When I was at senior school I was interviewed twice by the local TV news. The first time We had some re-enactment of King Arthur and the 12 year old me stood on Central News and said “it was great, it came alive, you can’t get that in a book…..” and my mum proudly recorded it that night after tea.
The second time was a few years later and the then Home Secretary, Michael Howard came to visit. The local reporter, Anna Soubry (whatever happened to her….?) asked me a couple of questions, after which the MP said to me: “can I count on your vote when you’re older?” To which I replied: “absolutely not, Mr. Howard.” And he was on his way. That one was never aired. My mum never recorded anything that night – although I suspect she’d still have been proud.
Both of those things, actually, explain why I love “The Ballad Of Johnny Longstaff” so much.
First, lets get this sorted. I have always been interested in politics, and my politics have always been on the left. I am proud of this. Always will be. And if Howard was stood in front of the 43-year-old me he wouldn’t get the polite response of the 16-year-old one.
Second, I adore social history. Something to bring the past to life.
That’s what “Ballad Of Johnny Longstaff” does. Longstaff was a boy from the North East town of Stockton (where The Young’uns are from too) who joined the Jarrow marchers. He then was at Cable Street as the public stood together and defeated fascism, before fighting in the Spanish Civil War and returning home.
This record features his oral testimony as well as songs from the Young’uns.
The Young’uns first came to my attention when I heard their “Strangers” album. A brilliant collection. A couple of the tracks on “….Longstaff” were on it, but they fleshed them out to a full length show. I know this, because I saw it a year or so ago. Enthusing at the time on the review on this site: “with bands like the Young ‘Uns around then the legend scrawled on the side of the guitar belonging to that other great folk hero, Woody Guthrie, still rings true: This Machine Kills Fascists. Music can sometimes mean more, it did here.”
The soundtrack record, as it were, is a reproduction of that night. Listening to them as “just” songs you are struck by the incredible songwriting skills that the band have. It isn’t too far to describe some of the lyrics here as genius, it really isn’t.
The first few tell the tale of how the young Johnny went to London, from the outright poverty of “Any Bread?” or “Carrying The Coffin”. Then once in the capital he found the situation no better – “Hostel Strike” explains that brilliantly, before “Cable Street” (one of the ones that was on “Strangers”) vividly describes the battle with Moseley’s Black Shirts.
It is worth pointing out too that just as songs, even if you weren’t invested in the story, these are incredible. The acapella harmonies of the trio are the best there is, and when they do use music – which they do rarely – as on the beautiful “Ta-Ra To Tooting” – you are left thinking that they could have been anything they like.
A lot of bands might deliver this as po-faced. That’s not the Young’uns way. So David Eagle – who has a bit of the end of pier Music Hall entertainer about him – gives us “Noddy” for some light relief, before “The Great Tomorrow” essentially distils everything I believe about socialism into four minutes.
The second half, if you will, deals with the war itself. “Ay Carmela” adds a Latin touch, “No Hay Pan” shows what a fabulous voice Sean Cooney has, while “Lewis Clive” is a simply gorgeous ballad.
“Bob Cooney’s Miracle” – which was the other one you will have heard if you know “Strangers” – still contains the greatest line in any song: “Jesus may have got more done”, it reckons. “but he had five loaves not just one”. That alone should get them another award.
The horrors of all this are laid bare on “Over The Ebro” and “David Guest” tells the tale of the first Englishman to imprisoned by the Nazi’s, and the “Valley Of Jarama” is an especially poignant way to end this.
Johnny got home and he was able to tell his tales. These stories should resonate still.
Fascism is on the rise again. The horrible, pernicious politics of 2019 have made it almost acceptable. If this record helps the resistance of that in any way then it is even better than I think it is.
This is the way history should be taught. The type you can’t get in a book as a boy with a horrible bouffant haircut might have said in 1988. If one kid somewhere, anywhere, hears it and becomes engaged then brilliant. Or, they can just love some wonderful music. Either’s good. Both would be better.