Although he once penned an unambiguous paean to the demise of Margaret Thatcher, today Walthamstow-based singer- songwriter Darren Hayman thinks the art of political protest should be a more nuanced matter than simply wishing ill of those who hold opposing views. Having just released an album called Chants for Socialists, which sets to music rousing, partisan texts by 19th century artist, designer and Utopian visionary William Morris, here, Hayman takes us on a very personal navigation through the thorny business of political song- craft in general and Morris’s work in particular. “I wanted to construct a kinder, more inclusive political sentiment”, he confesses. “I found sorrow inside the Chants… I wanted them to be laments sung with regret and ennui.”
“Morris’s art is elegant and ornate but still retains a graphic simplicity, which always seems contemporary.”
About three years ago I was walking idly through the William Morris museum in Walthamstow, and I found a crumpled photocopied leaflet entitled ‘Chants for Socialism’. Sometimes an idea arrives on your lap fully formed, with a bow wrapped around it. All you have to do is execute it. In my head, I saw a record in a record shop rack with the title Chants for Socialists written on it. I imagined it being a bold and audacious record. It would be out of time but also of its time. Who writes ‘Socialist’ on the front of their record in 2015? I do. I was going to adapt William Morris’ lyrics to new music. I was going to make my first political album.
The first band that meant anything to me, politically, was The Damned. In retrospect I can see that they were closer to pop than punk: big cartoon characters with made-up names and nonsense lyrics. I could tell that punk was angry about something but it didn’t always seem to know what. I was angry at something and I didn’t know what. I was excited. I wanted to hit a guitar and shout at someone
My father shaped my political views. I have memories of watching footage of the 1984 miner’s strike and asking him why people were fighting. My dad gave me a clear guide as to who were the bad guys and why. It was like watching a western, but real and horrific. “But how can they do that? That’s unfair,” I asked. “Yes it is,” he answered.
My dad was overly simplistic in his explanation as to why the workers were being denied work and why the rich were getting richer. He was biased but completely convinced me. I would never present those arguments that way now. However, I still think everything he said was true.
I see socialism as being about fairness and an absolute faith in what people can be at their very best. Capitalism and the Right are interested in a culture of fear to protect an elite minority. I’ve always believed this. It’s best you know this before reading on.
Around 1987, I saw Billy Bragg play a Labour benefit in Barking and the next day I bought my first guitar. Bragg directed the blind rage of punk into something much more useful. He was doing something I thought I could do. He had just his guitar and his voice. I was excited by those limitations. I wanted to know what I would do with them. In the lead-up to the 1987 General Election, Bragg assembled a cabal of left-leaning musicians who aligned themselves to the Labour Party. They called themselves Red Wedge. They campaigned and played shows and stood alongside Labour leader Neil Kinnock in photos. It looked clumsy and awkward for both sides and the venture was doomed to failure. The Conservatives won.
When I went to art college, my working class politics were radicalised and I became interested in gay rights, feminism and anti-racism. I was heartbroken to discover these ideas didn’t sit alongside my father’s but I had found my own politics. I was also struck by the romanticism of the political troubadour. Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger were heroic figures, to me, but I started to find their rhetoric tiring. I played my Billy Bragg records less often.
The music I released in the late 1990s was not political in any immediate or overt way. My songs were about love and issues of the heart. In recent years I have made albums about things like the English Civil War and crumbling outdoor swimming pools, but they’re all filters laid over my true intent. I sing about what people have always sung about, getting lonely, getting laid and getting jealous.
I’ve always hoped that my politics came through in my songwriting in that I tried to make peoples’ stories as real as possible. It is my intention to describe class and place accurately. I’m trying to create a world in song that has cause and consequence. In that sense, I thought the songs were political, but then again, in that sense, what isn’t political?
I saw this subtler political songwriting mirrored in others, too. Britpop saw a rise in colloquial words and regional accents. Brand names and slang invaded the charts. Whether it was swagger of The Streets or the whimsy of The Divine Comedy, the class divide was implicit in the subject matter of the songs. The slogans were gone but the political could be found in the allegorical.
I was still tempted by a direct form of political song, and in 2000 I wrote a nostalgic hymn for people of my age and political leaning about the imagined death of Margaret Thatcher. I really regret writing ‘The Day That Thatcher Dies’ now. The song is petty and sneering. I like the verses where I sing about my school days: an outsider amongst my young Tory friends. It is there that I find the political inside the personal; however, the chorus was nothing but a frustrated tirade that was akin to the worst spite from the football terrace. The song had a nostalgic appeal for greying lefties, but I felt bad soon afterwards for writing it. Who wins any argument by wishing death on someone? Pete Wylie wrote a song with the same title years later and I’m happy for people to think it was his idea and not mine. I didn’t laugh on the day that Thatcher died, but I did hear my own song played unwittingly to me and some other drinkers in a Walthamstow pub. She might have had the last laugh.
In recent years my records have become increasingly historical. I made an album about the Essex Witch Trials of the 17th century, during the English Civil Wars. Once again, my politics were there if you looked hard enough. I was thinking about how the fear and paranoia of war is felt far away from the front line – how in times of crisis we turn against the outsider in society. Yet in an interview I was still asked what my response to the new age of coalition politics was. Social media meant my stance was known but I was still unable to put it directly into song. My fear of the polemic and my love of the past made me feel unable to write directly about politics. I felt I had let the interviewer down, though. I felt something was expected of me.
As I walked home from the William Morris Gallery I thought about how to adapt his lyrics.
William Morris is hard to escape in Walthamstow. His wallpaper designs festoon the shops and restaurants. His name adorns street signs and pubs. I was aware of his art and design work. I knew that his role in arts and crafts lead him to be interested in the ethics of production. Now I was learning about his more overtly political later life and the formation of the Socialist League. I kept coming back to the title ‘Chants for Socialists’. It was a title that marched boldly. I wanted its contents to have similar fire in its belly.
The idea behind Morris’s Chants for Socialists was that the lyrics had not been assigned melodies and were to be sung to the popular tunes of the day. Only in two cases did he suggest a melody. I imagined the pamphlet as a hammer behind glass with the words ‘Break glass in emergency’ written underneath. We live in times of emergency now, don’t we? Perhaps we always need a William Morris.
Morris’s art is elegant and ornate but still retains a graphic simplicity, which always seems contemporary. His prose is different. Frequently pretty and beautifully verbose as it is, the syntax certainly isn’t timeless. The sentences are stuck in their time and can be elliptical and their meaning obscure. Also, in sheer length, these chants were minor epics. Songs had multiple uses, then, and there was no pressure to keep the tunes under three minutes to get airplay. However, I found the song ideas themselves concise and captivating. They were ideas I wish I’d had. ‘Down Amongst the Dead Men’ is a much wryer and more intelligent death wish than my own Thatcher song. I imagined it sung as a rousing drinking anthem, a song championing virtue and clearly drawing the lines between them and us. Morris’s words were combative in intent but ultimately redemptive.
‘Come, comrades, come, your glasses clink; Up with your hands a health to drink, The health of all that workers be, In every land, on every sea. And he that will this health deny, Down among the dead men, down among the dead men, Down, down, down, down,
Down among the dead men let him lie!’
‘A Death Song’ is about the loss of Alfred Linnell, who died at the hands of a policeman during a demonstration in Trafalgar Square. The resonance with the death of Ian Tomlinson, at the 2009 anti-G20 summit protest, is clear. I had been looking for the merging of the political and the personal and here Morris manages it deftly. His grief is clear to us all. His anger is undeniable.
‘Not one, not one, nor thousands must they slay, But one and all if they would dusk the day.’
Amongst his long stretches of prose, Morris is capable of minimal words that cut deep. On ‘The Day is Coming’ he provides three simple words which some up the endless heartache of any long and hard-fought struggle. ‘We will it, we will it.’
As well as being a window into the politics of 150 years ago, these words resonated with the politics of my adolescence. They are naïve, perhaps, but still express a broad truth, that the world is unfair and that the weak could overcome if only they stick together and hold true. I felt Morris was saying things that I couldn’t. I wanted to construct a kinder, more inclusive political sentiment than in my previous attempts. I found sorrow inside the chants. I certainly knew that some of these songs should sound triumphant but I also wanted some of them to be laments sung with regret and ennui.
I thought hard about how best to update and condense the words. I felt, somehow, that I had Morris’s approval. He was a communicator and orator. I was sure he would like his ideas to be presented in the most easily comprehensible manner. However, I was careful that no idea should be corrupted. I wanted only his views to be in the songs. I wanted to be able to put his name on the record without regret or hesitation.
Sometimes it was simply a case of streamlining and cherry picking the words. Where Morris wrote:
‘Clad is the year in all her best, The land is sweet and sheen, Now Spring with Summer at her breast, Goes down the meadows green’
‘Dress the year in her best, Spring with summer pinned on her dress.’
Despite being titled ‘Chants’, the lyrics have very little repetition in them. Morris peppers the pages with potential choruses; the aforementioned ‘We Will It’ line is used only once by Morris, but it creates a compelling mantra when sung over and over. Likewise, the lines in ‘The Voice of Toil’: ‘Are we not stronger than the rich and the wronger, when day breaks over our dreams?’ are too good to be sung just once.
I recorded the songs in three of William Morris’s homes and recruited singers from local communities to form choirs. People volunteered and were encouraged to join in without discrimination. Ability was secondary to trying to find a sense of community. I wanted the recording of the album to be as inclusive as the words. Initially, the idea was for my socialist choirs to sing out loud and make the windows of Morris’s homes rattle. Hidden in the stark black and white artwork of the album was the legend ‘agitate and organise’; however, I came to realise I didn’t want a rallying call. I found myself asking the singers to sing more quietly. The faith in the words ‘We Will It’ became more sorrowful when sung softly.
For me these aren’t campaigning songs, they are songs of solace and commiserations for old lefties. In looking at Morris’s words of 150 years ago, I feel I have actually found a collection of hymns for the lost hope of my adolescent self, from the art school days of marches and political conviction.
It’s possible that we do still need political songs to help us agitate and organise, but maybe we also need songs for nights of defeat. I want only that these songs should be useful. Chants for Socialists is the title that ignited this project, but perhaps what I’ve made here, really, are Laments for Socialists.
DARREN HAYMAN’S CHANTS FOR SOCIALI STS IS AVAILABLE NOW ON THE WIAIWYA LABEL .