…In which, as the year comes to its end, our friends and collaborators look back on the past twelve months and share their moments;
This year, a recent project caused me to reconsider those pivotal pieces of music – after the hearing of which – all else sounded different. I usually write the buggers down, nail them, about five a year on average, sometimes entire albums, sometimes just one song, seldom do they become famous, often they remain skulking catalysts for wiser folk to cherry pick, smooth off, and sanitise into hits. 2016 had a bumper crop, certainly compared to the tough mid 80s and even tougher than 1974, that doldrum before the storm.
Of course, back then, the storm came loudly dressed in colourful clothes but by 1976 (a year that was endlessly re-calibrated and celebrated in 2016) my storm had already arrived. Mine blew in a year earlier from far off lands: Jamaica, the Belle Isle of Canvey and also from England’s North East whence came one 45 RPM record that I played again last night to re-affirm that the spirit of ’76 exists still in 2016 as well as in the year that this record was recorded: 1962.
In 1974 I was a pennifull art student in Watford trying to forge a career as a serious musician and spending far too long in ‘The Old Man’s Shop’ in the Clarendon Road. Here we found box after box of 45s stacked high. The shop smelled of cats, rollies, piss and cabbage, the singles were damp and 30p, the albums a quid. I always left with armfuls of bargains, but none as mighty as a single I bought simply because I liked the look of it. It looked like an old ska record: plain bag, blue label with silver type, and three songs per side.
I had no idea who Louis Killen and Johnny Handle were, but one listen to The Colliers’ Rant did it for me and still does. That word ‘rant’- as heard on John Peel in The High Level Ranters sessions – held more anger, spirit and spit than any cries for anarchy and riot did a year later.
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This last September I hiked Hadrian’s Wall. I had but a passing interest in Roman history, and soon came to realise that their wall coasted over a border far more ancient: a divide between Scotland and The North. After the Romans left and the Saxons took over, this ‘North’ was the greatest seat of power these Islands ever knew, only to be robbed and denuded by the invading Normans from the South, Vikings of a very different breed.
Whilst trudging from West to East over 6 glorious warm sunny dry autumn days, with the book The Marches by Rory Stewart to hand, another dichotomy arose. Stewart is an ex-military Tory boy, current minister of state for international development. Yet he writes brilliantly about a forgotten country crushed between Scotland and England – a land he calls The Middleland, holding forgotten peoples and languages still preserved in sixth-century lullabies and sixteenth century ballads. To walk this wall is to walk the land of the Picts, the Brigantes, the Reivers, across forts housing fourth century NATO soldiers from the vast Roman World. He writes of Northumbria (not Northumberland) and the Anglisc of AD900 and it’s all around me, inescapable, in the damp air, in the spring of the sphagnum, in the igneous Whin Sill, the pounding brown streams and no more so than in the songs, and oh what songs they are. Handle and Killen sang these songs on that record. Songs beyond borders, songs of anger and bile, songs that berate, still, the lack of a public enquiry into Orgreave or the corrupt petty fiefdoms that are our 43 Police forces, songs of defiance and warmth, songs that fit the battle of Jericho: and the walls come tumblin’ down.
This wall I was walking on: a Caesarian defensive measure by a Trump of his day, to keep out the hordes, to extoll taxes from goods that passed through. How do we ever understand these ‘others’ if we keep building walls to shut them out? That Berlin Wall that robbed my father’s home from the West, that hideous wall in Israel, the ‘great’ wall of China, Mr Trump’s guardian wall, and that awful Pink Floyd record: “We Don’t Need No Education”.
No, we just need educating.