People Powered – Concerts for Corbyn – Brighton Dome – Friday 16th December 2016
Politics and music have not always seen eye to eye, but their intimately intermingled relationship has, to a greater or lesser degree, always been there. However, political protest via the medium of music had all but been submerged within the commercial airwaves by the first decade of the 21st century. Thankfully though, their spirit has driven much of contemporary alternative music. Indeed, folk music has always had social and political issues at its heart, folk music in essence reflecting the creativity of working people, who have consistently used it as a political voice, and not just one for the purposes of ‘entertaining’.
But, in the wrong hands, politics and music have often been uneasy bedfellows. Certainly, no one likes to be pummelled into submission via political sloganeering.
Take John Lennon, for instance. Songs such as ‘I Am The Walrus’, ‘Revolution’ (in particular, the anti-revolution album version), and ‘Come Together’ are all, to varying degrees, songs with oblique socio-political-cultural references. They are shrouded in cryptic allusions to political events and scenes, which nevertheless resonated with listeners. These songs, and others, were open to interpretation, and didn’t attempt to force a point of view on anyone. That’s why they are liked. Loved even (of course, the melodies and harmonies have to be there as well!). Conversely, when Lennon went nakedly political for his almost universally derided Some Time in New York City album, his table thumping, extreme political posturing resulted in by far the worst, and least popular music of his career. Such direct lyricism in the political arena almost always goes hand-in-hand with sledgehammers for melodies. From ‘Imagine’ to ‘Woman Is The Nigger of the World’ in the space of little more than a year. From sublime and nuanced poetry, that at least attempts to understand and communicate the complexities of life, to obnoxious generalisations that only dictatorial regimes could sign up to.
Of course, when it comes to issues like racism, it was relatively easy to rally the forces. Rock Against Racism of the late 70s was a no-brainer (apart from for racists), an easy wagon to jump on to and believe in. However, the Red Wedge campaign of the mid-80s was a more difficult sell. In essence, its purpose was to sell the politics and ideology of the Labour Party. The likes of Paul Weller, Billy Bragg, Jerry Dammers, Madness, The Communards, Elvis Costello, The The and many other alternative and mainstream stars of the day took sides with the Labour Party of headed by Neil Kinnock, as the 1987 general election loomed. The Tories, under Margaret Thatcher, comfortably won that election, and indeed the subsequent one under John Major in 1992. But, in ’97, Labour finally won back power, and for a short moment, it seemed most of the country’s musicians partied with the politicians; everyone from Oasis to Peter Gabriel believed big changes were a-coming. But, instead of poetic outpourings we instead got ‘Things Can Only Get Better’. Alas, it was not quite to be for many of those initially star-struck stars. And from then on, the country glacially shifted to the centre ground. Recent shockwaves however, have opened up a Pandora’s box of ‘whatever next’. These are, to say the least, interesting and volatile times we live in.
Here we are in 2016, and the political landscape has shifted considerably these last couple of years. Uncertainly, fear and loathing have risen, and politics across Europe and America is as turbulent as the 60s, when some kind of revolution was last in the air. Following the unexpected thrashing of Ed Milliband in 2015, we’ve had Brexit, Trump and Corbyn, all major political upsets. As Bob Dylan famously sang back in the feverish days of the American Civil Rights movements of the early 60s, ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’. It seems that new collective voices are being forged and heard in response to the huge challenges that are being foisted upon ordinary working people. Here in the UK, opportunities are presenting themselves for projects that could link present concerns with previous struggles, in the process helping to nurture these new collective voices.
“One day I was at a play group with my daughter, and I had read another article that seemed to be demonising Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party,” recalls Lois Wilson. “And I thought I just want to show a different side to this. I really want to counterbalance this. I had come of age with 2 Tone and Red Wedge, and I had always seen music as a source for social change. I thought, ‘Right, I’m going to ring up some of my famous friends and see if they feel the same as me. I write for MOJO magazine, so I am very lucky in that sense. And, literally at the play group, I called up Paul Weller and got his answerphone, and said, “I’m not sure you want to do this, but can you ring me back, please?’ He rang back, and said, ‘what do you want to do, Lois’? ‘Would you play a gig if I put it on, in support of Jeremy Corbyn?’ ‘Yes, I will. Come back to me with what you’ve got planned’. ‘OK, bye!’ And that is where it began.”
A writer with MOJO for many years, Lois Wilson is also a DJ and avid collector of music, almost invariably on old school vinyl. She, along with Sarah Pickett, and other like-minded souls, decided to organise a music-orientated event that could perhaps act as a conduit, however small, for the social changes that are being demanded by a vociferous Labour Party, as expressed by the Momentum group, and the hundreds of thousands of new members. “Just last weekend there was that dreadful article that cut up the photos of Corbyn saying that he was dancing a jig at the Cenotaph. It has got to absolutely ridiculous lengths! So, we’re just saying, open your mind, have a look at what he is actually saying and see that what he is saying are just core Labour Party principles.
“Music can be a huge force for social change. Today, more than ever, it feels like we need to stand up for democracy, for fairness and equality, for our basic human rights. We feel that Jeremy Corbyn's realigning of the Labour Party towards the principles of social justice and wealth distribution, which the party was first founded on, affords the best opportunity to improve everybody's lives. By inviting a broad range of acts, not all of whom are known for being overtly political, to play in support of this under the banner of 'People Powered', we are saying, 'Speak out, get involved, fight for what you believe in, make your voice heard.' Everyone can make a difference."
She must have suspected Weller would be on the same page as her? “I did suspect he would like Jeremy Corbyn. I did have an inkling. It wasn’t just cold calling. Our friendship has developed out of music and politics. We do talk a lot about politics. I am always badgering him to do something.” For his part, Weller has said; “I like what Corbyn has been saying. I just thought here was someone who could steer the Labour Party into what it should be about. It used to be about the working people, the working class. But more generally, it’s about changing our society – there’s so much paranoia and suspicion and racism, we need to turn that round and become the modern nation we should be. I think it’s time to take the power out of the hands of the elite and hand it back to the people of this country. I want to see a government that has some integrity and compassion.”
Although Weller has always been a highly politicised animal, he hasn’t overtly put his name to a cause for decades. Back with The Jam he performed concerts for CND, and went on to co-front Red Wedge along with with other like-minded musicians such as Jerry Dammers, Jimmy Somerville, Billy Bragg, and The Smiths. But this is the first time since the late 80s that he has come out in support of a particular politician. He is in effect headlining People Powered, a revue-type affair that is hoped to be replicated in other parts of the country over the next few months and years. From that one phone call, the line-up quickly developed into an inspiring mix of old warriors with newer blood, crossing genres and styles. Here are some of the others taking part in this unique, one-off bill:
Robert Wyatt & Danny Thompson
“Because this is a one-off, a special event, he wanted to get together some like-minded musicians,” says Lois about Weller’s participation in People Powered. “He called up Robert Wyatt and asked him if he would like to come out of retirement for it, and Robert immediately jumped on board. The pair of them called up Danny Thompson (mostly famously of Pentangle) and he said ‘yes’. They’ve got two days of rehearsals booked in. I think they are going to do some of Paul’s songs, some of Robert’s songs, and also Steve Pilgrim’s songs. He’s Weller’s drummer, but also a solo artist from Liverpool in his own right.”
Although Weller is considerably the more famous, the appearance of Wyatt will excite many fans of the former Soft Machine drummer and hugely admired solo artist. An artist who, because of the almost fatal injury he suffered back in 1973, has rarely performed live. Since ’73 he has only performed a handful live shows, most of those being collaborations, including his last appearance, back in 2001, when he guested with Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd for a version of ‘Comfortably Numb’ as part of Wyatt’s curated Meltdown festival. “This is a really big deal that we’ve got Robert coming,” says Lois. For his part, Wyatt has said about People Powered; “For Paul and the cause, well, the word ‘no’ isn’t an option.” Meanwhile, Weller says about playing with both Wyatt and Thompson, “They’re just people I’ve got to know down the years, and I’ve played with. They’re both brilliant at what they do.”
Back in the 80s, an increasingly politicised Wyatt re-entered the charts for the first time in a decade with ‘Shipbuilding’, an iconic and highly poignant song of its time, written by Elvis Costello. “We’re hoping, and I will cry!” says Lois about the possibility of Wyatt performing this song. “It was written during the Falklands War. It was written about the irony that suddenly all these previously industrial towns and cities, based on shipbuilding, suddenly loads of orders were coming in to build more ships. But sadly, to send people off to war. That’s what Elvis Costello conveyed really well in his lyrics. Robert Wyatt’s vocal is so poignant and upsetting.”
“People talk about music and politics no longer going hand-in-hand and yet there have been loads of campaigns that have inspired our campaign. The Farm have been a huge inspiration for us because they did the Justice Tonight band in 2011, to raise awareness for the Hillsborough Justice campaign. I took that as the blueprint for this event. They’ve been giving us a lot of support, help and advice. Peter Hooton (lead singer) especially.”
A man who was witness to the Hillsborough disaster of ’89, Hooton has spent much of his adult life campaigning, whilst enjoying a successful career as frontman for one of Liverpool’s favoured bands, The Farm. Indeed their biggest hit, ‘All Together Now’, was a political anthem, that in Hooton’s mind shows how music and social justice go hand-in-hand. “It’s an internationalist song about British and German troops putting down their weapons at the time of Keir Hardie (founder of the Labour Party), the beginning of revolutions. Establishment politicians and the mainstream media don’t get it,” he claims. Hooton has described the media response to Corbyn’s election as “Michael Foot coat syndrome”, believing that the media aren’t generally interested in politics and don’t want to talk about it. But Hooton, as always, does.
“Soweto Kinch takes urban wastelands and turns them into creative spaces,” says Lois, detailing another example of the grassroots activism that has been largely under the radar of late. “There is one at the moment called The Flyover in Birmingham. He puts on an entire festival underneath the motorway. These things are not that reported on, are they? But they are there. Music and politics always go hand-in-hand. For instance, just in the last couple of days, Carl Barat (Libertines) has announced he is doing a concert for refugees. Just things like that, snowballing. Once someone does something, someone else gets the confidence to stand up and say something. That was another motivation for this concert. A lot of the acts on the bill haven’t stood up before and said ‘we’re affiliated to something”.
“A band like Temples, you wouldn’t think of them as political, but if they can do it, others can too,” says Lois, who was also their manger in the early days. Signed to Heavenly Records, and with a new album coming out in March, these youthful psychedelic rockers are one of the babies of the line up. Temples’ Tom Warmsley says, "It’s an honour to be involved with the ‘Concert For Corbyn’ show in Brighton. Our freedom and democracy have been thrown into disarray in recent years, it’s important that we all take a stand for change and music is a vital way to show our solidarity."
“Ghetto Priest is a really interesting character. He started out as a football hooligan, and went to prison for shoplifting. While in prison he turned to Rastafarianism, and when he came out he wanted to give back to the community. He started working with Adrian Sherwood of On-U-Sound, and fronted Asian Dub Foundation. He’s currently putting out singles on Jo Wallace’s Ramrock label, coming out of Ramsgate. He’s leading roots reggae in the UK. Here in Brighton, we’ve got Prince Fatty, who is along very similar lines.”
Jim Jones and The Righteous Mind
High octane rock’n’roller Jim Jones is another act on the bill who hasn’t been overtly political in his musical career so far, but feels it right to be involved in such an event, at such a time. “There are so very few people in British politics that appear to genuinely represent the interests of the people above the interests of the establishment, and the military industrial complex,” he has said. “I think what so many of us are inspired by is his (Corbyn’s) authenticity; which is, sadly, such a rare virtue for someone in his position. With what seems to be the full weight of the mainstream media doing their best to discredit him, the very least we can do is stand up for him, and speak up for him.”
There’s also the exquisite, delicate-cum-wry acoustic-jazz-folk singer Kathryn Williams, who has just released Resonator, a collection of jazz and American songbook standards, with vibraphone player Anthony Kerr. “She’s always been political and also very funny,” says Lois. “I literally just wrote to her asking if she would like to do this concert, and she wrote back with one word: ‘Yes’. She was straight on board.”
People Powered: Concerts for Corbyn will not be your normal gig. “It’s more a revue type affair, with short sets from each of the acts, ending with Weller and Wyatt. There will be very quick turnarounds,” says Lois. As well as the aforementioned, there will be sets from the young all-woman indie psychedelic band Stealing Sheep; the acclaimed solo artist Bill Ryder-Jones, who is signed to Domino, and is the former guitarist with The Coral and old school r’n’b lover Edgar ’Summertime’ Jones, who also fronts Merseyside legends The Stairs. Plus, ska legend Rhoda Dakar (who sang on the original Red Wedge tour) will give a short talk, while poet Matt Abbott and comic Joe Wells provide some spoken word entertainment.
Finally, I ask Lois where all the proceeds will end up. “We’ve set up an arts-based initiative fund, so the money made from this event will go into that, enabling others to put on events, as well as funding events like the World Transformed, a celebration of politics, art, music, culture and community, which runs alongside the Labour Party Conference. Next year’s event is being held in Brighton. We are also giving away some of the proceeds to charities that are directly linked to the pledges of Jeremy Corbyn, like Shelter, and the NHS. All the artists will sign posters, and these will be given to each of the charities for them to auction off.”
We’ve moved on considerably since the heady days of political activism in the late 70s and 80s, when many mainstream artists of the day willingly put their name to movements such as Rock Against Racism and Red Wedge. But, as Weller has said, this won’t be a re-run of that time. “If it was me, Billy (Bragg) and Jerry (Dammers) up there that would be odd, as if nothing has changed. I don’t think that anyone’s the Messiah who’s going to lead us into the promised land or some such nonsense. But I think it’s the first stirrings for a long time where people are talking about proper, decent values.”
People Powered – Concerts for Corbyn – Brighton Dome – Friday 16th December 2016
With Temples, Kathryn Williams, Stealing Sheep, Paul Weller with Robert Wyatt, Danny Thompson, Steve Pilgrim and Ben Gordelier, The Farm, Jim Jones And The Righteous Mind, Edgar Summertyme, Ghetto Priest and Bill Ryder Jones