Thursday 28 July 2011


at the ‘Duchess Of York’, Leeds (1 July 1990)

In ‘King Creole’ the sleazy Barfly asks ‘what kind of songs are they you’re singing? Folk songs?’ Elvis says ‘I guess so’. Barfly looks askew for a moment, then comes back ‘that’s what I thought. What planet?’ Leon Rosselson wears a ‘VANCOUVER FOLK FESTIVAL’ T-shirt. The Music Lounge is stark dark. He looks up, and slowly round. ‘Thirty years to reach the ‘Duchess of York’. It’s been a long climb to the top!’ From the adjoining Bar come ‘cries of pain and rejoicing’ from World Cup TV. Leon Rosselson is a protest singer from another planet, another space-time continuum, another age. I first saw him some twenty years ago at the ‘Blue Bell’ in Hull’s dockland where he was a cerebral napalm of righteous raging, his songs too complex, too intelligent for commercial Pop, but articulating the times incisively. Now the times have gone off on some other, some less vital tangents...

The Cold War evaporates. He sings “Where’s The Enemy?” in high straining wordbends, and sometimes the caricatures that once served so well – militaristic Hawks versus Worthy Proles, seem just too simplistic. But when it comes to song subject-matter ‘there’s always the drug war’ he offers, ‘and the cat down the road’. So he sings “The Neighbours’ Cat”, about a ferocious feline neo-recruit to the IRA and hits the humour gas-pedal. While “Free Press” and “Fish Finger” – ‘from my fishy period’, also snipe effectively using that humour to dig sly digs. He’s been sporadically performing “Jumbo The Elephant” for two decades now. Originally, he explains, he saw it as political satire, now as just a song about an elephant. All elephants are called ‘Jumbo’. The satire lies in the subjugated beast’s final revenge on its tormentors. The elephant is also the symbol of the American Republican Party which brought us Ronald Reagan and both President George Bush’s, perhaps that was in there too. Now it’s Leon’s ‘token charming Rosselsong’. After which he reverts to a scathing “Who Reaps The Profit, Who Pays The Price”, prefacing it with a Gaia-conscious Green anti-nuke text, then concedes ‘that’s the trouble with topical songs. They date so quickly.’

Leon Rosselson, dark and tousled, was a protest singer on that other CND, left-of-centre, idealistic, more radical, pre-Thatcher planet. Thirty years. Some three-hundred songs. The Galliards group. ‘That Was The Week That Was’ appearances. Albums like ‘A Laugh, A Song, And A Hand-Grenade’ (1968, with poet Adrian Mitchell), and ‘The Word Is Hugga-Mugga-Chugga-Lugga-Humbugga-Boom-Chit’ (1971, with Martin Carthy), ‘That’s Not The Way It’s Got To Be’ (1975) and ‘If I Knew Who The Enemy Was’ (1979, with Roy Bailey, and snarling synths), and the stark solo ‘Palaces of Gold’ (1975), issued on labels as diverse as Acorn, Trailer, Bounty, Fuse, and performed at Festivals, Rally’s, Colleges, and Folk Clubs like the ‘Blue Bell’ (‘yes, that must have been around the time the Watersons were there’ he accurately recalls to me), clear down to a near-charting single – “Ballad Of A Spy-Catcher” in 1987, setting Peter Wright’s much-banned book to music.

Tonight he’s on cold at the ‘Duchess of York’ following Laurie from local band Little Chief (who does “Cock Of The Shop” and a kind of Folk-Reggae called “Tribal War”), and he’s unequally competing with the World Cup from the adjoining Bar. How can he reconnect through these philistine times? He steps back apace. Takes the long view. Plumbs into a Socialist continuity that’s survived – and will survive, centuries. William Morris dreamed utopian dreams. Leon sings “Bringing The News From Nowhere” which does ‘honour to the man, honour to the dreamer’. Then steps even further back to the English Civil War, 1649, the Diggers, and “The World Turned Upside-Down”. Oddly, it charted recently for Billy Bragg – ‘sung by people even more famous than me’ quips Leon mordantly. And the circle is complete. The vision vindicated. When he writes well, when he performs well, it’s with an incandescence that transcends the times. Leon Rosselson – honour to the man, honour to the dreamer...

‘FUSE RECORDS’, 28 Park Chase
Wembley Park, Middlesex HA9 8EH

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