JD Meatyard
Monday, 20 November 2017 13:45

JD Meatyard

Published in Music

Chris Guiton interviews jd meatyard, who describes himself as a left field artist much favoured in his Levellers 5 and Calvin Party days by the late great John Peel, with albums such as ‘Lies Lies & Government’ and songs such as ‘Tell Me About Poverty’. June 2017 saw the release of ‘Collectivise’ the 4th album in his current guise as jd meatyard - featured on BBC 6 Music’s Gideon Coe show. 

CG. Can you tell us something about your new album, Collectivise, and how it builds on your previous albums?

JD. Collectivise is a return to guitar, bass, drums…lo fi as a production bonus. The previous album ‘ Taking The Asylum’ was influenced by ‘songwriters’…like Cale’s ‘Paris 1919’… Jonathan Richman…Elliot Smith. For Collectivise the mood was different, darker, christ just walk out in the streets and see the despair…and the recording of the new album coincided with a family bad thing, a dreadful loss…with the personal and political in such a state the ‘tone’ of the recording added much to the songs themselves…‘songs I’d play everyday with songs painful to listen to even though I share the politics’ says one. So all in all, the songs on Collectivise reflect of course the crazy place we are now in - the horror show that is the every day for so many people… and the personal to, as ever. I couldn’t have an album with such a narrative lightened around the edges with mandolins and such - ergo guitar, bass, drums.

CG. You celebrate a diverse range of influences. Can you tell us a bit about how your music has evolved over the years?

JD. Well, with Levellers 5 (NOT Levellers!) back in the early John Peel days it was just pretty much a manic rant at times, 'like drunk kids let loose in a music store' said the MNE (true, as in we were like drunk kids…) held together by a great band. Then with Calvin Party we played the indie style of big guitars n' stuff…hey, all in all a pile of Peelie sessions n album releases, it was all a life to live. I headed over to live in Holland and packed in the ‘band thing’ as I wanted to just write songs - not songs for a band, just songs, any which way they came. So started jd meatyard…Ralph Eugene Meatyard was a photographer whose work I liked, interesting stuff for sure, and I needed a ‘name’ to be a solo singer songwriter sort of guy. It worked, we formed a 3 piece in Rotterdam, me and Johan and Nina, sparse - two guitars, a floor tom and snare…but what it opened up was the variety of song - the light n' shade maybe, loud quiet loud. It’s worked well on the albums, the eponymously titled sort of nervous solo debut, then ‘Northern Songs’ with the much demanded ‘Jesse James’ song on through to the new release…we got many indie radio show's support, and plays from Gideon Coe on BBC 6 Music…the new Peelie, which really helps!

CG. Brecht famously said, 'Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.' How relevant do you think this is now as we face a continued neoliberal assault on the 'cultural
commons', those elements of art and culture that rightly belong to all of us?

JD. ‘Art is all’, I used to believe. Problem is ‘culture’ is now a tool that we’re controlled by, there’s no argument to this…Edward Bernays pioneered such control of the masses at the behest of the New York/U.S elites early 20th Century. 'The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society'… keep us all in the mall whilst they go about screwing the planet. I do think that there is hope, the dumbing down of all culture, the collapse of the popular into little more than corporate funding is I think coming to an end…gotta say, social media has had a big part in this loosening of the reins, there is now an emerging culture of radical attack, of questioning, of challenging that hasn't been around for a long time…social media, the great channel for leaks that they can no longer control…the other day with the Paradise Papers tax stuff…no wonder they’re so frightened of Jeremy Corbyn! 

That I get hammered, and I do, for my tiny contribution - songs for Palestine, ‘4 Kids on a Gaza Beach’, for the left, ‘Jesse James’, ‘Blow it Out yr Arse’, 'St Peter at The Gate’, ’Collectivise’… people in Sheffield walking out of the show, others rolling their eyes ‘oh not more politics’, underlines the problem…the attacks I get are pretty severe at times.

CG. What are your thoughts generally about politics at the moment, in particular the hope offered by Jeremy Corbyn and the dramatic shift in the position of the Labour Party?

JD. JC has done something that I’d completely given up on, he’s energised so many people - people that had given up hope - many on the left/humanists that had walked away following Blair's band of closet neo-libs…the feeling now that there is a real possibility of success for a centre left government is astonishing given recent history. We now have a Labour Party fit for the name, a leader that matches many of us in historical choices - aye, we did play anti-apartheid shows, and shows for the miners and he/we never wore ‘Hang Mandela’ T shirts like some of the tory toffs. Yes, there is a wee political frisson about now with JC attracting crowds like never before…just as the Tories are chewing themselves up with the tax dodging and abuse charges ripping round the ether - good times…hopefully great, honest, progressive times on the way. There needs to be big changes globally. The corporate governance of the planet, profit is ALL, has worked for the elites but it has, no doubt, fkd the planet. The poor and the immigrants haven't fkd the planet the rich have.

CG. There’s a lot of heartfelt anger and honesty in your music. How do you combine the personal and the political in your songwriting?

JD. Thanks. Its easy, no? What’s the old one - ‘the personal is poltical’? I don't know how songwriters can avoid being political! Of course I get it, Ed Sheeren and the like are ‘business’ artists - they write flatlining songs for a flatlining audience - formulaic, high production and a marketing plan to suit. We don't expect anything from such artists…however, I am surprised that so few ‘serious’ artists that have the opportunity to comment don’t bother to do so - each to their own. However, for Morrissey, Radiohead and the rest who play the ‘non political’ card as an excuse to pocket the Netanyahu $$$…well, what can you say, sick. It’s my naivety I guess, I expect more from artists. For me, what else is there? The pain, the tragedies, the loves and losses…fk, it's all there in the everyday of life, to seperate politics from personal is to artificially divide reality. So, for me, there’s no contrivance, it's life.

CG. At Culture Matters we are very interested in what an incoming Labour Government would do to develop arts and culture policies that reverse the impact of austerity, make the link between progressive art and progressive politics, and support culture for the many not the few (to coin a phrase!). What are your thoughts on what a socialist arts and culture policy should offer us?

JD. Financial backing for creatives, right now there’s little or no support unless you’re already making $$$…I beg PRS now and again for support - nada, nothing, nunca. We need targeted support for those with a catalogue of, let's say, meaningful music. Sad thing is that in music particularly there’s a real dumbed down practice - the mainstream now is the aural equivilent of Enid Blyton, kids read EB, no probs, however adults listen to the aural equivalent. Little from the left field gets through…Sleaford Mods bravo. Support for ‘alt’ venues would help, this would include ‘hands on’ support in terms of creating a culture of arts/music clubs aimed at that very real alternative audience…funding for progressive ideas is what we need.

CG. What's it like working in the music scene at the moment? How has it changed over your life? What do you think of other bands and musicians these days?

JD. See above, ha. Since John Peel left us its been a struggle for many bands, JDM is lucky. I get support from many independent radio shows and Gideon Coe on BBC 6 Music has played songs from all my albums as JDM. But when Peel was around it made a difference with others who used him as a marker - so we’d get better gigs then and plays from other network DJs - it's noticeable how so may doors shut when the great man died.

CG. The DIY culture that emerged with punk still appears to be going strong. A grassroots approach to music is a great way of empowering people who might otherwise feel excluded. What are your thoughts on this, and how might the labour movement best support this?

JD. Like many, music was my door to everything else. The house as a kid revolved around C & W, played on the record player and also live by my ma n' da, brother and sister …great singalongs until the dreaded introduction of Lanliq - those days ‘buckie’. Then dub and reggae got me asking how come so many Scottish names…slave history and nasty empires entered my vocab, Lou and the Velvets blew open my eternal love of New York, and introduced me to Warhol and 3 hour long screenings of looking at the Empire State Building - the very notion of ‘alternative’ in the arts and of course in life too. Punk was such a break, the sheer bravado and ‘fk you’ attitude was so liberating and yes, empowering, as it blew away so much deadwood in music and beyond, for a moment it terrified the establishment. This is what I mentioned before - the government can, if it wants to, fund street level creativity through music and the arts by encouraging people with ideas to create spaces, small venues with real spirit, progressive places that encourage participation with artists and the public. Such activity is critical in fostering a ‘knowing’ public rather than a shopping mall mass taught only to, well, shop and little else. We need a mass of people with a critical, intelligent mindset if we are to break the corporate ruling of our lives, our world. The arts, music is central to the creation of a better future for us all - nearly said ‘for the many, not the few’ - phew! Painting, music, photography, all creatives have a critical role to play in saving the world from a
toxic culture that will see this planet drained to an empty shell - as long as they make $$$$$$…we can change the everyday from one of banal consumption at best to something more vital, a life worth living.

CG. I see you’re about to tour the Netherlands, and also live abroad part of the time. How do you find foreign audiences react to your music and does spending time abroad give you a different perspective on life?

JD. Aye, back to Rrrrrrrotterdam, what a place. I never realised the toughness of the Dutch until we moved there for a couple of years and Rotterdam, port city n' all is as tough as it comes. Holland was cool for the music, my music. They got the punk thing, shared like most northern European countries a liking for ‘alt’ stuff - so you get such acts touring these places…unlike Spain, Malaga city where the kids are into either 80s Bronx beats or the most insipid pop you’ve ever heard - ‘rock’ ground to a halt here with Duran Duran, punk never happened down this way…I get back to the UK for recording and gigs, see family. I love being back for the first few days…Pogues Irish bar in Liverool, up to Glasgow to see a game..recently discovered the wonder that is Bristol, recording the new album there...what a great city, now there’s a place that seems to be getting good culture to the centre of  things. But after the first few days I’m sort of looking for my return flight…different perspective, for sure, back to the calm of El Palo.

 “Some People is an epic track – If there was still a Peel Festive 50 it would be in the Top Ten this year”, Louder Than War. For more info and to buy his CDs go to jd meatyard

The Bread and Roses Songwriting and Spoken Word Award
Monday, 20 November 2017 13:45

The Bread and Roses Songwriting and Spoken Word Award

Published in Music

The Communication Workers Union (CWU) and Culture Matters are pleased to announce a new Songwriting and Spoken Word Award.

The Award is now open for submissions. The purpose of the new Award is to encourage songwriters and spoken word performers to write material meaningful to working class people and communities, and to encourage those communities to engage more with songwriting and spoken word. There is a £100 cash prize for each of the top five entries. The judges will be from CWU and Culture Matters.

Dave Ward, General Secretary of the CWU, said,

I welcome this new partnership with Culture Matters. The arts and culture generally are vital to the labour movement, and working class communities across the country. Good access to the arts, sports and other cultural activities are part of the social wage. State support needs to be re-balanced so that working people everywhere can enjoy cheap, accessible and good quality provision. 

We are sponsoring this Award because we want to encourage our members in the CWU, and working people everywhere, to express themselves creatively on themes that matter to them as workers.

So get writing and get performing, and send your entries in!

Submission Guidelines and Award Rules

Entry is open to all, regardless of trade union membership. The submission guidelines are as follows:

- Entries should broadly deal with any aspect of working class life, communities and culture and show commitment to the common people, the common good and the common language of music and the spoken word.

- Entries are restricted to original material, in English, by solo or duo artists/performers.

- Entries must be submitted as audio or video files (MP3/4 format, YouTube link or similar), via e-mail.

- Entrants must be resident in the United Kingdom.

- Entries must be accompanied by an entry fee of £5, to be paid by bank transfer to Culture Matters Co-operative Ltd, The Co-operative Bank, 089299/65822760.

- Entrants may submit up to three songs/performances.

- The organisers accept no responsibility for entries that are incorrectly submitted or not delivered due to technical faults.

- By entering the Award, entrants agree to accept and be bound by the rules of the Award and the decisions of the judges.

- Entries should be sent via email to: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. The deadline for receipt of submissions is midnight on 2 February 2018. When emailing submissions please provide your full name, postal address and phone number.

The winners will be invited to perform at the CWU annual conference in Bournemouth in April 2018. All entries remain the copyright of the entrant but CWU and Culture Matters will have the right to publish them online and in other media.

Billy Bragg on tour 2015
Monday, 20 November 2017 13:45

Socialism of the Heart: an interview with Billy Bragg

Published in Music

 How did the last tour go, did you enjoy it? You had to put on extra dates, what were the audiences like? Do you think you're tapping into a new radical mood among young people, the same mood that got Corbyn elected?

The tour's just finished, it was great. I started with a couple of London shows at the Union Chapel, a non-conformist church in Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency of Islington North. Built in 1877, it’s a wonderful gig to perform, but backstage isn’t really designed for rock and roll gigs. It’s a more of a Victorian warren. One of my crew asked if I’d seen the mural of Jeremy in one of the rooms? I went to investigate and found that, while it did depict a kindly looking fellow with a beard, this chap was carrying a lamb and his head was suspiciously backlit.

Following the London shows, I headed up to Scotland to do my first gigs there since the independence referendum. I was very encouraged to find that the energy of the Yes campaign had not dissipated, despite their defeat last September. I also found that Corbyn’s election means something different in Scotland. Progressively-minded people are happy that someone who opposes the neo-liberal consensus has been elected leader of the Labour Party, but they do wonder why it’s taken us so long to catch on to the idea that the Westminster system is broken.

It was an interesting time to be on the road up there. The Syria vote fired everyone up – even the doorman at my Glasgow hotel said it was outrageous that parliament had voted in favour of bombing. The Oldham by-election added some edge to things and the new left wing grouping, RISE, were holding their first conference on the coming weekend. As a result, the Scottish gigs were highly politicised.

We finished off with a gig at Butlins Skegness holiday camp. Sounds strange, I know, but it’s the best way to hold a festival in December and Butlins host music events most weekends through the winter. This one was the Great British Folk Festival and although I’m not really part of the tradition, the folk audience has always been very supportive. In a music business where most artists would rather not say anything politically controversial, the folk fans deserve respect as people who have helped keep the topical song alive.

I wasn’t too sure how my songs would go down at Butlins, but I gave them the same politicised set that I’d been doing in London and Scotland and it went down a storm. Every mention of Corbyn was cheered and when I finished with ‘There is Power in A Union’, they stood and sang along.

You're also one of the people that have kept the protest music tradition alive in this country, and helped make sure socialist values are kept alive and celebrated musically. Can you tell us something about your background, how you got into the protest music tradition, and why you've stuck with it when others have fallen away? Can musicians influence politics, do you think?

I got into politics through music. My earliest heroes were the singer-songwriters of the 1960s – Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Jackson Browne all wrote topical songs. My other love was American soul music. Listening to the likes of Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding and the Impressions I heard the songs of struggle that were inspired by the civil rights movement.

Although people believed that music could change the world in the 60s, that has not been my experience. Ultimately, the responsibility for changing the world rests not with the artist but with the audience. To pretend otherwise is to fail to understand history. Having said that, I do believe that music has a role to play in inspiring the audience to take up that challenge.

Attending the Rock Against Racism Carnival in May 1978 was my first political activism. That event made me realise that I was not the only person who was troubled by the casual racism, sexism and homophobia I saw everyday at the office where I worked. However, it wasn’t the bands that gave me the courage of my convictions, it was being in that audience – 100,000 kids just like me. That day I realised that my generation were going to define themselves in opposition to discrimination of all kinds, just as the previous generation had been defined by their opposition to the Vietnam War.

The bands that played that day did a great service to me by creating an atmosphere in which my perceptions were challenged, which in turn led me to take a different view of things. That is the role that music can play in the struggle. I know, because it happened to me and so I try to challenge perceptions every time I do a gig.

Can you tell us more about the phenomenon that was Red Wedge, in the eighties, which you fronted? And the obvious next question, any chance of something similar happening in the next few years?

Taking its name from a poster by Russian constructivist El Lizzitsky, Red Wedge was an artist-led initiative that sought to encourage young people to support the Labour party at the 1987 election. When the miners' strike ended in defeat, those of us who had done gigs in support of the strikers and their families didn’t just want to go back to normal. Red Wedge was our way of continuing the struggle, taking the fight to the Tories at the next possible opportunity – the 1987 election.

We chose to work with (not for) the Labour Party because we felt they represented the best vehicle for getting rid of the Tories. The miners' strike had been a genuinely revolutionary moment, but it had failed. Now we had to take the next best option. We didn’t see the fight against the Tories as an either/or choice: our message to revolutionary colleagues was that we would come on to the street with them when it was time, if they would come into the ballot box with us.

The core artists involved were myself, the Style Council, Junior Giscombe, Jerry Dammers and the Communards. In the lead up to the election, we were joined by Madness, the Smiths, Prefab Sprout, the Kane Gang, The The, Gary Kemp, The Beat, Tom Robinson and many others. What defined us was our opposition to Margaret Thatcher, rather than an avid support for the Labour Party.

Could Red Wedge happen again? I think that’s a question for someone under 30.

How has the music industry changed over the years? Could someone with your background and your openly political approach still make it, do you think?

The music industry has changed massively in the 33 years since my first record. When I started out, there were three weekly music papers that sold big – NME, Melody Maker and Sounds, as well as many smaller publications. There were only two pop radio stations, BBC Radio One and it’s regional commercial equivalent – Capital in London. And there was a weekly pop show on national tv that broadcast all the latest music and styles into your living room – Top of the Pops. All of that has either disappeared or had its voice drowned out by digital competition.

More significantly for someone who wants to make political pop, music has lost its vanguard role as the primary identifying medium of youth culture. When I was 19 years old, the only avenue of expression open to me was pop music. If I wanted to broadcast my thoughts about the world, I had to learn to play an instrument, write songs and do gigs. Now any 19-year-old can express their views by blogging or making a film on their phone or using the ready-made platforms of the social media.

Although we didn’t realise it at the time, back in the latter years of the 20th century, music was our social medium – we used it to speak to one another and to our parent’s generation. Now if 19-year-olds want to know what their peers are thinking, they don’t buy an album or look at the charts or in the NME, they simply check their Instagram account.

I also wonder if I’d have been able to overcome the amount of scorn and abuse directed at anyone who expresses a progressive opinion on social media these days. If I’d had to endure the slings and arrows of Twitter and Facebook while forming my political opinions, would I have thought better of it and just stuck to writing love songs?

Your latest book of lyrics, A Lover Sings, is published by Faber and Faber, the august publishing house for top class poetry. That's quite an achievement in itself, isn't it? What do you think about the difference between poems and songs?

The main difference is that you generally experience poetry in solitude, reading quietly somewhere. Songs tend to be more of a communal experience. To hear a favourite song sung by the artists who wrote it and to sing along with them and hundreds, maybe thousands of others, has the effect of validating whatever emotions you’ve invested in the song. It’s a kind of solidarity. The left know the powerful unity that can come from singing together but it doesn’t have to be a political song to make you feel that you’re not alone. You can’t get that sense of communion on the internet, which is why I think gigs are becoming more popular, particularly festivals where you can feel part of something bigger.

What's your thinking about current political issues, the new Labour leadership, and the sudden and unexpected resurgence of the political left?

Unexpected is the word! I think Jeremy Corbyn himself may have been the most surprised by his elevation. It’s clearly not just about him. There is something bigger at work. My hunch is that he has become a lightning rod for a different way of doing politics. His sudden popularity is less to do with his own position and more to do with an urge on the left to be part of a genuinely transformative movement.

That’s the feeling that I got in Scotland last year, when doing gigs with supporters of the Yes campaign during the referendum. People were energised not by nationalism but by a sense that another world was possible. That’s why the turn out was unprecedented – people knew that their vote would really mean something. I think the same urge is behind Corbyn’s landslide. At a time when globalisation has allowed corporations to set the agenda, our democracy has become less about change and more about rewarding the status quo. Corbyn challenges that cosy arrangement.

Whether he can survive until the general election is anybody's guess, but, again, I take heart from what happened in Scotland: the Yessers lost the referendum, but they didn’t go home and give up. They maintained the connections they’d made and kept the momentum going. My hope is that, now we Corbynites have been engaged in the process of changing our politics for the better, we won’t simply melt away if the Great Helmsman is brought down by Blairite revanchists within the PLP. They can oust him, but they will still have us to deal with in the ensuing leadership contest.

Finally, Billy, what do you mean by your phrase 'socialism of the heart'?

It’s a term I came up with after the fall of the Berlin Wall, at a time when ideology was being swiftly abandoned and the language that we’d used to debate our politics no longer meant anything to the public we hoped to engage. I’ve always believed that if socialism is not, at heart, a form of organised compassion, then it is not really worthy of the name. So I began trying to find ways of expressing the compassionate politics that I felt had to form the bedrock of our attempts to forge a new ideology that connected with people’s everyday experiences and ‘socialism of the heart’ was the first term I came up with.

Billy Bragg has just finished an intensive year's tour round Britain. A Lover Sings, The Selected Lyrics of Billy Bragg, is published by Faber and Faber.