Via email interview, Robb Johnson introduces his new album and talks about politics, protest music, and plum pudding.
Q. Can you tell us something about your new album, whether it's a change of style, direction, material or theme?
‘My Best Regards’ consists of 16 tracks, 13 songs recorded with Jenny Carr on piano and organ, John Forrester on bass and double bass, Arvin Johnson on drums and percussion, with some guest contributions from Jim Cannell on cello, Linz Maesterosa on clarinet and saxophone, and Saskia's Tomkins on violin. Kirsty Martin’s singing adds some extra vocal magic, and there are two tracks which are different versions of songs on the album, recorded live with Brighton's Hullabaloo Quire, which Kirsty coordinates. Then there is one track that is an alternative version of the song ‘When the Tide Comes In’ again performed live, with Palestinian singer Reem Kelani.
I think it is more of a development than a change of style, and it's not really a change of material. For a while now, my songs have generally been understood to be a balance of the personal and the political. I am quite happy about that, and that seems to me to be a pretty good description of the songs on this album, though sometimes I think more mainstream reviewers only seem to hear The Political, at which they promptly throw their hands up in horror.
I have released albums that have been determinedly Political – ‘Some Recent Protest Songs’ and ‘Us and Them’ – partly because I had accumulated a lot of overtly political songs, but partly because there was a tendency for mainstream media hacks to spew out articles complaining that no-one writes that sort of song any more. This seemed to me a combination of arrogance, ignorance, and an unhealthy dose of hypocrisy.
Mainstream media hacks have been either sneering contemptuously at politics in music which they term dismissively ‘protest music’ (in a way they never quite do with theatre or film) or ignoring it altogether for so long. Then they felt able to wring their hands, as austerity ravaged communities and cities erupted in riots, and take songwriters to task for not writing about austerity and riots any more. Yet their idea of popular music doesn't seem to be interested in anything that isn't in the media-sanctioned pop mainstream.
But this isn't one of those albums, although I suppose it is structured so as to have a political theme framing it. I like to have albums that give a narrative, that have an emotional or intellectual beginning/middle/end coherence. So this one starts off with the rather bleak ‘September 1939’. Immediately after the last general election I felt that the summery sunny days that followed must have been a little what it was like after war was declared in 1939. The album ends, though, with the post-Corbyn election song ‘The Future Starts Here’.
Originally the album was to be shorter and much more obviously politicised, but we used some of the more personal songs as warm-up numbers in the studio, and enjoyed playing them so much that we kept them. I think they actually work well to balance some of the album's bleaker moments, and help make the album more of a narrative journey.
Q. The JC4PM tour reminded some of us oldies of the Red Wedge tours in the eighties in support of Labour. How did the tour go?
Well, I think it was pretty successful. Certainly the gigs I did were very enjoyable and there was a very effective mix of speeches, stand-ups and songs. There seems a lot more comedy involved in JC4PM, compared with the earnest guitar and song tendencies of what I remember about Red Wedge, but then I suppose that's post- modernist irony for you, comedy being the new rock'n'roll etc.
The other difference is that Red Wedge were working in support of a Labour Party in retreat, a Labour Party under Kinnock beginning the long and dismal process of making itself electable in the eyes of Rupert Murdoch, by making itself into something that was hardly worth electing at all, and losing all sense of principle, integrity, and contact with the very section of society it had traditionally represented.
JC4PM, on the other hand, is working with a Labour Party – leadership and membership anyway – that is on the advance, reclaiming its principles, integrity and commitment to represent its historical constituency.
Q. What are your thoughts about politics at the moment, generally and of course in particular the situation with Jeremy Corbyn, socialism and the Labour Party?
I have rejoined the Labour Party. It was the pusillanimous attitude towards the poll tax, and the collusion over the Gulf War that did for me. I have always voted Labour. I didn’t have illusions about voting Labour, but as a working person and a trade unionist – I worked as a teacher for 35 years and was a fairly active member of the NUT – having a Labour government seemed a better option than having a Tory one.
Indeed, that old inch of difference between Tory and Labour was really significant for early years’ education at the start of the century, where there were some really positive developments for children introduced, while Tony Blair was telling us about how Saddam had all these weapons of mass destruction only 15 minutes away.
So what Jeremy Corbyn represents is a significant shift in the accepted narrative that has dominated politics in the U.K., since the Tories set about deliberately trashing the postwar consensus 30+ years ago. Corbyn's selection has taken the gag off those voices that never accepted that greed was good, that there was no such thing as society, that the poor have to pay for the fuck-ups of the greedy rich.
I know Jeremy Corbyn from being on the same anti-war demos, and he is like you and me, only whereas my day job was teaching, playing guitar and secretly wishing I'd been in the Stooges or The Pink Fairies or whatever, Jeremy Corbyn's day job, and I suspect his version of being in the Stooges, is doing politics properly, with principle and integrity. Doing a version of politics to ensure society and social organisations exist to serve the needs of the people, not the other way round.
Obviously, the consequences of Blairism means we have a parliamentary party of careerist small businesspersons for whom that idea is both strange and threatening, because Corbyn's politics are essentially about inclusion and empowerment, and machine politicians like being machine politicians. They play the game, they prefer to serve the machine that rewards them for their compliance, rather than serve the voters who put them there.
Socialism is simply the tradition of trying to organise society to the benefit of all, so to me it seems simple common sense. Certainly, my experience has confirmed that to be the case. Working with under fives, you see people at their best, before the manifold poisons & disappointments of capitalism and its commodifications screw us up. I know that human beings are absolutely brilliant, every single one of us, and that humans are essentially kind and positive, happiest when they cooperate rather than compete. Happiest also in societies that value their individual members, and are organised along principles of inclusion, empowerment, equality, and fair play.
That is of course why 30 years of government interventions in education have only served to produce generations of unhappy, stupefied consumers. It is significant that it was the dismantling of that bastion of the concept of privilege, of the fatuous and inhuman concept of the deserving being separated from the undeserving – I mean the the grammar school system – that first really energised the Right in their challenge to the postwar consensus. And here it is again, being exhumed by Theresa Mayjor! A sure indication of how politically bankrupt the Tory party is.
Q. What's it like working in the music scene at the moment, as a worker? How has it changed, over your career? What do you think of other bands and musicians, and other music these days?
As with all workers, the introduction of new technology does tend to result in fewer jobs. Growing up in the 70s, I got to see lots of great bands at lots of great venues, and also lots of bandslike Sutherland Brothers and Quiver, who worked conscientiously round the pubs and who gave you a good night out.
By the 70s, the average band size was four people. But bands and musicians still exercised a certain creative control, and up to and including punk I think musicians rather than the music business determined the progress of popular music. This of course is not the case now. The business now determines the culture, the media polices its business decisions. From being the most exciting, innovative, democratic and radical cultural form of the last century, popular music has become a dull, processed puppet of the society of the spectacle.
You could say that there is surely a limit with what you can do with three chords, and that may well have been reached even before the Gallagher brothers made a career out of recycling old John Lennon riffs. This never used to bother folk music however, or indeed blues musicians, because these musicians were working within a tradition of form that facilitated personal expression. The experiences of the worker animated each song into something particular and expressive.
Now, there are bloated spectaculars of television, festivals and stadiums, no middle ground where the likes of Sutherland Brothers and Quiver can earn an honest crust, and pubs that will either play safe with covers bands or pay bugger-all for open mike nights. It is difficult in these circumstances for people to find their own voice, and to give their own lives particular expression.
Nonetheless, people keep on writing great songs and singing their hearts out about what it is like to be like them, to think like them, rather than Ed Sheeran. The media doesn't want you hear about them, because they remain outside the process of cultural recuperation. But they are there. They are people like Joe Solo and his mates, inventing We Shall Overcome, a grass roots weekend of nationwide self-organised gigs and community action as an annual alternative to getting kettled at a demo.
We need more of that, taking back our culture, organising a folk club or whatever you want to call it – Grace Petrie's just started a folk club in Leicester – more gigs like Nick puts on at the Yorkshire House in Lancaster. And less nostalgia!
Q. Can I have your thoughts on politics and music, such as what your favourite political songs are? And how you think music makes a difference, politically?
All music carries political meanings. In our agitprop trio The Ministry of Humour, singing down Thatcher, apartheid and capitalism in the 1980s, when people accused us of Being Political we used to say ‘everything's political.’
I tried translating The Marseillaise and it is awful, but I think the Internationale is beautiful, and the words don't really need updating. Songs may not of course kickstart strikes and seizures of post offices and telephone exchanges, or storm the Winter Palaces of the Ice Queen etc, but as we all know – and this is why the media don't want us listening to politically conscious songs – that magic combination of the perfectly apposite words with a perfectly apposite melody stays with us long after the speech or the editorial or the television interview. We can hum and sing them, and we realise we are not alone in our ideas and our aspirations, and they inspire us as we kickstart our own little part of the revolutionary process.
My favourite political song? ‘Te Recerdo Amanda’ by Victor Jara. My favourite song, which is also set within the landscape and language of working class life, but which carries its politics less consciously, is ‘Les Amants d’un Jour’ by Marguerite Monnot, sung by Edith Piaf.
Q. Culture Matters has recently started a series of articles looking at arts and culture policies, in the light of the austerity driven cutbacks which impact more on working people, and in the light of the research which is showing that working class people are finding it harder to access the arts, as consumers and as performers. And of course the gap between the funding of the arts in London/the South East and the rest of the country is pretty huge. Can we have your thoughts on arts and culture policy please?
Well – first step as above mentioned is to stop consuming and do it yourself. I saw a headline in a London newspaper on a London train which trumpeted – like it was a good thing – that arts funding in London wouldn't be cut! The headline should of course have been ‘Arts Funding to be Cut for Most of the UK’, just like we should recognise that for most of us, the Tory obsession with selection at 11 means a reintroduction of education at secondary moderns, rather than a reintroduction of grammar schools.
Yes, I would like to see funding directed at supporting art and culture initiatives rather than paying for military action in the Middle East, or Armageddon being parked at Faslane. But this financial support needs to be supported in turn by a social culture of empowerment. State education needs to be reconfigured to serve the needs of the child, not the state, which will mean a curriculum that values and encourages imagination and creativity. The media needs to be regulated to ensure cultural as well as journalistic balance, and press freedom should not be confused with the lowest common denominator.
Similarly, community art – like open mike nights or reality TV – should not be used as a cheapskate alternative to paying skilled workers at appropriate skilled worker rates. However, we would also need to reconfigure cultural workers as workers rather than as the extraordinarily differentiated celebrities that is the paradigm we are presented with at the moment. We need to recognise individual aptitude, but also recognise that this needs to be understood within a spectrum of performance, not within a hierarchy of ‘excellence’ that is usually related to the valuations of economics rather than valuations based upon intrinsic qualities of artistic expression.
Art & culture need to be returned more to the reality of their social function. Some of us are pretty gifted when it comes to plumbing, some of us are pretty gifted when it comes to singing, but when your plumbing goes wrong, Bono is no use whatsoever.
This spectrum of performance needs to be supported by a plurality of performance spaces and opportunities – culture should not be something that only takes place on television or as spectacular events set apart from the lives of those people whose existence is only defined by the word ‘audience’ and whose appreciation and experience of art and culture is determined by the economics of production and consumption.
Applying huge amounts of money to something does not necessarily ensure high levels of performance. A couple of seasons ago Brentford drew Chelsea in the Cup, and so there they were, all these fabulously-paid celebrity Chelsea footballers so celebrated in the media, hoofing about Griffin Park, and not actually performing that much better than Brentford’s cheery collection of 19 year-olds still living with their mums. It was a draw at the final whistle. Possibly the most creative aspect of the afternoon was the Brentford fans chanting “You’re just a bus stop in Fulham.”
The same problems of scale exist in the arts. Size of spectacle and budget are no guarantee of artistic achievement. Any investment in arts would be obviously welcome, but it will be largely ineffectual unless it is animated by an understanding of the importance of diminishing the distances between performer and audience, which necessarily involves a more realistic perspective on issues of inclusion and particular aptitudes and skills. We need a culture where everybody can join in, and though some people can join in a bit more than others, this is not a big differentiating deal. Even genius shits like the rest of us.
Another consequence of having spent so long working with children, is that this experience convinces me that each of us is gifted with our own skills of creativity and our own unique artist’s perspective. With our current models of culture as commodity, most of us find our access to & participation in art and culture limited and defined by capitalism’s profit-driven economics, and the mindset of privilege and hierarchy.
But we all have an aesthetic intelligence, we are all artists. Access to and participation in culture should be on the basis of personal choice and predilection, our engagement should be based on the forms of self expression that appeal to our individual consciousness, and our choices should be encouraged and supported by empowering education and inclusive social organisation, whether we feel happiest expressing ourselves through plumbing, plum crumble or plumbing the profoundest depths of the human condition with poetry, or painting, or postpunk acoustic guitar. Or maybe a combination of all three – plumbing, plum crumble and postpunk acoustic guitar.
Robb Johnson’s new album, My Best Regards, is available from http://www.ethicalwares.com and all good record shops.