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Robb Johnson - Ordinary Giants (Irregular Records)
Ordinary Giants is a song suite by songwriter and performer Robb Johnson that explores the life and times of Ron Johnson, his father, a family history of the Second World War and the Welfare State. Robb has already released GENTLE MEN, Mojo Magazine’s Folk album of the month in 1997, exploring World War One and its consequences through the lives of his grandfathers.
Across a staggering three discs, Robb chronicles events from the 1920s to the 2000’s, using his father’s life as a focal point. Three discs, just short of three hours with fifty songs and spoken word pieces. The length proportionately reflects the broad , big themes covered, this is no self-indulgent concept album. There is light and shade throughout, nothing is overstated, over played or overstays its welcome, there is always a sense of balance and restraint.
Track one, disc one is Giant, an instrumental overture. Roy Bailey, folk giant, is the first voice on the album, delivering A Land Fit For Heroes, marking the of the Great War and the birth in 1922 of Ron Johnson. The irony of the lyric, the subsequent passing of much missed Roy just layers on the poignancy. The Mysteries Of Fulham is a wonderful song, full of sharply observed details, Robert Louis Stephenson’s phrase ‘penny Plain two pence coloured’ ties us to the theatre and the lyric describes the unique Fulham grottos. Slow Progress 1929, with the beautiful vocals of Miranda Sykes and real lump in the throat backing choir, is a poignant masterpiece. The Hang Of The Door is a wonderfully delivered piece of Laurie Lee biography, Robb peers into the warm summer garden shed of the past, Here Comes Mr Gandi carries on the Stanley Holloway, George Formby period comedy song feel. Beneath the humour there is depth, reminders from history and sharp wordplay. As a Song Suite, certain themes, both conceptional and musical run through the whole three disc album, Slow Progress returns on the 1970-2018 final disc and the Utterswines voiced by Alan Clayson appear twice. Did You Go To Eton 1934 and Have You Seen The Papers are Major Utterswine, sounding disturbingly like an reactionary right wing Jonathan Meads. Utterswine delivers a vicious popularist terrifying rant in defence of fascism, that would be comic if it didn’t chime with the Jacob Rees Moggs of today’s skewed World view. Holding Hands With Hitler delivered by a plum voiced Tom Robinson, nodding to The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, or mining the same vein of early oompah vaudeville jazz, reminds us that some of the upper classes admired fascism and its apparent promise of preserving the status quo.
The songs on ORDINARY GIANTS illustrate and move on Robb John son’s narrative rather than existing just to tell the story. So there is a stand alone strength in the material and eight sides in the accompanying booklet to tell a more detailed story. Holding Hands With Hitler uses humour and sweet music to disguise disquieting truths. ‘Where You Can Go Depends Where You Come From’ is another perfect poignant song. Small real details describe perfectly the way that big dreams are constrained by circumstance. Robb Johnson’s delivery is perfectly balanced between wistful and melancholic. Billy Bragg talks about Johnson’s ability to create a mixture of the political and personal. Songs like Where You Go... are well written, well delivered gems that use Johnson’s family history as a lens to examine our sometimes uncomfortable past and present.
Listening to this stunning, all enveloping album I found myself imagining it as a stage production or play. Tied together by Theatre references in The Mysteries Of Fulham and the light opera stage humour of The Gentlemen Of The Chorus. I found myself imagining a Victorian Music Hall, with the stage going dark after songs like Where You Go..., to light again on a tableau of actors to deliver spoken pieces like Did You Go To Eton or the short story like Lou 1936. The conceit works perfectly with a balance between musical pieces and spoken rants, poems or descriptive pieces.
The Gentleman Of The Chorus evokes period of early 20th Century 78s and semi-professional light opera, frequented by Robb’s father Ron and his uncle Ernie. Its a wonderful piece of historical detail and light relief between the barbs of Major Utterswine and One More War. Historically removed from amateur light opera, for me it evokes the rich delivery of Jake Thackeray and a 70’s Two Ronnie’s musical skit. One More War is a stunning piece of writing as Robb uses his father’s memories of meeting refugees, like mass observation diaries to pack a powerful punch. Cousin Kitty and Me, despite guitar accompaniment Miranda Sykes vocal is wonderful period pub piano singalong or small stage theatre. September’s Song closes the disc at 1939 as World War Two looms. Claire Martin has never sounded better, and more like a period torch song as Robb plays small band jazz with rippling piano and shuffle drums. Another classic song.
Disc two takes us through the period of 1940 – 1969. Never Volunteer is a humorous warning about joining up from Robb Johnson’s Uncle Ernie. Light references to Stanley Holloway’s Albert (but then remember what happened to him) wrap round a warning against volunteering for the Airforce. A Very Nice Man In Uniform carries this middle disc on, layering a bitter sentiment, like a smile wrapped round a punch, in a Concert Party Singalong to carry the message home. Winter Statistics is a dry but dark spoken piece over some sweet jazz chords as Robb Johnson mixes the personal and the political the micro and the national so perfectly. Home By The Stars, J Johnnie , My Boy Wont Come Back’ deal with Ron Johnson serving in the War. Starkly beautiful and told straight, the songs are emotional with little irony or humour, but a lot of integrity and emotion. In a voice that is part Music Hall part Newspaper street seller Fae Simon dissects the end of the war in Attlee For PM For Me political dichotomy, with sentiment and language that is chillingly relevant again. Lou 1948 is another monologue from the Landlord troubling politically charged Lou, once again politics are rendered real through the lens of real people with a sprinkle of light relief. With a beautiful piano interlude, there is a real sadness to The Parachute and In Nobby’s Class two reflections on buried trauma, one from inside and one from outside. Sensitive and deep or light but insightful, the writing is just sublime. By now we are into a musical rhythm, Craven Vale Hall musically echoes Where You Can Go, Lou 1958 is fascinating social history. Bad Germans hits you straight in the preconceptions, challenging assumptions about war comics and war films. Musically the Music Hall, Jazz tinged 30s and 40s have been replaced by brutal guitar, chilling clarinet and vocals that suggest Marianne Faithfull channelling Cabaret. Another stunning song that advances the historical narrative and is a strong stand-alone piece, Theres Always Ovaltine takes the doo wop sweet pop of the 50s and 60s then filters it through The 50s of Grease and Little Shop Of Horrors. A surreal mix of retro music and social commentary like those moments in Dennis Potters Singing Detective when dream like characters mouth Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters. By All You Need Is Love & Comprehensive Schools the optimism of the post war peace for people has soured a little. Life is technicolour, but paradise has a dark under belly, to the tune and sentiment of All You Need Is Love one of the most well intentioned but drippy hippy songs ever. Great phased guitar and Grocer Jack 60s hit single kids chorus creates a wonderful period piece.
Disc Three starts with two stunning songs Semi Detached describes that nostalgic sense of potential missed in a land that apparently delivers. It’s a beautiful song and that sense that we have everything we ever wanted but something is missing, resonates. Miranda Sykes, accompanied by Robbs guitar is just perfect. Goalkeepers is a folk song, a timeless reflection over stratospheric violin and gentle guitar. Part Fairport Convention, part Billy Bragg, it is very English and just perfect. Utterswines are back again with Did You Go To Eton 1976 and Have You Heard The News, different generation, same old fascists same old nonsense. Justin Sullivan, from The New Model Army, incapsulates that growing sense of dread with a stunning vocal, like a hellfire Leonard Cohen on A Cold Wind Coming. Desk Job is another gloriously surreal piece, telescoping work and a retirement speech into a ironic masterpiece that is part Terry Gilliam’s Brazil part Alans Psychedelic Breakfast’. Lou’s final piece is lighter on obvious humour, but light in tone while laden with truths and reminders of the circular struggle. Brown And Black is a superb ragged bouncing brass infused folk anthem, sounds like the best of Latin Quarter or Rory McLeod, which is it as it should be, because he’s there on trombone and harmonica. Like Billy Braggs, England Half English the song is a glorious celebration of the pick and mix nature of what it is living in the UK and how interconnected we all are. In music there are cycles and codas, in life it seems we never learn and are doomed to repeat the same mistakes with some new ones for good measure. Maddy Carty’s sublime vocal on Slow Progress 2009, the final appearance of the Farraged Uttterswines on All You Need Is Tweed and the darkly betrayed A Land Fit For Privilege reminds that nothing has changed, that today resonates with some of the worst of yesterday. Some sadness is inevitable, dealing with the final stages of a life lived, but just when the album looks like its going to end with a final fade to black and silence, The Clock Beyond Repair begins to offer glimpses of hope and those ordinary giants. Too Soon Tomorrow is a charged song about passing on. The Valediction is a song of hope in adversity in wartime and in life. Ordinary Giants the title track, like ORDINARY GIANTS the album, is a glorious celebration of the everyday and the ordinary. It’s a genuine heartfelt reminder and celebration of the collective power of individual ordinary giants to influence and create history.
This a stunning album, a brave, mammoth and entirely successful attempt to tell a story, then to use that story to cast a revealing light on a society. It uses a varied and earthy musical palette, that changes through time, nodding to the eras it describes, while managing to be cohesive and work as a whole. Robb Johnson weaves a compelling tale, enlivened with spoken pieces, sounds and humour that raises a wry smile, using a large cast to create something powerful and thought provoking. This is as English and as timeless as an urban Lark Rise To Candleford, or a Music Hall life spanning Quadrophenia. Johnson mixes delicate real life with a splash of caricature and satirical social comment like an acoustic wielding Dickens. If you thought Concept Albums were naff preserve of pompous Prog Rockers, then think, think again. Robb Johnson is a national treasure, both for aspirational aim and his deft lightness of touch. This should be a West End Play, a TV play or required reading at GCSE. The final thought is, where do you go from here?