McDermott's 2 Hours vs Levellers
World Turned Upside Down
I stumbled on Jeremy Leveller in a Kemptown street late last millennium. Instead of just asking each other how things were going, we started talking about working together, in the studio, if we could find the time. We didnít cross paths again for months but the idea wasn't forgotten. Charlie wanted to be involved. We met up in a sandpit surrounded by kids a week before we were due to record. When I contacted Tim OíLeary, the multi-instumentalist from McDermottís Two Hours, in Edinburgh, the same unforced and positive intent drew him in. We had a band.
Nothing about the album was done by the book. We hadnít played together before. Like the two Levs, Tim and I tune into one another instinctively, but we have been apart for a long time. We worked on arrangements, harmonies and rhythms in the Metway. The other musicians we involved had to be as versatile. It all happened in four days.
We wanted to make something that had an authentic spirit, armed with political and personal beliefs long-held in common. The songs were chosen to reflect thisÖ World Turned Upside Down came from writing the music for a theatre production. I remember walking round the local park late at night under the moon, banging my hands and feet in cross-rhythms, fragments of lyrics running through my head, as a swan stretched its wings on the lake. It celebrates equality - political and sexual - the subversion of the prevailing order, the triumph of the pagan over the Puritan. Timís instrumental arrangement, like all his arrangements, which Jeremy and Charlie carefully augment, makes musical sense of the ideas.
Another Campaign moves protest onto the battlefield. It used to have more bellicose lyrics. I donít believe in bloodshed these days but in more subtle means of subversion. Inspired by Irish struggles, it could be the song of any oppressed people and how to fight back.
The Wheel comes from personal history, but itís still focused on a sense of defiance. I had a lover who used to turn up on her bike to play flute with us in sessions years ago. She went off to pick grapes in the south of France one autumn, got hit by a truck as she turned onto a main road, and never came back. Itís a song of mourning, but itís the faith in it that counts.
Ballads are a universal language. Blue Bandana is a heavily disguised account of something else personal, transported to Cuba. It sounds gentler than the others here, but it still has a sharp edge.
Harry Brewer is where different kinds of history meet. I have two Irish grandfathers, born and bred. Harry and his brother Angus went off to fight for the British in the First World War. Iíve mingled their stories. Jeremyís idea of letting the harmonica trail off like a dying breath is the best memorial Brewer could have.
Taking It On picks up the thread of trying to hold onto what the heart tells the head; how some kinds of friendship can become an act of faith and change things, in themselves.
When the International Brigades were stood down in Barcelona in November 1938, Dolores Ibarruri - La Pasionaria - made a stunning speech of farewell. I twisted some of the words and pulled them together to make this song. Thereís a famous photograph of one of the soldiers at the time, fist pressed against his head, tears in his eyes. Itís another moment of subversive history that shouldnít be forgotten.
Laying The Sligo Maid brings it all back home. Mickey used to sit about in Brighton playing his whistle between fights and binges. This is his ballad. Itís a full-on live dance piece, but like The Wheel, itís part of a wake, where the dead come back to laugh and reel with us.
We had that wake in the Metway. We called it World Turned Upside Down. I think it will stay with us. I remember walking round the courtyard at three in the morning in the last session, while Tim put down yet another track - with Jake still listening keenly through the glass - after fifteen hours switching from fiddle to bouzouki to whistles to vocals, and transcribing onto sheets of manuscript. His eyes were glazed with fatigue. Yet some indefinable glow had settled round him, that had come from losing himself, as we all did; at first with a kind of diffidence, but as the hours passed, with a growing sense of fulfilment; and the knowledge that, whatever perspectives we might look back from - Levellers on tour still belting it out to thousands, or McDermotts back in pub sessions - we could trust we had at last made something together that represents the history we have in common, music we value, beliefs we have not lost.
If people want that, Iím sure we will do it again.
You can order the album here. Read Nick Burbridge's thoughts on the political potential of folk music in general here, and the story of their second album, here.