Cultural Revolutions – with Dave Franklin

DAA founderDave Franklin, looks at 5 albums that impacted on his younger musical brain and have stayed with him over the years.

first-and-last-and-alwaysFirst and Last and Always – The Sisters of Mercy (1985)

 Standing at that point when an underground movement hit the big time but before later imitators brought the genre down to a lowest common denominator, the Sisters debut album is the perfect gothic album. Forget all of the frilled shirts romantics and the cyber-Goths who came later, this is an album soaked in an amphetamine haze, a bleak dystopian soundtrack but still carrying a certain amount of optimism in its hidden layers.

Stand out tracks: Black Planet, No Time to Cry, First and Last and Always.

 waterboysThis is The Sea – The Waterboys (1985)

Of all the bands that made up the “Big Music” sound (The Bunnymen, The Alarm, Big Country etc.) This was the one album that seemed to encompass its characteristics the best. Pitted against a musical landscape of sometimes inspired but more often-insipid synth fashion bands, their music seemed elemental. It soared to great heights, it crashed like waves on the rocks, it smelt of the earth and it burned with a raging intensity. Mike Scott may have led his musical minions off Pied Piper-like down a stranger and less obvious musical path as what amounted to an Irish pub band but he left us with this epic masterpiece.

Standout Tracks: Don’t Bang The Drum, This is The Sea, The Pan Within.

The-Men-They-Couldnt-Han-Waiting-For-Bonap-498796Waiting For Bonaparte – The Men They Couldn’t Hang (1989)

 TMTCH were the band that made me want to be a musician and by 1989 they had found a sound that was both unique and accessible. Coming out of the squat punk scene they fused rock, folk, history and social politics into songs that were half terrace anthems and half music to get down and dance to. Subjects included the social unrest of the industrial revolution, the homeward voyage of merchant seaman, smugglers, soldiers and mutineers. Lesser bands would have turned the subject matter into twee folk ditties or sing-along sea shanties but what TMTCH did so well live was give you a poetic history lesson whilst you danced and drank yourself into a drunken stupor.

Standout Tracks: The Crest, Bounty Hunter, The Colours

 Thunder-And-Consolation-coverThunder and Consolation – New Model Army (1989)

Whilst the first three albums had featured a punkier, harder hitting sound, Thunder and Consolation was the album that saw a more windswept and emotive sound taking centre stage. Mixing anthemic rallying cries with wistful reflections, political statement with songs about family and belonging it also marked the first and last forays into chart and national radio play with singles such as Vagabonds and Green and Grey. New Model Army are renowned for an ever evolving sound but this album formed the heart of what they stood for and informed everything they produced afterwards.

Standout Tracks: Family, Green and Grey, Vagabonds, Stupid Questions


51q31o5x4JL._SL500_AA280_Alnwick and Tyne – Blyth Power (1989)

 That Blyth Power never achieved commercial success is probably due to always seeming to be walking in the shadow of The Levellers and their meteoric rise. But where as Brighton’s finest headed off down an accessible hippy-folk route, this bunch of west-country ex-punks remained a cultish riot of folk, lush harmonies, punk verve, some of the most eloquent lyrics in contemporary music, wit, wisdom and wordplay. Not bad for a bunch of train spotters! Their old boys network contains both Wob and James Hince of the Kills and they remain the most quintessentially English band on the planet. Wat Tyler meets Noel Coward if you can imagine such a thing.

Standout Tracks: Lord of The Isles, McArthur, Better to Bat.


First published at Swindon Link Dec ’14




Pastor Skull – Blyth Power

R-2012424-1258485458Following that eternal quest to bring to the publics attention some of the worthy yet obscure bands and albums that have helped colour my life so far, we arrive at number 84 in the catalogue, Blyth Powers memorable masterpiece, Pastor Skull. With an ever-shifting line up resulting in an ever-different flavour to their albums, 1993’s Pastor Skull remains as always quintessentially English, yet with a dark underbelly. It is story telling in a folk tradition, but is a much more complex beast than that. If the word folk brings to mind beardy, Arran sweater, national health glass wearing men called Ken playing hammer dulcimers and singing fol-de-rol lyrics then this is album is for you. Why? Because it will take that stereotypical image and blows it out of the water. Blyth Power has always been a collection of punks, radicals and musical agitators re working musical traditions to their own rules. Folk music is in there but so are raw punk guitars, rock power riffs, hippy harmonies and a lyrical intelligence rarely found in modern music. For this outing the band were down to a four piece. The leader of the pack, Josef Porta, drummer, lyricist, wit and storyteller up front as usual and long term bassist “Martin “Protag” Neish providing a solid beat and intricate four string frame work for the other two. The two newer boys came in the guise of Darren Tansley, medieval fixated keyboard player and the enigmatically named WOB, now a successful solo act on guitar, both also contributing to the sumptuous backing vocals.

The cover and the various inlay artwork betrays the feeling of the album, simple drawings of medieval scenes give you a clue to some of the direction the songs will take, though in essence the subject matter spans periods ancient and modern but when Tansley’s keyboards hit full flight, a medieval feeling washes through the proceedings. A sustained guitar note builds before launching into the punked out tones of Royal George and immediately Porta`s ability with the pen becomes apparent.

Stag broke cover and the coursers brayed
We met out hunting on Boxing Day
Beneath the dripping trees a tryst arranged
And while we spoke our passion led the bloodhounds astray

The story eludes to the pastimes of the Prince Regent, the future King George the Fourth; a man that they claim “had the misfortune to be born into an age which predated train spotting and became, as a result, a man of easy virtue.” The song rocks as well as any Green Day or Good Charlotte number and manages to retain a cultural identity that seems to be missing from the modern Americanised dross that is the usual product of British bands today. Why settle for baseball caps and drive by shootings? If you want music that tugs at the soul of Englishness then play on.The title track follows, a more laid back affair, the bass laying down a solid foundation for a series of layered keyboards, a crunchy rhythm guitar and series of glorious vocal accompaniments and subtle changes of direction. The story starts off with the usual tail of a knight riding into town to slay a nearby dragon. On doing so he finds that the local Pastor is an animal rights activist and the dragon was not a threat to the local inhabitants. A modern message wrapped up in an old tale, a common trick from this band. The Man Who Came In Third is a political rant, charging off in a timing that will make even the most ardent wallflowers want to strut their stuff. Even when dealing with the heaviest of subject matter, the songs don’t get bogged down or self-indulgent. Clever lyrics and a good tune are not mutually exclusive. A complete change of direction comes with Gabriel the Angel, a folk/country shuffle, almost a square dance feel to it and a musical rendition of what might have taken place if the murder of the biblical Cain had been brought before a modern court. Strange territory indeed but a great song strengthened by the sublime fiddle playing of that punk legend, Attila the Stockbroker.

The next two songs have a war theme, In the Lines of Graves is a homage to those who don’t return from battle, a complex delivery of folk styled vocals coming at you from all directions over a punk tune with a piano making itself obvious and a distinctly anti war sentiment

“Cowards died there too, shot through with bullets, shrapnel and shells, and it’s these men we should remember when we march through the village in November. The heroes can look after themselves.”

Eventually this melts into the sounds of battle over a chugging guitar and the story of a soldier embroiled in the Thirty Years War is presented. Building slowly over a guitar, the song finally explodes into an epic rock anthem as the story unfolds, a tale of bile and spite, betrayal and remorse, challenging, different and not the most immediate of songs but once you get your head around Blyth Powers way of doing things you will never go back to Britney Spears again. But then if you have kept with me this far you are hardly likely to be on her wavelength anyway.General Winter, for my money is the highlight of the album and contains everything that the band does best. A thoughtful pacey song, great guitar riff, haunting distant keyboards and those unique harmonies and for once the subject matter is straightforward, winter. But being Blyth Power this is the winter of Georgian Britain, its churches, barracks and villages all being no match for the greatest general of all, General Winter.
“Then General Winter takes command
Swings me round again to the cavalry band
He snaps his heels as he proffers his hand
White-jacketed waiters line the walls
With sherry wine subdue the officer corps
As we circle slowly round the shadowy hall”

The opening to Sunne in Splendour sees the band at their most folk ridden and opens with an a cappella rendition of a seventeenth century poem of love and coyness before charging off in typical fashion in a veiled critique of the House of York’s most recent export, the names have been left out to avoid lawsuits, the Sunne in Splendour alluding to the emblem of that once noble house and a tabloid newspaper. Stonehaven follows, a mad violin driven thrash, a song that was reworked to better effect for the following album, Paradise Razed. Vane Tempest and Pandora’s People are typical Blyth stuff which I wont dwell on as I’m becoming conscious that the length of the review is running away with me, but I must leave time to extol the virtues of the final track, Stitching In Time. For me both one of the most simple and one of the best songs the band has produced. As a gentle acoustic guitar drifts into earshot, Josef narrates the story of the Greek army outside Troy, their ten-year siege and their decision to build, of all things, a giant wooden horse. It kicks into a mid paced jaunt with some spiralling bass work and a soaring heavenly violin as in hindsight the protagonists look back on the battles of their youth.

“In story now and song
Scamander flows along
Though the walls of the siege bound city have fallen down
And though our arms are red with rust
Still in a patient God we trust
So for a cause long forgotten until Kingdom comes around
We’ll stand our ground”
The world depicted by Blyth Power is the one of the history books, and that is their main folk connection, in reality all sorts of styles and influences grace their songs, but above all it is a unique and challenging yet thoroughly rewarding album, with a charm and quality all of its own and an identity that screams of its birth place. A stitch in time to ward off vacuous Americana devoid of soul and passion? A finger in the dyke against the wave of bland musical dross? Maybe, but I’ll be right behind then when the dam breaks.

Waiting For Bonaparte – The Men They Couldn’t Hang

The-Men-They-Couldnt-Han-Waiting-For-Bonap-498796The Men They Couldn’t Hang have always been a band that are difficult to define in the scheme of things. More a rock band employing folk style than the other way round, too straight for the traveller crowd, too progressive for the folk purists and too obscure to reach the main stream they have hung about in the musical ether for twenty odd years, and I bet most of you reading this have never heard of them. Rising from a collection of small time bands and buskers from London’s squat scene, TMTCH have been knocking out original and unequalled albums for years and in many peoples opinion, mine included, their defining moment came with 1988’s Waiting for Bonaparte. The combination of the punch caricature of Wellington that graces the cover and the song titles themselves give you an idea of where these boys are coming from. But they are no mere actors donning an image for affect; these guys are the real deal, the modern day troubadours keeping alive the spirit of an almost forgotten past. But where there has been a trend in modern times to tap into a half imagined Celtic dreamtime of mysticism and stone circles, heroes and fallen angels, the material here is far more tangible. Like fellow stalwarts, Blyth Power, they are keeping alive a much more recent and relevant slice of history. Their songs repackage and offer up stories from the Industrial Revolution, Nelsons fleet, train drivers and smugglers. A lesser band could make these themes seem like a bad Boys Own Adventure story, but the mix of historical observation and poetic lyrical content makes this rise above the efforts of lesser mortals.

Waiting For Bonaparte was the bands third album and contained some of the bands defining moments and as well as many of the live favourites still regularly played at the live gigs. The two previous albums Night of A Thousand Candles and How Green Was My Valley contained moments where you could glimpse future brilliance but showed that the band were still a bit unfocused. Here though, everything just came together in those rare moments of clarity. The album opens with a drone and drum beat which builds until the trade mark mandolin cuts right through your spine and drags you headlong into The Crest, a song of breaking that tradition of going off to war to be sacrificed, just because that’s what the men of the family always have done. From its country influenced opening licks to the fade out as the band echo away into nothing, The Crest really sets out the store and prepares you for the roller coaster ride that this album offers.

The more acoustic jaunt of Smugglers follows, a traditional song given a new coat. The craggy coasts of Ailsa Craig play host to a tale of brandy smuggling and excise men and although this acoustic guitar dominated tune is an age-old folk standard it still has all the hallmarks and originality of the band in its delivery, even if they can’t make claim on its creation. From here the album momentarily steps down to its most mellow point and you find yourself on a ferryboat returning to harbour after years at sea, in Dover Lights. Here the most basic of music is built up into more than the sum of its parts by the clever layering of one, then two voices and a whole gang chorus that seems quite apt for this navel style sing along.

“Teachers of England instructed me well, strength comes from iron and fire,
Freedom was won from the barrel of the gun; law comes from palace and spire
I carried the wealth of this land across the sea till the ships and the cargoes grew slack,
Now many Jack Tar is washed up in a bar, many ships will never come back”

In those first three songs you have a taste of the flavour of this album, at its heart it’s very nautical. There is plenty of room for the Men’s other regular themes, trains, criminals and outcasts, the military and the underdog. Musically the mandolin is often the favoured weapon of choice, which makes a nice change to the guitar. Bounty Hunter in particular makes great use of this, spiralling up and away from the song on the lead before being reined in for more subtle work on the rest of the song. The vocals as usual make a full and powerful back drop on which the rest of the song is pinned, like a mini male voice choir the band give rise to some sumptuous harmonies and the music surges on in a relentless charge which you can only let wash over you and carry you away. For Island in the Rain its back to the maritime imagery of shorelines and harbours, here the setting is the Isle of Wight and a very personal reflection of places from the writers past. The music surges in and out like the breaking tide as the song ebbs and flows from lone mandolin refrains to full blown harmonies.

Historical tales, real or imagined are often the theme of the songs, and in the Colours the hero of the piece is a mutineer singing his lament from the gallows as he tells of the conditions and hardships they had to endure at sea, and how he always did his duty. A rousing sing along that in traditional folk style employs regularly repeated choruses to make the song accessible to all and mixing the left wing social penning of Thomas Paine with a musical account of life at sea in Georgian times. It’s an odd mix of calypso edged rock and more authentic historical folk approaches.Politics and stomping rabble rousing folk rock all in one energetic package.

“Red is the colour of the new republic,
blue is the colour of the sea,
white is the colour of my innocence
not surrender to your mercy”

This style of song typifies the Men’s ability to have one eye on the history of the tales and another on the injustices of the times. This song also gives you an idea of their live sound, boisterous; sing along drinking songs, an energetic band and an even more energetic audience.
Midnight Train is another paced number, with its full on rockabilly beat and double vocals, something again used to great affect, with two excellent front men in the band, and the vocals are always sumptuous and often epic. They do show a more reflective side on Fathers Wrong, a track that takes the difficult subject of child abuse and manages to maintain a dignified and poignant stance. If there was such a thing as Heavy Folk (Heavy Wood?) then Life of a Small Fry is it in all its glory. Guitars and mandolins are played through heavy metal effects pedals and the song teeters through out its duration on the edge of anarchy.

The final song, Mary’s Present is one of the most immediate on the album and certainly the most pop orientated and as the song fades with the final words “ your futures been stolen by the past” an allusion to a forthcoming unexpected child, you might reflect that the opposite of this statement is actually what the band are all about. They have stolen the past from the dry teachings and dusty books and brought it to light for the future.

The album manages to mix an intricate way of blending different acoustic instruments, without losing the clarity and depth, but in such a way that creates a powerful force, which will get you up and dancing. Its a pity that the term “dance music” has so many connotations because to me this is the ultimate dance music, every song makes you want to stomp or dance, waltz or sway, this is what originally dance music would have been like, and The Men They Couldn’’t Hang blend these old folk styling with some great contemporary sounds, and manage to tell an informative story along the way.

To sum up, this is an album to play, as you are getting ready to go out on a Friday night, this is music for those loud party nights. It’s also the music that showed people that you could mix folk with rock without watering it down. Most of all on a personal level, this is the band that made me want to become a musician. Buy it, play it loud and then go and see them live, it changed my life, you just never know……..

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