As we approach the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, Simon Jones, Andy Smyth and Martin Purdy turn their unique talents to its commemoration. War Stories is just that; not tales of great heroism, except in one case, but mostly stories of the aftermath in human terms and its effect on the men, women and children who were part of it.
Superficially, there are singalong tunes, snatches of popular songs of the period and traditional titles which turn out to be not what they seem. The particular skill of Harp & A Monkey is to weave traditional elements into their own writing pinning it together with sound effects and archive recordings. Beneath the superficial attractiveness is real meat.
We begin with ‘The Banks Of Green Willow’, neither the traditional song nor George Butterworth’s composition, but a new song that sets the image of rural England against “the banks of the Somme”. That juxtaposition is very forceful and sets the tone of the album. Next comes ‘Soldier Soldier’ from that great songwriting team, Kipling and Bellamy. I wonder if the band tried to move away from Peter’s tune but were always pulled back to it. They take it at a slightly brisker pace and the emphasis is on the harshness at the end of the poem rather than the compassion of the early verses. The soldier is portrayed not as offering a shoulder to cry on but angling for a little how’s-your-father.
‘Charlie Chaplin’ is a well known chorus originally written as an attack on the Daily Mail which we can all get alongside and the new verses depict life behind the lines – Chaplin was vilified for dodging the war, another mistake by the paper. ‘A Young Trooper Cut Down’ is a well-known song updated during the Great War as a warning about sexual health. ‘Raise A Glass To Danny’ is the story of “The Piper Of Loos”, Daniel Laidlaw, who was awarded the Victoria Cross after playing his pipes in the midst of battle. In an interview Daniel is asked to play the tune he played on that day. “Yes, sir”, he replies, ever the soldier. The chorus of ‘The Long, Long Trail’ is used as background to a painful reminiscence by Connie Noble about her father and uncle. It’s only the matter-of-factness of the northern character that makes it possible to listen to it more than a couple of times.
War Stories should be up there as one of the albums of the year and I’ve only described about half of it here. You can hum along with the tunes or sit and think on the human tragedy that was the Great War.
Artists’ website: http://www.harpandamonkey.com/
‘The Great War – New Songs & Stories’: