It’s an odd thing how a piece of music can take you to a particular place or mood or part of life. And there’s something very important about this. I’ll return to these points.
Nick Burbridge, musician (McDermott’s 2 Hours) and writer, Dan Booth, fiddle player and founder member of Ferocious Dog have combined their talents on a newly released album, Icons. Burbridge was a major influence on The Levellers; Ferocious Dog have built a passionate following with a similar mix of what is generally described as a blend of Celtic folk, punk, ska, reggae, rock. Icons is stripped back – Burbridge on guitar, Booth on fiddle, a couple of friends on cello and bouzouki.
Musically the album is what you’d expect from Burbridge and Booth – a Celtic/Punk/Ska mix. Great music – music which is upbeat, to be sung along with; music for nights in the pub, formed from street culture in the cities and villages of the UK nations and the Caribbean; music which is hitting enough right chords in today’s world that Booth’s band have recently been in the Top 40 Album charts with The Hope and the songs have moved from the pub to the more numerous voices of the concert hall.
Lyrically, it’s something else. As I listened to Icons for the first time, I was taken back to an event I’ve not thought about for years – a day in the late 70’s/early 80’s, outside Leeds Town Hall and the start of an Anti-Nazi League march. The memory moved on, in dreamlike association, and I was back to the stories told to us in the mid-eighties, playing cricket in the South Yorkshire/North Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire coalfields and farming villages, passing waiting busloads of men (almost all were men) on what has come to be seen as two sides of a battle, though at the time the stories told of greater complexity.
All of which is odd, because McDermott’s 2 Hours didn’t form until 1986 and Ferocious Dog even later. But we need soundtracks to our lives. So let’s be clear, more than most things I’ve listened to in the past twenty or thirty years, Icons is music to fire the soul, full of colour, sympathy, warmth, anger, energy and force and so has taken me back to a point in my life where the struggle for justice was perhaps even more fierce than it is right now.
To take two tracks: ‘Icons’, the title track, was presumably inspired by the specifics of bringing down statues but the chorus takes this image and makes it into a wider struggle “If we pull together/We can tear these figures down/Cast them in the water/and watch the bastards drown”. Similarly, ‘Cover Me’ tackles the specifics of hunt saboteurs but is much more vital as a song about a world where people graft, fight – literally, with fists – for what they believe, meet on streets but look out for each other. These are harder values than are popular now, and the song also touches on other which have become less prevalent – values about community “Cover me…. together we’re strong”, self-knowledge and self-worth, “I go the distance whenever I can/If I’ve been a fool I’ve still been a true man”.
In this spirit, I defy anyone to listen to ‘Living on Thin Air’ and not get angered by the first three verses and chorus and then joyously join in the last verse and re-modelled chorus as the song moves from “try living on thin air”, nods to the Levellers “we rise together with a weapon called the word/we call we march and gather, till we know that we’ve been heard” to the final “We’re not living on thin air” – all held gloriously together by Booth’s violin as it shifts tempo and emotion to match the call to arms.
And then there are the stories of individuals: Dirty Davey in Burbridge’s older song of the same name; Flynn in ‘Judgement Day’, or the woman – and her jailers – with no name in ‘Prisoner’. These are not so much types in a song as characters who are human and alive in their pain, so well are they drawn.
The violin is known for being the musical instrument perhaps the most expressive in how it plays on and reflects human emotion. Burbridge and Booth pull more power out of these songs than is reasonable to expect from an acoustic arrangement of lyric, guitar and violin. It’s a grand combination: the album is full of songs where you can bounce to the music while getting angry with the world around – or vice versa.
Sadly, that means they are as relevant today as they were in reminding me of the world forty years ago and I guess that’s why I found my head back in another time, remembering, specifically, The Alamo in Nottinghamshire and more broadly the other pit villages, factory towns and steel cities, all of which are now changed utterly.
Give Icons a hearing; better still, if there’s ever the chance, go and see it live; these are great songs to listen to, to think about, maybe to take action from; but above all, they feel like songs to sing in hope and self-affirmation … and in community.
Artist’s website: https://nickanddan.co.uk