For my generation, the question: “Where are all the protest songs?” is a rather painful one….At the height of the anarcho-punk, agitprop maelstrom of the ’80s, Protest, for many of us, became a way of life. We railed against Thatcherism in the counterculture of activism, civil disobedience and dissent, to which the music of protest was central and generally quite loud.
We had grown up with music that voiced outrage, questioned authority and called for revolution, mostly from America, with artists such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez bringing the American Civil Rights and Anti-Vietnam War movements into sharp focus for we children of the ’60s.
It’s easy to forget the long tradition of folk singing as a tool of political protest in this country, influencing writers as far back as Chaucer, Shakespeare, through to Dickens and Hardy in the 19th Century. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament of the late ’50s revived the tradition, with singers such as Ewan McColl inspired to raise their voices in protest.
Thatcherism provoked a further resurgence of this tradition In the late 1970s and ’80s, initiated by the punk movement and developed further by artists such as Billy Bragg, The Levellers and the New Model Army. These later artists in particular focussed on the seminal moment in British democracy that followed the English Civil War of the 17th Century – specifically, the constitutional rights arising from the Putney Debates – a vital moment in our history, borne straight from the politics of radicalism and a legacy that Thatcherism sought to eradicate from British memory. Margaret Thatcher’s chilling assertion that “…There is no such thing as society”, during a 1987 interview for ‘Woman’s Own’, might have come straight out of Orwell, some 50 years earlier. For my generation, fighting this encroaching mind-set within our culture was vitally important. We understood, all too well, what it signified for the future.
Politics and the music industry have long since parted company, with the radical counterculture co-opted by ‘polite’ society and appropriated by the establishment to make money. Once music industry promoters copped on to the commercial potential of protest music, including rap and hip hop, it was all over. Radicalism was rendered docile and meaningless, losing any semblance of authenticity and energy.
We have to look for it these days, on the edges, far away from the mainstream. This makes the finding of it doubly rewarding. The dissenting voice, making itself heard above the ever-rising tide of acquiescent, disaffected ennui is, for me at least, a cause for celebration. When that voice manages to hit its mark with sardonic wit and quietly brilliant references to that which is (truly) important, one can almost believe that change might still be possible. Just maybe. Perhaps this requires us to re-think the concept of ‘change’ in the age of social media and the cult of “ME-ism”
Dan O’Farrell is one such voice. An extremely accomplished lyricist, Dan has some 30 years’ experience as a singer-songwriter behind him, the majority of which spent with Southampton based band, Accrington Stanley, whose early work caught the attention of the late, great John Peel. A loyal and dedicated band of local fans have followed Dan across the years, both as former frontman of Accrington Stanley and, more recently, as a solo performer.
In September 2016, Dan joined forces with former Accrington Stanley band member Chris Walsh (drums and percussion) and local double bass legend Rick Foot, to form The Difference Engine. Their debut album was recorded live, one month later, after just two rehearsals, at Rob Sansome’s Factory Road Studios in Eastleigh, with all songs (bar one) sung live by Dan. They wanted to catch the same atmosphere of their first rehearsal, when Dan’s songs were suddenly given the dynamic and playful ‘oomph’ that he’d long been hearing in his head. Various friends were co-opted the same day to come and add flute and string parts to three of the songs. They describe the day as being one of “marvellous chaos”.
Backing vocals, percussion and guitar overdubs were added in Dan’s shed (to save money). Listen closely and you can hear that the glockenspiel on ‘Broken By Love’ was recorded on Bonfire Night and the acoustic lead guitar on ‘Light in Your Darkness’ was recorded during a rain storm. Two nights before mixing, on 18th December, the multi-talented Mike Steel was lured by peppermint tea (Rock’n’Roll…!!) to set up his pedal steel guitar in Shed Studios to complete the final piece of the Difference Engine jigsaw.
“Everything you hear is organic” explains Dan, “First or second take. Nothing is wasted. Everything is there because it has to be. All 12 songs were mixed on 20th & 21st December by the band and Rob Sansome. There were no arguments. Everything felt good”.
And so to the songs, not discussed in any particular order, a collection which contemplates the human condition in the 21st Century, as seen through the shrewd and unflinching gaze of a modern day political satirist, humanitarian and teller of sardonic tales. Intelligent, engagingly witty, sadly ruminative and unapologetically angry by turn, these songs pull no punches.
The opening track ‘Haunted Houses of the Hollywood Hills’ is a song for anybody who ever pretended to be in a classic Hollywood movie, as they strode through the less than classic streets of their town. This is a personal favourite because it perfectly mirrors the fascination I have held for all that is Old Hollywood, ever since I was a tiny child. I totally love every single line of this song and fully identify with its playful attachment to a fantasy world, scorned by the conformist lack of imagination that characterises the identikit drabness of all “our KFC towns”. From the very first line, you’re immediately transported back to the ’40s and ’50s and the impossible glamour of the big screen icons, not many of whom were very happy, we are reminded:
“Like Montgomery Clift, stitched up in front of Liz and condemned to live on as a film star zombie….You’re like Lauren Bacall, leaning back on a wall, waiting for Humphrey Bogart’s scene to wrap up/ But a talent like yours should be opening doors/ But you wait, trapped in the shadows of love…”.
The album version rocks out with a powerful guitar riff and Dan’s unique falsetto vocals that complement the quirkiness of the subject matter to perfection. There is, perhaps, a hint of defiant posturing in this choice of high pitched singing that seems to announce “Yep, I’m singing falsetto…Deal with it!.” This certainly would be in keeping with the sassy attitude of the song, cocking a stylish snook as it does at the voices of dissent. This is a song that celebrates escapism, a love of vintage glamour and surrendering to the seductive allure of the imagined lifestyles within the song. Occasionally, though, reality seeps through: “It’s like we’re in the wrong time, the different eras entwine, every time we bring our vintage glamour to the town/but it’s occasionally true that we see the real view/the facade slips, our carefully constructed walls come down…”The solo version of the song is accompanied by a wonderfully atmospheric, flickering black and white film clip of a glamorous 1930s nightclub scene, featuring a very young and particularly louche looking Boris Karloff and an equally youthful George Raft. My only caveat in relation to the newer version is that the lyrics aren’t as easily heard against the more defined (louder) rockabilly guitar thrash. The lyrics are SO very good that they need to be heard – possibly a detail that won’t present when the song is performed live.
A dark and brooding double bass drone precedes the stark opening question posed by “England’s So Ugly”….. ‘Why does it take a picture of a dead baby/to make us think maybe/these people deserve our support?” the question of shared responsibility, and the shameful abnegation of it, are laid bare in this song… accompanied throughout by short, angry staccato bursts of guitar (reminiscent of Billy Bragg’s signature style). The means by which the collective voice of “Little/Middle England” is delivered herein, as on-air comments during a live, phone-in radio “debate”, is a touch of brilliance. The shameless hypocrisy exhibited by all callers’ piles ignorant insult upon injury, as they feebly attempt to preface their callous racism with weak ‘qualifiers’ and wheedlingly mendacious nods towards a compassion that none of them feel.
“Helen on line 3 says that, although she feels sympathy, they’ll probably just take our jobs and we’ll all get robbed……Julie on line 5 says she wishes they were all still alive, but says ‘if God had wanted them to survive then he would’ve been there’ “…
These events are recent enough for all of us to remember such commentary littering the pages of the Daily Fail and filling up endless column inches across the spectrum of Social Media. The plaintive central refrain of the song is bleakly reiterated: “How many children washed up on beaches/ does it take to teach us /something has gone wrong?”.
“Problems Inherent Within Global Capitalism” features a stirring timpani and two violins fed through an octaver, lending the song a slightly eerie, melodic lilt, as Dan quietly, but persistently, rolls out the lyrics in a rise and fall delivery that comes at a ceaseless pace. This is a mournful lament on the bald-faced lie of ‘trickle down’ economics. The basic disparity of wealth distribution that characterises what might arguably be dubbed Capitalism’s greatest broken promise, sees society’s wealth circulating amongst a small, self-protecting few, within a spurious system of ‘success measurement’ that utilises an aggregated data set – one which blatantly ignores educational achievement, innovation, or even the welfare and health of the population that governments claim to represent. Failure to shift this perspective will mean greater numbers of homeless people subsisting on food banks in poverty, while the nation’s wealth remains firmly in the coffers of society’s upper echelons. All of this is referred to in plain and simple language throughout the song, which ends on a note of quiet plea for change – a shift in perspective -possibly the hardest, simplest act of revolution that we have ever had to contemplate as a species.
‘The Nazarene Rifle Association’ is a smart attack on the Christian Right via a series of questions posed by a confused Bible Belt boy: “What kind of gun did Jesus use in Gallilee?” The new album version of this is slightly more up tempo than previous solo recordings, to good effect. A clever way of challenging the extremist doctrines of the Right Wing gun lobby, in the form of direct and guileless questions from a confused youth, genuinely seeking answers.
‘Your Facebook Feed is Not the World” Set to an airy, upbeat tune, this song is reminiscent in style to the quirky observational musings of Jonathan Richman. It ponders the phenomenon of social media with a caustic accuracy that cuts straight to the heart of the ironic fallacy, willingly adopted by millions on a daily (hourly) basis, one premised on an entirely false construct of ‘reality’ that flatters and dupes its audience into the worst kind of unthinking compliance in the process of their own dehumanisation. I particularly appreciate this song, hailing as I do from a previous age, one that thought for itself, knew how to communicate verbally whilst simultaneously maintaing eye contact, looked where it was going when out and about (as opposed to staring silently at a screen, whilst wandering aimlessly across a line of moving traffic, without once glancing up) and had a diverse social circle that included all types, not one comprising a pre-selected list of suggested ‘compatibles’ … “so you live in your walled garden, preaching to the choir” … This song captures one of the (many) uneasy truths about social media, albeit in merry, lighthearted fashion, that of its capacity to seduce the individual into a state of deluded comfort, the source of which rests on the fantasy of being part of an (entirely imagined) community. The potential implications of this phenomenon are far reaching, in a bleak, dystopian sense of the Orwellian or Kafka-esque kind:
“You want to smash the system, want to subvert it from within…But you need more lives in Candy Crush if you’re ever gonna win…And somehow that distracts you, like the people’s heroin, But it’s the methadone of the masses, not even opium…Your Facebook feed is not the world..”
“Why I don’t do covers”, a live favourite, turns its satirical gaze upon the sad truth of the modern day music-biz for the majority of acts: If you ain’t singing Ed Sheeran, you probably ain’t getting paid. This song resonates with me for so many reasons, some of which are touched upon in my opening comments on authenticity and what live music means today. The appreciation of artists performing their own original compositions before a live audience has become a rarified phenomenon, valued by a diminishing (discerning) minority. The music industry revels in its own tabloid-ism, prizing the culture of instant celebrity above everything. Fame can be achieved by a process of over-exposure and plenty of it. Now we are urged to form opinions about the size of Kim Kardashian’s arse, while music is pre-packaged according to market research and fed to a society that has been primed to eat whatever is served up. Pop has, it seems, finally gone and eaten itself. There no longer exists any genuine sense of community or tradition in music. Marketing equals control and pop exists for everyone. The resistance thrown at society by countercultures of previous generations has been appropriated by the corporations and carefully reprocessed in accordance with the industry’s discovery of how to successfully market the apparently unmarketable – namely the bands who would once have raged against the machine. The final stage in this cynical pantomime involves the selling of reworked, sanitised ‘pap’ – irrevocably dumb and hopelessly vacuous from birth, to a youth culture that has never known anything different.
Once being a fan meant belonging to a tribe, part of the counterculture mass who read underground magazines and sought out obscure records in dingy basements – those days are long gone.
Dan makes an oblique allusion to old school protest from the American folk tradition by subverting a line from Woody Guthrie’s 1941 song: “The Talking Hitler’s Head Off Blues”. Guthrie famously painted a line from the song across the front of his guitar: ‘THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS’. Dan’s line “This guitar only self-harms” is a beautiful reversal of the original lyric, one which takes full, proud ownership of the material that he produces and performs: “I do this”.
Dan continues to make his point with visceral eloquence:
“I was brought up on punk ideals that said we all had a voice/ and that primitive, pure self-expression was essential for our freedom of choice/ and if the only songs that anyone’s singing are designed to impress Simon Cowell/then the human race needs re-thinking, or blowing up any day now”
Dan O’Farrell (original solo version) ‘Why I Don’t Do Covers’
10 Track 10.aiff ¬
Middle aged drinking is amusingly explored in ‘Anhedonia’. ‘Light in your darkness’ sees Dan undercut the word smithery with something simpler, allowing the strings and soaring pedal-steel take centre stage. The album closes on a deliberate double-downer, ‘Death Rattles’ ponders the end awaiting us all and stares unflinchingly at it, while ‘Easterly’ embraces the ache of modern life atrocities on the news and screens glued to our faces:
“…like zombies from the ground” – but with a chorus that allows room for hope, before the song disappears into a storm of chaotic noise.
I have saved my favourite track (no 3 in the order of play) until last, partly because I struggle to get through this without crying!! “Rosaline Wins” is, in my opinion, a stunningly beautiful, life affirming song, Rosaline is an unseen but crucial character in Shakespeare’s tragedy of the star cross’d lovers, ‘Romeo and Juliet’, (1597). Romeo is at first deeply in love with Rosaline and expresses his dismay at her not loving him back. Romeo first spots Juliet while trying to catch a glimpse of Rosaline at a gathering hosted by the Capulet family, of whom Rosaline is a niece and cousin to Juliet. It has been speculated that Juliet is, in truth, a substitute for Rosaline, who Romeo never quite gets over.
I have always struggled with this early work of Shakespeare’s, partly because Romeo’s dithering is, frankly, exasperating and because the lovers hysterically escalate a bad situation to one of high drama very quickly, resulting in both of their (totally avoidable) deaths. One can’ t help speculating that none of it would have happened, had they been in their twenties, instead of hormonally charged teenagers, determined to immerse themselves in needlessly catastrophic tragedy. This song, then, is a particularly appealing call to common sense that circumvents Shakespeare’s tragic resolution, choosing instead to celebrate the fact that, unlike Juliet, Rosaline is alive at the end of the play and thereby “wins”.
“Rosaline wins, Rosaline wins / She’s still standing at the end/and if love wants you to die for it, then love is not your friend”
The music is beautifully composed in the 17th Century Renaissance style and is an accomplished piece of work by all involved. Nancy Tomkins provides the flute and Mike Davies cleverly echoes her and the Rosaline Strings (Rufus Grig, Philippa Baldwin, Mary Hyde and Louise Owen). The missing harmony line is very sweetly sung by Dan’s daughter Ruby.
This debut album represents a triumph for The Difference Engine and I am greatly looking forward to seeing the trio perform the songs live. A fabulous debut from this talented collaboration. Well done!
Words by Sue Blackwood (Guest Writer)
Pictures By Rhona Murphy.