Bizarrely, just a few days after I was wondering when a new album might be in the offing, along came Love On The Losing Side, the twelfth album (albeit It’s A Silk Cut World was released under the Mission Statement line up with Rod Clements) from Geoff and Brenda Heslop (though this time daughter Jill, who made her debut on 2010’s It Couldn’t Last is absent here and Martin Hoife appears on piano and organ), and the sixth outcrop of an oral history and post-industrial research project commission.
This time round, a combination of songs, poetry and film it was by the Auckland Project with research conducted in Bishop Auckland, Co Durham, once the heart of the industrial revolution seeing the birth of the railways, coal-mining, iron and steel production and manufacture of railway rolling stock. Inevitably, time and technology has seen all this decline and, during the 1950s and 1960s, the west of Durham was subject to a council-led scheme to categorise the usefulness of villages and towns, and many villages, mostly those involved in mining, were Categorised as ‘D’, to be condemned and demolished and their residents relocated to council estates.
Understandably, this resulted in great hardship, even leading to some dying of loneliness and isolation, its legacy still remaining. The album project looked at both the decline of the industries and the concomitant effects on the communities through the country’s post-war housing policy (a theme also informing their Our Streets Are Numbered album), here manifested in spoken testimonies and reminiscences from interviews taken from group sessions and songs spawned by the research.
Divided into three continuous sections, it opens in The Past with a spoken introduction before they launch into the Now the dance is over sad and slow folksy waltztime ‘Now The Dance is Over’, Brenda on lead and Geoff harmonising as they sing that metaphorically “now the music’s gone/the mirror ball is broken/it’s lying on the floor” but, within that tainted love, also finding community spirit determination in “together we are strong/together we belong”.
Opening on organ notes and proceeding to piano, ‘Why Do I Cry?’ combines both song and the pair’s spoken word elements in recalling the closures (“I remember all the jobs lost in the town”) and relocations (“they moved us from Witton Park to Woodhouse Close/and I remember all the crying/from the children and the dying/of the broken-hearted people losing home”), and how the government’s ‘careless love’ and ‘great good intentions’ “ put paid to us all”.
Accompanied by a sombre repeated piano pattern, a second collected sample of reminiscences sets the scene for and punctuates music hall jauntiness of ‘I’ll Walk In Paradise Again’, a train whistle introducing Brenda channelling memories of when “I rode the trains from Witton Park/I went to school and back again”, when village communities were the centre of the world, of people getting long together and even a cup winning football team (Bishop Aukland player Tommy Orrick was part of the North Shields team that took home the former FA Amateur Cup at Wembley Stadium in 1969) and while it may have been a hard love there was care and kindness.
Read by Geoff to organ backing, the scene shifts to The Present with ‘Dale’s Poem’ and the pain of memories and how “it’s the loving that’s hurting/it’s the blood upon the tracks/it’s the broken-hearted railway/shouting ‘never coming back’” before Brenda returns for the bruised heart piano hymnal ballad ‘The Streets of Nowhere’ with lyrics that, while written before the recent election, cannot help but resonate in calling to mind the promise made by the Conservatives to Labour voters in the north as she sings “the politicians say we’re no good/to look down on us if you could/‘til the votes come in and then you can forget us” and “don’t come around here/don’t come if you don’t mean it”.
With its organ drone, spoken by Brenda the brief ‘Landlines’ is another rueful poem (“We are the children of our time/and time has passed/and lines have crossed/and in our memory, a map/and when we go it will be lost”), continuing into Geoff singing on the haunting churchy organ section closer ‘Ghost In This House’ (“and I can hear him crying/just a shadow upon the wall/‘cos all he loves is dying …and he yearns for the lonely souls/that are starving with nowhere to go”) building to the impassioned “Why does nobody see/why’s the world so against me/why can I never go free/will they ever know me”.
And so to The Future and the church congregation singing introducing and backing the pessimistic spoken ‘Unfinished Business’ with the sad resignation of “we’re always around when the door is closing, the train is leaving/We’re always around when the chips are down…Whatever happens to us all/We know the boat will never call”.
A final oral recording, about the uncertainity facing the community and the need to work in harmony, serves as introduction to the wistful but optimistic piano waltzer ‘We Should Have Danced’ where “Now the tides roll, and the meadows/ripple in sight of the sun/and the wind sings out of nowhere/as I watch the river return”, even if only in a dream, and “my feet know the dance/that we should have danced so long ago”.
Starting with Brenda unaccompanied before Geoff and piano join in, it ends with the magnificent title track, a prayer for light in the darkness when there’s no silver lining that can stand proud alongside the best of Joan Baez or Judy Small as she sings “Let there be hope of better days inside you/for all around is dark and still/and no-one there to guide you/it’s hard to feel/and make it real/but there’s no other way to be”.
Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger and Charles Parker created the audio documentary Radio Ballads in 1958, music, song and spoken word coming together to record a living history of this country’s ordinary people and their lives, hardships and hopes. Sixty-two years later, Ribbon Road continue to maintain that legacy in superlative style.
Artists’ website: www.ribbonroadmusic.com
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