I have to declare a personal interest in Megson before I start this review. Back in 2014, I purchased Megson’s When I Was A Lad album of children’s songs to play in the car to my two-year-old son to escape the tyranny of his Cbeebies’ albums. He absolutely loves it (and so do I) and requested it to be played over and over until all the songs were committed to our collective unconscious.
Fast forward to 2014 and my wife was expecting another baby, this time a girl. We agonised over names and both agreed that we loved ‘Flora’. But we couldn’t quite remember where the choice came from, it’s not a family name, or the name of someone we knew… The mystery was solved when we played When I Was A Lad for the first time in ages. The opening track, Bee-o, is a song expressing a parent’s love to their offspring. The opening of the second verse goes, ‘I love me little Flora, and don’t we all adore her…’ Mystery solved… thanks Megson!
Megson are made up of husband-and-wife duo Stu and Debbie Hanna, who both hail from Teesside, North East England. They have been recording and touring successfully for 12 years, and I highly recommend you catch them if they gig near you. Megson shows are, like their albums, exciting, amusing and heartbreaking at each turn.
There appears to be a widely held view amongst fans that Megson’s ‘best songs are their own’. Requests to hear more self-penned songs by Stu and Debbie have resulted in this latest collection.
Good Times… comprises 10 brand new songs, the first time they have ‘had the courage’, according to Stu, to fill an entire CD with their own compositions. But the album has a greater coherence than that alone, because of the subject of the songs.
These are not ‘personal’ songs in the autobiographical sense, this is a collection of vignettes and stories that (by and large) are about the lives of ordinary people in 2016. Many of the songs herein recount the trials and tribulations of working people, be they employed in steelworks, an accountant’s firm or on a zero-hours contract.
These are not pastoral or neo-traditional folk songs, they are urban folk songs in the Ewan MacColl tradition, indeed many of them could have been taken from an unheard Radio Ballad. They paint a picture of the grit and gumption of everyday people facing the challenges of modern life.
The upbeat opening track Generation Rent is a pretty much on-the-nose song about the titular very current issue facing people in their 30s and under in the UK today. The issue of rocketing house prices not matching average family incomes, is set to a rolliking tune. But it’s not a moany protest song, the writer finds wit even in this very real problem: ‘And on that glorious day my darling daughter comes to say/ I want to introduce gran to my fella/ I say go down and tell her/ She’s living in the cellar…’
Another modern problem, that of the prevalence of zero hours contracts in the UK, is addressed in the song Zero. Despite this, it’s another upbeat tune, led by Stu’s driving mandola and fiddle, matching the rhythmic lyrics which echo the repetitive, unfulfilling, uncertain, treadmill life of someone stuck on such a contract.
Working struggles are again documented in Pushing On, a song about families who can’t enjoy ‘living’ because they working just to make ends ‘…just coping day by day’. It’s more of a bitter-sweet mid-tempo tune, with the relentless life of ordinary working folk painted through some deftly-crafted lyrical snapshots. The delivery of the determined but desperate chorus ‘Keep on pushin on’, stays just the right side of sentimental.
Two more songs further the work life theme. Burn Away and Patterns focus on the lives of North East steelworkers, but since the recording of the album the selling off of Tata Steel’s plant in Port Talbot in Neath, Wales, has made these songs even more prescient. Burn Away, the video for which recently premiered on FRUK, is a celebration of steel and steel workers with a plea in the chorus to Keep the steel mill flowing. Accompanying Stu on multiple instruments including prominent picking banjo is some excellent double bass by guest John Parker, best known for his work with Nizlopi.
The flipside expressed in Patterns, sung beautifully by Debbie, is inspired by the closure of the steelworks in Redcar in the Tees Valley, North Yorkshire late last year, which has very personal connotations for Stu and Debbie because of their upbringing in the area. But the track is universal enough that it would resonate with any shift worker with a family who has been with faced redundancies. It’s a bittersweet song, in that it tells of a very bleak situation – the loss of a manufacturing job without much hope of other employment – but the sweetness comes in the depiction of a loving wife and family, offering support and comfort to her hardworking husband.
Another tenderly told tale is found in The Bookkeeper. It’s more of a slight song in that it concerns the unrequited love of a tongue-tied bookkeeper in Billingham (another Teesside town) for the chief accountant’s clerk. While it swells towards a happy ending, it stops just short of a clear resolution. So we’ll have to just make our minds up ourselves. (I like to think he gets his girl…)
Sticking with the theme of very current issues facing ordinary families, but not directly about the workplace are The Bonny Lad and A Prayer For Hope. While The Bonny Lad is written and sung (another beautiful performance from Debbie) with a North Eastern burr, it is more of a universal scenario. It concerns a grieving mother laying her soldier son to rest and asking whether, despite seeing the very worst the world has to offer, if he is still the son she raised and loved. Appropriate to the subject matter, the song is sombre and given it’s such a complex issue, the answer is left hanging.
For me, the standout song on the whole album is A Prayer For Hope. The current migrant crisis is such a complex issue, but Stu and Debbie steer away from the politics and controversy, instead focussing on the perilous journeys migrant families are forced to take in the hope of keeping safe. As a ‘prayer’ it subtly draws on religious imagery in its lyrics, ‘Lord give us the strength for holding on to hope.’ I could imagine this being an almost unbearable listen if paired with images of migrant families crossing the Mediterranean on flimsy dinghies. Powerful stuff.
Before I move on to the closing (and title) track, there is a bit of a thematic anomaly regarding the song, Rap ‘er Te Bank. Unlike the other nine tracks of the album, this does not cover a contemporary subject but, because it is written in the 19th and 20th century ‘Yakka’ industrial dialect, it has a historical grounding. Whilst as a love story between a pitman and his lass, it fits in with the other working songs, it seems to jarr with the rest of the album which covers more current issues and concerns. That’s not to say it isn’t a fine composition and on any other Megson disc it would be a very welcome addition, I’m just not sure of the reason for its inclusion here given the clear focus of the rest of the album.
The aforementioned closing track, Good Times Will Come Again wraps the themes up coherently and ends the album on an optimistic note. Alongside Debbie’s fine accordion, John Parker supplies a bassline that could be mistaken for Danny Thompson, there’s no higher praise than that! It’s a good note to round off a fine album.
In the press release Stu is quoted as saying Good Times… is, ‘the most positive album we have made’. Whilst I don’t share that view, I’m not concerned if it ends up a little downbeat at times, these are important, often vital subjects that Megson are tackling. And very few others in any genre of music have the courage to raise them, let alone fill a whole album’s worth. For that alone they should be applauded, but to do it with such skill, sensitivity and class Megson should be celebrated.
Good Times Will Come Again is released on EDJ Records on 27 May.
Megson Upcoming Dates
MAY 24 – LOWDHAM old ship inn *SOLD OUT*
MAY 25 – MILTON KEYNES the stables
3 ALBUM LAUNCH SHOWS WITH THE MEGSON BAND
MAY 27 – LONDON kings place
JUN 03 – CAMBRIDGE junction
JUN 04 – BROMSGROVE artrix
JUN 25 – WAKEFIELD chapelthorpe aulsis hall
JUL 14 – CHICHESTER assembly room
Ticket Links and further dates can be found here: www.megsonmusic.co.uk/shows
Photo Credit: Rob Bridge