The opening track to The Unthanks new release ‘Songs from the Shipyards‘ is a peaceful malancholic piano piece with the background of a busy shipyard taken from the 1973 classic documentary Launch. On the ‘Prelude: The Romantic Tees‘ the sound of heavy machinery and foot fall of workers and muffled banter creates a visual black and white image in the mind, images of steam, smoke and the blood, sweat and tears of an industrial past. Tracks flow almost seamlessly on this ‘best of’ soundtrack which featured on a Tyneside Cinema commisioned film tracing the story of shipbuilding.
The combined experience of The Unthanks songs to this film would have been a magical experince but that spirit is still captured clearly on this album. They call on a strong North Eastern repertoire of songs from the likes of Bob Fox, Alex Glasgow and Jez Lowe from whom they cover ‘Black Trade‘ a great song about the dirty jobs in the shipbuilding trade: plating, welding and riveting…jobs that were dangerous, often undertaken in small spaces amongst toxic fumes. Black Trade featured on ‘The Ballad of the Big Ships‘, part of the BBC Radio 2 2006 Radio Ballads documentary series and it’s as poignant here as it was alongside the added interviews of Clyde and Tyne ship workers back then.
‘The Fairfield Crane‘ will be familiar to many, a song written by Archie Fisher / Norman Buchan / Bobby Campbell made famous by The Battlefield Band under the title of ‘The Shipyard Apprentice‘. A reminder of the strong link of the Shipyards to communities that were born in it’s shadow. A life and career paved from birth, or so they then thought:
I was born in the shadow of the Fairfield crane
Where the blast of a freighter’s horn
Was the very first sound that reached my ears
On the morning I was born
I lay and I listened to the shipyard sound
Coming out of the great unknown
And was sung to sleep by the mother tongue
That was to be my own
There is an overwhelming sense of loss to many of these songs a reflection on the plight of this industry and collapse of the communities around them. Their rendition of ‘All in a Day‘ is one of the most beautiful versions I’ve heard. The song was was written and originally sung by Alex Glasgow, a traditional working class singer-songwriter and socialist well known for his Geordie songs who sang the popular theme for the BBC drama When the Boat Comes In as well as writing scripts for it.
On the longest track ‘The Romatic Tees‘ the prose of Graeme Miles can be heard questioning the notion of ‘the romantic Tees’…a reflection on community and times rather than the smoke and pollution…
Adrian explains in the sleeve notes:
My hope for the piece was to highlight the absurdity of romanticising not just the river, but industry as a whole; in this case shipbuilding of course. Impressions and accounts of our industrial past often tread the line between proud memories and rose tinted glasses; between the respect we have for the people who worked hard and the danger of glorifying their lives as honest, decent and proper; between describing them as great days and remembering that they were tough and dangerous days; between the pride for what the workers achieved and the reality of the wealth it created being siphoned away from their communities. And finally, the emotional complexity for those communities of having created something great, only to be completely deserted when the going got tough. How is it best for history to remember that? Graeme Miles’s absurd question ‘The Romantic Tees?’ has many different answers, and asks many more.
A solemn rendition of Shipbuilding provides another magic moment with rare lead vocals from Adrian McNally, a song written by Elvis Costello and popularised, for me at least, by Robert Wyatt.
Another nod to a fine Geordie songsmith Bob Fox is made with ‘Taking on Men‘ whose original opening upbeat version matched the reaction to a community of the promise of more employment having won 15 month contracts for another ship build…”get out of your beds and get down there”. The Unthanks give it a re-arrangement dropping the opening cheerful ‘lullaby off the water’ for the closing verses that paint a more modern picture, a reflection on what has passed and what was often taken for granted.
On Songs from the Shipyards The Unthanks capture that indefinable link between men and ships…from the pride and love that many had when talking of the big ships, birthplace of the Mauretania, to the sudden sad decline and loss of work and community. They have a lot to be proud of in this album, brilliantly put together, a vivid story of working class communities and the rise and decline of an industry.
Songs from the Shipyards (Diversions, Vol. 3) is released on Universal Nov 3rd.