Chris Guiton reviews a great new album by Robb Johnson called Ordinary Giants, and interviews the man himself.
The release of Ordinary Giants underlines Robb Johnson’s ability to write songs of great sensitivity which address big themes through the prism of ordinary lives. Based on the life of his father, Ron Johnson, who joined the RAF in 1939 and then worked as a teacher, it offers a fascinating perspective on the social and political issues faced by people over the last century.
A triple CD song suite, it’s a truly immersive experience which repays close listening as the story unfolds. It’s a testament to the lived experience of ordinary people as they experienced extraordinary times. Starting with the Armistice, and the false promises made to returning soldiers, it spans the experience of growing up in the interwar ears, the growth of fascism, the Second World War and the birth of the welfare state. In the course of the song suite we are treated to thoughtful glimpses into how people lived, felt and experienced the changing world around them as well as satirical asides about ruling class fear of socialism and their contempt for working class people.
The album is dedicated to his father and the generations who lived through these times to fight fascism and build a fairer society. These were people determined not just to win the war, but to win the peace as well. It reflects the struggles and disappointments of these years, as well as the aspirations and achievements.
The album is performed by a great cast of contributors, who’ve clearly added to the creative process, including Tom Robinson, Claire Martin, Boff Whalley, Roy Bailey, TUC General Secretary Frances O'Grady, MP Dennis Skinner, FBU activist Steve White, Joe Solo, Tracey Curtis, Alan Clayson, Matthew Crampton and children from the school where Robb taught. Robb’s parents are sung by Phil Odgers (from The Men They Couldn't Hang) and Miranda Sykes (currently playing bass with Show of Hands). Musicians include Rory McLeod, Bobby Valentino, Jenny Carr, and Robb’s longstanding rhythm section, John Forrester on bass and son Arvin Johnson on drums.
The album is a celebration of our hopes and dreams, and our collective power to make the world a better place, characterised by recognition of our common humanity. It is a tremendous achievement, very much for our times as, once again, the politics of hope offers a society for the many not the few.
For more information on Robb Johnson and Ordinary Giants go to www.robbjohnson.co.uk
CG: Who are the main musical influences in your life and how has your songwriting evolved over the years? What was the spark that got you interested in the first place?
RJ: Well… I started out with Simon & Garfunkel & Pete Atkin… then I had the epiphany that was Ziggy Stardust, which was the gateway to Lou Reed & the Velvets, & Iggy & the Stooges. These are still pretty much my default setting; I still find I am likely to end up playing Velvet Underground bootlegs if I can’t think of anything else to listen to! I was at the Patti Smith Roundhouse gig that practically everybody who was anybody in UK Punk went to. I saw Tom Robinson in a pub in Hounslow, which was just the best gig ever, possibly. But by the time punk rock officially happened, I had accidentally stumbled upon folk clubs & acoustic music, & through that I became deeply in love with the work of black American musicians, blues singers like Howling Wolf, & that’s when I met my other default setting, Billie Holiday. It wasn’t until London Calling that I listened to the Clash, & realised what I had been missing.
There are other significant artists I should mention; one way or another I have been inspired by …Victor Jara, Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel, Johnny Hallyday, Francis Cabrel, Bruce Cockburn, Wolf Biermann… & Chumbawamba, & Mick Farren (& thereby the Deviants & the Pink Fairies) have shaped my understanding of popular culture
I think the basic narrative of my songwriting has been firstly early punk rock… acoustic folk & blues & jazz….music from a diversity of cultures (before it became WORLD MUSIC - then I started listening to South African guitar bands in the 80s cos I was involved in anti-Apartheid gigs & activities, & also living in West London I started listening to bhangra bands, & being involved in Central American Solidarity groups / Nicaragua Solidarity. I listened to music from that region, including the fabulous Godoy brothers) – then I discovered the chanson, & that really moved my songwriting along I think. I also think it probably hammered the final nail into the coffin as far as any likelihood of popularity goes!
All those people & song forms have been sparks that have excited me…I suppose I grew up with the great legacy of Popular Song (my grandad had a piano that you pedalled to play music hall melodies… my dad played Hoagy Carmichael records, & loved Stephane Grapelli & Django Reinhardt) that then fed into the sixties & pop culture… it was just (to me) so obviously the cultural language you would use to make sense of the world. Plus it was obviously OURS. All you had to do was play a guitar & you could communicate. I am sure that I have always wanted to write – I enjoy trying to make the objective code of words express my ideas & maybe also formulate those ideas in beautiful structures. I found myself reciting Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” in my head the other day. I have always believed that had they been born in the 20th Century, poets like Andy, & Billy Shakespeare & Charlie Dickens would have learned 3 chords & formed a rock group rather than write poems, plays or novels.
There is also the alternative narrative that, having had the misfortune to go to an all-boys school, playing the guitar seemed the easiest way to get to talk to girls.
Your question has got me thinking though, about how someone who started off wanting nothing more than to play “Sweet Jane” comes to write 3 CDs worth of stuff about his dad & the Second World War & the welfare state. I suppose there is a link. I have always thought Lou’s “Berlin” a work of genius. Most “rock operas” & “rock musicals” are utterly awful. “Berlin” isn’t… it is a song suite – what’s the difference between a rock musical & a song suite?
The glib answer is that rock operas are awful & song suites aren’t… I think it is more something to do with the ambition of form… classic musicals - & indeed musical theatre – at their best have a nuance & a subtlety that ROCK finds difficult to cope with. Musical theatre – it is interested in songs… rock musicals & operas are fatally limited by the feeling that they need to ROCK!!!! I love rocknroll. But it is what it is - 3 chords & a backbeat, basically. Rock musicals are like folk rock, the very worst of both worlds. But – listening to the sort of songs you hear in musicals & in chanson, you get a greater sense of what SONG can do. It doesn’t have to do it all the time, but it is possible to use songs to freight both meaning & narrative – & sometimes also poetry & nuance, & complexity, too.
CG: Ordinary Giants offers a fascinating perspective on the social and political issues faced by ordinary people over the last 100 years. What inspired you to write it, and how did you go about structuring the narrative and developing the various themes?
RJ: Thank you for the kind appreciation. I think a significant function of art & entertainment is to engage with the social & political issues faced by ordinary people. The tradition of music generally labelled “folk” is particularly well-situated to do this as it is – or ought to be – the unmediated creativity of ordinary people that is independent of court, corporation & Simon Cowell. When you look at these issues from the perspective of ordinary people rather than from the perspective of court, corporation or Simon Cowells, you usually find a narrative that challenges the dominant version of events.
I hope that Ordinary Giants is not an exercise in “folk” nostalgia, but a retelling of what happened over these last 100 years that both challenges the oversimplifications of the official history imposed as the popularised version of events, & also provides a context within which you can better understand contemporary developments. That all probably sounds a bit ambitious for a bunch of songs & monologues… but the inspiration was probably significantly generated by that kind of awareness of what songs can do, & by the writing I had previously done where songs joined up to create a narrative.
I always try to think of albums – not just if they are conscious song suites – as being more effective if they have a sense of structure, a beginning – middle – end that makes some sort of journey. The obvious reference point though is the Gentle Men song suite, about my grandfathers & WW1. I was asked to write something based on the experiences of my grandfathers, who both were present at the 3rd Battle of Ypres, for the 1997 Passchendaele Peace Concert that marked the 80th anniversary of that murderous lunacy. Having written about my grandads & WW1, it seemed logical that at some point I would write about my father & WW2.
For a long time I didn’t want to start this – I sensed it would be a challenging piece to write, & I didn’t want to get it wrong! Then last year, in February 2017, a combination of events made me decide to start writing. Firstly I found myself with an appointment opposite the school where my dad was a headteacher, & secondly I thought if I started now, the album would be out in time to contribute to the political debate in the run-up to the 2020 election. A month later, clearly having got wind of this, Mrs May promptly called a snap election for June.
Initially, I structured the narrative as a series of songs that dealt with significant events or characteristics of my dad’s life. I decided on the title “Giants” as an ironic reference to Beveridge’s “5 Giants”, the social ills of Want, Disease, Squalor, Ignorance & Idleness that were seen as impacting upon the lives of the people in the 30s, & that the creation of the Welfare State was intended to eradicate. Later that evolved with the addition of the categorical, contradictory adjective “Ordinary”.
However, as the writing progressed, I found myself pursuing ideas & inventing & pursuing a wider cast of characters than I had initially anticipated. My dad grew up in the 30s in Heston, in West London. West London enjoyed a period of relative growth in the 30s, so I found that I wanted to invent a chorus that would reference the wider social conditions that my dad wouldn’t have experienced. I created monologues for a character I called Lou, based very loosely on my great aunt Gladys, who was the only member of my mum’s family who voted Labour. I decided Lou would need to be balanced by a right wing chorus, so I invented the Utterswines, a line of Daily Mail readers that end up by 2010 in UKIP.
I found myself pursuing characters too; the song about my dad’s first years as a teacher featured a character that I called Tony Smith. I then wondered what might have happened to those children like Tony Smith, the working class kids of Brentford whose lives the Welfare State was designed to improve. Tony apparently moved to Bognor, & brought up his granddaughter Daisy, & she then gets to reprise in 2009 the song of my grandmother in 1929, “Slow Progress”. I thought it would all be over by Christmas, but songs kept on emerging… one of the benefits of taking so long to write “Ordinary Giants” was that I could reflect on its shape & dramatic structure, & add in songs accordingly.
That’s how Boff’s song “Here Comes Mr Gandhi” originated: I decided there needed to be a song that reminded the audience that Churchill was viewed by pretty much everyone as a political disaster in the 20s & 30s, so I combined that with a song that moved the narrative out of the south to give the industrial north a voice. Just when the recordings were all but finished, my mum talked about a holiday in Eastbourne & day trip she took with her cousin to France in the summer of 1939, which ended up with their boat being caught in a storm. The song all but wrote itself.
It was very difficult to stop writing. I think I did become a bit obsessed with it all; I remember catching myself walking up the stairs to go to sleep after finally fixing up a date for Swill to sing yet another last song, chuckling weirdly to myself.
CG: The song suite features a great cast of contributors. Over the years, you’ve worked with an impressively diverse range of musicians. How do you think your music benefits from this collaborative approach?
RJ: “Ordinary Giants” depends very much on the contributors. I found myself – as well as chuckling weirdly – writing for singers & performers. For example, Swill, Phil Odgers, was just so brilliant as my dad, I kept adding songs & extra bits for him to sing. & Miranda Sykes as my mum, again, absolutely brilliant, so I wanted to write more songs for her to sing. They worked so well together; I had suggested they might try one song could be a duet – their voices interacted perfectly, so we turned another song into a duet, & Swill added beautiful backing vocals to Miranda’s song where the happy poppy 60s turn into the fragmented 70s.
I think competition is not conducive to either creativity in particular or society in general. I am appalled at the way the Right have re-introduced unnecessary & damaging ideas of competition into everything from education to cake-baking. Competition – like grammar schooling – is always presented from the perspective of the “winners”, whereas in fact the majority of participants end up losers – the percentage of us ending up with second class secondary modern education being about 80%.
As a musician, I delight in the process of interacting with other musicians. Magic happens when musicians play together, when voices sing together. I am very fortunate to have worked with lots of lovely creative people. Usually this has been around the songs that I have written, & I am always honoured by people choosing to sing them. These people – particularly singers like Barb Jungr, Roy Bailey & Maggie Holland – have also helped develop & encourage me as a writer & a performer. Working with musicians from different genres or cultural backgrounds has expanded my very self-taught understanding of music. Everybody brings their own perspective, experience & skills to those moments of collaboration. I suppose my songwriting tends to be quite an isolated process – working with different people helps to overcome my individual limitations.
I think effective cooperation & collaboration doesn’t mean we all do the same thing; like the concept of equality it isn’t effective if it is just envisaged as making everything the same. It is much more about contributing strengths together & compensating for each other’s weaknesses. Everybody has these attributes; competition – to return to the education analogy – simply tests what the test has arbitrarily decided to value. Cooperation involves engaging with you as a fully-rounded, 3 dimensional human-being. This seems to me a much better “challenge” than obsessing over who gets most votes on television. Of course, people might say – ah, but in the decades when pop music was such a vibrant cultural phenomenon, it was organised around the weekly publication of the pop music charts. But the culture wasn’t all only Top of the Pops. Top of the Pops was the muzak bizz’s attempt to re-present what was essentially a culture that they could only exploit rather than – as nowadays –determine & control. The Deviants & The Clash never appeared on Top of the Pops....
I nearly forgot – working with the Anti-Capitalist Roadshow, we developed a non-hierarchical collaborative way of performing… we sit in arrow on stage, we all take turns performing a song, & co-operate & join in or sit out if that is more appropriate to our individual skill set - & that I think is a very empowering way of performing. If I get the chance, I try to suggest this way of co-operative working (rather than sticking the “biggest” name/ego on last) in other performances too. Artists co-operating? No-one being the biggest show-off? Dangerously subversive or what?
CG: Culture is a key site of political and social struggle, which offers a powerful platform to challenge the prevailing neoliberal culture. We are very interested in what an incoming Labour Government would do to develop arts and culture policies which work for ordinary people, assert our common humanity against the divisions of class, gender and race caused by capitalism, which facilitate grassroots cultural formations and activities, and which inspire people to fight for a better world. What are your views on the culture policies that Labour might include in their manifesto?
RJ: I think Corbyn’s commitment to returning creativity to the school curriculum is the most effective long term strategy. It’s encouraging to see this in the manifesto – the arts pupil premium. Us humans are by nature creative & cooperative. As an Early Years teacher I saw this at first hand, & then a school system organised around measurable outcomes, a restricted curriculum & competition grinds those attributes out of us & trains us to be passive consumers of processed bilge rather than active, reflective creators.
Recently there has been something of an increase in cultural initiatives that obviously link entertainment to ideas, to politics – there have been the Stand Up For Labour gigs, & the wonderful grass-roots (is that becoming a bit of an overworked term? How about the more descriptive small-scale & local) We Shall Overcome nationwide collective of performers & performances. Labour’s decision to hold a festival last year was another interesting & empowering event (am I biased because I mc’d it? I don’t think so) which involved a really good mix of performers & a lively amount of discussion & debate too.
So these are healthy indications of a healthy resurgence of elements – participation & political consciousness – that have been missing from popular culture. I think festivals need to be treated with caution however; by their very nature they have a tendency to reinforce an unhelpful distance between performer & audience, & a tendency to celebrate the conventional. With all that investment that everybody is making, no-one wants to risk trying something that doesn’t work – which is why small-scale gigs & supportive situations (not another fucking open-mic session where the pub gets free entertainment all night & performers turn up hoping to be discovered & bugger off once they’ve had their go) are so important. We need spaces where as a performer, you can try something out, see how it works, for real, not just in your bedroom. As an audience, we need those spaces too, where we aren’t simply passively responding to a screen or a stream, but interacting with other people. For real.
I have just had a quick re-read of the “Culture For All” section of the Labour manifesto, & it seems a promising document. From my perspective, it looks like a set of proposals that may provide cultural workers engaged in those areas of culture where I work with an increase in venues & opportunities to be creative. It supports the idea that creativity is cultural work that ought to be appropriately remunerated – which is a better model than the present one whereby cultural work is the exclusive province of over-remunerated media-approved celebrities. I think that revitalising local communities & creating & supporting opportunities & spaces for performance (like the way the manifesto recognises the importance of pubs as community resources) will probably be more effective than anything administered by The Arts Council – but then that might just be me & my dislike of filling out forms & ticking somebody else’s boxes.
CG: The media often sneer at ‘protest’ singers, which I take to be a mark of their success! How do you personally combine your music and your politics, and what do think the role of musicians is in society today?
RJ: Indeed – I agree wholeheartedly: you know you’re doing something good when the capitalist bizz & media do their best to ignore &/or rubbish your work. Me & music & politics… well, that’s probably quite a complex question because – having somehow got this pigeon-hole “political artist” that’s primarily only what people hear, & what people expect to hear. Of course, what this really means is “left” or oppositional ideas – no-one ever talks about the politics of Rod Stewart’s work, because it subscribes to or can be recuperated by dominant conservative political values.
I suppose that my life experiences have confirmed in me an understanding of the world that considers every element of the human world is political, & freights political significance. When I was a student in Brighton, my friends in Hounslow who I played in a band with thought my interest in politics was something that was a consequence of my being a student, & that I would grow out of such views once I returned to the “real” world. Partly this was true – being a student allowed me to develop my thinking about the world, & afforded me more opportunity for reflection than my previous occupation, working in the carpet department & then as a toilet cleaner in Hounslow Co-op. But I had already joined USDAW, & had an instinctive dislike of the local Tory MP. & when I did finally get a job as a teacher in the “real” world, I found all the theoretical understanding of class & inequality operating for real upon the life chances of the children & the families I was working with.
So these perceptions started filtering into my songs. Thatcher & issues like apartheid & Nicaragua certainly accelerated this process; there were benefits, strikes, picket lines to play on… & in this context, pop’s perennial obsession with adolescent trouser-action seemed increasingly irrelevant. I mean… at the start of the pop culture social revolution, sex was subversive; now it just sells newspapers. And there is the problem of how do you continue writing pop songs if you DON’T die before you get old?
So – I mustn’t grumble: a capacity to write songs with a conscious political dimension isn’t all that I do, but it does mean I have kept writing & performing, hopefully refining & developing my craft, without ever having been limited to the expectations attendant upon fashionability or popularity. I think the function of musicians is simply the function of all artists – to create work that entertains (in the sense of it engaging & rewarding your sustained attention) & that expresses the artist’s perceptions in a way that inspires & moves & delights & empowers the beholder. Music has a particular language & effect &… portability that is distinct from – say – theatre or cinema or painting… you can’t dance to a painting, & you can’t sing along to a film, & you can interact with your audience directly in a way a playwright or novelist doesn’t.
CG: What are the sort of gigs you like doing best?
RJ: Pubs! Well… I like playing in Belgium too; it’s not just the beer, it is the fact that audiences – a generalisation – aren’t so tied to genres, but seem interested in a variety & diversity of musical languages. In the UK, you sort of get folk audiences or punk audiences or rock audiences…. which is also one of the reasons why I like pubs; people turn up, & there you are, like Robert Johnson, playing in the corner, doing your best to entertain people without insulting their or your intelligence (well, that’s my aim anyway). I have always been impressed by that kind of model, where there is not this massive distance between performer & audience, where the music is part of the audience’s weekly world, not some massive expensive annual festival where you’re stood at the back looking at the video screens with insufficient toilet facilities, or something disposable you watch like a far distant galaxy on television, or download, tinny 2D & disposable, onto your mobile phone.
Oh & of course, I like well-organised & well-paid gigs too, where people listen attentively. & I enjoy playing at Tolpuddle, & I enjoyed Labour Live, so I am not averse to larger venues. But I am happy playing schools, kindergartens & OAP homes too. I played Broadmoor a couple of times too. It is always much appreciated to be appreciated. Really, I just like playing & singing & … in my own little way.. entertaining people. All sorts of people, all ages. Without anybody’s intelligence or integrity being insulted. I like the sort of gig where you feel you have done the work to the best of your ability.
CG: What are your plans to tour Ordinary Giants?
RJ: Hmmmm… well, it’s a tricky one. We could tour a reduced cast version (full participants obviously 99.999999% recurring impossible) but it would be… ridiculously expensive, let alone difficult to co-ordinate. As indicated above, I think appropriate remuneration is due to cultural workers, & I also believe that everybody should be paid the same amount (here, equality does mean the same, to me, if you are playing in a band situation). Friends suggested I apply for an Arts Council Grant. I am always a bit reluctant to do this – folk music – it stands or falls on its own two feet, surely? It is not the province of kings or CEOs of Lottery Funding, surely? The Pink Fairies & The Clash never got lottery funding, maaaaaaan.
So I looked at the forms. I even made a start at filling them in. A fortnight later, when I binned them, the headache stopped & I got on with writing songs. I thought – Dickens didn’t finish “Bleak House” & think: right, now I must stage this with a cast of well-known BBC actors… I would love to see it presented as a stage performance, but – that’s certainly NOT my job at the moment. So I am back to my usual practice of emailing people & phoning people & asking for solo gigs & generally being ignored. But we are sort of sorting out a few gigs for next year that get as far east as Thuringen, including Belgium, & as far west as Vancouver Island, with Lewes & Leeds & Bolton & Glossop along the way.
Robb Johnson, Ordinary Giants: A Life and Times, 1918-2018, is released on Irregular Records.
Chris Guiton is an Associate Editor of Culture Matters, and a freelance writer and project manager.