Interview with our last great political singer songwriter
How do you know you’re in the presence of musical greatness? Good question, sometimes it’s not that obvious. In the upstairs of a south London pub Robb Johnson, who’s just about to perform for a Radical London benefit, sits opposite me talking about what it is he does and where it all came from?
“I always wanted to be a writer. As a kid I thought I’d like to be a poet and then I thought if you’re a poet you only ever talk to posh people in ivory towers, but if you had a guitar you could go up and talk to all sorts of people everywhere. And I was always interested in songs that had something to say, worth listening to. As a kid I liked the Velvet Underground a lot, and from them I found the Stooges and MC5, and MC5 were really righteous and very political”.
But the flames spread out of their control
When Tottenham burned
And Johnson too is very political. Last year’s album Some Recent Protest Songs featured an anti-cuts placard on the cover and was bang up to date in terms of subject matter – Libya’s no fly zone, the student riots (The Man Who Poked Camilla), coalition cabinet and city bankers “don’t ask me why, I don’t like the rich”. But there were also moments of reflection about those who rarely get songs written about them, whose lives are rarely documented and never celebrated, trying to extract a sense of beauty and hope from the society we live in. It’s something he learned from Victor Jara, the famous Chilean political activist and musician who was brutally murdered during the Pinochet coup in 1973.
“The nicest thing about Victor Jara, he was very much up against really nasty fascist bastards but always insisted his songs should be beautiful. And one of the things I personally find disappointing about a lot of the punk music is they kind of want to be ugly. Whereas I think it’s important that we don’t let people take away our capacity for beauty, and Victor Jara songs always insisted upon the people’s capacity for beauty”.
And it’s that capacity to create beauty in often ugly circumstances from often ugly situations that marks Johnson out.
I bet they all slept safe and sound in Eton
When Tottenham burned
When Tottenham Burned was recorded last August about the death of Mark Duggan and resultant four days of rioting, and it won the prestigious FATEA magazine song of the year. It neither glorifies nor disdains and lists in the lyric all those that were killed during the rioting. It’s a remarkably poignant song. It’s a remarkable song.
“Funnily enough I was at Broadstairs festival. We got up on Monday morning and noticed all the newspapers had these headlines ‘London burning’ all these very colourful photographs and we thought surely not, and we were all going ‘Wow this is just…’ And part of the function of what I do, I think, is within that folk tradition of providing alternative perspectives to the ruling cultural discourse”
“And the other thing is what the media always try and persuade us is a riot is composed of people who are all there for the same thing. So I tried to get the idea of there being a multiplicity of perspectives on the riot, and also different ways of looking at it, and I hope at the end I try and put it into its perspective that it’s a class issue, not a criminal issue”.
Politicians flew home, eventually
When Tottenham burned
For those of us who lived through it, the 1980s remains like a scar across the memory and if you’re going to talk politics you’re going to have to talk about those dark days of Thatcherism that politicised through necessity a generation. We talk long and hard about the 1980s and try and draw parallels to what’s happening now.
“Thatcher destroyed the working community; she destroyed the working classes traditional forms of organisation. On the other hand she didn’t destroy the working class because what did for her was the popular working class resistance to the poll tax. It was because people took a principled stand and self-organise that she got… ”
He trails off. Johnson’s optimism remains undiminished in his belief in our capacity to fight back even when I mention the floundering anti-cuts movement
“It’s more complex because it’s not a single issue, but I think there’s more energy now amongst ordinary people, there’s more organisation and there’s more anger than at any time since the poll tax”.
Later that evening I’m sitting at the computer in the near dark writing this and listening to When Saturday Came, Johnson’s song about the 96 Liverpool fans killed at Hillsborough. I look down and see the keyboard flooded with tears. I’m crying like a child to a voice, a guitar and a few well chosen words. Then I understood that’s when you realise you’re in the presence of musical greatness.
Gone for good our fathers town
The great dock labour scheme
The only thing they ain’t knocked down
Our fathers football team
We live and die for our Saturdays
And when that Saturday came
No greater love than the push and shove
At the gates of the Hillsborough game
When Saturday Came
- Some Recent Protest Songs (IRR080) is available in most records shops, as is his latest LP Once Upon A Time (IRR082).
- When Saturday Came is from the album The Big Wheel (IRR036). All are released on Johnson’s own Irregular Records and can be ordered from the website: http://www.robbjohnson.co.uk/
- Victor Jara’s songs can be heard on Youtube here
- an extended version of this interview will be posted up soon