"Song of the Month" Archive
5 CHICK HENDERSON'S MARCH Galloways 19856 THE BERGEN Two A Roue 1986 & Back Shift 1992 & Davy Lamp 2000 7 BAIT UP Tenterhooks 1995 8 THESE COALTOWN DAYS Bede Weeps 1993 & Davy Lamp 2000 9 BACK IN DURHAM GAOL Galloways 1985 & Davy Lamp 2000
10 HAD AWAY GAN ON The Parish Notices 1998
11 SHIPPERSEA BAY Galloways 1985
12 NEW MOONS ARMS Briefly on the Street 1990 & Davy Lamp 2000
13 BEDE WEEPS Bede Weeps 1993
14 THE SODA MAN Briefly On The Street 1990 & Davy Lamp 2000
15 GREEK LIGHTNING Bede Weeps 1993
16 SWEEP HORIZONS CLEAN Tenterhooks (Green Linnet 1995)/Live at the Davy Lamp (Tantobie 2000)
17 FIGHTING THE TIDE Details of a new play by Kate Bramley featuring 12 new songs by Jez Lowe (Tantobie 2002)
SONS OF THE CENTURY
A long and deep look at the history of the last one hundred years, this song was a startling introduction to the first album on a new label, Green Linnet. The arrangement seems to have been one that was never mastered for "live" performance: the song was performed on very few occasions by the group around the time of the album's release, and was quietly dropped soon afterwards. It reappeared on a list of songs for rehearsal when the group's line-up changed in 1997, but so far it remains a notable absentee from their concert repertoire.
Only a month or so before it was recorded by the band, Jez did a very different solo version of SONS OF THE CENTURY for BBC Radio Two's "Folk on Two" programme, along with a batch of other songs that were to appear on "Tenterhooks". This solo version was in basic waltz tempo, with many lyric variations. No-one seems to recall him ever performing it in this fashion at any other time. It was obviously a song destined to be exclusively listened to in a recorded version, unlike almost every other song from the Jez Lowe pen, which all seem to have "In Concert" potential in one form or another.
At a songwriter's workshop at Beverley Folk Festival in 1995, Jez was heard to speak of a song "in progress", of which he had completed around twenty finished lyrics, none of which he was satisfied with. A Bad Penny sitting in on the session commented that while Jez usually wrote from a "local" perspective looking outward, this difficult lyric found him tackling a much broader perspective, broad enough to encompass the whole world and its history, hence the problems he seemed to be having. It's a fair guess that the song under discussion was SONS OF THE CENTURY. Judging by the evidence on a rough mix tape that emanated from Fellside Studios during the recording of "Tenterhooks", the lyrics varied from take to take, even as the final version was being laid down.
The final arrangement of the song itself actually came together as the session was in progress, according to those who were there. The change in rhythm was decided upon while Jez and Bev Sanders sat in the van outside Hillingdon Tube Station, west of London, using a somewhat resonant steering wheel as a percussion instrument! This was exchanged for a bodhran in the studio, with recording engineer Graham Bell adding some varispeeded blows on a didgeridoo that he'd just bought at Womad Festival the weekend before. Then Billy Surgeoner scraped the decisive sawing motions across the deepest string of his brother Bob's double bass, and even the usually laid back frame of producer Paul Adams was seen to jerk forward in recognition that something special had fallen into place.
The introductory chant of "Mea culpa" ("Through my fault") obviously harks back to Jez's Irish Catholic upbringing, and echoes also the chant that precedes THESE COAL TOWN DAYS on the band's previous album, "Bede Weeps".
The Bad Pennies have a collective theory that much of what seems spontaneous in arranging these songs is in fact in Jez Lowe's mind all along in one form or another, and he just gently prods them along until the ideas burst forth, seemingly from a collective inspiration, thus giving everyone the misapprehension that the band is a co-operative venture! There is a standing joke to this effect in Jez's concert performances, wherein he refers to the band as "my backing group".
To these ears, if ever one needed proof that The Bad Pennies were more than a "backing group", then SONS OF THE CENTURY is it. There are those who may prefer Jez Lowe solo, others who prefer the presence on stage of the other musicians, and still others who see the two approaches as completely different, but equally valid. This final choice seems the ideal position to take. As this is written, there is almost a completely different repertoire of Jez Lowe songs for each "live" direction, solo or band. Only a few of the old favourites remain common to both sets. There is no new album in sight, but we hear tell of a batch of new songs to feature at forthcoming concerts, which is something I look forward to with relish. And with any luck, SONS OF THE CENTURY, my personal favourite, might even rear its noble head for us, somewhere along the road.
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THE PARISH NOTICES
"This song is so sad," ran Jez's introduction to The Parish Notices at a recent concert, "That even Leonard Cohen was depressed when he heard it!" A disarmingly frivolous preamble to what is a harrowing tale of prejudice, homophobia and tragedy, put together eloquently in three short verses and four lines of chorus. Ralph McTell was heard to admire this song due to its concise, exacting nature, and such concise and understated qualities are precisely what Jez Lowe encourages from fellow songwriters at workshops and discussions, while acknowledging that he himself often falls well short of that mark in his own work.
Apparently, The Parish Notices suffered from a notable lack of these qualities in its earliest incarnations. One of the songs pencilled in for inclusion on 1995's "Tenterhooks" album was entitled "Good women and true" and, while it surfaced during initial rehearsals for the sessions, it soon was put aside. Whatever the structure and melody of that song, it seems that the story and characters within it were those that eventually appeared under the title of "The Parish Notices". Members of The Bad Pennies recall the song being discussed at this time, and Jez also talked about the song and the struggle he was having with its composition, on an Australian radio show a year later, at which time he still referred to it as "Good Women and True", from the chorus/refrain that seems to have been part of the piece from the outset.
The origins of the song lie in events that took place in Jez's hometown of Easington in the early 90s. Two local women, having both suffered from abuse within failed marriages, set up home together. Eyebrows were raised, but nothing was said until the younger of the two fell seriously ill. In a very short time the young woman died, and this being the height of the AIDS epidemic, conclusions were drawn in ignorance and fear, and the surviving woman was pilloried by certain factions in town, oblivious to the fact that the illness had been leukaemia. The remaining woman, standing apart from the other mourners at her friends graveside, looked at the disapproving faces and delivered a blistering speech of rebuke to all concerned, so the story goes.
Jez probably heard about the affair while catching up on the news from friends in his hometown. It was some time before Jez decided to try and commit the tale to song and, in doing so, later admitted to leaving out certain details, for example the presence of a child in the proceedings, for fear of "making the whole thing just too tragic and beyond singing about", as he said on that Aussie radio show.
In 1997, The Parish Notices was completed and became the title track of the new album. The play on words was subtle, but effective, and gave the song an even greater impact than the haunting arrangement evokes. In "live" performance, the nylon-strung guitar is substituted by Jez's regular acoustic with a chorus pedal, and Billy Surgeoner's saxophone is replaced by a plaintive tin-whistle passage, without any of this impact being lost.
As much as anything that Jez Lowe has written in the last twenty years, The Parish Notices, to these ears, shows the breadth of sensitivity and skill needed to lift a song and its writer a little above the many into the realms of the not so many. A good place to be.
-- R Ratcliffe
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JUST LIKE MOSES
Following our look at The Parish Notices last month, our attention was drawn to this track from 1993's "Bede Weeps" album, an appropriate choice for close examination, for a variety of good reasons. Firstly, both Jez and Bev Sanders, who was on hand for much of its writing, have spoken to us at length about the background to this song. Also, we have had access to home-video footage taken at the time by Bev's daughter, of the Bad Pennies, arranging and rehearsing this song prior to recording it. Finally, it has long been a favourite of ours and of Jez's and continues to be a regular inclusion in the band's concert performances to this day.
The song was written, more or less from start to finish, at Bev's house in Lancashire in early 1992, with Jez spending most of one weekend working on it. The origins of the story, like that of The Parish Notices, lay in real-life events that took place in Jez's hometown, in this case in the early 1980s. The corpse of a new-born baby was found hidden on waste ground on the edge of town at the very spot where Jez and his friends had, as teenagers, raced stripped down motorbikes in the hollow of an old sand quarry, one of many such sites dotted around East Durham. Jez's plan seems to have been to create a modern equivalent of a folk-ballad, telling more or less exactly what had happened in a narrative style. There is a suggestion that the 'Greek chorus' sung by Bev on the original CD, and subsequently by Judy Dinning in live performance, was initially a completely separate song, being added to the main body of the narrative quite late in the day. The song's more regular refrain, sung by Jez himself, has as its inspiration the traditional American song "Little Moses", as sung by Bob Dylan in his film "Renaldo and Clara". (This is according to Jez himself, though, Moses apart, we can see little to link the two.)
At any rate, no sooner was the song's lyric completed, Bev tells us, than Britain was gripped by the horror of the murder in Liverpool, a mere 10 miles away from Bev's village, of 4 year old Jamie Bulger, whose mutilated body was found on waste ground in circumstances that shocked a nation. Not surprisingly, Jez's immediate reaction was to scrap the song and forget about it, and for the next 12 months no more work was done on it.
By the time that the Bad Pennies began to rehearse for their forthcoming album, in mid-1993, "Just like Moses" had reappeared in its complete form, with melody and quite distinctive guitar chords and rhythm to drive it along. Billy Surgeoner was asked by Jez to work out a string-led backing to follow the guitar part, and the laborious honing of this arrangement is captured on the video mentioned above: both violin and double bass being bowed behind the guitar, a technique that was later dropped when the band introduced the electric 'stick' bass in 1995, which did not lend itself to the use of the bow. It is clear on the video that every note of the arrangement is set fast and made to count. (At one point this set up is abandoned and the string backing played experimentally on a sampled keyboard, much to the disgust of certain band members! Ultimately good sense and taste prevailed.)
Much later on, after the album had been released, Jez was urged to rewrite and re-record the song as a Christmas single! Once more good sense and taste saved the day from that folly! JUST LIKE MOSES was the song that, at Edmonton Folk Festival in 1999, caused Loudon Wainwright to stop Jez on the street and offer his congratulations on a remarkable job. And there are those of us who would agree whole heartedly with that.
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ANOTHER MAN'S WIFE/ LONDON DANNY/NEW TOWN INCIDENT
This time we are actually dealing with three songs, the trilogy of love songs that were an intriguing highlight to 1988's BAD PENNY album, namely ANOTHER MAN'S WIFE, LONDON DANNY and A NEW TOWN INCIDENT. Between them, these songs deal with a menage-a-trois from a variety of viewpoints, giving rise to much speculation as to how much of the inspiration for them came from Jez's own experience. We can say from the outset that we can shed little or no light on that particular subject, which to my mind only adds to the intrigue and to the attraction of these songs.
We have in our possession a tape of a Jez Lowe gig from 1987 at Pennistone folk club in South Yorkshire where, three songs into the first, set he introduces a new song called A COLLIER'S WIFE. Played on the cittern, it is most of the words to ANOTHER MAN'S WIFE, but to the tune of LONDON DANNY! The result, with hindsight, is a bizarre concoction that doesn't really get off the ground and gives no hint of what was to follow in the eventual finished pieces.
Within a few months, Jez was already performing the two songs that developed from this inauspicious start, LONDON DANNY and ANOTHER MAN'S WIFE, which were basically, in their lyrical content, two opposing views of the same situation: one the husband of the woman and the other the interloper who hoped to take her for his own. What the female had to say about all this... well, more of that later.
LONDON DANNY was for a long time Jez's personal favourite among all his compositions, and at one time there wasn't a gig at which he didn't sing it. In the tradition of some of the more sensitive old Geordie love songs by writers like Joe Wilson and George Ridley, it was later to be recorded by Fairport Convention on their album "Jewel in the Crown". The presence on his own recorded version of a clarinet, incidentally, was Jez's idea. He was heard to tell an audience at a songwriter's workshop a few years ago that the song had taken almost two years to complete.
ANOTHER MAN'S WIFE is a light-hearted lyric with puns and double-entendres galore, put together with what producer Paul Adams referred to as a "disco arrangement". Opening the album with a daring slow air, played by Jez on keyboards and tin-whistle, it was a drastic departure from what had gone before, with Roger Wilson's fiddle being the first time that instrument was used on one of Jez's albums. Jez also plays cittern, banjo, harmonica and bass guitar on this track, on almost a blueprint of what was to become the Bad Pennies' sound in the years ahead.
By the time recording sessions for a new album started in March 1988, another song had been added to the scenario, written from an observer's point of view, and titled A NEW TOWN INCIDENT. This was and remains quite unlike anything else in Jez's body of work, in terms of arrangement, style and length. It was inspired by (once again) Bob Dylan's 1986 song "New Danville Girl", later renamed "Brownsville girl", a long narrative tour de force that dodges in and out of this listener's understanding, but is undoubtedly a major work and worth checking out (on the album "Knocked Out Loaded".) The central theme of a lost relationship and the sense of time moving on are common to both songs, as is the feeling of resignation and unfulfilment at the close. It is the instrumental riff which punctuates and fades out "New Town Incident", the same melody of course as the slow air that opens the album as a preface to ANOTHER MAN'S WIFE, that rounds the whole thing off in a satisfactory yet understated manner.
The chorus of this song gave the album its original title, announced by Fellside in the Autumn prior to its release. It was slated to be called "Black Cat and Blue" virtually up until the cover went to press. A last minute change of heart rechristened it "Bad Penny", a significant decision if ever there was one.
Some years later Jez mentioned in passing that in fact there was a FOURTH song in this sequence, the one that told the story from the woman's point of view, and that he and Paul Adams had hovered around the decision of whether to allow vocalist Sylvia Barnes be featured in a solo capacity for one track on the album. In the end they decided against it and the song was never recorded, a shame as it would have been an ideal addition to the album when it came out on CD eight years later. As it was, CDs and solo female vocals on Jez Lowe albums were still very much a thing of the future, and the song was lost.
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CHICK HENDERSON'S MARCH
One of several songs from this mid-80s album that has remained a popular staple of Jez Lowe's live repertoire up to the present day, CHICK HENDERSON'S MARCH is a jaunty, yet poignant song, with a catchy tune that revolves around a guitar figure in the popular folk tuning of DADGAD, but with an unexpected twist when the verse veers off into a different key, before resolving into the chorus. The song has rarely been covered on record, yet has long been popular among folk-club floor singers around the UK, attracted no doubt as much by the guitar part as by the catchy chorus.
But who was Chick Henderson, and why is Jez Lowe singing about him? It seems that Chick Henderson was the stage name of a popular dance-band crooner from the 1930s, real name Henderson Rowntree, a native of the town of Hartlepool on England's North East coast. He sang with one of the top bands of the era, led by Joe Loss, and was featured vocalist on a huge hit record of the time, a version of BEGIN THE BEGUINE, that sold over 1000,000 copies. At the height if his stardom he went off to war, in the Royal Navy, and was killed in 1942 on shore leave, a victim, legend has it, of a British gun that went off accidentally. So Hartlepool lost one of its most famous sons.
Hartlepool was also the place where Jez Lowe went to school, and where he made his singing debut at the local folk club, held in the early '70s at the Nursery Inn, and compered by a young man called Graham Whitley. Whitley was a journalist, photographer, singer, and record reviewer, who worked at the local newspaper, where by coincidence he shared an office with one Kevin Rowntree, nephew of Chick Henderson. Jez and Graham Whitley became close friends, going to concerts and festivals together throughout the 70s. In fact it was Graham who first approached Fellside Records with a tape of Jez Lowe, recorded at Hartlepool Folk Club in 1979, encouraging them to sign him up to a recording contract. This resulted in Jez's first solo album, the original sleeve of which bore an illustration based on one of Graham Whitley's photographs.
At a concert in Durham in 1982 Graham introduced Jez, somewhat ironically, as "The best thing to come out of Hartlepool since Chick Henderson!", much to the amusement of the crowd. In talking afterwards, he convinced Jez that he should try writing a song about Henderson. (It's possible that Whitley was influenced by Richard Thompson's song "Al Bowly's in Heaven", though Jez wasn't aware of this until much later. Whitley was a big Thompson fan at this time). So Jez started working on the song, rejecting one completed version (the melody of which he claims to have used later for the song "Boys of Belly Row") and, according to producer Paul Adams, the final version was only completed on the day of recording in September 1984, when Lowe sat outside Fellside studio in his car, putting together the final verse. The song closed the GALLOWAYS album when it was issued four months later.
There is one final sad twist to this tale which heightens the poignancy of the song and suggests depths to the lyrics that may not be evident to the casual listener. For Graham Whitley never got to hear the song whose creation he himself had set in motion. In the early summer of 1984, while Jez was still working on the song, Graham died from injuries sustained in a car accident while returning from a folk club in County Durham late one night. The GALLOWAYS album bore a dedication to him.
-- K A
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As we have found to our cost when compiling this series of (relatively) in-depth looks into his songs, Jez Lowe is a man who does not like explaining himself, or talking about such concepts as "inspiration" or "background information" with regard to his writing. He has been heard to say, to the disbelief of those present at the time, that he'd sooner someone misinterpreted what he was trying to say in a song, rather than he himself have to explain to them the meaning of something that he'd already laboured on long to set out to his own satisfaction. Harsh words, not to say rash words, but indicative of a timid reticence rather than a bombastic carefree attitude on the part of the writer, we'd like to think.
There are however a number of occasions every year when Jez has to forgo such qualms and tackle these things head on! We refer of course to those early morning sessions at Folk Festivals around the country, listed in the programme of events as "Songwriters' Workshop", two words known to strike terror into the hearts of many composers of the idiom, but none moreso than Jez. We recall with fondness that workshop session in South Wales about ten years ago, when as one in a panel of six, Jez managed to get through the 90 minute session without contributing a single word and was first off the platform when the M.C. called time!
However on those occasions when such an escape eludes him, Jez inevitably produces an ace from the pack, with a much repeated, much practised examination of the composition of his most "covered", most revered song, THE BERGEN. Thus, much of what you read here may already be familiar to you, coming as it does from our recollections of hearing Jez talk about this subject on many entertaining occasions.
The story starts at the turn of the century, when a ship called "The Berger" (note spelling) sank in heavy seas off Tees Bay on England's North-East coast. It was a fishing vessel from Finland, though some think it may have been a type of merchantman called a "barquentine", many of which ploughed the waters in that part of the North Sea. All hands were tragically lost, and their remains buried in the churchyard at Seaton Carew, at the very mouth of the River Tees on the northern bank.
To this day, the gravestone marking this tragic turn of events can be seen from the roadside next to the south-facing churchyard wall, bearing the barely legible words in weathered sandstone, "The Bonny Barque The Berger". And this is what Jez Lowe saw one Winter's day in early 1986, a mere 100 meters from the cottage where he lived at the time, in a row called, somewhat ironically, "South End".
Events were beginning to catch up with Jez at that time. His third solo album GALLOWAYS was released that very week, but he was now contracted, as part of his partnership with Jake Walton, to record a new album to which he was expected to contribute four new songs. He had only two, "Japs and English" and "The Brockie Lads", and inspiration and time were short. It was then that the words "Bonny Barque the Berger" apparently sang off that gravestone and on to the page of his notebook.
By the time Jake Walton showed up at South End for rehearsals in mid-January, Jez had come up with a long, long narrative ballad about the tragic loss of The Bergen, now renamed for the sake of "singability", detailing the frantic fight of crew versus waves, with a suitable break where a "storm sequence", to be played by Jake on the hurdy-gurdy, could be inserted for maximum dramatic effect, coupled with a dynamic melody in a suitable sombre minor key compatible to the 'gurdy's deep bass drone.
Jez played it for Jake. Jake listened and gave his reaction. "Don't like it," he said. In Jake's estimation, the song was too long, too dreary, and was trying too hard to be a folk song. It just didn't work. Jez was shocked and not a little hurt but in retrospect, he says, this was the strength of their partnership - that each was an admirer of the other's talent and knew when they could do better - so if Jez should take notice of anyone it would be Jake.
So within a very few days Jez reworked the song, brutally slicing away "around 75% of the lyrics", keeping only the relevant details and once again adopting that oblique angle from which to view the story, turning it from sea battle to love song, replacing the minor melody with a major one, and telling the whole story in around 20 lines. For added cohesion, perhaps, there are rhymes at the BEGINNING of lines as well as at the ends, though not all of those who have subsequently "covered" the song (30 plus worldwide at last count) have recognised this curious feature. Jez recalls first performing the song at Maidenhead Folk Club a week later, (with old friends Jim and Sylvia Barnes in the audience) and the reaction was such that "I knew we were on to a winner with that one". The reaction when it was released on record, on TWO A ROUE in August 1986, confirmed that feeling, with Jake's dulcimer and Jez's keyboard backing adding just the right amount of atmosphere.
Within six months the cover versions began to appear, by people like Pat Ryan, The Tannahill Weavers, Gordon Bok and Cherish the Ladies in America, and other versions in Australia, Canada, Germany and Ireland. In 1992 The Bad Pennies recorded it as part of an unreleased "live" album, slightly outshining the original to these ears. (This recording was circulated by the London-based Celtic Connections Agency as part of a promotional tape in early 1993).
The original version of THE BERGEN is unavailable now, but a new version by Jez is included in the forthcoming "live" double album. The best of the cover versions we've heard are those by Cherish The Ladies and Canadian singer Marie du Fresne, though The Tannahill's version is pretty good too.
As a postscript to all this, in the summer of 1999 the wreck of the Berger was located resting at the bottom of Tees Bay, and efforts are in hand to exhume her from her watery grave for relocation in Hartlepool's new marina dock complex as a historical artifact. Whether the instigators of this project are aware of Jez's song is not known.
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Jez Lowe wrote this song in 1995, and for a song with such specific origins in the colloquial slang of the mining communities of North East England, it has proved immensely popular with audiences around the world, although at time of writing, there have been no cover versions of the song recorded, despite a great deal of interest having been shown by Jez's fellow artists (Irish troubadour Andy Irvine, for one.)Jez always introduces this song in concert as having the elongated title "I Wish I Had Someone to Put My Bait Up Now", which gives a bigger impression of what the song is about. "Bait" is the name given by the miners and labourers in County Durham for their packed lunch, their sandwiches and flask of tea etc., traditionally prepared by their wives, and eaten "on the job" in coal mines, building sites, and other places of work where formal provision of meals weren't a practical possibility. This practice is the same the world over, and each region seems to have developed it's own terminology for the meal itself; so in Scotland it is known as "piece", in Lancashire as "snap" and so on. In County Durham, an extended use of the term "bait" developed, to refer to things of a romantic and ultimately a more crudely sexual nature. The question "Who's putting your bait up" was a veiled inquiry as to the identity of the person with whom one was involved in a romantic liason. Again similar expressions of suggestive badinage are common throughout the world, and bring to mind the blues classic "Who's stoking your fire?" When asked about the specific composition of his own song, Jez was typically vague; he had the melody and attractive chord sequence worked out for quite a while before adding the lyric, and the piece existed as nothing more than a piano instrumental for some time, (though Jez ecouraged Billy Surgeoner to play keyboards on the recorded version and subsequent "live" performances; Jez's own keyboard work can be heard on the songs "Yankee Boots" and "Northern Echoes", as well as other tracks with a less prominent keyboard backing, such as "Shippersea Bay" and "The Bergen".) The idea for the lyric of "Bait Up" emerged from a long forgotten conversation between Jez and old friend Kevin Bainbridge, during the recording of the BANNERS album in 1994. One hesitates to imagine the true nature of the conversation itself, but it apparently bore no resemblance to the finished song! The other germ of an idea that was incorporated into the lyric, according to Jez, was "in the shadow of the clock we stand", a phrase that he had been toying with for even longer, and now gave direction to the form that "Bait Up" would take. According to a Bad Penny who was involved, the actual arranging of the song for the subsequent album developed into a rather heated situation. The original demo of the track still featured the song in a very minimal, ponderous state, whereupon Jez decided to bring in a rhythm figure that was eventually used on the track, but not without some dissension from certain quarters within the group. Later still, actually in the studio during recording, Bev Sanders' off-mike "la-la-ing" against the instrumental section appealed so much to the others that it was incorporated into the arrangement as well, and she was compelled to do it for real as part of the track. "Bait Up" remains in Jez's repertoire, and in two very different forms: with The Bad Pennies, there is the (somewhat embellished) arrangement from the album version, as featured, recorded "live" in concert, on 1998's 5-track promo CD, and also included with video footage on the multi-media section of the new LIVE AT THE DAVY LAMP album; Jez also occasionally performs a very different solo arrangement of the song with just voice and guitar, and also sometimes augmented by Bev Sanders' harmony vocals on their rare appearances on stage together these days. The solo version was slated for inclusion on the aborted "live" recording from Sydney, a few years ago, and is worth hearing for the simply effective guitar part, quite unlike anything else that Jez usually plays, and possibly owes much to his original piano version. To conclude, we hear with interest that another well-known singer-songwriter from the UK recently chose a line from "Bait Up" as being what he saw as a summing up of Jez Lowe's attitude to both his life and his work. This singer had shared a songwriting workshop with Jez a few years ago, at which he heard the song for the first time, and noted the reaction to this line from both the audience and other fellows-writers present, as well as noting the feeling with which it was delivered. The line was "Times that make you happy just turn round and make you sad."
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THESE COALTOWN DAYSOne can learn a lot about the writing of Jez Lowe's songs while listening to the way he introduces them in concert, provided one can sift through the jokes and asides and access the threads of truth therein. The introduction for THESE COAL TOWN DAYS has always told the story about a phone call from the BBC requesting a song to be written on the spot for a broadcast that night in 1992 following the afternoon announcement by Michael Hesletine in Parliament, that 80% of the UK's existing coal mines were to be summarily closed down within the year. Even non-mining communities and individuals were reeling from the shock of this announcement that day, and BBC North East was keen to mark the event in a significant way. So, within 10 minutes, Jez came up with a song that was to become another stapleof his repertoire, as well as the repertoires of many other singers and groups around the world. The performance, recorded in the late afternoon, featured Jez accompanying himself with guitar, on a song that itself was much as it is today, save for a significant difference in the last line of the chorus: not "when these coal town days are done", but "when Easington's no more", specifying Jez's hometown, which at that time had one of the most thriving mines in the country. That was how the lyric ran when, a few days later, Jez performed the song for the first time in public, as it were, at the then thriving folk club in Hawthorn Village, a mile or so from Easington, when he was backed by the resident band, also called Hawthorn, and augmented by fiddler Chuck Fleming, in a fully instrumentalised version of the song. This performance was actually captured on tape by the mobile unit from Northern Recording Studios of Consett, who were at the club that night recording a set by Hawthorn for a (ultimately unreleased) "live" album. The tape still exists, apparently, in the Northern Recording vaults. As far as Jez was concerned at the time, that was the end of the song. It was several months later, when The Bad Pennies began to consider material for the album that eventually became BEDE WEEPS, that it was resurrected, and retitled, and an accapella version of it considered. At this point Jez came up the unconnected line, "Haway man, they're liars and they're cheats", which was something his father had said when the closure announcements had originally been made. He knew they could be fitted in somewhere, but was unclear how it could work. It was Bev Sanders who constructed the chant as it was to fit before, after and during the song, much in the style of Sweet Honey In The Rock, one of her favourite singing groups at that time. The arrangement was to develop and change in performance, but it ensured that the 10 minute-to-construct, throw-away song, was a standout track on the album when it was released in mid-1993. Since then it has been recorded by around a dozen other groups of singers, and has become a recognised "standard" around the UK folk club and festival scene. The introductory chant is sometimes dispensed with, but that didn't deter a number of co-respondents on an internet chat site last year, going into deep discussion about what the line exactly means.... THESE COAL TOWN DAYS is one of the highlights on the new "Live at the Davy Lamp" album, where typically the audience joins in throughout. Meanwhile, the original "coal town", Easington, has become almost the darling of the media, with a lengthy article in the Sunday Telegraph, to promote the film "Billy Elliot" starring Julie Walters that was shot on location among it's bleak colliery streets, and more recently in the Guardian, which showed things in a more positive light, focusing on the recalamation of the coast line in these post-industrial times. But which ever way you look at it, the "coal town days" are most certainly done, with little more than a few songs to show for it. (Easington is situated on the East Durham Coast, and is served by the A19 highway, between Sunderland and Teeside.) K.A.
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BACK IN DURHAM GAOL
A recent article in the southern English magazine "Folk On Tap" referred to Jez Lowe's song BACK IN DURHAM GAOL, as "the type of song that you feel you've known forever". In fact, the song is barely a decade and a half old, having received it's premiere at the Cornwall folk festival of 1984 at a singaround in a high street pub. By the end of the weekend, no doubt, most of the festival-goers were feeling pretty much like the "Folk On Tap" journalist would feel about it 16 years later.
At the time, Jez had just ended his brief stint playing in Tom McConville's group DAB HAND, and was trying to establish a partnership with Jake Walton. As it happened, all these musicians were at the same festival and a photograph exists of McConville, Tom Napper and Gordon Tyrall (Jez's replacement) jamming with Jez and Jake in a bar at some point over the festival weekend. Also present was Martin Carthy, Dave Burland, and The Doonan Family, though the highlight of the event was the visit (in a non-performance role) by the recuperating Nic Jones with his family, down from Yorkshire. In such illustrious company, the debut of a new Jez Lowe song was small beer indeed.
The origins of BACK IN DURHAM GAOL, as explained by the author to us, are typically various and varied. Jez was at that time playing tenor banjo with a local dance outfit, The Trimdon Folk Band (something he did for most of the 1980's, yet this is rarely mentioned in his biogs of the time). The band's repertoire for the ceilidhs and barn dances they performed at most weekends, was apparently growing stale by the mid - 80's, yet the various members were strangely reluctant to introduce new material into the act. Jez speaks of making up the melody to BACK IN DURHAM GAOL on a harmonica one day at home, and then percistantly playing it in between dances at the bands' shows, in the vain hope that they would pick it up and bring it into the set.
It is quite obvious then, that the origins of the tune at least lie in the North east of England's dance tradition, and even today there are several dance bands in the UK who have adapted the tune to accompany dances. Anyway, it evidently became apparent that the Trimdon Folk Band were uniquely unimpressed by the tune, so Jez decided that rather than waste it, he would try putting a lyric to it. The North East Of England writer Tommy Armstrong had written a song called "Nae Good Luck In Durham Jail" in the late nineteenth century, apparently from personal experience. Jez knew the song from the singing of Geordie vocalist Bob Davenport, for whom the Trimdon Folk Band were a sometime backing group at gigs in the North East of England. There is no doubt, as Jez himself admitted in the liner notes to the original vinyl version of GALLOWAYS, that Armstrong's song was an influence (Armstrong's birthplace was the village of Tantobie in County Durham by the way), but Jez himself claims there was another over-riding theme to the song that many people miss: at the time it was written there was a sudden upsurge in the number of singer-songwriters on the UK folk scene, many dealing effectively with a wide range of social questions and political themes, while Jez himself found that he was continually being labelled as an exclusively North East of England writer, a role that was becoming something of a burden for him, he felt. Thus, he decided that this was to be the point that he moved away from North East England in his songs, and that never again would he be found in the artistic prison that his Durham identity had created for him! As an ironic result of this uncharacteristic bout of poetic petulence, Jez found that this very song would be the one that made that label stick forever, and that simultaneously taught him that the stories of small town County Durham were perhaps more effective in hitting the universal ear than any attempt he could make to write on a universal scale.
Jez has probably performed this song more than any other in his career. At one point he developed a startlingly different version, played like a slow ballad with guitar backing, a spontaneous attempt one night at a gig in Leeds to try something different with the song. He toyed with this version for several months before reverting to the usual arrangement. One other spontaneous change has stuck, that is the lyric change at the end of the last verse, which is now captured on record as part of the "Live at the Davy Lamp" CD. Few, if any of the 24 recorded cover versions of the song include this change. Don't be surprised if more changes follow.
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HAD AWAY GAN ON
Apart from the introductory chant to "These Coal Town Days", the coloquial slang of HAD AWAY GAN ON is the only time Jez Lowe has ostentatiously flirted with the strange language of North East England, the Geordie dialect, with it's hybrid mixture of Scots, Scandanavian, old English and Irish.
Visitors to the area are sometimes amazed to find that people really do talk like that, and that comprehending local conversation is a mystery to all but those who have been brought up surrounded by it. And yet for the past few years audiences as far apart as San Francisco, Adelaide, Hong Kong and even Tunbidge Wells have found themselves enunciating these strange words from the North Country, and laughing themselves silly at the accompanying verses and wordplay. It was also a highlight of The Parish Notices album, though it's inclusion was apparently a last minute decision.
Jez claims to have found the original inspiration for HAD AWAY GAN ON in a well-known blues song called "Diddy Wah Diddy", not the song of (almost) the same name made famous by Manfred Mann in the '60's, but a much more ribald r&b standard often heard in UK folk and blues clubs, with a refrain that goes "Can anyone tell me what diddy whah diddy means." An germ of an idea rested in Jez's mind for quite a while, that a pastiche of that song but with a "Geordie" refrain might be a good idea for a song of some sort.
It was on his first trip to Australia in 1996 that the flesh of the song began to grow around this idea. He introduces it in concert as "a Geordie homesick blues from Sydney", and he claims (and who are we to doubt him) that each verse of the song is based upon fact, the true incidents that happened to him on his first night in Sydney as he was shown around the city by Bob and Margaret Fagan, well known luminaries of the city's folk scene (parents of James Fagan, bouzouki player extraordinaire). So we hear of the plane ride into the city, the customs man at the airport, the professor from the University of nearby Wollengong (where Jez played a concert during that tour) and ultimately the Scotsman hurling insults, which again was a true incident, wherein a well-known Sydney folky accused Jez of being a fraud from the South of England and quizzed him for an hour about Northumbrian pipe-tunes. Jez apparently survived this ordeal with flying colours. As soon as the locals heard this verse on Jez's next visit, they all immediately recognised the incident, though the protagonist is still unaware of his notoriety as far as is known.
Other details of the song are clearly nothing more than artistic license (though the recently added reference to The Small Faces derives from a real-life confrontation with the late Steve Marriott at Hoddesden Folk Club in the early 1980s! Other than the fact that a jam session involving Jez, Marriott and Gerry Hallom ensued, we know nothing, or maybe all ... or nothing...)
HAD AWAY GAN ON was apparently written some time in 1997 during a trip to Cornwall for a gig in Bude, according to the as-yet-unpublished notes accompanying the text in the forthcoming third volume of "The Songs of Jez Lowe", and quickly became a concert favourite. In singing the song, as is his wont, Jez has added to and changed the lyrics somewhat, and though the song is among those featured on his current Australian tour, it has been sung less and less at gigs in recent times. It seems destined to have a similar fate to other "comic" songs from his pen, such as "Father Mallory's Dance," "The Midnight Mail" and "Davis and Golightly", that eventually the laughs run out and the songs are discarded, the exception being "High Part of the Town", which has been a constant stalwart for the best part of eighteen years!
We hear tell that a new one is on the way, however. Like a lot of recent songs, Jez has chosen to hold them back from public ears for the time being, and with no new album in sight, it could be that audiences may be hearing the curious lingo of HAD AWAY GAN ON for a while longer.
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If you take a look at even the least detailed map of the East Durham Coast of England, chances are that you will spot, in the smallest of letters in the blue wash of the North Sea, between the city of Sunderland and Jez Lowe's hometown of Easington, the merest hint of an indentation that bears the name Shippersea Bay. If your sense of adventure is such that you are prepared to explore the reality of this coastline, you'll find the bay itself is hardly accessible unless you are prepared to walk along the wild and windswept beach from Hawthorn Hive to Easington Colliery. There are no signs to indicate that you have reached it or are even in the vicinity, but at low tide, 50 metres off shore, you may come across the punished remains of some long forgotten ship wreck, embedded in the black sand and destined forever to be pounded by the grey waves of an angry tide.
The cliffs tower above you, the beach below foot is still the colour of a century of slag and colliery waste, that was chucked into the sea all down this coast line, only for the sea to chuck it back again and turn into a man-made volcanic-like blanket of black silt. At the foot of the cliffs you might even find the remains of some long deserted dwellings, that in some vague point in history, clung desperately to the base of the cliff above the high water mark in a vain effort to seek shelter from the unrelenting pounding of this untamed piece of ocean.
The flotsam and jetsum that litters the black sand is unremarkable now, as the days of the coal mine and the fishing net are long gone, but the occasional evidence, a coil of orange shot-wire or a ragged strip of conveyor belt, give their evidence that things were not always this way. No-one comes here now, but there was a time, and other times before then, when things were very different. Jez lowe first sang about this coast line, the angry shore line that leaned against the first few decades of his life, in the songs of other people in the early days of his career, such as Alan Todd's SEA COAL WARRIOR, a fine song that he never recorded, and Bernie Parry's DARK SHORES, a highlight of Jez's 1980 debut album. But it wasn't until 1983 that he tackled the subject himself and came up with a song that is quite unlike anything else he was writing in those days. Jez's second album, THE OLD DURHAM ROAD, was apparently recorded but still unreleased when he came up with SHIPPERSEA BAY. His subsequent short-lived membership of the group DAB HAND provided a suitable sounding post for the dark brooding tune and vague lyrics, and it was that group's arrangement of the song that was used (and credited) when Jez got around to recording it almost two years later, replacing the fiddle/cittern/guitar simplicity of the original with an even more brooding and unforgiving version with Jake Walton on hurdy-gurdy and Jez doubling on piano and guitar.
It's never been a song that Jez has returned to often in live performance, (though ironically the Bad Pennies used it as a sound-check number in the early 1990's), but it's inclusion on the BACK SHIFT colection in 1992 has ensured it's popularity among the faithful, and it was the track to get most airplay when GALLOWAYS was issued in America on CD in 1998.
The lyrics of the song are uncharacteristically unspecific - there are no characters, no incidents, just a build up of atmosphere that harks back to a time when fishing along this coast was a common-place thing, and everyone believed that the coal mines would work forever. It's really not until you see the area itself that it all comes into focus. As recently as the mid 1960's there were men living and working on this inhospitable length of coast, in wood cabins set up on stone platforms, the remnants of which are still visible today. They were fishermen, beachcombers, rogues and scoundrels for the most part, burning driftwood and sea-coal to keep themselves warm and drinking each night in the nearby Trust Hotel (where The Bad Pennies used to rehearse up until a year or two ago). Gradually they moved on or simply died out as the winters got colder and the police got less tolerant.
Back in the 1930's a ship called The West Hiker ran aground at Shippersea Bay, and never left the place, becoming instead a fixture, an adventure playground by the sea for a generation of the town's kids. During World War 2, with scrap metal transformed into precious metal, the wreck was cut to pieces for arms manufacture, but one section, the engine rooms, had been swallowed by the shore, and remains there to this day, doomed to be eternally washed and salted by a thousand tides.
It is probably quite fitting that Shippersea Bay is only a vague place, without boundary or geographical precision, because it seems like Jez lowe's song uses the name to encompass a whole length of coast that includes bays and inlets, denes and rock formations, that like most shore lines, is awash with legend and memory. But this is a strange, strange place, make no mistake. Somewhere along here, Michael Caine met his end by an assassin's bullet in the film "Get Carter", and 30 years later the director Ridley Scott, a local lad who probably played here himself as a child, filmed an unearthly scene for Alien 3, and then only this year, Jez lowe returned to it to compose a piece of music to celebrate it's reclamation for the Sea of Light extravaganza. But as anyone who has heard that music will tell you, and as the song SHIPPERSEA BAY testifies, Jez lowe wasn't among those fool enough to believe that anything will ever change this wild piece of coast line. As he said in the BBC Radio 4 interview at the time of the Sea of Light, you just can't reclaim what was never yours to start with.
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THE NEW MOON'S ARMS
THE NEW MOON'S ARMS was one of a series of collaborations by Jez lowe and Bev Sanders in the early days of The Bad Pennies, described by Jez as "a lullaby for an old man", and fittingly enough described in a recent review of the LIVE AT THE DAVY LAMP CD as a "sleeper", a song that has gained in popularity and prestige in the decade since it first emerged, tucked away at the end of the debut Bad Pennies recording in 1990. It has only sporadically been performed "live" in concert over the years, mainly by Jez solo, and only in in the last year as part of the band's stage repertoire, providing a highlight to the recent "live" collection.There were apparently half a dozen songs that came out of the Lowe/Sanders collaboration, and three of them were selected for inclusion on the album. The collaboration was not a cut and dried system of operation, by all accounts: one song, WANNIE WIND, existed as a completed article for a while before Bev re-wrote part of the lyric at Jez's request, while another, YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU, existed as a piece of music by Jez to which was added a collaborative lyric. NEW MOON'S ARMS appears to have been a complete collaboration, words and tune. In early 1990, The Bad Pennies recorded a session in Birmingham for BBC's flagship folk music radio show at the time, Folk On Two. After the session, the group, Jez, Bev and keboard-player Rob Kay, drove back to Preston where they were staying that night, and at some point in the journey a slumbering Rob woke and looked out of the car window at the evening sky and declared "Look, the old moon is resting in the new moon's arms!" What he had seen was a very bright new crescent moon with the shape of the full moon still visible as if it was laid in the curve of the brighter rim. The expression that he used was an old saying, one that appears in part in the traditional song "Sir Patrick Spens", though none of the band realised that at the time. Bev describes Jez's reaction to Rob's words as his "lightbulb effect", something that occurred whenever an idea for a new song suddenly came to him. The effect obviously reached her too, because by the end of the journey, both of them had formed an outline of a potential new song, and within a few days they were working on putting the composition together. The actual writing took place in part in the bar of the Black Swan in York, home then, as now, of the York Folk Club. Whether it was before, after or during a gig, no-one remembers. Bev's idea was to base the story around an old woman, but they eventually went with Jez's preference to centre it around an old man. Although the words were more or less completed at this point, the melody came much later, though again, no-one seems to remember where or when, but it was at that point also that the chorus emerged It's interesting to note that the reference to "coal" in this song is the only mention of Jez's so-called main inspiration on the whole of the BRIEFLY ON THE STREET album, giving credence to his claim that the coal-mining aspect of his work has been exaggerated over the years. NEW MOON'S ARMS was the final song to be recorded for the album and owes much to Rob Kay's keyboard arrangement, fittingly perhaps since his was the original inspiration for the song. It is to be found at the very end of the album, and it has always been Jez's belief that the result has been that the song was overlooked by many listeners, due to the length of the rest of the album. Being the first CD they ever recorded, they decided to go for maximum content, and there is a feeling that a shorter album at that time might have made a stronger impression to listeners used to only an LP's worth of music. It is interesting to note that reviewers of the "live" album have often referred to NEW MOON'S ARMS as a brand new song, presumably having overlooked it the first time around. To these ears, if ever a Jez lowe recording was destined to be covered by other artists, NEW MOON'S ARMS is an obvious choice, yet, as far as we know, no other versions exist. We hear that Jez spoke about the song at length at a songwriter's workshop at Victor Harbour Festival in Australia recently, following a question from a member of the audience specifically asking about it. We would be glad to hear from anyone who was there as to what exactly he said, ten years after it's composition. As a final tantalising thought, we hear that the Lowe/Sanders team has been at work again in recent months and that at least one new song has already resulted, though when and if we'll ever get to hear it is anyone's guess at this point.
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The very first time I heard Jez lowe singing A CALL FOR THE NORTH COUNTRY, a song that was to become something of an anthem in his "live" performance in later years, it must have been sometime around 1992 at a little club near Oldham, Lancashire, and while the overall effect of the song was pleasing enough, the actual meaning of the lyrics seemed to drift in and out of my understanding, with quotes from other songs and strange maxims of Geordie dialogue all meshed together to a mesmerising beat and a snappy guitar figure. One line leapt out at me that night however, probably as it came twice, in the first verse and the repeat - "I'm a windblown seed from the land of Bede", he sang, and being an exiled Geordie myself, i immediately knew what Jez was talking about. St. Bede, the earliest of the British Christian saints, the writer of the first history of Britain, who walked the lands of the North Country in the 5th or 6th Century A.D., and who's bones rest beneath the altar of Durham Cathedral alongside St. Cuthbert, the other northern Christian notable and sanctified hero.
A few months later, I saw Jez again and actually requested that he perform the song, "the one about St.Bede", I remember saying. He looked puzzled and then laughed, but said he would sing the song, which he did. However, I listened in vain for the line that had hooked me. "I'm a windblown seed in a land of greed", he sang, and that is the line that remained and ended up on the recorded version a year or so later. I could understand that the new line had a somewhat wider range of understanding to those not versed in the folk-lore and history of the North East, but nevertheless felt somewhat agrieved that such a symbol of Northern greatness had been exorcised in the name of universal appeal!
It was with some gratitude that about nine months later that I saw The Bad Pennies perform at the Beamish Mary Folk Club near Stanley County Durham. It was the first time I had seen the group, and here they were playing to a home crowd, and going down a storm, with a series of songs that were yet to be released on record alongside reworkings of familiar tunes. But it was the encore that floored me. I recall that Jez introduced the song as never having been performed before (though in retrospect it seems that the new album was already recorded but not yet available.) The song was BEDE WEEPS, and hearing the song again now on record still gives a frisson of amazement to jaded ears that anyone could have thought of this as a topic for a song. Jez Lowe constantly talks about finding an "angle" from which to write his songs, and this to me was a perfect example of that. Here was Bede, stepping into the late 20th Century like some ecclesiastical Doctor Who, and seeing what a mess had been made of the land that he must have known as green and pleasant, despite it's natural hostility and wildness. Bede, weeping with frustration, anger, sorrow, as he calls for someone to stand up and be counted, but ultimately realises that the whole thing is futile. It's a bleak end to a bitter album, with non-rhyming lines sung over a series of major and minor seventh chords, quite unlike anything else on the CD, or for that matter, anywhere in the Jez Lowe songbook.
The song was the last to be recorded for the album, and so probably the last to be written - only 3 Bad Pennies are involved in the recording, as the session was hastily put together to get the song down with anyone who was available, according to one who was there. Then suddenly, this was also the album's title track. The cover art shows a metal sculpture of Bede himself, a work that is still on display at the Bede's World Museum in Jarrow, Tyne and Wear. It's a disturbing picture for a CD cover, again unlike anything else in the Jez Lowe album collection. It was later chosen for inclusion in the prestigious ELECTRIC MUSE VOLUME 2 collection, alongside Richard Thompson et al., though what electricity there was on this track came not so much from the instruments as from the sentiments expressed, in my opinion. The song itself didn't stay part of the "live" repertoire for long. I requested it about three years ago at a solo gig and Jez claimed he couldn't remember the words. As the band's line-up changed, so the song was left behind. Moreover, the desperation expressed in the song soon became almost too much for those of us from North East England to accept. Surely, we felt, there must be some hope, some relief, other than tears. Tears are abundant throughout this album, and a more upbeat ending for it would have been an easier way out for all concerned. That "easy way out" is surely what we are all looking for, but just don't look for it here.
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THE SODA MAN
A song that was featured at every Bad Pennies' concert throughout the '90's, and at the odd Jez Lowe solo gig as well, The Soda Man was described by US Radio DJ Steve Meadows as "the archetypal Jez Lowe song", a jaunty melody, a catchy chorus, a neat little guitar figure, and an underlying touch of social comment that creeps up on you unawares! Written for the BRIEFLY ON THE STREET album, the debut recording of the original Bad Pennies, there seems to be a certain amount of "tailoring" involved from the outset, in that the song was obviously constructed to give Bev Sanders a lead vocal on the chorus, while Jez was to handle the main verse of the song.
Keyboard player Rob Kay's arrangement on the instrumental riff was typically inventive, echoing rather than sticking to the guitar part, and giving just the right amount of suggestion of the "ice-cream van" melody without overplaying the allusion. On the surface the song can be seen to be another aspect of life in Northern England that Jez Lowe has taken and viewed from a more intimate and closely scrutinized angle - that the Soda Man was more than just a merchant, but a symbol of joy and freedom that had stayed with the writer all his life and was now being celebrated in song. Indeed, that is what the character becomes in this story, and there's a universality in that - for although the Soda Man never came down OUR street, perhaps one day he will!
According to the sleeve notes of the Jez Lowe Songbook, however, the whole crux of the song was a mere fiction on Jez's part - there never was a "Soda Man" selling pop and soft-drinks from a van around the streets. It was all just made up by the writer, for the sole purpose, worthy in itself, of setting up the story of the young girl looking after her siblings and longing for the chance to play in the sunshine, drink her pop and skip along the pavement, juxtaposed with the reality of her parents spending all their time and money drinking in the pubs and bars 'til all all hours of the night. There is also the sinister image of her father's shaking hands coming towards her as she lies in bed, a memory that won't go away... Its a poignant contrast that seems to perfectly suit the song - the happy-go-lucky children's rhyme (again, purely something that the writer invented), set against the bleak desperation of the reality of family life.
No doubt there are memories and allusions from childhood throughout the song, but the specifics are purely part of the Jez Lowe imagination, as he gleefully admitted from the start. Even his onstage introduction was carefully worded to claim no authenticity, while at the same time suggesting exactly that! We can glean some further information about how the song was recorded from those involved. For example, the idea for the extraneous voices on the fade out came from hearing an album by the Italian singer Fabrizio de Andre (the album is called "Creuza de Ma"), where street sounds are used to cross-fade the opening tracks. For the Bad Pennies' track, Jez recorded Bev's three children actually playing hopscotch and chanting the chorus of the song; this was then dubbed on to the track at Fellside studios, as was a similar recording of Jez's father shouting a Soda Man's slogan in the backstreet outside his house in County Durham.
On the LP version of the album (this was to be the only Fellside album to be released in all three formats, LP, CD and cassette), this closed the first side. Over the ten years that the song stayed in the band's repertoire, it underwent several changes in arrangement, culminating in the version that appears on the "Live at the Davy Lamp" album. Jez also featured the song on his solo gigs in Australia last year, encouraging the audience to do the chorus part. The song then seems to have slipped out of favour and is no longer in the "live" repertoire. Hopefully the fact that The Soda Man was revealed as a fictional character, rather than a significant memory of days gone by in County Durham, will not lessen it's appeal or detract from it's effectiveness. You might wonder why Jez chose to reveal this, when he could easily have maintained the complete fiction that this was somehow all based on fact. Well, herein lies the twist to the tale. Some time after the song was written, and the album released, Jez and Bev were in a bookshop in Lancashire and were looking at a book of old photographs from the 1800's (the sort of thing one might see in tourist centres or in the Bygone Times chain of UK stores), and to their amazement came across a faded print of a white-bearded man standing next to a horse-drawn wagon in a cobbled street, a jug in one hand and a bottle in the other. The caption read "The Soda Man - circa 1860".
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The inclusion of male/female duets on Jez Lowe albums has been a regular feature in recent years. On the last studio album The Parish Notices there are two notable examples, SOD ALL and the title track, while on the forthcoming studio album we are led to believe that there are more to come, but this tradition began back in 1993 with the release of BEDE WEEPS, when two tracks, Just Like Moses and Greek Lightning, used the duet device to good effect. The former has already been dealt with in our Song of the Month feature, and so we turn to GREEK LIGHTNING, a song who's popularity has re-surged in recent times, partly because of it's inclusion on LIVE AT THE DAVY LAMP, and partly because of the version by Bob Fox and Fairport Convention on his recent debut solo album. Both of these versions lose the duet effect however, with lyric changes to accommodate a solo male voice. It was a duet between Jez and Bev Sanders that first breathed life into this song, and the two of them still perform it on the odd rare occasion that they appear on stage together. Perhaps that is the reason why that it has never made the transition into the repertoire of the current line-up of The Bad Pennies.
GREEK LIGHTNING tells the tale of a couple living in grim surroundings in the North of England, and how their dream of flying off to sunnier, warmer climes, and hopefully happier times, is thwarted by their very circumstances. Intrinsic to the song's make-up however, is a grim humour that pervades the lyrics, which when performed by the old Bad Pennies' line-up, sometimes gave way to pure slapstick between Bev and Jez. Solo, the humour is inevitably more subtle. The key line of the song is the repeated refrain, the second line of each verse, "Oh but your heart it was easily won". This is lifted directly from the old Border Ballad, "The Fair Flower of Northumberland", in which a rich lord's daughter runs off with a lowly knight. This brings a new slant to Jez's song, suggesting as it does that the woman in the song has perhaps walked away from a much better life for the love of a man with little or no prospects, but is adamant to the end that "I'll never leave you", no matter how bad things get. The coda of the song refers to the "Hot sands of Roker or Whitley Bay", two somewhat austere seaside towns on the North East coast of England. Jez has been known to change these in concert, to "Redcar and Seaton Carew", two equally salubrious resorts further south. All of these places were very popular holiday destinations thirty or forty years ago for local families, before the chance of cheap package tours to Greece and Spain lured their custom to more reliable climates.
The song is almost a "summer" version of the Pogues' Christmas record "Fairytale of New York", that was a big hit in the UK in the late 1980's. Jez's song was apparently written in 1993, just before recording sessions for BEDE WEEPS started, so inspiration could have come from there, but many of the songs on the album deal with similarly bleak relationship issues, so one can only guess at what suggested the subject matter in this case. The melody and guitar figure is unusual for a Jez Lowe song - the use of a flat-pick rather than finger-style was a first for him, when this song was recorded - and only the inherent humour of the lyric stops it from being almost too bleak to pull in the listener, something the composer must have been aware of at the time. He claims to have had the title itself for many years and was just waiting for an opportunity to use it, so this song looks like another case of Jez bringing together many separate ideas and moulding them into one whole, echoing again his long-standing maxim that "One good idea isn't necessarily enough to make one good song." Although GREEK LIGHTNING has never found a solid position in Jez Lowe's solo repertoire, it is requested by the audience often enough to be a semi-regular addition to his concert programme. The phrase "by popular demand" seems to fit the bill.
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SWEEP HORIZONS CLEAN
"A post-industrial love song" is how Jez Lowe introduced this song at a recent Bad Pennies concert. "That's what I was told, anyway. What do I know?" Sweep Horizons Clean has been an understated stalwart of Jez's "live" set for quite a while, and indeed was featured on the "Live at the Davy Lamp" CD last year, as well as on the original release "Tenterhooks" in the mid-90's. For many years though, it was only sung at solo gigs, and it wasn't until the group insisted that they have a chance to play it, that it graduated into the band's set, where it still features occasionally, often as an end-of -the-night encore. It has long been one of Jez's favourite songs.
The song was written in America at the home of Jez's then US agent Amy Fonoroff in Boston in the late Autumn of 1995, according to the notes that accompany the song in the soon-to-be-published third volume of the Jez Lowe Songbook. Its origins came as, back home, the last remnants of the Easington Colliery coal mine winding-gear and out-buildings were being demolished following the final closing of the pit by the Tory government. A quote from an interview Jez did at the time on BBC Radio Cleveland is worth noting. Jez sang the song "live" for presenter Richard Stewart, who remarked that it was strange that such a "pretty" song had remarkably sad lyrics, and asked "Why are all folk songs so sad?".
"Well it's a love song, and all the best love songs are sad," Jez replied, laughing.
"But it's more than a love-song, it's about your hometown..."
"Well it could be about anywhere. I mean, it is about my hometown, as it happens, but it could be anywhere, because the same thing is happening all over, that thing where people are scared to look.. they pass where the pit used to be or the factory, where there was all this high machinery, the pit-head gear, the pulley wheels and all that, the chimneys, and now, and its all been there for decades, a hundred years, and now there's just a big lump of sky. And people aren't looking, it hurts them to look at it, so they look the other way as they pass by. It's left such a gap in their lives, both emotionally and actually, physically, where the sky was dark with industrial shapes, you can now see the clear blue sky. That's the "sweep horizons" bit. But you can't dwell on that, we're all trying to move on."
"So how do you turn that into a love song? Is that the right thing to do?"
"I don't know. There was an old song that I heard a mate of mine do in America actually, a fella called Michael Black, he does a great song called The Coming of the Roads, and I heard him do it one night in a bar, a pub gig, and it was great, and that was the sort of thing I wanted to do with this song, a sort of acceptance of change, regretfully but accepting as well, and let's get on with it, don't run away from it. Anyway I just put people into it, and that's how it came out."
The song that Jez mentions as inspiration for his own composition, was written by Billy Ed Wheeler, and recorded by Judy Collins in the 1960's. (Michael Black is the San Francisco-based brother of Irish singer Mary Black). In that song, the changes are the building of new roads to a remote part of America, where the author comes from a coal-mining town as it happens, and as well as bringing big changes into the area, they are also giving people the chance to leave the area behind. Similarly it is a conversation wherein one person is staying and the other is leaving.
The melody and the lyrics of the two songs are not alike in any way however. The main similarity is that both are songs of social commentary using characters in a story to put across the point the writers are trying to make. And both songs start with the same word - "Now..."
When asked recently about the origins of Sweep Horizons Clean, Jez seemed not to remember the link with this other song, and instead cited another completely different origin, Crowded House's "Better Come Home Soon" which he said was in the US charts when he was working on his song, and had subconciously influenced the writing of it. And also, he said, Sting's "Fields of Gold" was constantly on the radio at that time as he was driving around on tour, and the construction of the verses of that song was also an influence.
Musically, there are several points that attract this writer to the song, apart from the simple yet effective melody itself. There is the catchy instrumental motif that introduces the song, played on saxaphone on the original, but in fiddle when in concert. (There is an in-joke in the band, that the short guitar doodle at the very start of the original recording can never be repeated, as Jez can't remember what he played at the time! Subsequently he has played something similar, but not the same) Also the dramatically effective change in the chord sequence after the instrumental break, where the same main melody is transformed by bringing a series of minor chords in to replace the usual major chords. An added bonus recently in concert has been the use of fiddle on the last verse to echo the vocal harmony of the original recording, in a duet with the lead vocal. The omission of the refrain on the last verse is also a nice touch.
"Sweep Horizons Clean" has never been covered by any other artist, as far as I know, which is hard to believe, as it seems very much to have "mainstream" appeal to these ears, and I note that it is often the song Jez chooses to perform "live" in radio interviews and studio performances as he tours around America, where there is a better chance of a mainstream audience listening in and hearing him.
As an added bonus for this piece, he gave us the tuning used on the guitar for the song - DAGDGC
"Song of the Month" - Top of Page
FIGHTING THE TIDE
THE BAD PENNIES in "THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY" - the story of a "lost' album.
There used to be an old saying that you could stand waiting for a bus for ages in cold wind and rain on a dreary dark street, and then three buses would all come at once, all going to the very destination you wanted. It's not so much a saying as a maxim, a fact of life, or at least a fact of British life, one that we Brits accept with grudging affability, as we are wont to do. Something to do with World War Two, apparently, though of course fewer and fewer of us are around to relate to that analogy these days. Yet the maxim, the analogy, remains curiously current.
Jez Lowe and The Bad Pennies released their first new album for four years in March 2002. It had been a long wait, since 1998's PARISH NOTICES album, punctuated by first the re-release on CD of 1983's THE OLD DURHAM ROAD (with one previously unreleased track), then the "live" double "enhanced" CD LIVE AT THE DAVY LAMP, which in itself had been a long-time coming, having been promised at various times as being "ready for release" in one form or another for ten years or more. Then six months later came TWO A ROUE, the 1986 album by Jez Lowe and Jake Walton, this time presented on CD with three extra tracks, and being the second release on the new Tantobie Records label. Deceptively then, it seemed that Jez's album output was even more prolific than in days of yore, when an album every two years was the norm. But to those of us who were witnessing his "live" shows, there was enormous frustration in the knowledge that there was a load of new songs in his repertoire that were unavailable to the album buying public, and statement after statement, hint after hint, made it clear that a new album was not even on the cards, and that these new songs were in danger of being left behind as time went on and still no new recording was in sight.
Gratification of course has come with the release of HONESTY BOX, and the universal acclaim that it has been greeted with. Certainly there have been songs lost in the intervening years - Hoi Polloi, Easy Town, and others, but the 12 we were given more than made up for those.
But the irony is that having waited for so long for a new album, few of us even noticed that ANOTHER set of recordings sneaked out from the Tantobie back door at almost the same time as the celebrated HONESTY BOX, a collection of songs that very few people have heard performed on stage, and that fewer still have managed to claim for their CD collection. Yet anyone who has kept abreast with goings on in the Bad Pennies' camp over the last 6 months will immediately be familiar with the title under which these recordings drifted into the light of day - FIGHTING THE TIDE.
Kate Bramley's appointment to the Bad Pennies in "emergency" circumstances at the end of November 2000 was no mere quirk of fate. She had worked with Jez on his mammoth orchestral commission for the East Durham SEA OF LIGHT Celebration the summer before she joined the band. How she came to be involved in that project seems to been the result of her approach to Jez a year earlier to collaborate on a play she was writing for her Bad Apple Theatre Company, that would be a mixture of drama and song, and that she was working on as long ago as the end of 1998. Bad Apple was already an established company, familiar to theatre-going audiences around the country, and one of their biggest successes had been Kate's adaption of the play Northern Trawl, about the Hull-based trawler crews and their triumphs and tragedies, as written by Rupert Creed.
Kate's new play was to be a continuation of this theme, but whereas that first production had used extant songs by the likes of John Connelly and Mike Waterson, the new one would have brand new songs, though it seems that at first Kate had approached Jez about including just one song of his, THE BERGEN, in the show. In the early drafts of the play, the boat that is central to the story is called The Bergen, though this was later changed to The Northern Gift.
This as-yet untitled project seems to have been overtaken by events to some extent over the subsequent months, firstly by Jez's commission to the Sea Of Lights extravaganza, with all the work that that entailed, and then the sudden departure of Billy Surgeoner from The Bad Pennies when Jez got back from a long Australian tour in September 2000. In came Kate Bramley to the ranks of the Bad Pennies, and by January 2001 the new line-up of the group were off to America for the first of several tours scheduled for that year. Along the way, it seems, the collaboration on the "play with songs" took shape, and indeed began to take its place as one of several excuses as to why no new album would be forthcoming from the band in the near future. Throughout 2001, Jez talked about the new experience of writing songs for drama, while presumably, Kate was busying herself in the writing of the drama itself, and the nationwide Bad Apple theatre tour that was being organised for early 2002.
Finally in late 2001, the play was given a title, announced as FIGHTING THE TIDE - A play by Kate Bramley with songs by Jez Lowe. The tour was set to start in Tunbridge Wells in January and continue around the country until mid-April, upwards of 25 performances, culminating at Hull Truck's Spring Street Theatre with a week-long residency. The story of the play concerned the adventures of a group of people who were leaving their homes on an island who's shores were quickly being eaten away by an ever-advancing ocean. They became fishermen and ventured out into a world set at some indetermined future time, where things were both familiar and foreign, futuristic and antique, and it was the fate of these adventurers that set out the story of the drama. The songs came as almost Brechtian counterpoints to the action, wherein people, puppets and music interacted on the stage as the tale unfolded.
As to how the music was to be presented, this was obviously of paramount importance to both Kate and Jez. It became clear early on that the use of actual singers and musicians on stage every night was both preferable and yet also impossible, mainly due to the finances of the tour, and especially as this would coincide with Jez's solo tour of America in February, and the Bad Pennies' tour of Australia in April, and so ruling out the obvious candidates for the job! Thus it was decided that the actors themselves would sing the songs, to a music sountrack previously recorded by The Bad Pennies and used as playback to the "live" action. A plan was hatched wherein the band would record the twelve (one song entitled "Lightning Man" was left out of the production at a late date) new songs in two forms, as instrumental backing tracks for the show itself, but also as vocal versions for the actors to use as learning guides and coaching tapes for their own performances.
There was no suggestion at this point that any of these songs were destined to any fate beyond their stage performances, especially as the Bad Pennies had only just completed work on HONESTY BOX and Tantobie Records were gearing up to its release with a big promotional push that would not benefit from being clouded by the simultaneous release of a seperate album by the same band with a completely different set of songs! So when recording for FIGHTING THE TIDE commenced in December 2001, it was in the knowledge that these songs had a specific purpose, and one purpose only, to enhance the theatrical drama for which they had been written.
Jez was newly back from his US tour with James Keelaghan when three Bad Pennies congregated in a basement studio in Darlington, County Durham just before Christmas to start recording with engineer Neil Scarth. Handshake Studios is a small hidden dungeon of a place like a suburban subterranean catacoombe with one of Jez's favourite dogs in residence - Samba, a black Alsation cross, who's face forms the logo of the studio's in-house recording label, Woof Records - and it has a long association with the Bad Pennies. The group did demos above here in this same building back in 1992 (copies of which were distributed by their agent at the time and now are among the most rare of Jez Lowe recordings incidentally), and ex-Bad Penny Bev Sanders recorded her album here in 1997. The 1998 5-track EP Lowe Life was compiled here, and both Sea of Light and an early version of The Big Fear for an American charity compilation were also both taped in the cluttered rooms beneath an unsuspectingly busy main street in central Darlington only a year before.
Simon Haworth, who would also be involved with the touring company as stage manager in the early days of the play's impending jaunt around England, joined his fellow band members Kate and Jez that first day of recording. The music would be a long way from what the band had recorded for HONESTY BOX a mere two months earlier, being much simpler and basic in arrangement - "organic" was the byword of the entire session, according to engineer Neil Scarth, with the result that the finished effect is vaguely reminiscent of the albums Jez made with Fellside Records in the early 1980's. But the music, the arrangements, the cues and timings, and even the keys in which they were sung, had to suit both the action and the actors, much in the way a film-soundtrack has to match up frame by frame with what is on the screen. What "dynamics" there were, it would be the job of the actors to provide, with the music driving the action along without ever inhibiting or impinging on the players up there on the stage. But in striving for this, by almost transplanting themselves to a position WITHIN the story itself, the three musicians created something with dynamics of its own quite unlike that they had managed to create together in the past.
The resulting music was a bit of a surprise to even the players themselves, being of a rather disturbing nature, with a bizarre timeless quality to both the lyrics and sound itself, almost like it was the musical jottings in some private journal, or an unfinished novel who's story would be told by others at another time. The juxtaposition of images and ideas from historical past and fantastic future were being taken to strange lengths in these songs, and suspended in a musical setting that suggested a hotch-potch of amateurism, anachronism, insight, simplicity and clear-headed determination. This is very much reflects the make-up of the play itself, wherein the common place artifacts of past, present and future are spread around in a disheveled world of confusion and uncertainty. People are matter-of-fact about this way of existence, of not knowing how or if survival will be attained, or even what brought them to the situation in which they are now finding themselves. The fact that Jez even attempted to capture this in his lyrics suggests that he is more than a little familiar with that very same situation. Despite the inherent stylistic strands and familiarity, this is not the usual Jez Lowe fare, and it is somewhat unsettling to try and place it in context with his other work, none moreso than the recently completed HONESTY BOX songs. The songs and music that Jez, Kate and Simon played in that dusty County Durham basement in those snowy December days seem to have been a one-off capturing of something out of time. But whether too late or too early, it is unsettling to try and judge.
It is unclear at what point a decision was taken to prepare the music for limited release on CD for public consumption. The slight sleeve notes to the album mention how the music began to "take on a life of its own" outside of the play, and the thought began to enter the minds of those involved that people should be allowed to hear these songs on their own merit. The tricky part was of course, that a new album was already finished, already produced and these strange and eerie recordings from below ground must never be allowed to interfere with that fact. Therefore it was decided that a small limited edition CD would be produced for sale at each performance of the play around the country, but that no promotion of the album would be undertaken, and no attempt would be made to release the album elsewhere or make it available to regular Bad Pennies audiences, lest any spotlight should be taken away from the "real" new album that would be released with a fan-fare at exactly the same time around the world. The irony that such a clash of new product should happen was by no means lost on the band or Tantobie Records staff.
And so it was. The play opened to good notices around the country, and at each performance, copies of the "incidental music" clothed in very plain brown CD sleeves with nothing but Kate Bramley's line drawing of a sailing boat on the front, were sold to any member of the audience who wished to take along a souvenir of the night's music home with them.
Inevitably some copies strayed into more general circulation, and several tracks even gained some airplay around the country. Two songs subsequently even appeared in the "live" concert set - Jez's solo version of "The Sun and the Moon and Me", and Kate's vocal contribution to the band's set on "All Trawl and No Tickle" but none of the other songs (including Simon's vocal interpretation of the one re-working of the set, Jez's 1984 composition SHIPPERSEA BAY) have so far resurfaced. By the time the play's run in Hull had completed the nationwide tour, The Bad Pennies were already in Australia, promoting HONESTY BOX at the Byron Bay Blues and Roots Festival. A meagre few left-over copies of the album, along with the props and stage-set of FIGHTING THE TIDE, were stored away at Bad Apple's warehouse in Leeds, and remain there, gathering collective dust, to this very day. THE SONGS -
OLD MAN MUSE / INCHES / POSTMAN'S LAMENT / BLESSING AND CURSING / THE SUN AND THE MOON AND ME / SIREN MUSE / THE LOVING AND THE LEAVING / SHIPPERSEA BAY / THE NET MY FATHER LEFT ME / ALL TRAWL AND NO TICKLE / THE SUN AND THE MOON AND ME (Reprise) / FIGHTING THE TIDE
With thanks to Neil Scarth, Joe Gannet and Bad Apple Theatre Co. Jim Lawrence
"Song of the Month" - Top of Page
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