CLAWS AND WINGS
We got fired up about the last McDermotts/Levellers album. So did almost all the critics, I'm glad to say. But, in retrospect, however energetic or inspired, it could only be a record of what was: a brief amicable session, drawing much on the past, and given the state of everyone involved, unsure about any future identity. Like a busking performance in a windswept old quarter of a European city, it's good crack, full of colour and invention; yet it seems somehow ephemeral, given what might be.
But there's another album now. Claws And Wings. When we first played it back in the Metway we had the incongruous sight of Jeremy bringing in a bottle of champagne; it was his way of saying we had made something this time we should wet the head of. I think that's why he asked me to write about it here. (...'Make it long. Talk about the songs'...) It's by way of introduction.
We didn't have substantially more time or resources. Only three weeks in the studio. But, just as The Levellers themselves have moved back to their roots, so we've thrived on making a genuinely acoustic album, underpinned with strong bass and percussion. We're still not a working band, rehearsal time and familiarity with material were at a premium. But it feels like there's a coherence in all the varied styles and moods which shows a real understanding. Thanks to Jake and Jeremy's production, the recording loses nothing in power, and what it lacks in sheer volume, I think it gains in clarity and exuberance. It's been mastered by Al Scott and is already available on mail order. Phil hopes to get it into the shops by the New Year with a full publicity push. He, too, thinks it's one to have and keep.
Of course there aren't any guarantees in this business. My own confidence comes from knowing that the record wasn't made for 'this business' anyway. The songs aren't written, conscious of any sense of manipulation. The idea is to find an authentic voice. I don't know how it works but, with this motivation, they seem to make themselves. You clothe them in melody and language but they are forged somewhere beyond your personal territory. And when you look at how they dovetail together - themes and verses echo one another - you realise you're a medium, no more. Kudos, or money, are not part of it.
It's this experience Claws And Wings sets out to explore. Song Of A Leveller cuts through time, to the 17th Century, when for an inspired phase in English history it seemed as if the world was genuinely turning upside down. Establishment figures are challenged and confounded by the spirit of revolution. There are deliberate echoes of contemporary eco-protests and underground movements where that spirit is still active:
Webs spread through the trees
Where shadows dance, our lines advance
To set the hunted free...
It's a battle-song, and a homage to all those who dare make that challenge, reaching for the kind of imagery Blake might have used for his revolutionary enthusiasms - and in the same breath celebrating riotous occasions in recent years inspired by a bunch of Brighton musicians I can remember playing acoustic guitars to one another on summer afternoons in the local park where Song Of A Leveller (like many others) was conceived. The reel Tim O'Leary has woven around it Jon thinks one of the best fiddle tunes he has heard, so it's given full rein.
North And South pulls back in scope and tempo, though it makes full use of Tim's multi-instrumental work in the slow dance he has written to move about the song, and the empathy with the central character is no less committed. St. James' Street in Brighton has supposedly just been 'cleaned up' (no alcohol, no begging etc.), but since it's home to a hostel perhaps they expect people to fly out of the area, so long as they disappear from public view. North And South tells one drunk's story of how he ended up on the streets.
You kicked me in the mouth, north and south,
I still think a narrative makes a political point better than a rant. I knew this man. I wasn't sitting in a car going past him. I listened to his story, and this is it.
Now I hope you're satisfied
The same is true of Song Of A Brother. But the material makes me so angry I can't help ranting as well. The fact is, I accuse all those involved in the death of my brother, turned out into 'community care', after more than forty years' safe custody in hospital. I accuse the private care organisation which successfully 'bid' for their client and housed him in a small country village with his fellow inmates where they were openly resented. I accuse it for the careless way it thrust them into outside life with no regard to what all that time in a small world based on routine and security does to a badly formed mind, and for the neglect which left him to die alone at night wedged between bed and wall where he had fallen in a fit, with no alarm system to detect what was happening. And I accuse the politicians and civil servants who, in the name of economy and abstract theory play about with the lives of the vulnerable. I had a radio play about this turned down, on the grounds that able-bodied actors shouldn't portray the disabled. Some irony. I just hope this song goes some way to making these accusations public, reaching out to others who have suffered, to draw attention to what's been inflicted on such people in the name of progress. It's a dervish, like Dirty Davey. And so it ought to be.
The main theme that echoes through the album should be clear by now: the abuse of the powerful and the status of the meek, how one oppress the other, and how they may fight back. Postcard comes in obliquely; it's about the more subtle betrayals within a partnership. But it takes no moral line, a tender account of how it is to transgress, and what leads to it. It's simple to accuse others of causing pain on a grand scale. It's harder to explain the sorrows you inflict privately, or the joy you steal in the act. Tim plays a deep whistle solo that probably does it better than the song itself.
Back on the road, Travelling To Cockaigne lays down the challenge:
Will you follow me down through these streets of shame?
I'm a child you can't defile and I'm travelling to Cockaigne
This came out of an old McDermotts song, Sailing To Byzantium, drawn in turn from a Yeats' poem, about taking the journey to a mystical city founded on principles of freedom and creativity. Cockaigne is the poor man's version in English mythology, where the ability to rest from labour is as important as a sense of liberty. Tim's tune, here, circles round the song as if it's written for some Pied Piper leading the army of pallid children from the dark streets to their new refuge. It's the kind of seamless bond we think makes the album full of what it is the mythical city signifies.
Yet it seems when you delve into material like this a natural sense of contradiction arises, and you can't help but move between hope, uncertainty and despair. Snapshot pulls back to the actual world over the last forty years, identifying particular war photographs that epitomise the cruelty inflicted on children caught in the crossfire, from Vietnam to Palestine. It, too, came out of another song, written for an Edward Bond play, The Tin Can People, where after a nuclear holocaust, ragged tribes of survivors roam the wasteland living on canned food, suspicious of everyone they encounter, but still dreaming of some kind of redemption. It asks if one of the worst consequences of the way modern wars are waged is that they are reduced to cinematic images we can turn off or fold away; outrage and compassion become synthetic, like so much else. Yet the truth remains. I got my young daughter to sing the introduction, to bring it all back home.
Song Of A Quaker's Wife goes deeper, trying to get at that truth. We used the first mix of a live take (with only layers of chant added), recorded on a Good Friday. Jeremy took it up to Iona last summer and had his friends play it in the monastery. It's a prayer, I suppose, a meditation on primitive Christian imagery. It certainly feels like something happens on the track. Whether that means it's being answered, I don't know! But I tried, as far as I could, to probe all the hollow religious poses that come easily, to get at the heart of a genuine belief: what the life, and death, of a redeemer is about, and how it seems to resolve all contradictions.
Stillness and silence, waiting not turning - child, be born
Through blindness and violence, breathing not burning,
Healed by the wound of the nail and the scar of the thorn
The mother talks to her unborn child, knowing the corruption of the world, and still calling for his nativity. It's the ultimate act of faith, the only promise of a genuine redemption.
But it seems that every holy symbol sooner or later petrifies, and even the purest beliefs become corrupted. Stor Mo Chroi is a kind of traditional Irish jazz-blues ballad, if there is such a thing, full of bitter lyrics and cross-rhythms, where the story of how the devotion women have shown in a land supposedly full of faith has led to captivity, not liberation, over centuries. Bearing children has been their prime source of oppression. Stor Mo Chroi is a refrain you find in ballad after ballad - written by men - where women supposedly yearn for their absent partners to return from warfare or wandering, to make their lives whole, when in fact they are a catalogue of neglect and abuse. It's used ironically here, like the jagged version of one of Tim's slow reels, and his Gaelic chant claiming the weight of the world is on his back; the song comes together as a cry of female defiance. The clarion from Song Of A Leveller returns to call the trapped bird to liberty:
There's a crack in your tower
There's a lark on the wing
She's calling for power
I know why the caged bird sings
I think Song Of A Father is the only resolute answer I can find. It's a man's vision of fidelity and tenderness, charting his daughter's early life from Caesarian birth to her climbing with both her parents towards the Long Man Of Wilmington, symbol of fertility and steadfastness. The lyrics lie over a string arrangement like a classical quartet. The crucified palm, the gripped fist, and the stretching fingers of the meek become the benevolent clasp of child's and father's hands. It's unashamedly an affirmation of love for my own daughter and her mother, but it seeks to balance all these other cries of anger and defiance, not with a prayer, a sense of some redemptive belief or hope of revolution, but with what is undeniable, and actual: a life-force conceived, expressed, welcomed and nurtured, freely and with confidence.
My hand folds around your hand
In a tender hold no other hand can break
So the last three songs bring the album full circle. They draw on contemporary experience, informed by all that's gone before. Asylum explains itself. It's told from the perspective of a political refugee coming to this country, with all the hopes of such a journey, balanced by the anxiety of being caught making it, and wondering what welcome waits at the end.
The fear of being lost collides
With the fear of being found
This ambivalence isn't resignation. There's been too much travelling for that. It's a genuine feeling that, in the end, the readiness is all. When the exile sings:
I strike another match now
And a flame leaps from the spark
Do I look up to see you come
Towards me through the dark?
- in the quarter of the city where he stands, which the children transformed into Cockaigne, but which reinstates itself after every rebellion or escape, he can't tell if he is going to be warmly held, or beaten up; he can only wait, with a sense of his own dignity. There is no way back.
The same thoughts lie behind Beach Scene, though it's a personal story, upbeat and tangential, sounding like it was recorded by some Palestinian campfire. I owe it to an alcoholic friend of mine, who kicked the bottle before it killed him, after meeting a Tarot reader walking the beach late at night. He used to write prolifically for radio and television, including episodes of The Prisoner; I saw his one act play, Rock Bottom, and the story's stayed with me ever since. Like the refugee, he can't turn back, his faith is balanced by uncertainty. Beach Scene is the tale of his acceptance, a dance with an unknown woman who has the moon in her eyes. It leaves him a character in his own story, where, paradoxically, he has a sense of freedom and integrity that was denied him outside it.
He must have been sleeping when she left him
The sky had reddened with the dawn
So he went home and he kicked the bottle
And he walked into this song...
So it all comes down to Murphy's Wake. I can't think of anywhere better than the north of Ireland over the last forty years to exemplify the destructive forces that can be unleashed through the abuse of power, where the vulnerable have suffered most, while bigots and imperialists have played out their war-games; and yet where there is a spirit of resistance and a cultural strength that refuses to be beaten. Few writers bear this strength like Samuel Beckett, though in no conscious or superficial way, but by stating and restating, in his own terms, the potential dignity of even the most battered soul, and the absurdity of the confines it's put into. Murphy is a character from one of his novels, whose ashes are entrusted to a mate and end up scattered over the floor in a pub brawl. Not so long after Beckett died I was working on a book called War Without Honour, with an ex-military intelligence officer, Fred Holroyd, about the dirty war the British were fighting in Ireland. The more I got sickened recounting the murderous or bungled army operations, the more I was overwhelmed by this sense of the absurd. When the D Notice committee threatened our publishers, Harrap, (who had just brought out Stalker) with litigation, they pulled out and we had to go to a small independent press. The phone was tapped. One evening, as I was putting the children to bed, two policemen urged their way into my home and questioned me aggressively about a possible involvement in the Tern Hill bombing. They didn't bother to arrest me, they merely wanted me know what could happen. It was nothing to what Fred suffered, but it was an insight into what totalitarian behaviour feels like at first hand. Yet, as I kept reading Beckett, I realised that ultimately the only appropriate reaction was to laugh. Fred and I laughed a lot as the tappers listened in. We persevered with the book, it was launched at the House Of Commons, and people like Tam Dalyell came out, saying that the material 'concerns the probity of the British Government at the top.' Still I couldn't help thinking of Vladimir and Estragon under their tree with their boots off. It was all part of a surreal dream. It still is, when I see the book listed in some academic's bibliography about modern urban warfare. And we're still part of it. That's why I wrote Murphy's Wake.
All the villains of the album - soldiers, perverts, bent police and politicians etc. - meet in a Portadown bar for the wake of traditional Irish values. Recent history is contracted to a few hours. The Clockwork Orange campaign (to smear Labour politicians using the intelligence network based in Ulster) is at its height - no one trusts what anybody else says. The Orangemen who buggered the young lads at Kincora stand at the bar with stained trousers. The SAS and their Protestant paramilitary friends have come in for a pint before they go out to murder a few more Republicans. The landlady is a mad-eyed Englishwoman with pigeon toes - she's been a liability since she organised a trip to Gibraltar, but the truth is she hasn't been herself since she went on holiday to Brighton and her hotel exploded. She's been keeping four men in the cellar and another six in the attic, after a bit of trouble at some other pubs, but she's been forced to let them out of the backdoor now. Things are getting out of hand. Someone's brought down a helicopter with a whole bunch of her friends in on a Scottish island. Tourism isn't what it used to be.
In come the turncoats and informers. Ginger Baker was in the Royal Irish Rangers when he was recruited by British Intelligence. He penetrated the UDF's foremost assassination squad and carried out several murders, with army approval, while relaying information. When he wanted to pull out, he was immediately disowned, and none of the incentives he was promised materialised. Instead he went to prison. He's here now, and he's looking for revenge.
Fred Holroyd worked for M16 in his guise as a British soldier, and found out exactly what dirty tricks were going on. But he's fallen foul of the military machine and he wants to tell what he knows: sabotage, murder, extortion. Names, including Robert Nairac. Weapons used on different paramilitary operations, which prove British involvement. The 'self-exploding motorcyclist' with booby-trapped bombards attached to his fuel tank. The train derailed over Republican Portadown that is no accident. The Gardai implicated in cross-border operations, shoot to kill. For his pains he's flown out of the province to an army mental hospital in Hampshire, held without charge or diagnosis, and effectively discredited for good. They call it political psychiatry. His long struggle to clear his name and have the truth revealed starts in this madhouse. It will be a long campaign.
And then there's his mate, Colin Wallace. When he starts to tell what he knows about strategies to destabilise the left, and back the dirty war, they frame him for a Sussex murder and send him down. He gets a book out too (Who Framed Colin Wallace? - Paul Foot) and they have to pay him £150,000 compensation. These people won't be silenced. But M15 is so out of control it even orders its men to ambush their own side to try to win the intelligence battle. The whole place is a mess. Murphy's remains fly through the air, as the coppers and the paramilitaries and soldiers fight, or try to stop the fight; no one knows who's hitting who, or why, anymore. It's the industry of violence at work. It needs its killing fields. And so the spirit of a rich and vibrant culture is reduced to ashes tossed about and trodden underfoot, in the name of so-called justice and democracy.
And the sun goes down on the whip and the clown
So Lucky gets back on his feet...
But the whole point of Beckett's work, whatever is said about despair in the metaphorical world he depicts, which is as far from this kind of place as could be, but nonetheless contains all its corruptions and beliefs, is that what gets tossed about and trodden on, somehow not only retains, but augments its integrity, and contrives to do what it must: wait, with or without hope, for what will come. And as the waiting goes on, the stories and the songs are invented, to pass the time.
Play it again, Sam, for Christ's sake
And that's where Claws And Wings begins...
It's nearly an hour's journey on CD. When you try to explain it, it seems there's no end. But for all the references to fact and fiction, it's only an album, and it will stand or fall on what you hear in it. If we've put it together right musically - with Tim's comprehensive work, Jeremy's confident and inventive bass, Charlie's sensitive percussion, and the commitment of the session musicians, - at least some of its other significance will come through. For me, as I keep taking trips to dark cities I would rather avoid, I feel at least, when it seems too far to get back, I may have left something here that casts a light.
So let me dedicate Claws And Wings to the writer on an obscure website who reviewed our last album with such insight: 'A long forgotten Brighton duo versus the longtime champions of the dog-on-string brigade. No one wins.' Unlike other writers in magazines from Q to Folk Roots, seasoned journalists like Jerry Gilbert and George Berger, you had the wit and vision to know what you were dealing with, and the intellectual and musical awareness to capture it so pithily. No one wins. Right. May this album, too, inspire you to such wisdom.
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 first album, here.