Will The Men They Couldn’t Hang Ride Again? Asks Richard Chorley, as he says Farewell to Stefan Cush.
Backstage, Cambridge Folk Festival 1986.
A slim young man in his 20s stares at an interviewer, who is asking him about his band’s impact at the festival. ”You’re not the first of the new style bands to play here” says the man. Quick as a flash, Stefan Cush interrupts with ” We’re the best”. Cush had every right to be cocky at that moment. The Men They Couldn’t Hang had just finished a very well received set, at a world renowned Folk Festival and had followed none less than the great Bo Diddley onto its esteemed stage. The band were riding high and their performance of ”The Green Fields of France” – now immortalised on a grainy Youtube video – was a truly memorable one.
Two weeks ago, deep in the heart of Dylan Thomas territory, Cush was finally laid to rest in a grave alongside his late Father, Harry.. Members of ‘The Men’ were at the graveside and helped out with pall bearing duties. The Welsh air filled with songs from Johnny Cash, The Clash and The Pioneers early Reggae classic ”Long Shot kicky Bucket”, selections Cush would no doubt have thoroughly approved of.
Male mourners threw whiskey on the coffin, with the Women throwing flowers. It was the end of an era which stretched back 37 years and one in which Cush had played a huge role. That as charismatic onstage duel frontman with Phil Odgers, for a band who can proudly lay claim to one of Britain’s most loyal and passionate fanbases. TMTCH’s appeal stretched way beyond these shores. The enormous reaction of grief and sadness which greeted Cush’s passing, came from every area of the British Isles, Ireland, Europe and America. The sense of widespread shared ”ownership” of loss that accompanies the passing of publicly well loved figures, is not an easy thing to process for family members. As the son of one of the two original English Corn Circle Artists, I can testify to that. Cush’s son Stanley however, took all that in his stride and in numerous social media contributions, conducted himself with highly admirable dignity and style. His Father would have been truly proud.
The scale and intensity of that mass reaction, was a fitting tribute to the spirit and stances of a band that hold a unique and cherished position in terms of radical British post-Punk culture. If there were ‘Grammy’s’ awarded for integrity and authenticity, TMTCH would have a shed piled up with them. In his LTW obituary, Dave Jennings wrote powerfully and poignantly of the impact the band had on him at Manchester shows, early in their career. His words I am sure, captured perfectly the feelings of inspiration and affection, held in the hearts of thousands upon thousands of their fans. TMTCH have in their lengthy career, embodied the passions and convictions of a generation and Cush strode through those decades like a mighty talisman. A passionate Socialist and World Champion party animal, he was a massive personality who never ever lost his sense of appreciation and bonding with the band’s fans. He was a man who touched many, many lives deeply and British Counter Culture has lost one of its great voices. A deeply human voice.
Rob Spencer was in lead Songwriter Paul Simmonds words, ”The Robin Banks of ‘The Men They Couldn’t Hang’. Rob saw everything”. As roadie, close friend and confidante of ‘The Men’ over so many years, Rob is a virtual goldmine of stories, anecdotes and reflections on the band’s career and their combined and individual personalities.
Just after Cush’s passing, I spent a long afternoon talking to Rob, whose recollections were emotional, profound and ultimately, enormously humorous. We talked of Paul and Phil’s original Southampton Punk outfit ”Catch 22′, the evolution that brought about TMTCH, Cush’s arrival into the band in the early Shepherds Bush days and many aspects concerning their subsequent creative journey. An in-depth book on their career is well overdue and when it arrives at a hopefully not too far in the future date, Rob’s contributions will be invaluable. Asked about his first impressions of Cush in the band, he was adamant that he could tell it was a pivotal moment right from the start. ”Cush just brought this tangible spark, an energy force which you could see and feel. He was just one of those guys born to do it and you could tell nothing was going to stop him achieving what he did. It was the making of the band, that. The combination of Paul’s songwriting genius, Swill’s (Phil) rich vocal tones and the gravelly power of Cush’s voice created the perfect chemistry and the onstage rapport between the two singers became an incredibly magnetic aspect. Few bands have ever matched those human elements and the atmosphere it all created at live gigs helped to create TMTCH legend”. Those energies are preserved in another magical Youtube video, which shows the band again performing ”The Green Fields”, at the ‘Town and Country Club’ in London, back in the eighties. The joyous, raucous stage invasion by their fans, is a beautiful thing to behold and dramatically emphasises Rob’s comments.
Asked to name his favourite song from a long and weighty catalogue, Rob thought for a few moments and then nominated ”Shirt of Blue”. It was a great choice, but his response to my next question was world class. ”So, I know it’s a mighty hard task, but if you had to select the most memorable moment you remember from all those years with Cush, what would it be?”.
It did not take Rob long. ”There are just so many fantastic moments, but I think the number one has to be the time when we met James Brown face to face backstage. It was the only time I ever saw Cush gobsmacked and totally lost for words. Mind you, I kept thinking to myself, please, please don’t start singing to him!”. The imagined spectacle of Cush breaking into an impromptu version of ”Get up offa that thing” in front of the ‘Godfather of Soul’, had us howling with laughter, with Rob concluding ”Thank god he didn’t!”.
Diamond studded tales from true days of grace and wonder.
In their ‘Catch 22’ days, Paul and Phil twice supported The Clash, experiences which were in themselves life-shaping and undoubtedly contributed greatly to the ethos and spirit of TMTCH. In one recent social media thread, a fan told of how he once asked Cush ”What music do you recommend I listen to?”. Cush replied ”Just listen to London Calling, it’s all on there.”
As songwriters, TMCH followed the radical Clash route right back to Woody Guthrie and as the Punk era faded, their 3. forays into a folk-fusion influenced sound paid richly embroidered creative dividends. Paul is a lifelong fan of Bob Dylan and over the years his thematic canon has explored a treasure trove of socio-political themes and legends. Those deep lyrical delving’s, combined with a live show that has matured like fine human wine, have ensured the long lasting relevance of TMTCH and Rob Spencer agreed with me that in examining the contemporary music scene, it is hard to conceive of another young British band today, casting such long extended footsteps into the 21st century. Bands like this are extremely special entities and the torch they carry is not one picked up easily, to put it mildly. These guys have walked the walk, big-time. Over the years, a number of memorable performances from the band remain etched in my mind.
The first time Paul and Phil returned to Southampton along with Jon, Shann and Cush, it was to play the now sadly departed Maple Leaff/Polygon Social Club. Their Punk look had departed, to be replaced by checked shirts and denim. Phil was now strumming an acoustic guitar passionately and it was a powerful performance of declaration. The band carried a definite swagger and I can still clearly remember thinking that they had hit on a winning recipe.
Many years later I had the privilege of introducing them at ‘The Tabernacle’ in Notting Hill, when they headlined a 10th Anniversary Joe Strummer tribute concert. They gave a truly memorable performance that night on Clash homeland turf, with the poignancy being underlined by the presence of many of Joe’s friends and associates in the crowd.
Eight years previous to that, Paul and Cush played as a duo at our ‘South of England Memorial Concert’ for Joe, which was headlined by Billy Bragg. Armed with just two acoustic guitars they gave a superb rendition of some of their most renowned songs and joined Billy and members of other bands that performed, for a rousing finale of ”Garageland” that nearly tore the roof off.
Ultimately though, the absolute triumph which was their own 30th Anniversary gig at Shepherds Bush Empire in April 2014, represents for me, their finest moment. The place was heaving with their most passionate fans and from the first opening acappella sequence, ‘The Men’ delivered a momentous show which encapsulated all their creative qualities to the maximum. True to form, their relationship with that devoted fanbase, ensured that afterwards at the post-gig party, Paul Simmonds joked that given the amount of people they had put on the guest list, my band had probably made more money than they had busking to the crowd outside! It was a truly great night which anybody who witnessed it, will never forget. A sublime gig.
A few days ago, I had a good chat with Paul. I was pleased to find him in an upbeat, positive frame of mind and in among his descriptions of Cush’s funeral and usual astute political observations, the inevitable question of what the future holds for ‘The Men’ arose. For Paul and Phil, the band has been their whole life and represents a musical partnership dating back to their late teens. Now they have lost a Comrade and friend whom they loved deeply. There have of course been discussions and more are scheduled for the end of March. I’m not going to predict what the outcome of those talks will be and can only comment from a personal perspective. Nobody could ever replace the mighty Cush in ‘The Men’ and it’s not something I can imagine the guys even remotely conceiving. But in this day and age, this country needs bands like ‘The Men They Couldn’t Hang’ badly. They stand not only as a living breathing testament to the finest aspects of radical British Rock’n’Roll, but as a crucial pillar of the present artistic bulwark against the contemporary Right Wing political climate. They are representatives of the original Punk generation, who caught and absorbed the messages of Strummer-Jones and wielded them into a lifelong adventure of musical rebellion and resistance. With another three years of bleak Tory rule and the consequences of Brexit and the economic devastation from Covid 19 still lying ahead ominously, it is clear we face an increased level of political authoritarianism in Britain. With those dark realities, comes the requirement for bands and artists who will face such developments head on. ‘The Men’ have weathered many storms over the years, but in this era, we are badly in need of some new anthems. And to borrow the words of another writer, ”the first generation in history to be hipper than their kids”, might well have to lead the chorus. Over to you, chaps..
In all truth, the fact that ‘The Men’ never became a multi-million selling mega-band, has probably stood them in good stead. But some things are worth far more than a wall of gold and platinum discs. How many people have shared stages with the likes of Diddley, The Clash, Bowie, Van Morrison and countless others and would still have legions of their fans clamouring to see them ‘live’ four decades after they first formed? Most importantly, TMTCH do not pay lip service to the idea of Rock’n’Roll. A passionate creative fire still burns inside Paul and Phil and I have a serious conviction that were they to make another album, it might well be one on a par with their finest previous work. That is no disrespect to Cush, whose influence and colossal energy they would undoubtedly carry into the studio with them, were that project to materialise. One thing is for certain, TMTCH are far more than a ”Nostalgia Band”. If they do have more to say, we can rest assured it will not be delivered cabaret-style.
Cush has now sadly departed but he left his mark in no uncertain terms. The noose may have finally caught up with one of ‘The Men’, but now the others have to choose as to whether they ride again. They will know better than anybody that the vast majority of their fans will be hoping they do. But when the initial grieving dust has settled and final decisions are made, I have a gut feeling that the guys just might hear the sound of a resolute, passionate voice echoing from a Welsh churchyard.
”Get on Up!!”. .
RIP Stefan Cush Musical Class Warrior.
Richard David Chorley ‘CLASH AGAINST THE RIGHT‘ March 2021. .
The Men They Couldn’t Hang Website
Out Now on Bandcamp – Shun Fame – Stefan Cush Sings Stefan Cush Songs. All proceeds will go to Cush’s wonderful Children, Stanley, Joe and Imogen.