“Too many protest singers, not enough protest songs”, sang Edwyn Collins, but that’s certainly not something that applies to Reg Meuross. From everyday victims crushed by an uncaring society to unsung heroes taking a defiant stand against the darkness of tyranny and oppression, Faraway People goes the distance in turning the spotlight on issues that should not be left in the shadows.
As with his previous album, this is again just Reg and his guitar, capturing the intimacy of his live shows and focusing clearly on the content and the emotion. The title track serves to open the album, a slow waltzing lament for and a tribute to just some of the many people who have fallen victim of the government’s benefits system, some to the extent of committing suicide. All the names mentioned in the lyric are real people and real stories, but you can likely substitute someone you know too.
The fingerpicked Angel In A Blue Dress was inspired by a letter he received from a friend, a nurse, in response to his line about the NHS in the song England Green & England Grey on a previous album. He turns her account of the conditions under which she works, and a particular day when she arrived to find the hospital in a state of emergency as a result of the cuts, into a gentle but powerful number.
Another real life account is to be found with The Lonesome Death of Michael Brown. A strummed guitar accompanying an account of how a Missouri police officer shot and killed the unarmed Ferguson teenager, igniting civil unrest and generating a national debate on the use of police force in relation to African Americans, but extending the commentary to a universal question on the taking of life.
History serves to furnish the inspiration for the guitar rippling seven minutes of For Sophie (This Beautiful Day), a telling of how, in 1942, Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans, students at the University of Munich became a member of the non-violent resistance group The White Rose. They distributed pamphlets calling for opposition to the Nazi regime and denouncing the persecution of the Jews. The following year they and a friend were arrested and summarily tried and guillotined. There has already been a terrific German film made about her and, featuring a haunting harmonica, this song movingly further serves to commemorate her stand with a chorus that ranks alongside that of Don Maclean’s Vincent.
The fifth of the songs stirring social and political conscience through real life events comes with Refugee, a fingerpicked familiar story of how many highly qualified refugees flee their country and wind up in menial jobs. The song itself was inspired by the experiences of Ahmad Al_Rashid, a Syrian Kurd who fled Aleppo during the Arab Winter of Discontent, working in the refugee camps in Iraq before being forced to flee again, his journey documented in the award winning BBC2 documentary Exodus. The lyrics referencing rape and murder, it’s another pointed call not to turn away and ignore people who may not sit comfortably with our cocooned lives.
It’s not all so subject specific or downcast. Built around a circling guitar pattern, New Brighton Girl is a both waltzing aide-memoire of the things that make it worthwhile getting up in the morning and a celebration of independent spirits that refuse to be broken. “On a Sunday in England there is hope in the air”, he sings in the last line, inviting you to extend the metaphor in these troubled times.
Another love song can be found with In Your Arms, a reminder that, when it seems the rains will never stop falling, the bells will ring once again and the unconditional promise of release will be fulfilled, whether you take that as secular or divine love. Its sentiments link to In Dreams, an unintended tip of the hat to Roy Orbison that holds faith that, while we may often walk our own lonely roads sometimes we find our paths crossing with kindred hearts and that we are all each other’s refuge.
There is one more protest number, the near eight-minute Cicero an all encompassing swipe at those who keep us in chains (bankers, lawyers and doctors ‘whose doses are almost as high as his bills…’). It draws on the eleven comments on occupation and social status laid down in 42 BC by the Roman philosopher the song takes its title from. If the melody line and words sound familiar, that’s because Dylan borrowed from the same source for A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall. A reminder that if you’re going to steal, steal from the best.
The remaining two numbers are both about encounters between two celebrities, one fictional and one by proxy. The first, Leavin’ Alabama imagines a meeting in a redneck bar between Hank Williams and Dylan Thomas, a couple of hardened drinkers sharing a shot and tales of disappointment and disillusion with women and the world.
The second, and the album’s final track, Phil Ochs & Elvis Eating Lunch in Morrison’s Café is another true story of how Reg and Hank Wangford were having a bite to eat following a gig when a guy in an Elvis wig and dark glasses walked in and sat at the table next to them. He was then joined a few moments later by another guy who looked just like Phil Ochs. You couldn’t make it up, but you’d definitely have to write a song about it.
It’s a playful end to an album that confronts the darkness and looks to shine a light. Yes, there’s anger and indignation, but, all too rare in a protest album, there’s also a deep well of compassion and insight into the human heart and spirit.
Reg’s Album launch takes place at St Pancras Old Church, London on July 28.
For more dates and to Pre-Order Faraway People via http://www.regmeuross.com/
Photo Credit: Jonti