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.

 

Worlds Apart

Continuing my ‘albums that never make it on to greatest albums list’ I decided to cast an eye on the Subhumans. Now before I start I do need to clarify that there were two bands with this moniker: one from Canada and the other from England. The band I am writing about is from England. I could, if I so wished, have concentrated on nearly any release by this band such is the quality of their work and in the future I may review another but for the purposes of this blog I am concentrating on the album ‘Worlds Apart’.

Released in 1985 on their own record label Bluurg the Subs were out of time with the commercial industry that existed around them. In the world of Wham, Madonna and Phil Collins, this band was as welcome as Keith Moon lecturing at a driving safety course.  The album starts with a heart beat bassline on the instrumental entitled ‘33322’ which fades into ‘British Disease.’ Lead vocalist and main lyric writer Dick Lucas rips into a system that has produced an underclass of people hell bent on rioting. Goading the British establishment he proclaims ‘you thought this country was so great, nobody could ever hate the way the system treated them and then you wonder why they burned your buildings down.’ It seems that Britain still has some of the same problems today, unfortunately it no longer has voices in musical culture that shows a way in which  to harness this anger and, in turn, turn it into something productive. The band (Bruce on guitar, Phil on Bass and Trotsky on drums) back up their main man with a frantic guitar and bass riff driven by razor sharp drumming. The opening track spells out the mission: this is a state of the union polemic from the neglected underground.

‘Heads of State’ follows and imagines a political world where those that rule simply replace their head with a new when the situation dictates. Lucas could see that the politics of pure spin was just around the corner and things were gonna get worse. The guitar swings and is reminiscent of a folk type song and again matches the singer’s observations. Moving on the world of cheap booze, cheap cigarettes and cheaper sex is put under the microscope and found wanting in the song entitled ‘Apathy.’ The riff is a killer and the chorus is a staccato burst that lifts the song to another place.  Next up is the Reggae tinged ‘Fade Away’ where Lucas implores the listener to live their life before it is over. The theme of mortality looms large in this tune but then we are back to matters temporal. ‘Businessman’ continues the relentless attack with the bands ire focusing on the money hungry yuppie culture of the 1980s. The pacy overdriven riff propels the song along. It nearly skims across the rhythm section and the band again adds a stop/start component which foregrounds a tight unit, one that was on top of their game.

In my mind, one of the strongest songs on the album is ‘Someone is Lying.’ It is such a dark song which, concentrates on workers who have to get rid of nuclear waste. The negligence of the state in ensuring the safety of the workers leads to cancer. A stabbing guitar captures the mood and the looping bass underpins the whole. Lucas is an astute observer of the worst aspects of human nature and shows the way in which big business slimes out of it’s obligation to those they employ. They inform the press that the deaths are caused by ‘coal dust, it’s cancer, it’s normal they say’.  There is hope, for a lone voice cries out ‘these people are dying, someone is lying’. The song sums up Thatcher and Reganite economics: fuck the little guy, screw the worker-the future belongs to me! (To borrow a phrase from a famous musical).

Go buy it , find it on youtube, contact the band themselves or do what I used to do back in the day and record it on to tape (Home recording is killing music-remember those stickers on your vinyl album ha ha the fuckers never saw what was coming). Other highlights on this album include ‘Pigman’, Get to work on time’ and straight-line thinking’ to name but three. Right, when you listen to it you’ll think ‘Dick can’t sing’ and ‘the production is a bit tinny (it is they had fuck all money). But consider all the cocksuckers in the music business that can’t sing! I hope that somewhere in this world there are teens that want to set the world to rights and that couldn’t give a fuck about the mass produced puke fest that we call music these days. That somewhere they find this band and album and that it does for them what it did for me: change my life, make them pick up an instrument and make some noise before it is too late. Yes, somewhere in music lies hope, lies stories, lies voices that are different and lies a road map to a different future. To me punk changed my life, got me to think and eventually propelled me to university and beyond. It showed me I could be more than I ever thought possible-it remains to me one of the most positive and life affirming art forms this beautiful planet has produced. To Dick, Bruce, Phil and Trotsky wherever you are I would just like to say ‘Thank You’.

Dispatches

The queue stretches from the door of the hall, snakes outward coiling itself around the adjoining building and tails out into the car-park. My eyes are dead and with music blaring from my iPod I tried, in vain to transcend the scene but I can’t and everyone else in the queue can’t. Queues are terrible and in Ireland we can’t do it properly as we always break into two, like a hair with a split end. This queue reminds me of the one I stood in as a child, the one with my brother in the 1980s. That one came out from the old building by the library in Newbridge and stretched out onto the road.  Yes, the queue is the dole queue; a deadening place where nearly a half a million people shuffle…

  A few days before I read the paper and noted that they are softening up the public for the inevitable cut in the social that will come in the next budget. Apparently, single mothers are to blame, foreigners are to blame, and anyone is to blame for the state we are in. Internet forums are ablaze with posters decrying the fact that a man on the social had the temerity to spend his dole on a packet of fags. ‘Why not give them vouchers?’ They cry and they sneer at the ‘dole proles.’ Somewhere in the background you can nearly hear someone scream ‘let them eat cake’. The wits of wifi, the intelligentsia of the internet, those Kafka’s of the keyboard thrill us with bon mots about the antics of the legion of tracksuit wearers and their drinking habits, for if ya don’t know it is these people that are the reason for societies ill. Laugh? I nearly puked.

The first thing you start to lose on the line is the ability to sleep properly, then you lose your confidence, you retreat into apathy and then you can’t see a way out. Every morning I sit and wait for a phone to ring to give me forty minutes in the job I love. (Before anyone asks: schools ring when someone is absent, I do knock up, I do make myself known, I do send out CVs and I look in the mirror in the morning and repeat positive mantras from books entitled ‘Feel the Chicken Soup for the Soul and Eat it Anyway). Every morning thus far has resulted in disappointment. I send off CVs and don’t get replies, I sit in interviews and don’t get replies and then I start to wonder ‘Is it me?’ Then that man takes up residence in the living room of my mind, I call him The Cynic he ain’t an affable chap and he whispers that everything is useless. He told me the other day that ‘the seven years you spent in college weren’t worth a fuck’. He is a dark one.

…the coiling queue begins to move and soon I’ll be gone…till next month.

What I’m trying to say is ‘I miss you’

There is an old cliché that goes ‘if  the walls could talk’ which, leads me to think of our relationship to the physical environment that surrounds us. We invest a lot in that in which we live,be it in our own house or our own town. We develop an emotional connection with the inanimate and bestow upon it an identity, so much so that buildings, possessions become like old friends. I mention all this because I was through my old hometown the other day, or I should say the little that is left of it. I am a Curragh man and by that I mean from the Curragh Camp not the surrounds, and soon enough there will come a time when there are no Curragh people left. Why? Well ever since the mid 1980s they have been slowly pulling down the place and with it removing the people that used to live on it. The actual physical places that I grew up in will be no more. All that will be left is that trick of the mind that we call memories. At this stage most of the buildings that held a special place in my heart are gone, the first house I ever lived in is gone, the first place I ever kissed a girl is gone and the first place I ever got drunk is gone. It wouldn’t hurt so much but it seems that few people really care but they should. These are places that meant something and in a funny way I think that buildings can hold some kind of energy, the energy of everyone that every lived there. My first home, and the place that my heart recognises most as home even though I only lived there for six years, is seared so much into the fabric of who I am that I can still see it in my minds eye as if I was only in it yesterday. It was an old red brick Victorian house which was part of a terrace, which was made up of three blocks. When it would rain heavily the red brick would become crimson and ever since I can remember I associate red-brick with the word home.

Mc Donagh Tce: After the rain

Home, the very word is intrinsic to being Irish-it signifies land, it signifies belonging, our history recalls the plantations, the land wars and the hope that one day we would be unified under that one word: home. My house was a rented home shared by six of us, this was before my brother was born and we had to move due to lack of space. I shared a room with my two older brothers; a box room out the back and out of which I would stare out the window and look at the phases of the moon. From that window you could see the rows and rows of washing lines, one for each family and on dry days the white sheets would flutter against the wind. We had a little backyard in which my mother and I would sit and she would tell me things about life, teaching me the things I would need as I grew older. I can remember my first Christmas there, the first time I encountered snow (1982)  and the first time I was introduced to my younger brother all of which, are connected to that house. Most of all I remember the families, the people I grew up with and the sense of belonging to a community. For all the happiness it brought there will forever be attached to it a great sadness. The day I heard my mother was going to die I went to the steps of that house and ate my heart out with grief-the type of grief that comes when you have no hope left. Not that long after my Ma went to that great gig in the sky they knocked down the old place and alas it is no more. And so it is for the Curragh Camp, most of it is gone and what remains is in tatters and as I said soon enough all the people will be gone…but what a people we were.

The Second Sex

Punks not dead

Right: two things to spell out, firstly, everyone should read Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex it is the urtext on Feminism and secondly, I am a punk rock aficionado (which is just a grown up way of saying nerd). What do these two ideologies have in common? I hear you ask. Well, besides both being blamed for the downfall of western civilisation both are proponents of the idea that women have a powerful voice, have something to say and have been treated like shite for some time. Look, there are too many air brushed vacuous manufactured images of women in the media so here’s to difference. The top ten women in Punk (in no particular order):

Patti Smith: living legend, poet and owner of a gravelly set of pipes. Stand out album has to be Horses and not just for the cover. She once fell off the stage and fucked herself up  and she gave out to Bono after he started fawning over her.

Debbie Harry: chanteuse, Sex-Bomb and seriously one of the best frontwomen that ever walked on stage just listen to Heart of Glass and Call Me. (Forget about French Kissing in the USA-actually I never mentioned it).

Tina Weymouth: I’m a bass player, so is she and she has the chops (and she was a founding member of Talking Heads). Listen to Psycho Killer and Once in a lifetime.

Siouxsie Sioux: A member of the infamous Bromley Contingent she was also the ‘reason’ that the Sex Pistols caused a four letter word storm on British TV.  However, it is all about the music. She mixed dark gothic imagery with some of the best music committed to vinyl to create a beautiful dark oeuvre. Listen to The Scream, Swimming Horses, Spellbound etc.

Ari- Up (Arianne Foster): Lead singer of the all female band The Slits a band that covered Heard it through the Grapevine and made it into some crazy dub fuelled groove. Typical Girls is a skanky little gem and their album Cut, bridges the gap from the Pistols to PIL. She died in 2010 more is the pity.

Poly Styrene: lead singer of X-Ray Spex she laid into the bondage clothing/idea of Oxford St. punk in the single ‘Oh Bondage, Up Yours’ one of the few punk tunes to feature a sax solo. Little girls should be seen and not heard? She didn’t think so. Alas, she passed on in 2011. (We really need to find a cure for cancer!!)

Jordan: No, not the one with the silicone enhanced boobs this Jordan worked in the boutique known as Sex. It was once said that McLaren thought that she was more of a Sex Pistol then any of the actual Pistols. You can see her dancing to Anarchy in the UK during the Pistols first TV performance and she would later manage Adam and the Ants.

Eve Libertine: Singer with Crass, vocals on Asylum and also on the seminal Penis Envy album. Archetypical Anarcha- Feminist.

Joy De Vivre:  as above writer of Women on Feeding of the 5000.

Kira Roessler: Bass player with hardcore legends Black Flag played on Slip It In, Loose Nut and In My Head. For anyone that has read Get in the Van you know she had to be as hard as nails to be in this band.

Albums you never really find on greatest album lists.

So, I Iike to read music mags and every now and then they do top 50/100 albums. Now there are certain genres that usually get ignored in these lists i.e. heavy metal/hardcore punk and psychedelic five string banjo albums. ‘Yes, but that is because the albums are shite’ I hear you say, well that maybe true but  I have a few that I like and I’m starting with a review of this: Crass: The Feeding of the 5000.

This is a dark album Crass don’t really do humour indeed they don’t really do light. Yet it is in many ways an album of hope, a scream for those to affect change in their society asking the listener to view the world in a different way. The playing is weird: Crass aren’t musicians in the conventional sense i.e. they can’t really play their instruments yet I would hazard a guess that they have influenced more than their fair share to pick up instruments and become musicians. It is a dark and gritty debut wrapped up in that beautiful gatefold sleeves that they did so well. Crass covers were like manifestos. Random thoughts asking you to consider the world around you with images out of a surrealists nightmare all done by the wonderful Gee Vaucher.  Printed on the label was Pay No More than £2.00 just to make sure you weren’t ripped off. This was, as mentioned above, their debut album released in 1978 and 5000 was the originally pressing. It kicks off with Asylum, less a song and more a spoken word poem backed by a soundscape. I remember the first time I heard this and it is a blasphemous blast denouncing the Christian religion. Spoken by Eve Libertine she calls Christ ‘a suicide reveller’ and this is the mild stuff. It starts with a young child praying and when I listen to it now (and that isn’t too often as this isn’t a song you put on before you head out for a jar) I can’t help but think of the child sex abuse scandals of the RCC (look I never promised this would be light hearted). This is followed by the anthem that is ‘Do they owe us a living?’  A bona fide punk classic, the male vocalist Steve Ignorant enters the fray with the memorable lyric ‘Fuck the politically minded there is something I want to say…’ you just have to listen. Penny Rimbaud rattles the snare and guitar and bass cacophonously move forward an aural assault that rattles the heart and gets the brain in gear.  The opening two songs tell you that you are in a different league of punk. This ain’t the Clash or the Pistols and just in case you haven’t figured it out they make sure that you get the message in ‘Banned from the Roxy’ (the famous London punk venue) where they say that the punk scene just wants ‘well behaved boys, who think guitars and microphones are just fucking toys’.  ‘Punk is dead’ follows in the same vein and basically the ‘70s scene is called out and told that it was nothing but a sham.  Northern Ireland, Nuclear War, Buddha, Marx, Charlie’s Angels and even Securicor all get it in the neck.  This album was a look at what was to come. Thatcher, Regan and the Falklands War were all going to be attacked. Feminism, Anarchy, Peace, 1984 and the futility of the capitalist system were all part of what they believed and they wanted to spread the word. Look, they had ideas were these ideas sometimes flawed? Yes. Did a heap of people take it and start a rigid scene? Yes. But by God did they make you think and it was better than the Grease soundtrack and ABBA and at the end of the day they did say ‘ Fight War, Not Wars’ and that is never a bad idea is it?