The Men They Couldn’t Hang
11 October 2021
An emotional and triumphant night as The Men They Couldn’t Hang return to their spiritual home.
I could agonise over this piece, I really could. I’m afraid this is not just a review of another brilliant performance, it’s much more personal and bound up with who I am, or was. If you are reading this then you will almost certainly be aware that Stefan Cush, heartbeat of The Men They Couldn’t Hang, was sadly taken from us in January of this year, plunging the band and their family of fans into mourning. All I can do is try to write what I saw, and felt, and hope it goes some way towards helping to share what was in many ways, a night of emotion and, of course, a Night To Remember. Before I do share what I saw, a word for the remaining and members who are in an extraordinarily difficult situation of honouring gigs booked before Covid, and trying to adjust to a live performance without one of the most effervescent, and much-loved, showmen that I have ever seen.
Lights down and stage time is usually the buzz I never tire of, I spent many a long hour wondering if I would ever experience it again during Covid. Tonight, however, it’s very different. As the band take their positions on stage, the adrenaline rush I‘ve experienced for forty years is weighed down with sadness. Here is the painful confirmation that Cush is no longer among us, but the message from the band is loud and clear. We are here to celebrate Cush, his guitar is on the stage and he is very much with us tonight. And so The Men They Couldn’t Hang embark on the near impossible job of performing live without Cush, with the traditional favourite Raising Hell.
From a personal perspective, the early part of the show is difficult to watch and engage with fully as, every now and then, something triggers a memory of who we are missing. If it’s like that for me, a mere onlooker, I can’t fully imagine what it is like for the band onstage. However, when Swill mentions the love the band have always had for Manchester and talks fondly of the legendary gigs in The International in 85 and 86, somehow everything feels right. The Men They Couldn’t Hang have always been as one with their audience and, looking around the room tonight, it is clear we are all in this together and, as Paul Simmonds says at the start, “It’s time to start living again”.
However, this being Remembrance Day, we have the challenge of Green Fields Of France, a song synonymous with Cush for all fans, now delivered by Swill. Despite being visibly moved, he delivers a beautiful version that seems to release the pressure in the room somewhat. Maybe things are also helped when the band introduce a new song, Red Kite Rising in tribute to Cush, written and sung by Paul Simmonds. A beautiful song, it is destined to become a crowd favourite.
Some of the Cush stories shared by the band are priceless and there will be no spoilers here. However, if you get the one about the Gold Rush single in 1986, you are in for a treat and the subsequent delivery of the song is all the sweeter.
As the gig passes, it’s as if the shackles are removed from the band and the audience and the climax is one of the most stirring I have ever witnessed. The Men They Couldn’t Hang have always done social commentary brilliantly entwined with historical stories, and finishing the set tonight with three of their best was an inspired move. The Ghosts Of Cable Street is followed by The Colours in a triumphant sing-along; well, it’s more like a bellow along to be accurate. Months of pent up grief and emotion seem to be exorcised as Swill brandishes his guitar and exhorts the crowd to sing along. It’s as if each note, each word of each song, is another step towards recovery for us.
All this, and then Ironmasters. The reception for one of the great songs is almost primal and it’s like 1986 again. I remember the lad who lost his glasses in the mosh pit in the International that year during Ironmasters, only to be presented with them, trampled and smashed at the end of the gig by a well-meaning comrade. I remember Cush bouncing around the stage as if gravity was a stranger to him. I can see it all and those who were there are here tonight, if not in person then strongly in spirit, it really is that kind of a night.
Band and crowd are as one as we move towards the encores, A Night To Remember and Walkin’ Talkin’ ending a difficult night that shows once again the power and intensity of music as a healing agent. The band have said they will sit down at the end of the tour to decide whether they want to carry on without their talisman and comrade. Judging by the audience reaction tonight, that seem to gain a life of its own, it should be the shortest conversation in history. The simple fact is The Men They Couldn’t Hang are needed now more than ever. Covid has made us all realise how magical it is to be able to share music at live gigs and, when you factor in the amazing energy and spirit that is conjured here in Manchester tonight, you realise it is more important than ever to carry on as long as we have the breath to sing along.
This cannot be the best I have ever seen The Men They Couldn’t Hang and I won’t try to say it is, as it never could be without Cush. However, having set themselves a huge challenge by playing live at all, the band, led by the indefatigable Swill who seems to be determined to do the work of his fallen colleague as well as his own, gives a scintillating performance. It is a triumphant return and a much-needed one. Some say that you are only really dead when no one talks about you anymore and if that is the case then, on nights like this, Cush will be alive for many years to come. Hanging around for a few minutes after the show ends, I instinctively turn to glance at the entrance to backstage and briefly I think I saw a familiar figure. There he is, emerging drink in hand (possibly his own), cheeky grin on his face and ready to work the room in his own inimitable style. No, thanks to the efforts of his bandmates, Cush is very much still here with us.
Thanks to Marvey Mills for the photo which was taken at Bostin IV recently