LEON ROSSELSON The World Turned Upside Down
The standing joke I have with this beloved magazine of ours, is that I am happy if it sends me a review copy of any CD that no other reviewer wants to handle. And on the rare occasion, they have done just that.
But today, my cup runneth over with good fortune. I am still pinching myself at my luck in having two glorious artistic gems to start off my reviewing year of 2012 with. As if having the McCalmans’ final concert DVD to review was not enough, I now get this 4-CD set of the best of the colossal life’s work of this great hero of the British folk scene: a man who you’d not be far wrong in calling the Musical Conscience of the Nation.
Imagine getting 294 minutes of music that features the following musicians and singers (I’ve listed here in strictly alphabetical order!): Frankie Armstrong, Roy Bailey, Mark Bassey, Steve Berry, Billy Bragg, Martin Carthy, Howard Evans, Chris Foster, Sue Harris, Paul Jayasinha, John Kirkpatrick, Clare Lintott, Elizabeth Mansfield, Ruth Rosselson, Fiz Shapur, Dave Swarbrick, Miranda Sykes, Roger Williams, The 3 City 4, The Oyster Band and The Sheffield Socialist Choir. Tell me, would the smile disappear from your face before next Christmas?!
The 72 songs on these 4 CDs are a representative sample of Leon’s work, spanning 5 decades from the start of the Sixties to 2010 and the first British coalition government since World War Two. The songs range from those aimed at children to those aimed at governments: and they almost never miss their mark.
And along with the 4 CDs (the first three covering the best of his output in the 60s, 70s and 80s, and the fourth the nineties/noughties), we have a quite magnificent liner booklet with nearly 80 pages of text and photos. Really informative text on the writing of each song, as there was no need to waste space filling it with song lyrics: if there is a better enunciator of song lyrics than Leon, then I’d like to know where that person is! Every word he sings is crystal clear.
And talking of clarity, the booklet is an object lesson in how to present the written word. Black print on a white background has never been beaten for ease of reading, and Leon’s notes on each song prove fascinating in that they firmly link the song to the events of the time.
And so, preamble over, now let’s look at the CDs in turn. First, the one covering the Sixties.
There are two songs I particularly remember here as being part of the staple repertoire of floor singers in the clubs I attended back then. Tim McGuire, his song about a pyromaniac, stands up well to the passage of time; but his bitter-sweet Do You Remember? stands up better. It has an unusual combination of a somewhat unblinking and forensic gaze on the harsh realities of life, coupled with a tender romanticism.
Other songs that stand out here are songs I had largely forgotten. His darkly comic Stand Firm on the absurdity of Britain’s so-called “independent nuclear deterrent” still comes up fresh after nearly half a century; and Across the Hills made me recall my days as a member of The Jug ‘O Punch club in Digbeth, where the Ian Campbell Folk Group used to regularly feature it in their residency.
The 2nd CD, the one covering the Seventies, was the one I perhaps enjoyed the most. It was clearly the time when Leon bestrode the UK scene, without any obvious peer. The great Ewan MacColl was approaching the end of his creative life, and Rosselson had picked up the torch, and was producing his best work.
This CD is perhaps the most varied in content: it truly runs the gamut. That sublimely witty song which became a feminist anthem, Don’t Get Married Girls, gets the only delivery I know that does not make me pine for Sean Cannon’s. And the extraordinarily underrated Stand Up For Judas, shows itself to be as profound an attempt at free thinking as you will encounter in a month of Sundays.
On Her Silver Jubilee is a song that becomes hugely topical this year, with it being Her Majesty’s diamond jubilee. I am sure that it never won him any fans at Buck House, and a few generations back there’d have been calls for him to be imprisoned in The Tower! But strangely, the Elizabeth ll he portrays, comes across as a not unsympathetic creation.
But the standout cuts on this CD are his most famous song The World Turned Upside Down, and his glorious chorus song that goes by the title of Plan.
All of us can remember parties where we were all zonked out of our heads singing along with the sound system on maximum volume and blending our voices - with that truly stupendous delivery of Roy Bailey’s - in the Plan mantra “That’s not the way it’s got to be … PEOPLE before property”, all of us hoping that this sensational heady-brew-of-a-chorus, was never going to end.
(“All of us” that is, apart from the neighbours, who were now banging on the dividing wall, and shouting that it was “two in the morning!” The next day we’d blame Roy: they had no idea that his voice was coming from the record player!)
Mentioning Roy Bailey there, was perhaps inevitable, even though I had asked myself to not pick out individuals, (on the grounds that it would be invidious of me, since all had done their bit to make this collection the delight it clearly is). But having now slipped-up and mentioned one person, I had better quickly compound the error and mention a second! Ha!
And that 2nd name is that of Fiz Shapur. It really says something when he almost steals the whole collection, with his inspired keyboard playing. His arrangements are so simpatico with Leon’s vocals: it is as though they are joined at the hip.
The song I like best on this third CD, is a kids’ song called Skin. It is a classic that will be sung by seven year olds for generations to come. And God help me, I must be regressing somewhat, for I have been singing it around the house all day today!
But it is the final CD that has my favourite song of the whole package, and a brand new song to boot (written since the arrival of our coalition government here in the UK). Talking Democracy Blues tells it like it is about our thieving chancers who call themselves MPs and who brazenly renege on their manifesto commitments, like as though nobody expected them to keep them anyway!
This is a tremendously powerful hatchet-job on the whole shower at Westminster, and Leon was never in better voice. His guitar work too is top notch on this number, and his vocals roll back the years. The rhymes hit home relentlessly: the song is a true knockout.
How wonderful to lay down a track like this, half a century after you’d started out. To have the wit and the drive to write it, and then perform it with such brio, marks out Leon Rosselson, not so much as a survivor, but as a national blooming miracle!
I salute you sir.