Jon Ewing

Jon Ewing
After graduating from the University of Keele in England with a degree in Politics and American Studies, Jon worked as editor of a music and entertainment magazine before spending several years as a freelance writer and, with the advent of the internet, a website designer, developer and consultant. He lives in Reading, home to one of the world's most famous and long-running music festivals, which, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, he had attended every year since 1992.

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Stand For Your Land – O’KEEFE

28 January 2020

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Some protest singers are inspired by a hardship that affects them individually or a universal injustice that affects us all. For Erin O'Keefe and Colin Gilmore, the inspiration for the brooding, melancholic country-folk song Stand For Your Land came from respect. Respect for the solemn, peaceful dignity of the water protectors of the Great Sioux Nation who, in 2016, defied the might of oil company Energy Transfer Partners, the US government and the US Army to stand up for their right to clean water and to preserve the sanctity of the Missouri River.

"Another sun up," sings Erin O'Keefe, with lyrics she describes as "blunt and focused", "another dollar in the pocket of a man who sits real high up in his office and thinks he owns the air we breathe".

 Large oil and gas pipeline projects have been fast-tracked in the US ever since a directive issued by President Obama in 2012 and none have been without controversy. But the Dakota Access pipeline became the focus of national and worldwide attention because it passed within a mile upstream of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Indian reservation. The pipeline threatened the purity of their water supply, the irrigation of farmlands and most importantly a river that is sacred to religious beliefs that predate Christianity and Islam by centuries.

 While activists gathered in their thousands on the border or North and South Dakota to protect the unarmed civilian protestors being confronted by private security armed with attack dogs and mace, 1,200 miles away "watching the insanity" from Austin Texas, Erin and fellow Austin singer-songwriter Colin Gilmore could see the shadow of things to come in their own state.

"Standing Rock felt really relevant to us," she says. Why? Because, whilst one might reasonably imagine that the billionaire CEO of a pipeline company would be the least fitting appointee to a public office entrusted with the welfare of the environment, that was just what was happening on Erin's doorstep in Texas. Kelcy Warren of Energy Transfer Partners - the very same company behind the Dakota Access project - had recently been appointed to the Texas State Parks and Wildlife Commission, greasing the wheels for the introduction of the company's next big pipeline project which would cut through Big Bend National Park. "We felt with them in spirit. We wanted to say something to them - and to every citizen of planet Earth - that the stakes are really high and it's important to stand together to fight the greed and corruption that is destroying the only home we know."

 "The chosen route of the Dakota Access Pipeline also shows the seemingly never-ending racism and oppression of the people native to this land," Erin continues. "Not only did the pipeline pose a threat to the Standing Rock Reservation's drinking and irrigation water, but construction was slated to go through sacred burial grounds - lands that were owned by the Lakota Indigenous People via The Fort Laramie Treaty signed by the US Government in 1851. The treaty was ignored. It was infuriating to watch from across the country, but also incredibly inspiring. The protesters did end up gaining a lot of support and eventually - after some fantastic guerrilla journalism - mainstream media coverage."

 Like many artists, Erin moved to Austin in 2011, drawn by what she calls "a massive concentration of talent". But the town is changing rapidly. Erin compares it to New York City, which in the mid-20th Century was an affordable destination for entrepreneurs and artists seeking their fortune but by the end of the Century "opportunists" had moved in to "buy up/develop the place like a Monopoly board".

 "Austin is somewhere in the middle of that capitalist growth of a metropolis," she thinks. "Much of the sources of art and culture that made the city desirable in the first place get displaced. It's pretty uncomfortable. But it appears to be an inevitable pattern of growth for an art-made city in an all-swallowing capitalist economy. It's not fun to watch or experience it in real time."

 It's not hard to make the comparison between the undermining of Austin's urban bohemia and the disregard for religious beliefs, national heritage and environmental safety in the Dakotas. Both could be seen as a symptom of what Erin describes as the "capitalist/imperialist attitude in American business and leadership that 'money now' is always more important than 'natural resources later'." Seen in that way, Stand For Your Land could be a song for anyone whose home is under threat, whether from an oil billionaire's pipeline or from gentrification by property developers.

"With Stand For Your Land, we wanted to give an anthem to everyone standing up to the destruction of our environment at the hands of greed," concludes Erin. "It was a pretty lonely battle that Standing Rock had to fight in the dead of winter. They sacrificed quite a bit to protect our water and for land that is rightfully theirs. We wanted to create something intangible - that could be summoned or sung at any time - that could remind everyone that we're not alone in this very real fight to protect our environment and natural resources."

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About the curator: Jon Ewing

After graduating from the University of Keele in England with a degree in Politics and American Studies, Jon worked as editor of a music and entertainment magazine before spending several years as a freelance writer and, with the advent of the internet, a website designer, developer and consultant. He lives in Reading, home to one of the world's most famous and long-running music festivals, which he has attended every year since 1992.

Glad to Be Gay – Tom Robinson Band

20 January 2020

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In the week of Valentine's Day 1978, an anthemic and yet shocking protest song on a 4-track live EP sneaked under the radar to become a Top 20 hit in Britain. It was a song in which The Tom Robinson Band shamed a nation with a first-hand account of the abject indignity of being gay in 1970s Britain.

 The song is pregnant with irony. After all, who could be “glad” to be born this way, when it means a lifetime of prejudice and discrimination, a life in which you may be rejected by your own family, have your career cut short by innuendo and in which the establishment has a legal right to intrude on your privacy?

 And brilliantly, rather than lash out at the bigots, Tom Robinson uses their own words to undermine them. "The British Police are the best in the world," begins the first verse as Tom tells an "unbelievable" story about the persecution of beating of innocent gay men, ending with a denial that calls to mind Nazi wartime collaborators and sends a shiver down the spine: "I don't believe that sort of thing happens here".

 "I guess the song Glad to be Gay was a sarcastic retort," Tom explained in 2017 in an interview by William Brougham, "saying: 'Sing if you’re glad to be gay, if that’s even fucking possible'. Which was really what the verses were setting out to do, was detail the reasons why you might not be. But funnily enough, once it came out as a single, and was released by EMI records and got into the charts - it was on an EP that got to Number 18 in the chart, which was great - once it had become a hit record, people started to regard it, despite the sarcasm, as a celebratory song... And that was okay, too."

 “‘Glad to be gay’ was a slogan in the mid-70s London LGBT scenes," Tom continues in the William Brougham interview, "and it was a little yellow badge that pre-dated the song which you used to see people wearing at gay discos - in the old sense of gay, which was every letter of LGBTQI, all-inclusive. And at the time there was quite heavy oppression by the London police. The Metropolitan Police were hauling in all kinds of minority groups, so black people were are getting picked up on suspicion of anything and the “sus” laws which allowed the police to arrest you on suspicion of pretty much anything were being applied against gay men as well, particularly, because they could get soft arrests by going in and busting gay clubs and pubs, because the victims of the arrest weren’t likely to contest it because they didn’t want publicity at that time."

 In the introduction to the original live version, Tom sarcastically "dedicates” the song to the World Health Organization, which at the time had officially declared homosexuality to be a disease and, in the dehumanising way that bureaucracies so often do, allocated it a number: 302.0. That was the background to which TRB entered the charts.

 In the mid-1970s, the shame of being exposed as gay was devastating for people who had been forced to live a lie in order to avoid physical harm and social ostracism.

 It had been only around a decade since the Sexual Offences Bill 1967 had decriminalised "homosexual acts" in private between men aged over 21. Homosexuality at the time was characterised as morally unacceptable by the country's institutions, including almost all branches of church, school and media. It may be hard to imagine for younger people today that even in show business the likes of Freddie Mercury were hiding in plain sight - refusing to speak publicly about his sexuality because of the damaging effect it would have on Queen's career.

 "At the time it looked like commercial suicide," admits Tom about the release of the single. "And it certainly affected record sales adversely".

 "There was a woman called Dorien Davis who had a sticker put on it in the BBC library that said it was not to be played," he recalls, bitterly, "and she kept stickers on my tunes for the next five or six years, so nothing of mine got played on Radio One for a fair while after that. John Peel ignored the sticker and played it anyway, bless him. I think he said: 'This is Tom’s most trenchant offering to date'."

 The lyrics have changed over the years. When he settled down with a woman to raise a family, Robinson added a verse that sought to convey that he was not obliged to explain or justify the complexities of his sexuality because "a label is no liberation at all". And most notably, in the wake of the worldwide tragedy of AIDS, he added a verse beginning "And now there’s a nightmare they blame on the gays / It’s brutal and lethal and slowly invades" and ending with: "The message is simple and obvious, please / Just lay off the patients and let’s fight the disease".

 "Glad to be Gay was always a piece of reportage," says Tom. "It was like saying: 'This is what's going on at the time in '76. By the time I performed it in '78, already a verse or two had changed. And by the time I did it for the Secret Policeman's Ball in '79, again another verse or two had crept in. So, you never wanted a song like that to become a museum piece, where it was just reporting on old injustices when there was so many more bloody new ones on the way. And of course by the time AIDS came along, there were whole new rafts of reasons why the song was important, and why it was important to keep it up-to-date. And a friend of mine has actually very kindly built a website at where he chronicles all the different versions."

"It’s only in retrospect that it’s held its own and come to be seen as something that people remember and that has been significant for people," he concludes. "But at the same time, if it made a difference to some people's lives, and it helped soundtrack the struggle just through the accident of having got into the Top 20, then that was a good thing and I’m so proud all these years later. I think more proud of that than a couple of records that were bona fide Top 10 singles."

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The Lunatics (Have Taken Over the Asylum) – Fun Boy Three

13 January 2020

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"Nothing's changed!" singer Terry Hall told Uncut magazine in 2019 when he re-recorded Fun Boy Three's hit record The Lunatics (Have Taken Over the Asylum) for The Specials' comeback album. "When we wrote it, we had Reagan and Thatcher and we thought things couldn't get worse. Now we've got Trump and May!"

 In a review of the song on, Dave Thompson writes that "everything about The Lunatics is drenched in oppressive atmospheres, from the whop of the baton beats and the thumping of the bass, to the ominous synth that mournfully accompanies the trio as they lament the fall of civilization and the rise of dictatorial democracy."

 It's hard to imagine that 40 years ago Americans were being ridiculed for electing an actor famous for playing cowboys in Westerns to be leader of the free world. By comparison to the current incumbent, Ronald Reagan seems eminently qualified. But in 1981, when this song by three former members of ska pioneers The Specials charted in the UK Top 20, it seemed the people in charge of our fates on both sides of the Atlantic were the least suitable to hold that office, not to mention the sinister Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. And with the spectre of nuclear war hanging like a dark cloud over the northern hemisphere, there was a very real fear that one of these "lunatics" would start World War III.

 However, global imperialism notwithstanding, the long-lasting legacy of the Thatcher-Reagan years was a radical economic policy known as Reaganomics.

 "The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom," President Ronald Reagan said told an interviewer from Reason magazine in 1975, "and this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is."

 And whilst that sounds plausible in theory, the practice of neoliberalism led ultimately to the crash of 2008 and has thus been discredited, according to economist Professor Joseph Stiglitz. This libertarian deregulation of industry resulted in the creation of monopolies in which prices have risen faster than wages, making all of us poorer, he wrote in The Guardian in 2017. At the same time, company chief executives have grown greedier, taking money from their own companies rather than reinvesting it in assets or employee salaries.

 “The ideas have now been shown to be wrong, to have failed for over a third of a century," wrote Stiglitz. The response to the credit crunch was austerity - to drastically reduce public spending in order to clear debt. But "the evidence... is very clear" that austerity has the opposite effect. "It is remarkable that there are still governments, including here in the UK, that still believe in austerity," he mused.

 At the risk of putting words into his mouth, he might have gone on to say that the lunatics had taken over the asylum.

 The analogy is attributed to a film producer in 1919, commenting on the founding of movie studio United Artists by Hollywood stars Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. And whilst the word "lunatic" is now an unacceptably derogatory word to describe people with mental health problems, the phrase persists as shorthand for doomed and incompetent leadership. But as someone who has suffered from depression all of his life, Terry Hall might argue he has earned the right to use the L word.

 "People who don`t know me think I'm miserable," he is often quoted as having said. "People who do know me know I'm miserable".

 In The Lunatics, Hall characterises world leaders as "a clinic full of cynics who want to twist the peoples' wrist" and the song worries about the nuclear threat and the needless suffering of developing nations. But it's in the extended outro where he spells out what he fears most about the ideology shared by Reagan and Thatcher.

 "Take away my family," he sings, "Take away the right to speak, take away my point of view, take away my right to choose."

 A year earlier, humourist Douglas Adams had pithily outlined the perennial problem of finding the right person to become President in his book The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

 "One of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them," he wrote. "To summarise: it is a well-known fact that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. To summarise the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job."

 "When you look at Reagan you think there can’t be a weirder president," Hall is reported to have said, "but then you see Donald Trump and you realize there is a weirder president."

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About the curator: Jon Ewing

After graduating from the University of Keele in England with a degree in Politics and American Studies, Jon worked as editor of a music and entertainment magazine before spending several years as a freelance writer and, with the advent of the internet, a website designer, developer and consultant. He lives in Reading, home to one of the world's most famous and long-running music festivals, which he has attended every year since 1992.

Stop the Cavalry – Jona Lewie

17 December 2019

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A Christmas hit in 1980, peaking at No.3 in the UK chart and winner of a prestigious Ivor Novello Award, Stop the Cavalry was an anti-war song for a world living in the shadow of the bomb, harking back to the slaughter of British soldiers on foreign battlefields, pawns in a game played by generals far from the front lines.

 Yet in spite of its dark inspiration, the song's upbeat tune, "Dub-a-dub-a-dum" singalong hook, tubular bells and oompah brass arrangement have made it a celebratory festive perennial. So much so that in 2009, Jona Lewie told the BBC candidly that the song is responsible for about 50% of his annual income.

 Lewie has made no secret of the fact that Stop the Cavalry was not written as a Christmas song. In fact, when the first lyrics came to him he was thinking about the ill-fated Charge Of The Light Brigade during the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War in 1854 - a notable victory for the Russians against the British in which more than a hundred men of the Light Brigade of the British cavalry were mowed down and many others grievously wounded because a miscommunication on the battlefield sent them needlessly to their doom.

 "Lyrically it just ventured... into the world of war and peace," he told interviewer Lewis Nichols for Penwith Radio in 2010. "In the lyrics there's one line that refers to the soldier wanting to be home for Christmas and so I think the record company thought the best way to market this particular record would be to release it at Christmas time."

 A pop video to accompany the song mixed stills from the Great War with footage of Lewie singing "in the trenches", forever creating the misconception that Stop the Cavalry was written about World War I. But it was neither about World War I or Christmas and indeed the melody of Lewie's instantly-recognisable Christmas hit was lifted from a tune that celebrated midsummer - Hugo Alfvén's Swedish Rhapsody No.1, aka Midsummer Vigil.

 Of course, it would be an exaggeration to say he was not thinking of 20th Century conflict when Lewie wrote Stop the Cavalry. After hitting on the initial lyrical concept, he started to include "various war time scenarios and predicaments" from throughout modern history, as he told Russell A Trunk of Exclusive Magazine in an interview republished on Lewie's own website.

 "Its main concern was from the point of view of just one soldier who would be cold and hungry on the war front, say for example, in France in the trenches in the Great War of 1914-18," he explains, "while the men who started the war, the leaders of the countries etc, were eating great food back home and sitting near their warm coal fires."

 "It’s an instant in time where the solitary soldier daydreams to himself that if there were ever an Office for all the Presidencies of the entire World, he would stand for that office," he goes on, "and if he won the election he would make sure that he himself would end the gallantry and STOP all the guys in the cavalry in all future wars from ever charging to their deaths again."

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Harriet Tubman’s Gonna Carry Me Home – The Long Ryders

26 November 2019

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Paying tribute to one of America's greatest 19th century folk heroes, Harriet Tubman's Gonna Carry Me Home is a history lesson from a white Southerner sung in the voice of a long-dead black slave - a spiritual in the great oral tradition, giving a lesson in bravery and compassion to a new generation, from the faithful to the faithful.

 Released in 1987 by The Long Ryders as part of their album Two Fisted Tales, Harriet Tubman's Gonna Carry Me Home was inspired by the story of a woman born into slavery who left her husband and child to escape to Philadelphia, only to return South to rescue her family and then to become a "conductor" on the Underground Railroad, a network of abolitionists. Harriet Tubman - whose story has recently been retold in the film drama Harriet, starring Cynthia Erivo - personally helped guide dozens of other slaves to freedom.

 "Harriet Tubman is an American hero," President Barack Obama pronounced unequivocally in 2013 as he proclaimed the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument. "She was born enslaved, liberated herself, and returned to the area of her birth many times to lead family, friends, and other enslaved African Americans north to freedom. Harriet Tubman fought tirelessly for the Union cause, for the rights of enslaved people, for the rights of women, and for the rights of all. She was a leader in the struggle for civil rights who was forever motivated by her love of family and community and by her deep and abiding faith."

 Long Ryders founder member Sid Griffin gives voice to an escaping slave who, like Harriet, has "left my man on the other side" to risk everything for freedom. And the song is fleshed out with historical references to the Underground Railroad and the abolitionist movement.

 For example, "at night I ride on that Northern Star" is a reference to the slaves' journey from the South, under cover of night, to the free states of the North and across the border to Canada, using the North Star to navigate. Harriet Tubman and the other Railroad conductors would explain to slaves that moss grows on the north side of tree trunks, which helped them to keep their bearings when moving through thick woodlands.

 "Dred Scott will put his hooks on me" is a reference to the Supreme Court case Dred Scott v Sandford in 1857 in which the court ruled that a slave who had been living in a free state for four years could not legally be a citizen of the United States and therefore was not entitled to legal rights.

 "They say that Frederick Douglass is an exception to their rules" is a reference to the escaped slave turned abolitionist leader, the exception being that he was one of the most famous black men in America in his day - as well as being known in Britain and Ireland, where he travelled for two years lecturing to church congregations about the hollow mockery of America's brand of Christian freedom - and accepted as something close to a peer by the liberal white establishment of the day. Douglass wrote a letter to Harriet Tubman in 1868 in which he congratulated her for her tireless, selfless efforts: "The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism," he said.

 The Long Ryders are one of countless bands through pop history fêted for fame and fortune whose moment simply never came. Just as they were expected to ascend to the ranks of Southern rock luminaries like REM or Tom Petty, their luck faltered. Although signed to Island Records, home of rock giants U2, they never had the full support of the organisation. Island failed to press enough copies of their breakthrough single Looking For Lewis and Clark - another nugget of US history converted into catchy pop by singer and guitarist Sid Griffin, the opening track on their 1985 album State of Our Union - and thus what should have been their biggest hit failed to chart.

 That should all have changed when their third studio album came out two years later.

 "I thought Two Fisted Tales would take us to the stratosphere," Griffin told fan Stewart Lee in an interview for Shindig! magazine early in 2019. "I thought in February '86 we’d crack it by Christmas and I was going to be a sort of Michael Stipe/Joe Strummer 'noted dude' the people came to for erudite quotes about the music scene. And I couldn't have been more wrong. It all backfired."

 Somehow, The Long Ryders were never in the right place at the right time.

 "Two Fisted Tales came out, and Bono liked it," remembers Griffin in an interview with Parklife DC. "In particular, Bono liked a song of mine called Harriet Tubman's Gonna Carry Me Home. It's one of the more awkward, ugly chapters of our history with the record company. They invited us to open about a month of dates on the Joshua Tree tour. Our album got delayed because of Tom Waits or something, so Lone Justice took our place. We never did open for U2, although Bono still talks about the song Harriet Tubman’s Gonna Carry Me Home to this day, for which I'm very grateful to him. But, no we never did. We were going to do a month's worth of dates in America, and I've often thought that would’ve been an incredible audience to be exposed to."

The band crumbled apart soon after. Bassist Tom Stevens left first and although they attempted to tour without him, they had lost faith in their future. But that is not the end of the story. Tempted back for a reunion in 2004, and then again in 2009, the original line-up of The Long Ryders has finally reunited and in 2019 they released their first new studio album, Psychedelic Country Soul, after a hiatus of thirty-three-and-a-third years.

 "It’s better than anyone could have possibly hoped," wrote Stewart Lee in Shindig! magazine, "and is one of those slow burn records that digs deeper with every listen".

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About the curator: Jon Ewing

After graduating from the University of Keele in England with a degree in Politics and American Studies, Jon worked as editor of a music and entertainment magazine before spending several years as a freelance writer and, with the advent of the internet, a website designer, developer and consultant. He lives in Reading, home to one of the world's most famous and long-running music festivals, which he has attended every year since 1992.

Superheroes – Skint & Demoralised

10 September 2019

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Powerful and cinematic, Superheroes by Skint & Demoralised achieves an epic scope within its economical 2 minutes and 42 seconds by setting a spoken word story about a young boy’s innocent wisdom to a rousingly dramatic score. And as it builds to its heart-splittingly moving climax, it is made all the more poignant by the knowledge that it really happened.

The track by duo Matt Abbott and David J Gledhill was inspired by a trip to the Calais Jungle, the refugee camp on the busy border between France and the United Kingdom where, between 2015 and 2016, thousands of displaced people from conflict zones around the world, from Iraq to Sudan, Afghanistan to Eritrea, spent weeks or months hoping to find a way, legally or otherwise, to start a new life in Britain. 

Poet, activist and front-man Matt Abbott was attending an event called With Banners Held High when he watched a presentation about the Calais Jungle.

“I turned to someone and I said: ‘I’ve really got to go there. I’ve got to help’,” he remembers. “And within a week I was in a car driving into the Jungle with some activists from this group.”

“It was completely the opposite of everything that I was expecting it to be. And I was in shock. And they took me around various bits and there’s a kids’ café where a lot of the kids go to learn English or just to have someone to talk to, because 78% of the kids there are living there alone. There is a boxing ring, a gym, theater, classrooms, shops - and then they took me to Marco’s school. And as it happens this kid was there and they were doing the ‘superheroes’ thing and it just completely floored me. I just could not believe what I was seeing and what I was hearing.”

Signed to Universal when Matt was just a teenager, Skint & Demoralised recorded three albums before the duo drifted into separate creative directions in 2013. But, says Matt, both he and David felt there was “unfinished business”. And out of the blue, in October last year, David sent Matt a text asking if he fancied working together again. The result is their fourth album, We Are Humans.

“When I wrote the lyrics to the first album I was 17 and 18 years old,” says Matt. “So it was about teenage relationships. I was always frustrated with myself that Skint & Demoralised was never a political act. I would do political poems in between the songs at gigs, but none of the songs were even remotely political. So, now that we’ve had the chance to do this album, I think something like three-quarters of the songs on there are political.”

Matt Abbott (right) with fellow Skint & Demoralised founder, producer David J Gledhill
[Photo: Kerry Harrison]

“It was totally unexpected, but it feels so right that I can’t believe we weren’t already doing it,” he says of the band’s resurrection. “It’s not like we’re going to just do this one album and go: ‘Oh yeah, that was fun, let’s leave it then’. We’re definitely going to do another album.”

The lyrical themes of We Are Human are drawn largely from Abbot’s poetry collection Two Little Ducks, published last year, around which he wrote an hour-long spoken word theater show. And he is emphatic that the best way to communicate political ideas is through storytelling, by putting a human face on ideology.

“There is one song on the album, the #RefugeesWelcome song [from which the album gets its title], that’s a bit hectoring - virtue-signalling, making statements, which isn’t necessarily the best way to do it,” Matt admits. “I think by telling stories and channeling the human side of politics, that’s always going to be the way to get across. Plenty of people abuse me on Twitter because they think that all refugees are scum and we shouldn’t let them in and we should just let them die in the Channel, or whatever. I don’t think any of them could hear that story about that young lad and not be moved in some way.”

“As much as I have written and written and written and written about the Calais Jungle,” Matt concludes, “I think the Superheroes lyric and that story does more than anything else I’ve written because it’s so simple and it’s such a human thing and it’s just so heartbreaking. And it’s 100% true. And I just thought: if that doesn’t get the message through then nothing will.”

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About the curator: Jon Ewing

After graduating from the University of Keele in England with a degree in Politics and American Studies, Jon worked as editor of a music and entertainment magazine before spending several years as a freelance writer and, with the advent of the internet, a website designer, developer and consultant. He lives in Reading, home to one of the world's most famous and long-running music festivals, which he has attended every year since 1992.

Change – Mavis Staples

4 September 2019

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The voice of the legendary Mavis Staples is sounding more soulful than ever on her raw new album, We Get By. And on the opening track, written and produced by Ben Harper, Ms Staples pleads simply and repeatedly for the violence and intolerance of our age to end. "Bullets flying, mothers crying," she sings in this concise three minute blues, accompanied by a growling guitar riff. "We gotta change around here".

She may have become an octogenarian in July this year, but Mavis Staples is certainly not trading on her past glories with The Staple Singers. After working with such varied musical luminaries as Nick Cave, tUnE-yArds, Wilko frontman Jeff Tweedy, Bon Iver, M Ward, Gorillaz and Arcade Fire, Staples's recorded output has never been so varied nor so prolific and she continues to perform live, with recent appearances including the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, New York and Glastonbury Festival, prior to touring the USA from September through to February.

"I’m the messenger," is the welcoming quote on her website. "That’s my job - it has been for my whole life - and I can’t just give up while the struggle’s still alive. We’ve got more work to do, so I’m going to keep on getting stronger and keep on delivering my message every single day."

Outside Looking In by Gordon Parks

The poignant sleeve artwork for We Get By is a 1956 photograph by African-American artist and photo journalist Gordon Parks called Outside Looking In. Parks spent a lifetime capturing images of the social and economic impact of racism in America and the photo was part of a series of shots for Life Magazine taken in Mobile, Alabama. The image shows six young black children standing in the undergrowth, pressed up against a chain link fence, behind which they can see a fabulous children's playground solely inhabited by white children and their parents.

"That photograph hit me like a ton of bricks," staples told NPR's Michel Martin in May 2019. "They had sent me about nine pictures, you know, trying to find something for the album. I didn't see the others. That was the only one I saw, and it grabbed me. You know, these little babies standing on the outside. They want to swing. They want to go on the slide."

"And it kind of reminded me of my sisters and I," she went on. "We had that problem when we were growing up. We couldn't go to the beach. We couldn't go to the park. We wanted some grass. Where we lived, we didn't really have any grass. You know, we'd have to play in a vacant lot with dirt and glass. So that photograph grabbed me in the heart and almost brought me to tears. I said, this is the one."

Undoubtedly progress has been made since 1956. But it is not nearly enough. Hence a singer who lived through - and helped provide the soundtrack to - the civil rights movement is still calling for change.

"Things were rolling our way for so long that I thought I’d be able to sing about pretty trees in the springtime by the time I reached the end of my eighth decade," she told The Telegraph's Helen Brown prior to her Glastonbury show. "Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case. When that man - I will not say his name - got into the White House, I knew I needed to keep on being a protest singer."

"People say I’m political," she says at the conclusion of her Telegraph interview. "Well, yeah, if you say so. Even being a black woman on a stage is a political act."

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About the curator: Jon Ewing

After graduating from the University of Keele in England with a degree in Politics and American Studies, Jon worked as editor of a music and entertainment magazine before spending several years as a freelance writer and, with the advent of the internet, a website designer, developer and consultant. He lives in Reading, home to one of the world's most famous and long-running music festivals, which he has attended every year since 1992.

Aleppo – Leyla McCalla

18 August 2019

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"Fists are flying in the name of love," sings Leyla McCalla on Aleppo, the sobering standout centrepiece of her third album, The Capitalist Blues. "So much violence in the name of love," she continues as the guitar pierces us with a shriek of obstreperous feedback. "We look on and on, we don't heed the call / Who knows if we care at all?"

Prompted by first-hand accounts of the war in Syria, McCalla's song Aleppo is most remarkable for its unlikely marriage of mournful vocal with a discordant guitar sound reminiscent of Gang of Four's Andy Gill, Television's Tom Verlaine or Hendrix at his most psychedelically expressive. So blisteringly cacophonous is this exquisite racket that you can imagine the bombs falling all around you as McCalla's helpless, traumatized voice cries out.

 "I was watching Facebook Live testimonials of the people in Aleppo during the siege of 2016," she told Steve Hochman from The Bluegrass Situation, explaining the story behind the track. "People basically saying, 'I exist. I’m here. This is what’s happening in my city.' It was really surreal... I had the line come into my head: 'Bombs are falling in the name of peace.' That opened the doors to exploring the idea, not just the idea, but exploring how violence is seen as a way to peace in our society, how backwards that is, how messed up. I wanted it to sound angry and frustrated and devastating. I think we got it!"

Aleppo was a key battleground in the Syrian civil war, where thousands of civilians lived under siege during a four year stand-off between the Syrian state forces, supported by Russian air strikes and Shia militias, and the rebel Sunni Muslim opposition.

President Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded his father, Hafez al-Assad, in 2000, has been fighting for control of the country since the Arab Spring in 2011 when protests against his repressive regime quickly escalated into civil war. Aleppo, once the largest city in Syria and the centre of the nation's commerce, eventually fell in December 2016. Rebel strongholds in the city were razed to the ground. More than 30,000 people died in Aleppo between 2012 and 2016, about two-thirds of them civilians.

From 2014, the horrific civil war was made worse still by the rapid expansion of Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh, whose militants occupied large areas of both Syria and Iraq, proclaiming it a "caliphate". This prompted a US-led coalition to begin airstrikes in August that year in both Iraq and Syria.

By the end of 2018, according to Amnesty International, more than 400,000 people had died in Syria since 2011, with 6.6 million being displaced from their homes. More than 5 million people have fled the country. Government forces and their allies have been responsible for "war crimes and other serious violations of international humanitarian law, including indiscriminate attacks and direct attacks on civilians," not to mention repeated use of chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, blister agent sulphur mustard and the choking agent chlorine. Meanwhile, around 100,000 Syrian men, women and children have been "disappeared" by Syrian forces as well as extremist and opposition groups. The civilian death toll continues to rise every single day.

Following a training in classical music, the 33 year-old Leyla McCalla moved from her home in suburban New Jersey to New Orleans in 2010, to be closer to her Haitian roots. She started playing the banjo and earned a living as a busker before being invited to join The Carolina Chocolate Drops in early 2012. McCalla is best known as a cellist, both on her two previous solo albums and her previous band, but she did not play cello on her 2019 record. "I've been really enjoying playing my guitar lately because it's the newest instrument I own," she told Max Mazonowicz in The Digital Fix earlier in 2019, but confessed: "I have also been missing my cello".

As the title suggests, her latest album is grounded in social commentary, with songs about poverty and social welfare. Three are sung in Haitian Creole, which McCalla refers to as a “language of protest”, such as Mize Pa Dous (‘Poverty Isn’t Sweet’).

 “Everyone’s making a political statement,” McCall - the daughter of Haitian American human rights activists - told NPR’s Talia Schlanger in May 2019. “Whether you’re aware of the political statement that you’re making or not is another issue. I think it’s impossible to be apolitical.”

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Learn more about Leyla McCalla here:

About the curator: Jon Ewing

After graduating from the University of Keele in England with a degree in Politics and American Studies, Jon worked as editor of a music and entertainment magazine before spending several years as a freelance writer and, with the advent of the internet, a website designer, developer and consultant. He lives in Reading, home to one of the world's most famous and long-running music festivals, which he has attended every year since 1992.

Broken World – The Interrupters

22 July 2019

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Lively LA ska punks The Interrupters are calling for greater unity at a time of great division. And their song even contains a few specifics about how we might get there. Unfortunately, it’s going to require a bit of sacrifice, so, you know, just scroll on by if that’s going to be too hard.

 “If your enemy was drowning would you pull him to shore?” ask lead vocalists Kevin Bivona and Aimee Allen on Broken World. “If a stranger was starving would you open your door?”

 “Music… gives me that feeling that I can get through hard times,” Aimee Allen told OC Weekly in 2018. “There are a lot of themes on this record about overcoming obstacles and about a phoenix rising from the ashes… We sing a lot about friendship, family and unity.”

 Allen, Bivona and his two brothers were discovered by Rancid’s Tim Armstrong and signed up to his label Hellcat, an offshoot of the legendary Epitaph Records. Broken World comes from their third album, Fight the Good Fight, the sleeve of which features the band in classic black and white rude boy attire – close-cropped hair, tight black suits with drainpipe trousers and pencil ties. The song was based on a riff by Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong (no relation), who apparently gave them the melody while on tour in in Santiago, Chile, with a humble “I don’t know if you guys want it – if not it’s cool – but I just thought it would be cool for you.”

But there is a question mark over the politics of The Interrupters thanks to some of the views espoused by Allen in her younger years. In his well-argued 2014 article Know Your Product: The Interrupters, Steve Shafer accuses The Interrupters of “draping themselves in 2 Tone’s mantle while advocating right-wing and libertarian viewpoints that are the polar opposite of those espoused by The Specials”.

 Their lyrics, he argues can be “mistaken for the typical – and good – ‘question authority’ stance of most punk rock bands” and argues that their rabble-rousing song Take Back the Power fails to hide a right-wing paranoia that can be summed up as the “we’re-so-oppressed-our-rights-are-gone worldview held by libertarians”.

 Shafer’s article so riled the band that Kevin Bivona responded to these accusations in a response published alongside the article.

 “We are most definitely NOT a ‘right wing’ band… but if we were, I would hope we would get the same shot as everyone else,” Bivona wrote. “I bet we have a lot of the same records and agree on more things than we disagree.”

 So, what are we saying when we call for unity? Are we seeking a better understanding of people whose opinion is different from ours (yeah, that’s right, people – those idiots)? Or are we just patronisingly wishing they were more like us? Are we offering to put the needs of others ahead of ourselves and our families? Or are we just whining about being excluded from the ruling elite?

 What exactly will it look like if you “let love be your foundation, let wisdom be your guide”? It’s easy to tap your foot and imagine everyone shares the same utopian vision. But when the guy tapping his foot next to you is a right-wing racist, you have to wonder if your collective love of music is enough to unite you, or even if it should.

 And yet people are all we’ve got.

 “There’s a lot of crazy stuff going on in the world and people feeling upset or marginalized or disenfranchised,” said Kevin Bivona in an interview with The Alternative in 2018. “That’s where songwriting can be the most powerful thing, so we use a lot of our power as songwriters to write songs of self-empowerment and standing up for your rights.”

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Take the Good – Jon Worthy & The Bends

15 July 2019

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Inspired by his eye-opening, first-hand experience of extreme poverty in The Philippines in 2018, the closing song from Jon Worthy’s new album, Something's Gotta Give, is a reminder to himself, at a very dark time in his life, that no matter how bad things seem, you have a lot to be grateful for when you are a young, white, American male.

“The most important relationship in my life...”

Jon Worthy's fourth album is a new and mellower sound after a career thus far typified by upbeat indie rock. The previous album, Chasing Dreams, was produced by Cage the Elephant's former guitarist Lincoln Parish and he helped steer Jon in an alternative rock direction. But Something's Gotta Give is more of an indie-folk rock record, redolent of The Lumineers or Mumford & Sons. The "acoustic low-key vibe", as Jon calls it, is thanks in no small part to the contribution of Paton Goskie whose violin parts, Jon says, "touch the soul and cut deep".

Take the Good has the ring - both in its lyrics and melody - of Green Day's classic Good Riddance (Time of Your Life), a bitter break-up song in which the singer is striving vainly to see the bright side, to "make the best of this test and don't ask why".

"This album is deeply personal," says Jon. "More than half the album is about a relationship of mine that recently ended. It was the most important relationship in my life for the last five years and was the main source of my inspiration... My entire future was based on her and once that was taken from me, it was hard to come to grips with that emotion. It wasn’t anger, but more disbelief that someone you shared so much with and talked about the future with for years was all of a sudden gone from your life."

An American Dream

The story of Jon's ex-girlfriend's Filipino mother typifies the pursuit of the American Dream - a romantic saga, at least on the surface. More than two decades ago, she met an American man through a "pen pal" programme. He travelled to the impoverished Philippines and took her home with him to the land of plenty and opportunity, where they raised a family. But when Jon and his girlfriend visited the country last year, as their relationship faltered, what they witnessed was shocking to a white boy from Pennsylvania who has made his home in Nashville, Tennessee.

"The amount of poverty and standard of living in a true third world country such as the Philippines is staggering and so sad," he recalls. "Kids running around naked and begging for change any chance they get, homes set up on dirt floors, no plumbing except for hotels and mansions. It was an eye opening experience to see how lucky myself and other people are to be born in developed countries and how much we take for granted."

"For the most part the people seemed unfazed and continued on with making their living and trying to support their kids and family," he continues. "That’s certainly where some of the inspiration for Take the Good came from." 

The Donald Trump of the East

The Philippines today is under the rule of President Rodrigo Duterte, an unconventional Dirty Harry-style politician whose disdain for political correctness has led him to be described as "the Donald Trump of the East". When campaigning for the presidency three years ago, he told the press that he "should have been first" when Australian missionary Jacqueline Hamill was raped and murdered in the town where he was mayor at the time; earlier this year, he described the government auditors scrutinising his administration as "sons of whores" who should be kidnapped and tortured for obstructing his will.

Since his election in 2016 his popularity has grown steadily. At time of writing in July 2019, one in five of the nation's population is living in extreme poverty, surviving on the equivalent of just $2 a day, but this is a marked improvement on 2015, when it was more than a quarter. However, opportunities to escape poverty are negligible, particularly for the majority of the rural population, characterised by large families, generally with minimal education and no access to financial credit. Duterte declared martial law in The Philippines soon after coming to office and began a war on drugs which has resulted in thousands of people being murdered by his death squads. Earlier this month, the United Nations announced that it will be carrying out an investigation into Duterte's vigilantism. In June, a three-year-old girl became the latest victim when she was shot in the head during a police raid. A long time Duterte crony and former Filipino police chief responded publicly by saying: "Shit happens". 

First World Problems

Returning home and reeling from the break-up, Jon Worthy wrote Take the Good as a way of coming to terms with the confusing feelings of being both heartbroken and at the same time forced to confront his own white privilege. "I've lived an easy life compared to that of most," he sings. "I've never fought or killed or even been alone".

"Everyone just wants a fair chance at being happy and some of us just happen to be born in to astronomically better situations," Jon explains, thinking of how different life might have been for his ex-girlfriend if her mother had not escaped to the USA. "It’s not fair at all and there’s no explanation for it, but most people in first world countries take that for granted."

"We're such selfish people in first world countries," asserts Jon. “If we gave up even a quarter of the money we make to the impoverished we'd still live a great life and help out more people than imaginable. I'm as guilty of this as anyone, but we're so focused on obtaining what we desire that we forget that we are all just humans. We really should help each other out more than we do, but it's not our first instinct unless we're personally affected by something. We all have our own problems in our little bubbles, but for the most part people in first world countries have it so much easier than everywhere else. So, for me, that's where the chorus of Take the Good comes in. There's so much stuff going on and you can easily weigh yourself down with everything. But at some point, hopefully, we learn to just enjoy the moment."

Learning to Take the Good

It's hard to see Take the Good as a hopeful song, describing human nature as essentially divisive and judgemental and life as a struggle full of pain. But Jon disagrees.

"I think the chorus of the song is genuinely a positive outlook," Jon insists. "When you consider all the horrible things humans do to each other and try to break down why some people are born into poverty and others aren’t, you would drive yourself crazy. So while there’s so much bad in the world, you only get one life and you really should enjoy the good moments that come your way. But at the same time try to make a difference in whichever way you can."

Determined to embrace change, Jon Worthy has channelled the upheaval of his world into his most mature and commercial work to date. Utterly committed to taking his career as far as he can go, he has played more than 60 shows already this year with his band The Bends: Austin Mcfall, bass, Michael Sanborn, drums and multi-instrumentalist Slice. Sometimes they have played for less than the cost of their expenses, just to get the music out there, and they have at least 50 more shows booked over the next few months. In an uncertain world, with his best girl no longer by his side, Jon Worthy is more committed than ever to follow his dream.

"I think hope goes hand in hand with change," he concludes. "Hoping or the desire to achieve something is what puts someone on the path to change. Realizing to truly be great at what you want to achieve takes change. Change creates ideas and ideas become the greatness we all desire. But it all starts with that hope. And that hope is what I have with music right now. I hope I can make it my career and I know to do that, I will have to change what I’m currently doing. I will have to continue to write songs and hopefully write better songs, and get better at performing and singing and keep evolving as a musician to the point where I can achieve my goals. But without that hope we’re nothing."

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Learn more about Jon Worthy & The Bends here:

About the curator: Jon Ewing

After graduating from the University of Keele in England with a degree in Politics and American Studies, Jon worked as editor of a music and entertainment magazine before spending several years as a freelance writer and, with the advent of the internet, a website designer, developer and consultant. He lives in Reading, home to one of the world's most famous and long-running music festivals, which he has attended every year since 1992.