My route into americana was through the alternative music scene of the eighties. My first real experiences listening to something which could be called americana was The Mekons’ cover of Hank Williams’ ‘Alone & Forsaken’ on the fantastic ‘Edge of the World’ LP from 1986. But even before then I had been obsessed with The Men They Couldn’t Hang who had emerged from the early eighties UK ‘cow-punk’ scene alongside bands like The Boothill Foot Tappers, but rapidly transcended it with more folk-oriented songs melding historical events and political insight like the fantastic ‘Ironmasters’ and ‘Ghosts of Cable Street’.
Over the late eighties I saw The Men numerous times at venues ranging from the Swansea University Student Union Bar to supporting David Bowie at the Milton Keynes Bowl in 1990 where they played, much to Bowie’s personal annoyance, a version of his late sixties’ novelty hit ‘The Laughing Gnome’ putting paid to any chances of his supporting their future success. They called it a day in 1991 after some final shows at the Town and Country Club in London released as the live record ‘Alive, Alive-O’.
On a slightly different tack I bought the Billy Bragg mini-album ‘The Internationale’ when it came out on the Utility Label in 1990. The label had released a range of albums with very similar covers and, in one of those beautiful moments of total ineptitude, or maybe synchronicity, that lead to a new discovery the shop assistant managed to put the wrong record into the sleeve. I used to love the whole record store experience, sifting through the covers in the rack, taking my selection to the counter so one of the staff could pop out the back and find the right slab of vinyl to slip into the sleeve which you could take home, drop the needle, hear the hiss and crackle before some glorious noise erupted from the speakers. That whole ritual was spoiled by the CD, and then snuffed out completely by Spotify. (Although, let’s not moan too much, as Spotify has just enabled me to research all these old tracks without rifling through boxes of vinyl to find what I want.)
When I dropped the needle on this occasion I didn’t hear Bragg’s unmistakeable voice. Instead, it turned out to be Weddings, Parties, Anything from Melbourne, Australia, led by the remarkable songwriter Mick Thomas, who also had a Utility Label mini-album out. From the opening sounds of ‘Hungry Years’, through the re-working of Brecht’s ‘The Infanticide of Marie Farrar’, to the final ‘Scorn of the Women’, a song addressing the war from an arrestingly oblique angle. It was a superb album. Once I had taped the album – remember that? – I rushed back to the shop, demanded my Bragg album, and bought everything I could find from Weddings, Parties, Anything (WPA).
So, bringing us back to the night to remember. I had spotted a listing that WPA were on tour in the UK, a rare event for a relatively small band from the other side of the globe. The closest they seemed to be coming to the musically barren Northampton where I lived at the time, was The Charlotte in Leicester. A classic venue: spit and sawdust pub with a dark and dismal back room with a stage. The ideal place to see a band. (I have just checked it out and it seems to have closed in 2009. A real loss to the Leicester music scene.)
In those days, before the internet, getting information about where bands were playing was a bit of a hit and miss affair and I couldn’t actually work out whether it was WPA playing The Charlotte or Robyn Hitchcock, now solo and previously of the psychedelic Soft Boys. But I’d seen Hitchcock a few years previously in Cardiff, loved the song ‘Brenda’s Iron Sledge’, and thought it worth the risk.
When I turned up at the gig it appeared that WPA were actually supporting Hitchcock; which was a pretty good deal. There was also a second support band and I assumed it was one of the Charlotte’s local ‘house bands’. A motley selection of variously talented local groups who would act as support for the ‘headline’ groups as they passed through.
Pint in hand, I browsed the merchandise on the trestle tables at the back of the room and picked up a flyer for the support act and noticed that it was branded TMTCH Music. I immediately recognised the initials, but thought I couldn’t have fallen quite so easily into a revived The Men They Couldn’t Hang. And what had happened for Bowie’s support act to end up at the bottom of a fairly obscure bill at a tiny venue in a Midlands city?
As they played, however, the sound was unmistakable. The songs were instantly identifiable as the work of Paul Simmonds, the Men’s principal songwriter. The band turned out to be called Liberty Cage who went on to release the superb ‘Sleep of the Just’, and an EP ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’ (a Dylan song if you want more of an americana link.)
They were followed by Weddings, Parties, Anything. A band at the height of their power: part hand waving singalong and part grab your heart and squeeze out an intensely nostalgic tear. (Listen to the song ‘Morton (A Song for Tex)’, a song about seeing the Australian country singer Tex Morton, and tell me you don’t want to part of Thomas’ reminiscence.)
And both bands fully rooted in a left wing, socialist, ethic.
To be honest, I stayed for Robyn Hitchcock and enjoyed it. But I would have been happy to leave after the second support act.
Finally, the one member of The Men They Couldn’t Hang who wasn’t in Liberty Cage was singer and guitarist Stefan Cush. Cush died in February 2021 and, although he wasn’t there, this feature is dedicated to him as a thank you for all the times I have seen The Men.