Protest music has been with us for generations, from Joe Hill to Crass and all stations in between; today it’s a marketable genre, someone picks up a guitar and bemoans how crap everything is, we pay our money, swill our beer, nod and feel righteous; how then to make it count in the 21st century?
I met Gail and Cosmo at the Tolpuddle festival a couple of years ago, since then I’ve run across them repeatedly on protests and actions as well as the usual muddy field circuit, we sang together in a police kettle; they’ve busked against the cuts, on workfare pickets, and in the middle of a riot, so they know whereof they speak.
Cosmo’s ‘Citizen Smith’ and ‘Picket Line Party’ albums became firm favourites, not since Joe Strummer had anyone actually articulated what I happened to be thinking at the time. Gail Something-Else writes complex poetry about everyday circumstances and sets it to a variety of acoustic and electronic accompaniments, recording as Muddy Summers and the Dirty Field Whores; it’s sharp, witty, often funny and sometimes painful.
Kicking back in Austerity Britain is a show of two halves, with an interval for informal discussion, a chance to get to know each other, smoke and take a piss. Meanwhile the audience are each invited to write three words in a book expressing how they feel about the crisis.
The programme opens and closes with the anthem ‘Strike, Occupy, Resist’ a 3 minute introduction to Anarchosyndicalism, the last as a sing-along which really is irresistible – I mean, even the Trots joined in! The two performers take turns to introduce their songs, with projected visuals that walk the audience through the wasteland that is UK PLC. Part one expresses our alienation; police brutality, fascist gangs, religious humbug, domestic violence, mendacious corporate media, climate change, people trafficking; part two is all about fighting back.
This isn’t just aimed at lefty subcultures though; it would be a real shame if it fails to reach a wider audience. Gail’s ‘Old Elvis’, given a folk treatment here, shares the experience of growing up in social housing, and the changes wrought by the collapse of the post-war consensus; I think of the ‘Likely Lads’, all that aspirational social mobility thrown into reverse. It’s not an easy ride for fans of bread and circuses mind; the royal wedding and tabloid journalism are surgically de-constructed the EDL are ridiculed in George Formby style.
The violence of the state is a recurring theme, from those who have experienced it first-hand, we watch the last moments of Ian Tomlinson during ‘No April Fools’, ‘Who’s gonna take the rap’ has a chorus of police victims, ‘No Gods, no Masters’ describes a demo that didn’t go according to plan, for either side.
A strong historical thread runs through the show, tracing the honourable tradition of working class resistance; Cosmo explains why the Union Flag to many is no more than a symbol of imperialist oppression: ‘The butcher’s apron’. Gail tells of the battles of the Free Miners of the Forest of Dean and their martyr Warren James. We re-live the great music hall strike of 1907 and ‘A million love songs’ deals with sexism in the 1980’s record industry. Cosmo covers a George Spicer song ‘I wish there was no prisons’ about a plucky opportunist thief of bygone days whose struggle for survival in a hostile environment would resonate with many today, especially the ones who told me they couldn’t afford the bus fare to the gig. Towards the end Gail sings ‘Cameron I would call you a cunt’ comparing the third–generation millionaire PM unfavourably to a lady’s front bottom. The preposterous Nadine Dorries also gets the Something-Else treatment on a jazzy version of ‘Jesus!’.
Before the finale, out comes the book of words, and Gail will sing whatever you’ve written, eventually they’ll compile these contributions into a song and perform it in front of the Houses of Parliament “and most likely get nicked for it”, I think I’ll have to be there, how about you?
If you believe as I do that the universal hegemony of disaster capitalism is leading two sides inexorably towards a fight to the death, then this is more than just an evening’s entertainment or a way for a couple of itinerant troubadours to pay the bills. These little gatherings are about building the social base for action – seeking out our affinity groups, finding common ground in our experience of class conflict and emboldening each other for the task ahead; agitate, educate, inoculate – and we all know what happens after that.
Turn on, tune in, kick back!