Fighting The Tide 2002

THE BAD PENNIES in “THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY” – the story of a “lost’ album.
There used to be an old saying that you could stand waiting for a bus for ages in cold wind and rain on a dreary dark street, and then three buses would all come at once, all going to the very destination you wanted. It’s not so much a saying as a maxim, a fact of life, or at least a fact of British life, one that we Brits accept with grudging affability, as we are wont to do. Something to do with World War Two, apparently, though of course fewer and fewer of us are around to relate to that analogy these days. Yet the maxim, the analogy, remains curiously current.

Jez Lowe and The Bad Pennies released their first new album for four years in March 2002. It had been a long wait, since 1998’s PARISH NOTICES album, punctuated by first the re-release on CD of 1983’s THE OLD DURHAM ROAD (with one previously unreleased track), then the “live” double “enhanced” CD LIVE AT THE DAVY LAMP, which in itself had been a long-time coming, having been promised at various times as being “ready for release” in one form or another for ten years or more. Then six months later came TWO A ROUE, the 1986 album by Jez Lowe and Jake Walton, this time presented on CD with three extra tracks, and being the second release on the new Tantobie Records label. Deceptively then, it seemed that Jez’s album output was even more prolific than in days of yore, when an album every two years was the norm. But to those of us who were witnessing his “live” shows, there was enormous frustration in the knowledge that there was a load of new songs in his repertoire that were unavailable to the album buying public, and statement after statement, hint after hint, made it clear that a new album was not even on the cards, and that these new songs were in danger of being left behind as time went on and still no new recording was in sight.

Gratification of course has come with the release of HONESTY BOX, and the universal acclaim that it has been greeted with. Certainly there have been songs lost in the intervening years – Hoi Polloi, Easy Town, and others, but the 12 we were given more than made up for those.

But the irony is that having waited for so long for a new album, few of us even noticed that ANOTHER set of recordings sneaked out from the Tantobie back door at almost the same time as the celebrated HONESTY BOX, a collection of songs that very few people have heard performed on stage, and that fewer still have managed to claim for their CD collection. Yet anyone who has kept abreast with goings on in the Bad Pennies’ camp over the last 6 months will immediately be familiar with the title under which these recordings drifted into the light of day – FIGHTING THE TIDE. 

Kate Bramley’s appointment to the Bad Pennies in “emergency” circumstances at the end of November 2000 was no mere quirk of fate. She had worked with Jez on his mammoth orchestral commission for the East Durham SEA OF LIGHT Celebration the summer before she joined the band. How she came to be involved in that project seems to been the result of her approach to Jez a year earlier to collaborate on a play she was writing for her Bad Apple Theatre Company, that would be a mixture of drama and song, and that she was working on as long ago as the end of 1998. Bad Apple was already an established company, familiar to theatre-going audiences around the country, and one of their biggest successes had been Kate’s adaption of the play Northern Trawl, about the Hull-based trawler crews and their triumphs and tragedies, as written by Rupert Creed.

Kate’s new play was to be a continuation of this theme, but whereas that first production had used extant songs by the likes of John Connelly and Mike Waterson, the new one would have brand new songs, though it seems that at first Kate had approached Jez about including just one song of his, THE BERGEN, in the show. In the early drafts of the play, the boat that is central to the story is called The Bergen, though this was later changed to The Northern Gift.

This as-yet untitled project seems to have been overtaken by events to some extent over the subsequent months, firstly by Jez’s commission to the Sea Of Lights extravaganza, with all the work that that entailed, and then the sudden departure of Billy Surgeoner from The Bad Pennies when Jez got back from a long Australian tour in September 2000. In came Kate Bramley to the ranks of the Bad Pennies, and by January 2001 the new line-up of the group were off to America for the first of several tours scheduled for that year. Along the way, it seems, the collaboration on the “play with songs” took shape, and indeed began to take its place as one of several excuses as to why no new album would be forthcoming from the band in the near future. Throughout 2001, Jez talked about the new experience of writing songs for drama, while presumably, Kate was busying herself in the writing of the drama itself, and the nationwide Bad Apple theatre tour that was being organised for early 2002. 

Finally in late 2001, the play was given a title, announced as FIGHTING THE TIDE – A play by Kate Bramley with songs by Jez Lowe. The tour was set to start in Tunbridge Wells in January and continue around the country until mid-April, upwards of 25 performances, culminating at Hull Truck’s Spring Street Theatre with a week-long residency. The story of the play concerned the adventures of a group of people who were leaving their homes on an island who’s shores were quickly being eaten away by an ever-advancing ocean. They became fishermen and ventured out into a world set at some indetermined future time, where things were both familiar and foreign, futuristic and antique, and it was the fate of these adventurers that set out the story of the drama. The songs came as almost Brechtian counterpoints to the action, wherein people, puppets and music interacted on the stage as the tale unfolded.

As to how the music was to be presented, this was obviously of paramount importance to both Kate and Jez. It became clear early on that the use of actual singers and musicians on stage every night was both preferable and yet also impossible, mainly due to the finances of the tour, and especially as this would coincide with Jez’s solo tour of America in February, and the Bad Pennies’ tour of Australia in April, and so ruling out the obvious candidates for the job! Thus it was decided that the actors themselves would sing the songs, to a music sountrack previously recorded by The Bad Pennies and used as playback to the “live” action. A plan was hatched wherein the band would record the twelve (one song entitled “Lightning Man” was left out of the production at a late date) new songs in two forms, as instrumental backing tracks for the show itself, but also as vocal versions for the actors to use as learning guides and coaching tapes for their own performances.

There was no suggestion at this point that any of these songs were destined to any fate beyond their stage performances, especially as the Bad Pennies had only just completed work on HONESTY BOX and Tantobie Records were gearing up to its release with a big promotional push that would not benefit from being clouded by the simultaneous release of a seperate album by the same band with a completely different set of songs! So when recording for FIGHTING THE TIDE commenced in December 2001, it was in the knowledge that these songs had a specific purpose, and one purpose only, to enhance the theatrical drama for which they had been written.

Jez was newly back from his US tour with James Keelaghan when three Bad Pennies congregated in a basement studio in Darlington, County Durham just before Christmas to start recording with engineer Neil Scarth. Handshake Studios is a small hidden dungeon of a place like a suburban subterranean catacoombe with one of Jez’s favourite dogs in residence – Samba, a black Alsation cross, who’s face forms the logo of the studio’s in-house recording label, Woof Records – and it has a long association with the Bad Pennies. The group did demos above here in this same building back in 1992 (copies of which were distributed by their agent at the time and now are among the most rare of Jez Lowe recordings incidentally), and ex-Bad Penny Bev Sanders recorded her album here in 1997. The 1998 5-track EP Lowe Life was compiled here, and both Sea of Light and an early version of The Big Fear for an American charity compilation were also both taped in the cluttered rooms beneath an unsuspectingly busy main street in central Darlington only a year before.

Simon Haworth, who would also be involved with the touring company as stage manager in the early days of the play’s impending jaunt around England, joined his fellow band members Kate and Jez that first day of recording. The music would be a long way from what the band had recorded for HONESTY BOX a mere two months earlier, being much simpler and basic in arrangement – “organic” was the byword of the entire session, according to engineer Neil Scarth, with the result that the finished effect is vaguely reminiscent of the albums Jez made with Fellside Records in the early 1980’s. But the music, the arrangements, the cues and timings, and even the keys in which they were sung, had to suit both the action and the actors, much in the way a film-soundtrack has to match up frame by frame with what is on the screen. What “dynamics” there were, it would be the job of the actors to provide, with the music driving the action along without ever inhibiting or impinging on the players up there on the stage. But in striving for this, by almost transplanting themselves to a position WITHIN the story itself, the three musicians created something with dynamics of its own quite unlike that they had managed to create together in the past.

The resulting music was a bit of a surprise to even the players themselves, being of a rather disturbing nature, with a bizarre timeless quality to both the lyrics and sound itself, almost like it was the musical jottings in some private journal, or an unfinished novel who’s story would be told by others at another time. The juxtaposition of images and ideas from historical past and fantastic future were being taken to strange lengths in these songs, and suspended in a musical setting that suggested a hotch-potch of amateurism, anachronism, insight, simplicity and clear-headed determination. This is very much reflects the make-up of the play itself, wherein the common place artifacts of past, present and future are spread around in a disheveled world of confusion and uncertainty. People are matter-of-fact about this way of existence, of not knowing how or if survival will be attained, or even what brought them to the situation in which they are now finding themselves. The fact that Jez even attempted to capture this in his lyrics suggests that he is more than a little familiar with that very same situation. Despite the inherent stylistic strands and familiarity, this is not the usual Jez Lowe fare, and it is somewhat unsettling to try and place it in context with his other work, none moreso than the recently completed HONESTY BOX songs. The songs and music that Jez, Kate and Simon played in that dusty County Durham basement in those snowy December days seem to have been a one-off capturing of something out of time. But whether too late or too early, it is unsettling to try and judge.
It is unclear at what point a decision was taken to prepare the music for limited release on CD for public consumption. The slight sleeve notes to the album mention how the music began to “take on a life of its own” outside of the play, and the thought began to enter the minds of those involved that people should be allowed to hear these songs on their own merit. The tricky part was of course, that a new album was already finished, already produced and these strange and eerie recordings from below ground must never be allowed to interfere with that fact.  Therefore it was decided that a small limited edition CD would be produced for sale at each performance of the play around the country, but that no promotion of the album would be undertaken, and no attempt would be made to release the album elsewhere or make it available to regular Bad Pennies audiences, lest any spotlight should be taken away from the “real” new album that would be released with a fan-fare at exactly the same time around the world. The irony that such a clash of new product should happen was by no means lost on the band or Tantobie Records staff.

And so it was. The play opened to good notices around the country, and at each performance, copies of the “incidental music” clothed in very plain brown CD sleeves with nothing but Kate Bramley’s line drawing of a sailing boat on the front, were sold to any member of the audience who wished to take along a souvenir of the night’s music home with them. 
Inevitably some copies strayed into more general circulation, and several tracks even gained some airplay around the country. Two songs subsequently even appeared in the “live” concert set – Jez’s solo version of “The Sun and the Moon and Me”, and Kate’s vocal contribution to the band’s set on “All Trawl and No Tickle” but none of the other songs (including Simon’s vocal interpretation of the one re-working of the set, Jez’s 1984 composition SHIPPERSEA BAY) have so far resurfaced. By the time the play’s run in Hull had completed the nationwide tour, The Bad Pennies were already in Australia, promoting HONESTY BOX at the Byron Bay Blues and Roots Festival. A meagre few left-over copies of the album, along with the props and stage-set of FIGHTING THE TIDE, were stored away at Bad Apple’s warehouse in Leeds, and remain there, gathering collective dust, to this very day. THE SONGS –
With thanks to Neil Scarth, Joe Gannet and Bad Apple Theatre Co. Jim Lawrence

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