely nothing.

For many years the Somme, and the first world war in general, have been symbols of the waste and pointlessness of war. And especially how it’s the ordinary working folk who bear the brunt of the brutality and deprivations of conflict but never seem get very much out of it at the end. The Kings and Queens, the Generals and the rich folk play their games for high stakes one way or another but life for the ordinary folk just rolls on the same win or lose, just with less limbs and more broken hearts. Lions led by donkeys.

Lol laying down some hot anti war punkolin © ...
Lol in the studio laying down some anti war punkolin© …

Protest Family pal Steve O’Donoghue has written a powerful song recounting how his grandfather would refuse to wear a poppy because he refused to accept that the lions who fought in the trenches should have to stand side by side with the donkeys who sent them. I thought the song was direct and strong enough to make a real contribution so I took it to the No Glory campaigning group and to my delight they picked it up and are including it in their Somme centenary campaign to remember the truth about what happened in the so called Great War.

No Glory gave me a modest budget to turn Steve’s six minute unaccompanied folk song into something with a broader appeal. It was a fascinating process to develop the song. To songwriters every verse is like a child and it was a nerve wracking moment when I showed Steve how I’d edited the song to be half its original length, but he took it quite well!

When the Protest Family record we go into the studio with a pretty well rehearsed set and play more or less “live” in one go. With Dandelions I put together a super rough Garage band demo but didn’t have time to rehearse or work on the arrangements with the musicians I’d recruited. So we recorded the song by getting everyone to play as much as they could in the time available and then assembling the song in the final edit. So for example we got John on the drums to run through the song playing random rolls and fills so we could pick them up as needed at the end. I’ve never worked like that before and I was glad to have PF producer Steve Honest to hold my hand and take care of the studio wizardry.

All the kit!
Folk music..!

If I’d had the time I would have liked to have got my Protest Family comrades involved a lot more, but in the end I had to settle for Lol who put some superb mandolin down with the absolute minimum of fuss as he always does. One day he’s going to realise quite what a good musician he is and we’ll all be buggered.

I was really delighted that the entire ensemble that we did end up using, myself, Lol, John Davis on drums and the wonderful Eleanor Firman who is a respected classical composer and who took care of the orchestration all live within about a mile of each other. What astonishing talent there is behind every front door!

No Glory put a great video together to go with the song and you can see the end results here…

The song will be performed in a cut down acoustic setting at the No Glory commemorative concert in Hampstead on June 19th.

http://noglory.org/index.php/events/557-19-june-london-have-you-forgotten-yet-the-truth-about-the-somme

I wish we could sing it so loudly we wake those fallen lions from a sleep that they have slept too long. Then the donkeys would have something to be frightened of

 

 

“From the Tolpuddle Martyrs to Bryant & May…”

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The Matchwomen’s strike committee, 1888

On 2nd July, we’re playing the Matchwomen’s Festival for the third time in its four year history. Our greatest hit*, Right To Strike, begins with a tribute to some of the pioneering trade unionists of the 19th century.

You might be thinking, “How have a bunch of smelly blokes from east London got so involved with a women’s festival? And what’s Brian May got to do with this?”

Let me explain. First, it’s nothing to do with Brian May. Bryant & May was a company that made matches, originally in Bow in east London. In 1888, about 1400 women and girls working in their factory went on strike over long hours, poor pay, excessive fines and the horrific effects of working with white phosphorus, including mutilation and premature death. They formed a trade union. Soon, their resoluteness and ultimate success inspired the formation of trade unions across the country.

The union movement is important to us as a band and it matters to you, whether you realise it or not. Apart from anything else, without the work of trade unions, most of us would simply have no effective employment rights. That’s one reason why we’re proud to be playing the festival again.

The other reason is women. “Ah, so you’re playing it to attract women?” Er – no. We’re all taken, thanks. The Matchwomen’s fight proved that women didn’t have to be passive. Women could organise. Women could gain control. Women could win improvements for themselves.

That message continues to be vital. Between the members of the band, we’ve got six daughters. But we’ve also got partners, sisters, mothers, friends, workmates, neighbours… we want them to be inspired by those ‘ordinary’ women from the century before last. As we are.

Lol
*It got to about number 1,000 in the Amazon download chart, you know.

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It’s a Half an Inch of Water

From ABC to Deacon Blue and Madness to Right Said Fred, the list of bands who take their names from other band’s lyrics is worth a Wikipedia page all of its own. But I can only think of one band named after a mondegreen.

Now a mondegreen, as you well know, is a mis-heard lyric, and in this case it’s the line “It’s a half an inch of water” from John Prine’s That’s The Way That The World Goes Round that gives Paddy Nash & The Happy Enchiladas the non-eponymous bit of their name.

We first met Paddy and Diane at the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival in 2012, where we played a number of gigs, official, unofficial and very unofficial with them before deciding that they were wonderful and we were following them home to Derry.* **

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You know who you are….

So, we were delighted to be able to return the favour and put on a couple of shows for them in London. Despite some initial (and last minute) fretting from us as organisers, the Veg Bar gig was magical. The atmosphere was great, and the audience outstanding. We’ve had a few stand-out shows over the years but I don’t think we’ve ever had a crowd sing along to every word of pretty much every song from every performer before, and it definitely brought the best out of all the acts.

 

The Sunday was a more relaxed affair at Walthamstow Folk Club and the folk club format really suited them, rewarding us with some of the stories behind the songs and two sets of  songs with light and shade exploring a range of emotions. They really are extraordinary storytellers and performers.

There’s a load of stuff out there on YouTube and what have you if you want to explore their music further, but if you want a better sense of them, then try their appearance on Radio 4’s The Listening Project.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02np2j6

Wedding or Camper Van? Well, we’ll be seeing the van in Tolpuddle this July.

* Or Derry/Londonderry as it was known at the time.

** We know a song about that.