Archive for October, 2011

UB40 File

UB40 File:

 

The albums that I have looked at thus far have two things in common: they are both anarcho-punk records and I was listening to them in my early teens. Albums remind me of how I felt when I first listened to them; they can transport me to a time and a place and can stir up the emotions that I felt back then. Of course, an album, like any good piece of art, can constantly renew itself according to the changing mood or life cycle of the individual. UB40 File has this capacity in spades. Unlike my other two choices this band aren’t punk but rather reggae and I wasn’t listening to this in my early teens but rather I came to appreciate it as I was in the latter stages of that tumultuous time. First off I do need to clarify that this choice is technically not an album per se but rather a collection which, comprises the bands debut Signing Off along with a few EPs. UB40 are generally known for their cover albums and as a consequence are rather unfairly written off. Some would accuse them of the homogenisation of reggae and others might say they have no right to be playing reggae in the first place because the majority of the band are white guys from Birmingham. Look, bands playing covers is a debate that always divides music fans some are bad i.e. Scissor Sisters Comfortably Numb springs to mind but some covers are fantastic for example Whiskey in the Jar by Thin Lizzy (more languid than the original and because of this captures the mood of the lyrics more concisely). So, I’ll leave the whole cover thing aside for the moment.  As for homogenising reggae, well people do have a point with that one but I suppose that all underground music has to move into the mainstream at some point and UB40 can’t be blamed for people buying their music. Do they have a right to play reggae? Absolutely. Bands like UB40 represented a multicultural Britain and more importantly a multicultural Birmingham. This was the music that they grew up with; it was part of their everyday life. Jamaica and Jamaicans had changed the culture of Britain. The Clash played reggae covers, Don Letts dub soundsystem was the pulse of the early punk movement and the two-tone bands that followed had brought to the foreground how two cultures could mix the whole together. UB40 were a reflection of their society, they were a multiracial band doing what they did best although they were aware that this society wasn’t without its problems.

 

A good album should reflect the life of those that made it but a great album should tap into the zeitgeist and reflect the life and times of the listener and this is what makes UB40 File such a great work.  The opening track ‘Tyler’ is about Gary Tyler and the alleged miscarriage of justice in his case and highlights the racial tension that still existed in America. The subject of race runs through the album with ‘King’ asking what has happened to the dream of MLK and a plaintive cover of one of the true great protest songs ‘Strange Fruit’. A year after these songs were released Britain would be rocked by race riots showing that UB40 could sense the problems bubbling underneath. The name of the band was also, in and of itself, a political statement coming as it does from the Unemployment Benefit card, number 40. Unemployment was a hot topic, ‘Little By Little’ deals with the issue of poverty and the inequity between the rich and the poor. The lyrics are backed by a lively skank, the music offering hope to the listener. ‘Madame Medusa’ is a dub heavy tune castigating Thatcher’s Britain (it is funny that in all the three albums I have looked at she looms large. I wonder is it true that great art comes from great suffering, if indeed that is the case Irish bands will be knocking out classics for years to come). Cutting sharp guitars, bollocks rattling bass, the thwack of a snare and the blare of sax with biting social commentary make for a great album: this was the sound of a band on form. Smoke nearly drifts from the speakers.  Themes turn to larger concerns particularly on ‘Food for thought’ and ‘The Earth dies screaming’. The former is a song about famine in Africa, a serious subject but you can’t help but want to dance to the groove that the band lay down, the latter looks at the possibility of the end of days and the slow, lazy bass line is up there with anything committed to vinyl by ‘Family Man’ Barrett or Robbie Shakespeare. Throw in a few instrumental jams in the shape of ‘Adella’ and ‘Reefer Madness’ and millions of socially conscious stoners were happy out.

 

Being happy out is exactly what a body of music should do to the listener. Even though the albums I have looked at so far do have heavy lyrical themes they do bring me a lot of joy. They remind me of what it means to care about the society that surrounds me both at the local and the international level. In many ways music should transcend ideas of nationalism, UB40 are an English band influenced by the music of the former colonies, I am an Irishman listening to them. Three distinct cultures enmeshed through a series of 12 notes and 26 letters. Themes of love, injustice and poverty are universal. As I originally stated albums have a capacity to bring us back to a time and place, in the case of UB40 File it transports me to the seventeen to twenty year old me. It calls to mind friends that have fallen by the wayside, a lifestyle that is now out of reach and endless nights of booze, laughs and more. A place where possibility stretched ahead and things seemed purer. Of course, nostalgia makes fools of us all and I am drifting into the Irish malaise of cosy sentimentality. Great art should endure and this album does it’s themes of social inequality, racism and poverty still resonate and as more and more people join dole queues UB40 remind us just what is possible when you sign off.

It had to happen…

It had to happen i.e. I was going to write about History at some stage…It just took a time for me to remember why I fell in love with it in the first place. And why do I love it? Because it makes me think but more importantly it makes me feel E. H Carr in his, for the time, groundbreaking lecture series asked ‘What is History?’ He asked us to rethink what we knew and to move out from the shadows of Victorian certainty, to break the bonds of the belief that the historian was an impartial observer. As he said ‘The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy, but one which it is very hard to eradicate’. I love that quote and can imagine dusty old professors as they read it in the 1960s spluttering up a lung as their monocles fall into a glass of brandy.

 And why did they nearly choke on their brandy? Because Carr was pointing out that as a species we are informed by our society, we choose what we think is important and we are told by those in the know what we should and shouldn’t value. Therefore the objective historian does not exist. People feel for a history; feel for what calls out from the past. Our culture informs us and shapes how we relate to history. Take Russia, for me it is always hard not to get swept away by the romantic scope of it history: the Mongol invasions, Ivan the Terrible, the Romanovs, Peter I and his wife Catherine, Napoleonic War, Serfs, Cossacks and Communists, the Red and White armies and the rise of the soviet. Over my childhood, both America and Russia loomed large. You could feel it, comedies were informed by it, drama was shaped by it and sport was a battleground in which two ideologically opposed forces battled it out. But we were always told that the Russians were the bad guys and that was that. They were nothing more than Atheists and Commies according to films. Rocky had to beat one of them and Rambo wiped them out in Afghanistan. Case closed they were the bad guys. Look I’m not saying Stalin was a good guy, indeed he was nut, but what I’m saying is that for a time nobody talked about old Russia, nobody highlighted that millions of people starved under the monarchy, the films didn’t show the people under the Communist yoke and their struggle. Those facts didn’t suit the agenda ‘our’ society informed us and we defined ‘them’ as other and with it enter the world of the bias.

Carr was right and as he said ‘Study the historian before you begin to study the facts.’ Why? I hear you ask, well because that is where bias lives. Being biased isn’t always a bad thing for instance we are biased towards members of our family, we want them to do well and to succeed. As you can probably guess I had a secret and biased regard for the USSR in the 1980s. Not because my 11 year old self was a card carrying Communist but because it was a bit taboo to shout for the bad guy, I was contrary and somewhere in myself I always wanted to be an historian. I wanted to know why they were seen as the bad guys. I wanted to know were they that bad and if so why?  I was biased but only because I am human. Therefore the historian cannot write an objective history but that is no bad thing. Think of the biased sources we have around us particularly the personal letters, diaries and memoirs that foreground how people felt.

Now the first time I can remember feeling anything about academic history was hearing about the Vikings coming to Ireland. A nasty bunch that wore horned helmets (they never wore horned helmets as in battle all you would have to do is grab the horns which rather handily doubled up as handle bars and then you could pummel the shite out of them). They were nasty to monks but the bit that impressed me was after Brian Boru defeated them he was killed by one. Now it is not the fact that Boru was killed that impressed me but the grief and anger that followed. The Irish captured the assailant, disemboweled him and tied him to a tree by his entrails- now that, my friends, is history come alive.  But probably the history that spoke to me the most back then was Irish myths especially Cuchulainn, his origin story, the cattle raid and his death. He was hardcore: he killed his best-friend Ferdia and he also killed his son oh and it was set in Ireland and that simple idea sold it to me. Here was a mythological cycle set in my own backyard. But what really struck me was the feeling, I wondered how he felt when he killed his best friend and how he was so feared that when he died his enemies still wouldn’t approach him. I know they are myths but there is history within, it reveals the culture and ideas of those that created the narrative but more importantly it is meant to make us feel something. Such a simple idea isn’t it?

To me history has always been more then an academic pursuit. I see the threads that connect us to our past and in doing so I feel connected to that past. I think about my forebears and somewhere inside me I know that they are a part of me. I look at a building and in my minds eye I can see the people that passed through it, lived in it and died in it. When I visit Kilmainham jail I can’t help but feel moved by the executions of the leaders of the 1916 Rising, the romantic in me knows that the sacrifice was worth it and that no amount of corruption can ever take away what they gave us: our country. To paraphrase Yeats they hurled the little streets upon the great. How did they all feel in those last hours or as they tied the blindfold round them? I am sure their friends and families must have cried bitter tears but then I am sure that the British families that lost theirs felt the same way. 1914-1918 years that must have known so much weeping and so much pain the soil of Europe sodden with the blood of young men. Sometimes history offers no hope and no lesson. Why? Well I suppose human beings have no rhyme or reason. The way we react is not bound by a set of rules even though history books often present it in that way.

For a time I got lost in these books, in essays and in journals. The academic within made me forget why I loved history in the first place. I worried about grades, about marking and about deadlines. And, like an old couple that resents each other, history and I constantly bickered for a time. We took each other for granted and then we ignored each other, each of us could only see each others faults. After a time though I missed history and we reconciled. For this I would like to thank Dr Lucy Worsley (below) and her wonderful programmes especially Elegance and Decadence: the age of the Regency. She reminded me what history really is: a dialogue with the past, a celebration of people, a feeling that you get when something interests you and last but not least it can be fun. An old tutor of mine once said: ‘We are not the great unwashed looking at history with our faces pressed against the window, we are part of history and we help shape it.’  Words I forgot but in the end it had to happen: I’ve fallen in love with history again.