“The First Time I Saw Angels” By The Penny Black Remedy
What makes a great song? The lyrics? The melody? The emotion? Maybe we should ask Simon Cowell, he seems to be quite the authority on popular music these days. A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing! A man who, like those foul, unfeeling dementors from the Harry Potter books, glories in decay and despair whilst he drains peace, hope and happiness out of the air around him. Observe how Cowell sanctioned Leona Alexandra McManus Burke’s successful attempt at sucking every good feeling, every happy memory from Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” by employing the musical equivalent of a “dementors kiss”. Recall the slack jawed incredulity you experienced whilst listening to this overwrought warble-fest which cleverly conspired to completely miss the point of the song and smoothed over any references to emotional and sexual bondage as “Team Cowell” somehow managed to imbue the song with the impact of being slapped with a limp, wet lettuce …But let’s not go there, let’s move away from this karaoke, variety club yodelling, for to paraphrase L.P Hartley “X- Factor is a foreign country, they do things differently there,” let’s stick with the theme of really great songs performed by people who actually believe in what they are singing about.
Could you imagine Johnny Cash informing us that all he wants, indeed all he really, really wants, is to “zigazig ha ?” In your wildest dreams could you really envision Joe Strummer tearing off his “Brigade Rosse” t-Shirt” to inform us, via the medium of Right Said Fred’s existential classic, that he is indeed “too sexy for my shirt, too sexy for my shirt/ So sexy it hurts”. Maybe Billy Bragg could inspire and move us from our torpor to storm the barricades by revisiting the classic anarcho punk clarion call of “Ag-a-doo-doo-doo, push pineapple, shake the tree/Aga-doo-doo-doo, push pineapple, grind coffee”. Hmm, it just doesn’t sit right does it? Essentially because the songs in questions have the emotional range of Hugh Grant and the longevity of a bottle of whiskey in Shane McGowan’s pantry on Saint Patrick’s night . Oh and did I mention the fact that the aforementioned “music” is complete and utter shite? No? Well it is, that is an unassailable truth and surely only a cretinous churl would disagree?
As ever in a sea of mass produced over-hyped crap there are always pearls to be found produced by people who genuinely love music for it’s own sake. From my first listen to The Penny Black Remedy’s debut album “No Ones Fault But Your Own” I was immediately struck by the quality of the song writing and with the thought that you really could imagine Messers Cash, Strummer, Bragg, Waits, MacGowan (insert legendary singer songwriters name here) all slipping anyone of these wonderful tunes into their set without skipping a beat. That’s a mark of how good this debut album is.
So who are The Penny Black remedy? Well, they are an international band of musicians comprised of British members Keith Thompson (lead vocals) and Steve Nelson (bassist), Croatian Marijana Hajdarhodzic (vocals, percussion), and from Holland, Wilco Van Eijk (drums / percussion / vocals). Self-described as “Balkan Country Punk Juggernauts”, the Penny Black Remedy have embraced and mixed a variety of genres to produce a staggeringly passionate and sophisticated album which is shot through with a rich seam of playful yet dark humour . It was vocalist Thomson who, shortly before leaving his native Scotland, first cultivated the idea of forming a band of international musicians in order to realise his dream hybrid of Country, Punk and Balkan Folk. After moving to London, a combination of serendipity and alcohol brought him into contact with exactly the sort of like minded, talented musicians who could make his idea’s become a reality. Thompsons superb song writing , part Johnny Cash, part Joe Strummer with nods to the likes of Nick Cave and The Bookhouse Boys shines through on an album that is literate, passionate, witty and whether it be about unemployment, brothels, love, death or film stars it never fails to be anything other than hugely entertaining. Like The Pogues at the height of their powers, “No Ones Fault But Your Own” is full of thoughtful prose combined with foot stomping tunes that would certainly provide the soundtrack to one hell of a hooley. It’s timeless and yet paradoxically very much of its age. So if you’re bored with unoriginal electro pap, or sick of being brainwashed into believing that music from a decade of greed, personal acquisition and selfishness (the 80’s) is somehow relevant as we look set to endure the worst recession since the 1930’s, then this musical collective who have a heart and a soul may well have the remedy to cure your ills. We spoke to lead singer and songwriter Keith to discover more about the bands musical philosophy.
VP: It is said you’d long nurtured the hope of forming a band of international musicians to produce a blend of Country, Punk and Folk. How did the dream become a reality?
KEITH: The most important thing was moving to London. I would never have met Marijana, Steve or Wilco otherwise. And that would’ve been disastrous. Also, London’s multiculturalism and vibrancy had always been phenomenally attractive to me. I grew up in Edinburgh, and every August, during the Edinburgh Festival, you are exposed to exotic and exiting new sights and sounds from around the globe. It made quite an impression, and very much made me want to join the circus, so to speak. I desperately wanted to approach those guys and schmooze them until they let me run away with them, but as I have a deeply irritating habit of procrastinating, by the time I’d plucked up the courage, the month had ended and they’d all left the city. As it turns out, most of the Festival performers live in London anyway.
VP: It is furthermore reported that drink played a large part in the band’s formation, how would you describe its role ?
KEITH: I wouldn’t say it was crucial, but it probably helped the others mind much less about my mildly tourettic tongue and limited social skills. Also, we all share a tendency to hug excessively after a few drinks, so we bond physically and unashamedly publicly on a very regular basis. It’s really quite tear-inducing lovely.
VP: Where did the band’s name come from?
KEITH: Whilst not wanting to dwell too much on an alcohol theme, it’s named after a fiendishly good bar hidden in the back streets of Edinburgh. It opens dangerously early in the morning, theoretically for postal workers finishing their night shifts, but ultimately attracts a massively varied and wild mix of people. I very much love the fact that it’s both a starting point and a final destination. And whenever I’ve been there, it’s always been with the idea that it was either going to kill me or cure me. It’s a wonderful and unique place.
VP: Your debut album “No One’s Fault But Your Own” is due for release on May 18th. It contains a variety of themes such as unemployment, brothels, love, and death. What sorts of things motivate and inspire you to write songs? Personal experiences? Daydreams? A mixture of both?
KEITH: I spend my whole life in a daydream. Which is a blessing artistically, but a curse socially. And yes, it’s true I am drawn towards the bleaker aspects of life. I find the ridiculousness of most things in life utterly fascinating. Which I suppose is where the humour in the songs comes from. They are fundamentally autobiographical, but much like myself, have a tendency to stretch the truth. I don’t think it’s healthy to be too honest.
VP: Musically, who would you say are your biggest influences?
KEITH: I am essentially an enormous fan of good music regardless of genre and have been my whole life. We all are. I think that’s why we’re pretty fearless in the face of categorisation. I do have an extremely obsessive fan-boy nature though, so I wouldn’t want to single out some specific acts and miss out others. If you want I could send you a very large list in alphabetical order?
VP: What have been your highlights so far as a group?
KEITH: There have been lots of very nice things, particularly over the past 12 months. Winning the 2008 UK Indy Award for Best Alternative Act was extremely exciting and felt great to be acknowledged at this level.. And recording the album in Zagreb last August was just a wonderful experience. We were all extremely focused considering the sweltering city temperatures. Our shows in Holland were also terrific and we’ve made many new friends over there.
VP: There’s an old truism in the biz that music will prove to be recession-proof; have you noticed any evidence of the downturn affecting the musical landscape? Are gigs harder to come by, are promoters less inclined to take a risk?
KEITH: Live music is actually one of the only profitable aspects of the music business these days, the internet obviously having changed everything concerning record sales, so I guess the competition might be getting greater gig-wise, although thankfully we haven’t really experienced it in a negative way. The promoters we deal with are generally more concerned about putting on the best possible night than worrying too much about numbers, which is nice. I do think there is a general trend that when the economy gets worse, the music actually gets better. It makes perfect sense to me that normally passive artists would want to start raising their voices and shaking their fists in protest. Also, I think gigs are, and always have been, a great way for people to lose themselves and forget about boring things like mortgages and credit card bills. There is also the comforting sense of unity that it provides. So if anything, I’m hoping that if the recession does indeed get worse, people will flock to venues to have a sing-song and a good old fashioned jump about. Denial can be a great healer.
VP: One song on the album deals with a wish that you could have met Marlon Brando, do you think Hollywood has a lack of real stars these days? Could you see a similar tribute being written about the reassuringly sane Tom Cruise in the near future?
KEITH: Ha-ha, to my knowledge there are much fewer proper rebels and mischievous antagonists such as Brando in Hollywood these days. I think it’s maybe because of the modern corporate and litigious nature of the business, people just aren’t allowed to be too dangerous or creatively disruptive. It seems that actors, with a very few exceptions, are not allowed to be anything more than sheeny-shiney, pouting robots, talking endless drivel about how their new movie is the best movie about a slightly difficult adolescence since the last one. I’m generalising, of course. I saw Milk recently, and Sean Penn was terrific. I’d be deeply upset if anything happened to him. Actually, that sounds weird, doesn’t it? Sorry.
VP: What do you make of the musical landscape in 2009, good, bad, indifferent?
KEITH: Truthfully, I think it’s actually a very exciting time, artistically speaking. People seem to be much less afraid of new and interesting music these days. In the past, people tended to stick to a specific genre of music, but thankfully that has changed. It’s probably because of the easy access to new music that the internet provides, people feel more comfortable taking risks. Also, we play a lot of gigs with unsigned bands and it always does amaze me just how much undiscovered quality is out there…. I just wish more people could see it.
VP: Five words to sum up your album…?
KEITH: Cheerful sing-a-longs about uncheerful things. (I hope using ‘sing-a-longs’ as one word isn’t cheating…)
“95 Charing CrossRoad” (Live) By the Penny Black Remedy