Although they took roughly five years off to explore individual projects and other things between 91 and 96, this year sees the 30th anniversary of The Men They Couldn’t Hang. And what better way to celebrate than with the release of a superb brand new studio album The Defiant, which finds them in the rudest of health and benefiting from a hugely successful crowd funding drive. In typical style the band and the songs live up to the title and if the recent show at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire is anything to go by, they have lost none of their infectious energy, as they whipped a heaving, ground floor crowd in a writhing mass of excitement with a proper mosh-pit. Seeing the band live in such raucous form confirmed their potency had not waned. In conjunction with that target busting Pledge Music campaign, it’s clear that the connection with active fan base is still there.
The Men They Couldn’t Hang first burst onto the scene in 1984, as this anniversary naturally suggests. Their first single titled the Green Fields Of France, was an anti-war song written by Eric Bogle that imagined a conversation between a worker tending the military cemetaries in Flanders and Northern France and a young man occupying one of the plots. It’s a powerful piece of songwriting and something that has an extra relevance this year as we commemorate the Centenary. Even without that context, the record made the top of the Indie Charts in the UK and also hit the number three position of John Peel’s Festive 50, behind The Smiths and The Cocteau Twins in the much coveted list.
The Festive 50 acted as a barometer of both the DJ’s support, but also what you might call the prevailing tastes of the more discerning record buyers. It held a sway that is hard to imagine amidst the instant access culture today, becoming an important fixture of the Christmas period for Peel’s many thousands of regulars. In truth, however, the run-down, voted for by listeners, would never match Peel’s eclecticism and ultimately proved a frustration, so The Men They Couldn’t Hang’s ranking would have been something of a personal triumph for the DJ. After all, their single’s six and a half minute running time and subject matter meant that it would get scant attention anywhere else on the radio, so Peel’s championing of the band genuinely made its mark and set them on their way.
[pullquote]The Men They Couldn’t Hang had also realised the value of folksong’s use of strong narratives in putting the common man (and woman) to the fore, but mixed a healthy dose of punk-attitude into an electro-acoustic update of the format.[/pullquote]The choice of a potent anti-war anthem as a first calling card perhaps had its roots in the Falkland’s conflict, but signalled the arrival of a band that were prepared to put politics to the fore. The Men They Couldn’t Hang had also realised the value of folksong’s use of strong narratives in putting the common man (and woman) to the fore, but mixed a healthy dose of punk-attitude into an electro-acoustic update of the format. Contemporaries such as (The) Oysterband and The Pogues did much the same. The Thatcher Years provided a natural fuel and The MenThey Couldn’t Hang cemented their style and agitant status with their debut album, Night Of A Thousand Candles. As well as that first single, it included the self penned follow up, Ironmasters, a song that covered the industrial revolution, the fate of the working man and targeted enemy number one, ‘the iron lady’, into the bargain. This also reached Peel’s festive list, while the album made a strong showing in critics’ end of year polls.
Their signature sound remains intact, and as the title The Defiant suggests, they have lost none of the commitment and fire either. But nor are The Men They Couldn’t Hang just one trick ponies and the new album has space for a dose or two of humour, dewy eyed reminiscence, wild romanticism and even a little road weariness amongst the tales of injustice, derring-do, resistance and uprising.
The artwork includes a photograph of a plaque laying out a statute, “It is put in pain that the scavenger shall this day forward every market day ring the market bell exactly at 12 o’clock.” It refers to the city officials acting as excise men, who collected scavage (i.e. the duty), on imported goods. As the same people took on responsibility for street cleaning, so the term, ‘scavenger’ came to be used for those who did that job, making use of anything of value or worth that they found. It adds a nice double meaning to the picture and the word ‘pain’ adds another level of significance.
The opener gets the party started in rip roaring, rambunctious fashion with Raising Hell, a veritable dreadnaught of a song that takes no prisoners. The sight of those billowing bodies in a storm tossed frenzy at The Empire hoves into the minds eye, as these sea dogs sing a shanty to make the Admiral’s tricorne curl. It’s a boisterous start that even manages the priceless couplet of, “Avast me boys! The Mademoiselles, We’re in port and we’re raining Hell,” which sound like lines primed to be bellowed back by bouncing hordes in a concert hall near you over the autumn.
Probably only Bellowhead can match this kind of nautical mayhem for intensity, but this song by Phil ‘Swill’ Odgers is only part shanty as the banjo and mandolin from Tom Spencer and Paul Simmonds, along with guest Bobby Valentino’s fiddle and a rattling snare drum tattoo from the wonderfully monikered Sputnik Weazel create a vigorous hoedown intensity amidships.
Paul Simmonds is the band’s principal songwriter and it’s his Bonfires up next. It continues both the sense of bravado and also the seafaring theme, although in this case the bonfires are the beacons signalling the massing of troops to sail to France. Although it’s Henry V (or King Harry as the song calls him), who is, “Once more unto the breach,” set to, “Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war,” although there is a resonance with our WWI commemoration and the mustering of an army. The song is none the less bold and stout hearted and ready for the fray, with just a hint that amongst the knights, dukes and heraldry stood a fighting force of common men.
It’s one of three songs that seem to share the theme of invasion or incursion, with Tavarado about the brigands and privateers, or licensed pirates, who plundered Spanish trade and even ransacked ports and towns. Atheni, written by Tom, meanwhile transports us down the Mediterranean to the Peloponnesian War and the power of the Athenian Empire about to be tested to the point of destruction by the military might of Sparta. Musically, however, the songs are quite different, with the melody of the verses of Tavarado having something of a Grand Old Duke Of York folksy simplicity, which contrasts nicely with the pillage and rape terrorism. Atheni is more expansive and wistful almost, as the portents point to the lowering fates and, “Darkness grows in the olive groves, Beneath the rising sun.”
In the midst of all of this mayhem is another song from Swill that suggests all you have to do is ply him with drink and he’ll tell you a tale. It delights with a guitar and banjo arpeggio offering breezy support, as Phil informs us that he’s travelled and seen things worth telling, while acknowledging he’s just Carrying The Flame, the troubadours torch passed from one to another. There’s also a song from Cush, which takes a romantic view of Turquoise Bracelet Bay and a family wedding in Wales. It fairly races along and once more the combination of electric guitar and mandolin gives a real lift, suggesting a good time was had by all.
Paul’s Night Ferry has further sing-along potential, although seems to be a trifle love lorn, with the age old catch of losing out in the card game of romance and subsequently waiting for the ferry ride home. His Twilight Road is also homeward bound, but with the somewhat weary, rain swept demeanour of the constant traveller. The song however lightens the load, morphing from an intro that almost sounds like Hotel California, into a twanging Morricone-esque battle against the elements.
Naturally it’s Paul who also contributes the most pointed songs. Scavengers is a cracker, pitting the haves against the have-nots. Something tells me that, “You Scavengers, you jackals and Thieves! You slurry of the world, you foul disease,” has further audience participation possibilities, much as the law of riotous assembly is there to be flaunted at every gig. Silver Chains is a more reflective reminder that the chains of gold and silver bind just as tight as those of iron, so what price freedom. Hardworking People meanwhile shows how such ties leave the odds stacked against us, as no one else will pay our way and the only option is to toil until death, or stave. Perhaps the most fun of all, however, is to be had with Fail To Comply, which comes on like Dr.Feelgood delinquents meeting bureaucratic, dole office stone walling with a card up their sleeve and playing the two fingered Jack (or Knave) in response.
This is brilliant stuff and 30 years into their journey is as uncompromising as ever. Sure there’s room for some romance, some reminiscence a little of the toil of the road and even a bit of historical re-enactment, but The Defiant still packs bile and bite, with equal measures of wisdom and the devil may care to chew on. Resistance is not futile after all! The Men They Couldn’t Hang are here to prove it, and boy do we need them.
Review by: Simon Holland
20 Sep – Undercover Festival
24 Oct – Glasgow, King Tuts WahWah Hut
25 Oct – Aberdeen, The Moorings Bar
31 Oct – Derby, The Flowerpot
05 Dec – London, The Borderline
The Defiant is Released 22 September 2014
Pre-Order The Defiant via Pledge Music here