THE BALLAD OF JOHNNY LONGSTAFF
Released 7 December 2018
How to follow up the Folk Award winning Strangers album? No bother for those canny Folk Award winning, harmony singing, fascist bashing, risotto gnashing, graduates of Stockton Folk Club – The Young’uns.
It’s no secret that some of us at Louder Than War have a problem with The Young’uns – we love ‘em. A fact that’s not gone unnoticed by fellow admirer Stuart Maconie. On their last album, the award winning Strangers (you heard it first with our predictions on these very pages) Sean Cooney might have breached the wall to earn the LTW tag as “a premier league songwriter” but the trio have simply rewritten the rule book and done it again. Consider Strangers as an aperitif; an amuse-bouche series of vignettes before getting your teeth into the real main course. Upping their game with what we aptly called “the best thing they’ve done” following our taster of the show at Manchester’s Band On The Wall (reviewed here with the band interviewed here) back in April of this year, they’ve delivered a piece of work that’s surely going to be viewed as a high water mark. So, following on sharply from Dom Walsh’s preview we deliver our verdict on their latest work.
From an album of songs about different people, strangers but heroic in their own way, they’ve taken what seems in hindsight to be the logical path and re-emerged with an album that puts one of those people under the microscope to reveal a fascinating story. One man, heroic in his own way and his part in the fight against Fascism. It’s a subject matter close to the lad’s own hearts; taking up arms against Fascism is arguably their favourite topic and the gusto with which they reveal the story of Johnny Longstaff alongside his own words and accompanying paraphernalia which enriches the story, is done with grit and pride and not without a strong dose of what we called “enthralling, passionate, moving and occasionally hilarious.”
We’ve already set the scene for the album with Dom Walsh’s preview so how does the show translate to the recorded format? Off we go as young Johnny introduces himself and we follow his path from Stockton on the hunger march, carrying the coffin, to London and his eventual contribution to the British Battalion in Spain in his fight against Fascism and Hitler. It’s a story that finds the trio at their most lucid delivering a rapid fire early test of their memory and vocal skill in Hostel Strike as Johnny bides his time in London, waiting for a better day, before saying a fond and starkly emotional Tara To Tooting and the first appearance of an instrument, David Eagle’s piano. One of those Cooney compositions, like Dark Water, that’s packed to the rafters with poignant lines and the first emotional peak of the record.
David Eagle manages his usual comic interjections involving bogs (‘toilet’ bogs…), diarrhoea and sexual encounters of the first kind and then flicks the switch to a full on swelling pride of the intrepid Lewis Clive – if the arm were twisted, possibly the pick of the songs. The type of dashing hero you’d read about in a boy’s own comic. Expertly constructed, it’s the sort of chest pumped with pride old school song with the inevitable sad ending; this isn’t Disney.
A Mediterranean ambience runs through Aye Carmela with some almost but not quite Spanish (via Teeside) guitar and stop-start flamenco rhythms to set the mood, but as we approach the end of our tale, Johhny’s voice that provides the narrative and punctuates proceedings, takes on a stark realism and a hint of anger – “if they were expecting glory, they didn’t get any glory; if they were expecting to come back as heroes, they didn’t come back as heroes; if they were expecting any rewards, they didn’t get any rewards.”
It’s the combination of Johnny’s words and the Young’uns sensitive embellishment that leaves the set ending on a high. The Valley Of Jarama where we come full circle with both opening words and last words left to Johnny as he sings the lyrics alongside the lads himself, voice choked and almost but not quite, cracking with emotion. Of the poignant moments on the album, those final moment hit home as the most significant.
On reflection, what we’ve encountered is a musical history lesson – about what Hitler represented and the rise of Fascism and the fight against it, with Johnny’s most passionate rant ringing in the ears as he addresses “was it worth it? the answer was simple to me – yes!” Hard to believe in our troubled times, but the world has come a long way since then thanks to the belief and dedication of those men. Three (not so) young men from Teesside have also come a long way since what they’ve openly admitted were their drunken tuneless shouting days. They’ve left us with a sense of déjà vu. Get your money down now for the Folk Awards in 2019.
Listen to Cable Street from the album here:
You can pre-order the album here
The Young’uns website is here