Back in the day, when he was just Alan Wilkes and before embarking on a career in music, Vinny worked in various long-stay mental health and learning disability hospitals as a mental health nurse. During this time, he also regularly visited his schizophrenic brother, a patient in one such. He has now gathered those experiences together for a concept album, set in the fictional Silver Meadows, an 80s institution for those with psychiatric and learning disability issues. He’s been likened in the past to Ray Davies, so imagine, if you will, a sort of mental health facility Village Green Preservation Society, with rather fewer laughs.
Here he sings of the patients, the staff and the care, or lack of it in a world overcast by the fear of isolation, of the spectre of the then impending care in the community, of friendships forged and of cruelties inflicted.
It opens with the scene setting piano-accompanied semi-spoken ‘The Institution’, introducing you to the daily routine and patients and staff such as Charlie from the social club being pleasured by the girl in the kitchen, a pretty young psychiatrist on LSD, Rick, the charge nurse who beats up patients, and “women who have lived here all their adult lives”.
Things pick up musically and lyrically on ‘Everyone Has Something To Say’, steady drum beat, oohing backing vocals and chiming guitars driving a reminder that everyone in these places has a story to tell, you just have to be willing to listen. Echoing classic Kinks, ‘This Is What I Do Now’ sees the arrival of a new nurse, but it’s still the same routine for the patients who are always being kept just a little longer, just that this one doesn’t have a beard like Bob did. There’s another new arrival in ‘The Saviour of Challenging Behaviour’, psychologist Andy Merrit sweeping in with plans to revolutionise everything and allow the patients to be who they want to be, only to inevitably fall foul of bureaucracy and those who resist change before leaving almost as quickly as he came.
There is change, unfortunately, it comes in the shape of ‘Community Care’, a circling guitar motif backdropping the woman from the agency’s attempt to persuade a long-stay patient she’d be better off in the outside world, living alone, but your life still managed by those with the purse strings.
The landscape shifts with ‘Hospital Wing’, keyboards and drums underpinning a biting indictment of end of life care in the story (informed by the fate of his brother) of a young man with a terminal genetic condition, secreted away into a side room to die, dignity stripped away, chocking as an uncaring nurse shovels food down his throat. Then it’s back to the milieu for ‘Room Management’, a punchy, perhaps Bowie-tinged, rock-infused number about an experiment in supposedly therapeutic sessions of controlled occupation by some university student, but none with a purpose.
Returning to the theme of care in the community, the title track is a jangling guitar number lit by the rays of a waterloo sunset and the musical spirit of Goffin and King as, now older and unable to make it in the outside world, a former patient returns to the place where she once “felt safe and sound”.
Musically upbeat with a mix of 60s pop and a country beat, ‘Albert’ is one of two tracks that focuses on a particular individual, a runaway teenager with “a restless spirit no psychiatrist could tame”, always on the lam from some secure facility or another. The other is ‘Gerald the Porter’, who, alongside his regular duties, also serves as the place’s dealer, taking the inmates eight mile high with everything from Columbian blow to mushroom tea,. Sandwiched in-between is the brooding Spanish guitar backed ‘Self Help Skills Unit’, supposedly a chance for the patients to learn how to care for themselves, but essentially just a doss off for the staff who lounge around behind the two-way mirror.
Initially, the sprightly ‘Wednesday Club’ would seem to alleviate the downbeat mood with a love story set in the hospital disco, until, in 1984, the place closes down and the two lovers are told it’s time to move on and separated. Which brings us to the final two cuts; ‘Waiting Games’, the poignant tale of a long-stay patient with locked-in syndrome who falls for the new psychology student who, like everyone else, fails to see the mind and the man behind the body waiting to be released. Finally, there’s the pointedly ambiguously titled ‘The Back Wards’, Floydian guitars summoning a neo-classic backcloth to a searing account of institutional abuse in the hidden away punishment block for disruptive patients, given a black aspirin knuckle sandwich and a good kicking where “nobody hears you when you scream, everyone says it was nothing”.
It’s an incredibly bleak and depressing image of mental healthcare in the 80s and 90s and, while you hope that things are different in today’s enlightened times, with a constant stream of scandals in the headlines, you fear they’re probably not. If Ken Loach ever feels like doing a stage musical, this is his book.
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Artist’s website: http://vinnypeculiar.com/
‘Hospital Wing’ – official video: