Listen to Cock-a-Hoop, the new record by The Men They Couldn’t Hang, and you get an album by a band sounding as fresh today as when their first album was released in 1985.
What’s more, the subject matter of their particular brand of indie-folk (call it what you like – the music press went for cowpunk in the early days) is just as relevant. As I put it to co-vocalist/guitarist/founder-member Phil ‘Swill’ Odgers, there’s been a resurgence of sorts in more political folk lately. Is the time ripe for a Men They Couldn’t Hang revival?
“Ha! I always think the time is ripe for a Men They Couldn’t Hang revival! But we’ve suddenly fallen into some kind of legacy band territory, seen as the Godfather of folk-punk and all that. Some of the American bands of that ilk have nodded towards us, and even the likes of Mumford and Sons and people like Frank Turner.”
There’s plenty to write about today too. Having overseen Thatcher, apartheid and all that, we have the neo-right (call them what you like – fascists will do) making strong ground again, the rich getting richer while the world obsesses on immigration and border controls.
“Well, as Paul said when he was writing for this album, all the stuff from before – ‘Ironmasters’, ‘Ghosts of Cable Street’, ‘Shirt of Blue’ – they’ all equally relevant and have lost none of that meaning. And while Cock-a-Hoop is maybe not as blatant, there’s a very strong current there of political content and comment.”
Similarly, your voices seem to have added maturity too, after all these years.
“Oh, I’m amazed our voices have held up at all, after all the shouting, smoking and drinking! But I think we’re growing old disgracefully, which is good, and I think the sort of thing we’re doing means that we are able to continue doing things that don’t make us a laughing stock and retain a little dignity as well.”
“That was pretty much the meeting place for all the band. We were driven towards London and all hooked up there in the early to mid-‘80s, pretty much around a squat scene there.”
While born in Scotland, he was brought up with his brother – the band’s drummer, Jon Odgers – around Southampton, as was the case for prime songwriter Paul Simmonds, who Swill knew from college days. In fact, they were initially together in South coast punk outfit Catch 22. Were they cruelly robbed of fame in their own right?
“Ha! Yeah, we were talking about wanting to be in a band in 1977. Paul said he could play guitar and I said I could sing, and both of us were lying. Anyone can pretend they can sing, but guitar? You have to brush up very quickly and learn three chords. But that was a really great time, and we supported The Clash in Bournemouth, doing two dates on the 16 Tons tour.
“We did Portsmouth first, with Joe Strummer and Mick Jones watching us from the side of the stage, then coming into the dressing room afterwards, asking if we’d like to do the next night. And they didn’t even have to ask! We certainly didn’t ask, ‘How much?’
“Then, a few years later, when I moved to London, I was in a pub in Westbourne Park with my Dad, who’d come up from Southampton to see me, when Joe Strummer happened to walk in, on his own. I went up and said hello, a little bit anxious, and he was so friendly and remembered those gigs.
“My Dad was even more impressed than I was. Even though he didn’t really know who he was, he could tell it was someone who meant a lot to me. And I was struck by how decent he was. That was a year or two before The Men They Couldn’t Hang started, around ’82 or ’83.
“And literally just before Joe passed away, our bass player, Ricky (McGuire, on board since Shanne Bradley left in 1986 following a short spell with The UK Subs), phoned and told me he’d had word that Joe (with The Mescaleros) was set to play Acton Town Hall, and Mick Jones might turn up. He said he had guest tickets and asked, ‘Did I want to come down?’ But I’d just become a Dad and felt I should stay in, go to the next one instead. Of course, there never was another one.”
The Men They Couldn’t Hang did get to headline a special memorial concert marking the 10th anniversary of that memorable Fire Brigades Union benefit show (Strummer’s last London gig) in November 2012 though, at Notting Hill’s Tabernacle. And when he sent me some pictures to go with this feature, Swill told me more about that night.
“Apart from The Men They Couldn’t Hang, also on the bill were Strummer’s friend and sometime-Mescalero, Tymon Dogg, Newtown Neurotics frontman, Steve Drewett and Clash tribute band, Take the 5th.
“Something amusing that stood out for me that night was that, for some reason, Paul, Cush and Tom’s guitars stopped working, and mine was the only one coming through the PA. I had to pass it around to whoever had the most important guitar part on each song.
“It struck me as ironic that this almost fitted in with a line from Joe’s lyrics to ‘Garageland’: “There’s five guitar players! But one guitar. Back in the garage…,” written by Strummer as a response to a review in the NME in 1976 by Charles Shaar Murray, who said The Clash were “the kind of garage band who should be returned to the garage immediately”. And we certainly sounded like a garage band that night!”
Garage band or not, it’ll be 35 years next year since the band’s own story truly began. So how was that first Easter ’84 festival performance in Camden at the Electric Ballroom? A fairly shambolic affair?
“Totally. Although, while you tend to think all those things in those days were, very occasionally a tape surfaces, you have a listen, and actually we weren’t too bad. But that one must have been. We didn’t even have a band as such. It was me and Cush, and I think there was Shanne, and we borrowed Andrew Ranken on drums and James Fearnley on accordion, from the Pogues.
“We really just pulled it together as more of a laugh than anything else, and it went so well. We did a set of just a few of our own songs, like ‘Walkin’, Talkin’’ and ‘A Night To Remember’, stuff like that, but also ‘Rawhide’, ‘High Noon’, ‘Just Like Eddie’ that we’d been doing busking.”
The latter track as in the 1963 Eddie Cochran tribute from Heinz?
“Yes, and funnily enough, I got mistaken for Heinz on the isle of Wight once, playing pool in a pub, way back!”
Funnily enough, looking at the band pic on the front of the debut LP, it’s Swill’s brother by that stage with the Heinz-like bleached hair. Incidentally, while I ended up selling a fair bit of my original vinyl, that album, along with follow-up How Green is the Valley and first single ‘The Green Fields of France (No Man’s Land)’ I still proudly hold my copies of. Are they worth a bit now?
“Erm … I don’t know. They’re probably worth the cover price!”
Speaking of that first Phil Chevron-produced single for Elvis Costello’s Imp label (IMP003), the B-side was your title track of sorts, ‘The Men They Couldn’t Hang’. So what came first, the band or track name?
“Almost the same time, but probably the band. The track itself was just a bit of fun really. I was trying to imagine a story behind it. And the name sums up an image really, so I had this side of romanticising that image really.
“The name itself has been our blessing and our curse right from day one really. In fact, at one point when we still had a record company – we tended to be with one, make an album, then move on, there were a few times when a label would suggest we changed our name, and one suggestion was to The Men, to which we thought, ‘Bloody hell! The Men?’ And one label seriously suggested we changed it to anything, looking at the floor and saying, ‘Even ‘The Carpet Tiles’.’ Our manager also used to say it’s too long and how, for a poster, your name is always going to be too small.”
You say that, but you got around that nicely, coming up with that distinctive band logo pretty early on.
“Yes, and I’m proud to say that was me! I was working in Wandsworth as a paste-up artist. I cut up these letters, long before any kind of digital wizardry, just sort of stuck them all together on a piece of paper, photographed that, wanting to have the look of a something of a wanted poster thing. It’s been criticised in more recent years for not having the apostrophe in ‘Couldn’t’. But I can only say that it was deliberate! They didn’t have those apostrophes originally. Those posters were made out of woodcut in those days.”
There was that strong identity from the start with The Pogues, not least with Phil Chevron producing a lot of the early tracks. But your name and that of the other main band on at that first gig in Camden (also involving the Shillelagh Sisters and Hackney Five-0), The Boothill Foot Tappers, saw you categorised as part of some kind of skiffle-punk scene, if I remember right. What was the term the music press used?
“Oh God, there was skifflebilly and cowpunk. You almost had like two camps – with us and The Pogues more influenced by traditional music, while the Boothills and some of the others took more of a country inspiration.”
Are you still in touch with members of either of those bands?
“Yes, Cush married Merill, one of the singers from the Boothills, and they have two children together, although they’re separated now, and I’m still in touch with James and Spider from The Pogues, and we’ve toyed with the idea of doing stuff together. I’ve just started a new Pledge campaign for a new album of my own, possibly with Spider involved next time he’s in London.”
Details of that Pledge campaign follow at the end of this feature, so we’ll get back to that. But carry on, Swill …
“It was difficult to remain friendly at some stages, with so much pressure put on us by others, almost creating a division. But we did a lot of gigs together and were very good friends in the early days, borrowing equipment, until The Pogues got much bigger, going off travelling and playing bigger venues. But we’d still do occasional gigs together in Europe and come together at festivals.”
With this feature set to land on the 14th anniversary of John Peel’s passing, it seems apt to mention that I first heard ‘The Green Fields of France (No Man’s Land)’ on his legendary BBC Radio 1 late-night show. I was still 16, and 17 by the time it reached No. 3 on 1984’s Festive 50. It struck a real nerve with me, and that must have been a proud moment for the band.
“Yeah, that was amazing to hear Peel playing our stuff. And as well as that, ‘Ironmasters‘ was in his Festive 50 the following year. He did us a world of good and I think we did three Peel sessions in the end. We never met him then, as they were recorded at Maida Vale, but we met on other occasions – gigs and so on.”
I’ll jump in there and confirm there were three Peel Sessions in 1984 and 1985, the first in July ’84 produced by Barry Andrews and featuring ‘Walkin’, Talkin’’, ‘The Men They Couldn’t Hang’, ‘The Green Fields of France (No Man’s Land)’, and ‘A Boy Named Sue’. Meanwhile, the second was from February ’85, produced by future presenter Mark Radcliffe and featuring ’Ironmasters’, ‘A Night to Remember’, ‘Scarlet Ribbons’, and ‘Donald, Where’s Your Trousers’, and the third in July ’85, produced by John Owen Williams, featured ‘Shirt of Blue’, ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone’, ‘Greenback Dollar’, and ‘Kingdom Come’. And all those sessions are fondly recalled by this here scribe. Anyway, keep going, Swill …
“I always felt as a kid, listening to John Peel – and I wrote a song about this recently, and I’d have to listen with the covers over my head with this little transistor radio, otherwise my Mum would be telling me to turn it off and go to sleep – I’d dream about doing a Peel session, thinking if I’d ever get to do that, that would be it – I’d have made it and nothing else would matter. Then, a few years later, we did that, then did it again and again. And as many bands do, we owe an eternal debt of gratitude to John.”
On a similar front, even if you’d split after two albums, you’d already have secured a special place for me. And while perhaps the Eric Bogle cover and splendid Paul Simmonds-penned, Stefan Cush-delivered tracks like ‘Ironmasters’, ‘Scarlet Ribbons’, ‘Ghosts of Cable Street’ and ‘Shirt of Blue’ were arguably recognised more, you were a key songwriter from the start, offering – for want of a better description – a less ranty side to the band, initially through tracks like ‘The Day After’, ‘A Night to Remember’, and ‘Parted From You’, all making an impression on my teenage self.
“And I suppose that’s what we’re saying about Cock-a-Hoop having a variety of sounds. I think that’s something that’s separated The Men from others of our ilk … and God, I said ‘The Men’ there! … I think it’s the fact that it has these different flavours, different personalities, and we’re not one-trick ponies.
“Going back to the very beginning, we were signed up by Elvis Costello, introduced to him by Phil Chevron, meeting Elvis at this gig, supporting him on his A Month of Sundays run at Hammersmith Palais, and he came to one of our gigs at the Clarendon in Hammersmith.
“He said he wanted to do a single, put to put out ‘The Green Fields of France’. The obvious one to go for was ‘Walkin’ Talkin’’, but he said with that we’d have a hit record, but a novelty one, and we’d be forever branded as this kind of cowpunk band. That’s why we ended up putting out this seven-minute anti-war folk song! But it became an indie hit.”
Good advice, although perhaps unlikely, and the album, Night of a Thousand Candles also proved a hit, and was certainly an important album for me. But that relationship with Demon/Imp set a trend, lasting just one album, follow-up How Green is The Valley arriving via MCA, while next LP Waiting for Bonaparte was on Magnet, the next two were on Silvertone, and so on (and space and time stop me from concentrating on anything more than the first two albums and the latest in this feature).
So, after the first album came that switch to MCA, your biggest label really, I guess. Did that mean a bit of money was suddenly coming your way (he asks, knowingly)?
“Not really. It just meant a much bigger budget for recording. If you watch The Comic Strip Presents … Bad News Tour (Channel 4, 1983), where they’re eating free food from the stand while making a promo video and someone explains it’s not free but comes from their money. It never dawned on us either!”
Are you still paying that contract off now then?
“We’re not paying it off, but they withheld royalties and we never saw those album royalities. And that’s almost like part and parcel of the times, with dodgy contracts and all that. But what it did do was elevate us from busking and signing on to be able to become full-time musicians.”
“We would, and every record we made – probably still now – we thought could be our last. We’d never ever have imagined back then that we’d still be making records now, rather than settling down and having grandchildren!”
So, seeing as we’re doing anniversaries, it’s 35 years next year since you started out, 30 years this year since Waiting for Bonaparte, even 15 since The Cherry Red Jukebox, and five years since your own The Godforsaken Voyage solo venture.
“How time flies when you’re enjoying yourselves!”
It’s the career that keeps on giving.
“Absolutely. It doesn’t give out any money though. That’s the only thing.”
A few of us have still got some catching up to do though. Cock-a-Hoop is your 10th studio album, alongside all the compilations and live recordings out there, as well as the side-projects yourself, Paul and Cush have also been involved in. So where should those who have missed out start – buy the new album and work backwards, or start at the beginning?
“Well, if you were starting out now, I’m not sure where you’d start. Actually, I had an email from a guy today who signed up to my Pledge project, who said he lost all his belongings in a fire. He had an insurance pay-out but lost all his records and so on, including three of our records that he couldn’t find now, that thankfully I can now put his way.”
There will inevitably be times over a 35-year career where fans won’t have the money to shell out and keep up to date, for whatever reason. Also, over that period the nature of the music industry has changed immeasurably, heading back towards that old punk DIY approach to putting records out there. And you seem to have mastered that method over the years.
“Yes, and knowing what I know now … Like yourself (this scribe was responsible for Captains Log) I was involved with a fanzine back in Southampton, and there were so many of those things that people built up themselves and learned how to do themselves – from fanzines to independent record labels.
“Now, that same do-it-yourself ethos can be backed up by the technology to make that very competitive towards anything that the industry can produce – from albums to books – and they can all be done at home, on a computer or via outlets where you can directly liaise.
“While a lot of people complain about digital technology, you can be profitable and survive by selling fewer things by doing it yourself. But although lots of people know The Men’s name now – and it’s inevitable after all that time – we’ve never made money, so to speak. Yet we’ve got by, and it’s all been very pleasurable.”
And part of that indie approach is seen in the way Swill remains at the heart of the band’s marketing, not least helping ship out CDs and vinyl, with a personal touch.
“Yeah, I’ve been enthused by all that. I’m a little bit of a control freak at times and do like to keep a hand on things, but also think it’s good to have that connection, and I’ll also put a note in.”
Admittedly, I lost touch for a while, perhaps after the Domino Club album in 1990, when I was off on my world travels. It took me a while to catch up again, but that period included The Men supporting David Bowie on his Sound & Vision show for two appearances at Milton Keynes Bowl. How was that experience?
“Well, I’ll go back a little further, to when we were in a tiny club, Gaz’s Rock & Blues, around Soho in the West End, and Cait from The Pogues was also there, along with their manager, Frank Murray. We used to hang out there and knew each other, and then David Bowie rolled in one night. I remember him dancing with Cait and being very chatty and friendly.
“Then, fast forward to the Milton Keynes shows, which just goes to show the difference between the person and the entourage and the people in charge of all that. He arrived in a helicopter that landed in a nearby field, and was then taken by limo to a backstage area, almost like a small town really, that had to be evacuated so he could come in on his own, and nobody could look at him or talk to him, apart from my sister-in-law – Jon having just become a Dad – who was breast-feeding at the time and refused to leave.
“Also, on stage at the gig, during the last song I was aware of these footsteps of his – ‘X’s painted on for where he would stand on certain songs, for the lighting man. And for that last song we did ‘The Laughing Gnome’, a song Bowie didn’t really acknowledge existed most of the time. His crew were not impressed with us, but the audience loved it, and we had a lot of people who followed us from there.”
Despite seeing The Men (yep, I’m doing it now too) four times in the late ’80s, I’m ashamed to say I’ve not managed to get along to one of their gigs since Reading Festival in August ‘89. The time is clearly ripe for my next date.
“That was a good one though. Was that where it poured down with rain?”
Well, I remember yourselves, The Pogues, Billy Bragg, The Wedding Present, John Peel MC’ing, Frank Sidebottom, Mary Coughlan, Attila the Stockbroker … and yeah, there must have been rain, surely.
“They’ve been trying to make a documentary film about that particular festival year, featuring all the bands on that year. We’ve already done our bit.”
“Yes, occasionally we’d pick up on a song and cover it over a tour, and we definitely did that.”
Prior to that, in November ’87 there was a night at Egham’s Royal Holloway College, with The Cropdusters supporting, which must have been just before the Waiting for Bonaparte LP came out.
“Yeah, that would be right. I remember that night, and The Cropdusters were mates of ours from around Hampshire way, and were always pretty wild. There would be a bit of competition between us at gigs as well, but friendly, y’know. We’d share the same dressing room, and there’d be some mad times.”
I enjoyed all those gigs, but you had something of a laddish following at that time. I’m not sure if that’s something you picked up on.
“Yeah, we’ve always had a very loyal crowd, but around that time … yeah, I suppose it could be called laddish. We had a lot of people travelling across Europe with us as well, and I was surprised sometimes, talking to some of them … they were nice people but sometimes their political views might be somewhat off in a different direction, around the times of Thatcher and so on.
“But some of those people stuck with us. And we still have an incredibly loyal following. I’m really impressed by that … constantly. But also in the last few years, I’ve noticed young people at gigs – from around 17 to early 20s, and talking to some of them afterwards, it turns out that they’re the next generation – either Mum or Dad or both were fans, and they’ve grown up on it. And that’s really great.”
That takes me back to my own introduction to the band. You fell at the right time for me. Politicised at an early age, although part of a mere minority of young socialists in largely middle-class Guildford, I was turned on by the politics of The Clash and The Jam, and then we had the likes of Billy Bragg and yourselves. And as an A-level History student, Paul’s songs of the early Labour movement, the Chartists, the anti-fascist marches of the first half of the 20th century, the Miners’ Strike …
“We sounded like your ideal band!”
You were, and it all seemed to fall right for me … or should I say left, first catching you live at the University of Surrey in May ’86, on the How Green is the Valley tour. Remind me, was Shanne still on board then?
“Yeah, and that was an odd one. We were touring Europe and the UK pretty extensively, doing long, hard tours in the back of a Transit van, then all crowding into tiny dressing rooms in little venues in Vienna or somewhere. It was quite difficult to be the only woman among all those sweaty blokes. It was a bit like one big family in that way, but as with families we’d probably feud a little as well.”
Despite the stops and re-starts, the side-projects and so on – Liberty Cage, Swill and the Swaggerband, etc. – it’s been a fairly solid line-up over the decades. Shanne left after How Green is My Valley, with Ricky coming in at that stage. But other than that, you all seem to still come back after the odd break here and there.
“Yeah, we’re a six-piece now, sometimes a seven-piece, and Ricky came in more than 30 years ago but some people still refer to him as the new boy! But Cush, Paul, Ricky and myself have been there more or less all those years, and now Jon’s back on drums for half of the gigs, another original.”
What’s more, Tom Spencer’s been on board for around a decade now. Has that given you added inspiration?
“Yes, and there’s also Bobby Valentino (the violinist and guitarist who also featured for The Bluebells, the Fabulous Poodles and Hank Wangford), a kind of unofficial member. Actually, Tom’s a mate from Acton way who was playing for other bands and came along on tour with us originally as a roadie and support act, joining us for a couple of songs. He’s been involved for the last 15 years or so, doing more and more, playing amazing lead guitar, banjo and back-up vocals, adding another flavour and another ingredient in there and very important to the final mix … to further that baking analogy!”
And now we have this mighty 10th studio album, Cock-a-Hoop, which I aim to write more about in a separate piece shortly (the internet may break if I add any more words this time around). But I’ll let Swill tell you a bit more for now …
“Most of the tracks were recorded at Kirsty MacColl’s family house in Ealing. Steve Lillywhite had designed and built a studio for her. It’s fantastic and we worked very well with Jim Knight, who produced the album and had produced my previous solo album. It’s steeped in musical history and rumour has it that Kirsty’s original vocal to ‘Fairy Tale Of New York’ is on a reel-to-reel there somewhere … maybe it’ll come to light when the studio is, sadly, torn out early next year.”
In short, it’s been a long and bumpy journey for The Men They Couldn’t Hang, but they’re still managing to avoid the scaffold, still going strong, and I’m loving the new songs.
“Yeah, it has been a bumpy ride, but with The Men there’s never a plan really, and in terms of having a rough path to follow we did The Defiant a couple of years ago, funded by a Pledge campaign, which was absolutely brilliant, for an album heralded as being up there with our best and a return in some respects to an older sound, and we were really pleased with that and the reception it got.
“But coming to make another album, we were thinking it’s no point doing the same thing again, just serving up another helping of that. So in that respect, we had a slightly different agenda, and were also working with a producer we’d never worked with before. Also, Cush, Paul and I split the songwriting a bit more across the board.”
“No, in fact he came to the studio very enthused, with these ideas for songs, working with our producer, Jim Knight, also our horn player … and we have a lot more brass on here than on previous albums.”
I was just listening to the track ‘Pone’ before I called, and that’s a great example of that approach.
“Absolutely. Bang on, and the great thing about that song in particular, on the tour we’ve just started, we’ve done acoustic sections for years now, live, and in the middle of the set we’ll do two or three songs acoustically. But on the last few shows Cush has been doing ‘Pone’ acoustically and it works totally like that as well.”
Always the mark of a good song. Strip everything down, and it’s still got it. No chance of replicating the horns live then?
“I don’t think we can afford to. We might do though. Maybe at the Borderline or somewhere. That’s another thing though. Some bands are very precious about sounding the same on stage as they do on a record, even to the extent of using backing tracks. But we’ve also been conscious of the fact that our live sound is going to be different to our recordings. We’re still like we were the first time we went into a studio, still playing around and getting great delight in that. And we’ve got people who prefer us live and others who prefer us on record.”
The band announced on October 24th that forthcoming dates in Derby, Newcastle, Glasgow and London’s The Borderline (‘Friday, with very few Saturday still available’) had already joined Bristol and sold out, while tickets for Preston Guild Hall (Saturday, November 3rd, 01772 80 44 44 or this link), Birmingham Academy, Lewes Con Club and Norwich’s Waterfront Studio were still available but selling fast. For full details and more on new LP Cock-a-Hoop and the band, head to their website and keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.