The Men They Couldn’t Hang

TrackAlbum
The ColoursWaiting For Bonaparte
IronmastersNight Of A Thousand Candles
Shirt Of BlueHow Green Is The Valley
A Place In The SunSilver Town
Dogs Eyes, Owl Meat, Man ChopThe Domino Club
Jennifer GreyNever Born To Follow
Red Rocks Of SpainThe Cherry Red Jukebox
Devil On The WindDevil On The Wind
Turquoise Bracelet BayThe Defiant
King Street SerenadeCock-A-Hoop

TMTCH photo 1

clockwise from left: Paul Simmonds, Jon Odgers, Phil Odgers,
Stefan Cush, Shanne Bradley

 

 

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The Men They Couldn’t Hang playlist

 

Contributor: Dave Connolly

It’s 1989, I think. I’m 24 or 25, depending on what month it is and I’m driving from Bletchley (near Milton Keynes) to Wembley, where I work. I don’t have to be in until 9.30 or so, which is fortunate as the traffic can be terrible and any opportunity to miss the worst of rush hour is welcome. Mike Read is on the radio and he plays something that stands out from the usual Radio 1 fare. Fortunately, he back-announces the track: It’s The Colours by The Men They Couldn’t Hang. I remember the band name from when I used to read the inkies such as Sounds but I’d always thought they were part of a tiny cowpunk scene in London. This wasn’t what I had thought they were like: it’s not folk as I know it, it’s louder and rowdier and angrier than that while mixing guitar/bass/drums with unlikely bedfellows such as mandolin and I make a mental note to find the album.

When I track down Waiting For Bonaparte it’s an instant hit with me; songs with stories and history woven into the lyrics and I want to get more by the band. The Colours is written from the perspective of a press-ganged sailor caught up in the Nore mutiny, waiting to go to the gallows. Although released as a single, it was banned by the BBC due to the line You’ve come here to watch me hang being deemed sensitive at the time due to events in South Africa.

The next album I found was the debut, Night Of A Thousand Candles. Having formed in 1984, the original line up of Paul Simmonds, Phil ‘Swill’ Odgers, Jon Odgers, Stefan Cush and Shanne Bradley played the Alternative Music Festival in Camden and released a cover of Eric Bogle’s The Green Fields Of France which reached number 1 in the UK Indie Charts as well as Number 3 in John Peel’s Festive 50. Rough edges and energy are captured on the album, none louder and rowdier than Ironmasters, still pretty much guaranteed to be heard at every gig over 35 years later. Welsh history of the Merthyr Rising and the Rebecca Riots combined in a song that starts with a slow intro before taking off like a rocket. This is a live highlight and the crowd eagerly await it. If you ever go to a show, it can get a bit lively at the front as (mainly) men who are old enough to know better, bounce off each other like it’s 1985 again. The line On Sundays it was down to the chapel in the town resonates with me. As a very small child, we visited my father’s family in the Rhondda Valley and I was taken to Chapel with the service being in Welsh. Possibly the longest 90 minutes or so of my life.

If you’re sensing a theme developing here, you’d be right, politics and social justice being a key ingredient in TMTCH’s lyrics. Second album, How Green Is The Valley, features Shirt Of Blue about the miners’ strike and Ghosts Of Cable Street on the Battle of Cable Street in 1936, when Mosley’s Blackshirts tried to march through the Jewish East End. Both songs are still guaranteed to be on the set list.

Shirt Of Blue tells of two children in the same school class and how their lives go in different directions before they meet again across the picket line, one a policeman, the other a striking miner. Bobby Valentino’s fiddle sweeps across the song, perfectly complementing Cush’s increasingly angry vocal.

We can scuff our boots we can tear our hands
And I’ll rip that shirt off you

Ghosts Of Cable Street was an immediate standout for me but Shirt Of Blue got under my skin over time; the masterful storytelling of the contrasts in the two kids’ lives reminding me of the news footage of the time, police and miners fighting on the picket lines.

Having missed the band’s early days, playing at venues such as The Sir George Robey in Finsbury Park and The Clarendon in Hammersmith, the first time I saw them was as support to Bowie at Milton Keynes in 1990. Living in Bletchley meant that the MK Bowl was just a short drive so we went along on a whim and managed to get half price tickets from a tout as they had all overestimated demand. The album Silver Town had been released the year before so some tracks from that got an outing. I remember Company Town being played which seemed appropriate as Milton Keynes was very much a New Town at the time, outwardly tidy with wide grass verges along the dual carriageway roads, housing estates of new build boxes hidden away.

A Place In The Sun is the second track on Silver Town, based loosely on a trip that guitarist/mandolin player Paul Simmonds took with friends to the South of France, hitchhiking there, underfunded and unprepared.

We hitched a lift to Lyon in an open Mini Moke
A drunken driver took us to Marseille
I could say “Bonjour”, Joey knew the law
The rest we memorized along the way

It also reminds me of a work trip from London to Madrid, driving from London through France to Spain, armed only with a paper map and a fistful of travellers cheques. No mobile phones or sat nav in those days, we were expected to find our way to and around foreign cities and arrive on time, as well as deal with borders and customs paperwork. We stopped on the French border one night, finding that the town fiesta was on with fabulous food and drink stalls. The next day, as it was glorious July weather, we decided we had enough time to take the scenic, coastal route, rather than the motorway and still arrived on time.

Fifth album, The Domino Club, moved slightly away from the folk sound with the addition of keyboards and accordionist Nick Muir. In addition to stories of the downtrodden underdog, (Handyman, The Family Way) it has a cover of Industrial Town, originally by Australian band Weddings Parties, Anything. I’ve chosen Dogs Eyes, Owl Meat, Man Chop which is a reference to Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milk Wood” – Bible Black, Captain Cat – and is a tour around the lesser-known parts of Wales, as well as mentioning Buckley’s Brewery (a pint of Buckley’s Top) long since closed.

Out of the blue, in 1991, came the announcement that the band were to split up. At the same time I was made redundant. A farewell tour with one of two nights at The Town & Country recorded for a live album and video and that was it. Paul Simmonds and Swill formed Liberty Cage and I got on with life, moving to Surrey, always dragging my albums around with me.

Fast forward to 1996. After three years pretty much going nowhere, in ˈ94 I’d got a job in central London through an old friend, then gone freelance and my so-called career is back on track. I’m flicking through the racks in HMV, looking for anything I may have missed in the back catalogue, when I spot an unfamiliar cover. Never Born To Follow is a new album, the band having reformed and is much less rootsy. Like every Men They Couldn’t Hang album, there are lesser-known gems. Most fans would choose Denis Law And Ali MacGraw as the standout track but my choice is final track Jennifer Grey, Ricky McGuire’s bass driving through the song. In the same way that I associated Company Town with Milton Keynes, Jennifer Grey made me think of Stevenage, very much two towns, old and new.

Jennifer Grey, lived in the new town,
worked in the old town, danced in the clubs

Slightly bleak, the pulsing beat fading away to nothing, it’s haunting and leaves me wanting to know what happened to her.

Work and starting a family consumed my life for the next few years and before the ubiquity of internet forums, I somehow missed 2003’s The Cherry Red Jukebox, possibly because it wasn’t widely released. When I eventually got hold of a copy, Red Rocks Of Spain stood out for me, a beautiful acoustic song which I always play on hot days when I’m out on the seafront.

Now it’s 2010 and I was supposed to be going to my school reunion. 30 years since we all left but my wife has decided if we’re not going away then we’ll go to the Wickham Festival, staying in a hotel rather than camping. The reunion is ditched. The kids are excited about being able to wander around the site, as long as they stay together. I’m less than thrilled at having to drive back to the hotel every night as I can’t have a beer. I’m also pretty exhausted from work and fall asleep during the early acts but make sure I’ve secured a good spot for The Men They Couldn’t Hang’s set. The band take the stage, along with Bobby Valentino on fiddle, and storm through a set of old favourites. Later, they sign a copy of new CD, Devil On The Wind for me with its title track featuring Bobby’s swirling fiddle and lyrics of Mesopotamia and Nebuchadnezzar, written after the band had been asked to play in Cairo by the British Council. Who knows how their name came to be suggested for the trip but the audiences apparently went wild.

Next album, 2014’s The Defiant, was funded by Pledge Music and was a slow burner for me, in fact it gets better with age and has several tracks worthy of consideration for inclusion but Turquoise Bracelet Bay just sounds happy, no message or history, a good time song.

Finally, most recent album so far is Cock-A-Hoop, the band’s future being in doubt following Cush’s death in February 2021. Sharing lead vocals with Swill, it’s hard to imagine some of the ‘Cush songs’ being done by anyone else but the fans want them to continue so hopefully they’ll find a way. A proper return to form if less aggressive sounding than the early albums, it only took me two or three plays to embrace this. Being a (suburban) London boy at heart, my favourite track is King Street Serenade. The band formed in Shepherd’s Bush/Hammersmith, areas of West London that are familiar to me and the mentions of the Palais and the Odeon take me back to when I lived at my parents’ house, a few stops down the Piccadilly Line.

I started this with a list of 30 songs, while other people suggested alternatives they thought I’d overlooked, taking the number nearer 40, which I then slashed down to 20, the final 10 finalised as I wrote this, one or two being substituted at the last minute. Some bands burn brightly for one or two albums, The Men They Couldn’t Hang are still at it nearly 40 years later, playing live to familiar faces in the audience, who now bring their teenagers along with them, the kids enjoying it as much as their parents do. May we all grow old disgracefully.

 

 

 

 

 

 

TMTCH photo 5

Original bass player Shanne Bradley, Christmas 1985, Leeds Poly,
photo Mo Dixon

 

TMTCH photo 4

l-r: Bobby Valentino, Paul Simmonds, Phil “Swill” Odgers
– photo Dave Connolly

 

TMTCH photo 2

l-r: Paul Simmonds, Phil Odgers, Stefan Cush, Ricky McGuire,
Billy Abbott on drums – photo Dave Connolly

 

Men They Couldn't Hang poster

 

TMTCH photo 3

Stefan Cush (1960-2021)

 

The Men They Couldn’t Hang official website

The Men They Couldn’t Hang bandcamp

The Men They Couldn’t Hang facebook

The Men They Couldn’t Hang at Discogs

Swill’s Sunday Session – public facebook group

Phil Odgers/Liberty Cage bandcamp

Paul Simmonds/Naomi Bedford bandcamp

Shanne Bradley (Wikipedia)

John Babbacombe Lee aka The man they could not hang

The Men They Couldn’t Hang biography (Wikipedia)

Dave Connolly lives on the South Coast and has been messing about with projectors, speakers and cable since 1986 having long since given up any pretence of getting a proper job, hoping that his back and knees last until retirement. Since lockdown, he has managed to remove most of the discarded gaffer tape from the soles of his shoes and has stopped wearing black jeans and polo shirts most days.

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