ROBB JOHNSON – GENTLE MEN (Irregular Records)

Gentle MenGentle Men was commissioned for the 1997 Passendale Peace Concert. It has been expanded and re-recorded at an appropriate time as the government prepares to “celebrate” the outbreak of the Great War which now recedes beyond living memory. The gentle men of the title are Robb’s grandfathers, Ernest Johnson and Henry Jenner – Ern and Harry – who fought and survived and their story covers not only the war but also the decades that followed. Robb has said that his intention was to show Ern and Harry as real people with real lives both before and afterwards, not ciphers or victims.

The subject matter, particularly in the first part covering the period up to 1919, is bleak and bloody and Robb’s gift for comedy doesn’t find many outlets. It’s there in the “yeah, right” variety of ‘A Gentleman Always Wants Horses’ and the gallows humour of ‘Soldier On’ but as a listener the reaction is more often a shudder. To his credit, Robb doesn’t spare his audience’s sensibilities.

Lead vocals are shared with Barb Jungr, who does strident and sentimental with equal conviction, and Roy Bailey whose powerful performances belie his years. They are supported by Jude Abbott (brass), Jenny Carr (piano and accordion) and John Forrester (double bass) with other contributions from Arvin Johnson and Linze Maesterosa. Accompaniments are never overstated but Robb skilfully captures the music of the times, be it the music hall of a century ago or the post-war gaiety of ‘Noni And His Golden Serenaders’.

The second part of the piece explores how the experience of the war to end all wars shaped Harry and Ern and through them helped to shape Robb himself and the world into which he was born. Finally, we come to the present day and the inevitable conclusion that we’ve learned bugger all in the course of the last century.

I was fortunate to be at the London launch of the album and I’m not ashamed to say that I was moved to tears – and I wasn’t the only one – and the recorded version has exactly the same effect. You must hear Gentle Men and I urge you to splash out on the special edition with its narrative text and photographs although, while listening to these songs, it seems almost insensitive to talk about a beautifully presented hard-back book.

Dai Jeffries