JUST LIKE MOSES
Following our look at The Parish Notices last month, our attention was drawn to this track from 1993’s “Bede Weeps” album, an appropriate choice for close examination, for a variety of good reasons. Firstly, both Jez and Bev Sanders, who was on hand for much of its writing, have spoken to us at length about the background to this song. Also, we have had access to home-video footage taken at the time by Bev’s daughter, of the Bad Pennies, arranging and rehearsing this song prior to recording it. Finally, it has long been a favourite of ours and of Jez’s and continues to be a regular inclusion in the band’s concert performances to this day.
The song was written, more or less from start to finish, at Bev’s house in Lancashire in early 1992, with Jez spending most of one weekend working on it. The origins of the story, like that of The Parish Notices, lay in real-life events that took place in Jez’s hometown, in this case in the early 1980s. The corpse of a new-born baby was found hidden on waste ground on the edge of town at the very spot where Jez and his friends had, as teenagers, raced stripped down motorbikes in the hollow of an old sand quarry, one of many such sites dotted around East Durham. Jez’s plan seems to have been to create a modern equivalent of a folk-ballad, telling more or less exactly what had happened in a narrative style. There is a suggestion that the ‘Greek chorus’ sung by Bev on the original CD, and subsequently by Judy Dinning in live performance, was initially a completely separate song, being added to the main body of the narrative quite late in the day. The song’s more regular refrain, sung by Jez himself, has as its inspiration the traditional American song “Little Moses”, as sung by Bob Dylan in his film “Renaldo and Clara”. (This is according to Jez himself, though, Moses apart, we can see little to link the two.)
At any rate, no sooner was the song’s lyric completed, Bev tells us, than Britain was gripped by the horror of the murder in Liverpool, a mere 10 miles away from Bev’s village, of 4 year old Jamie Bulger, whose mutilated body was found on waste ground in circumstances that shocked a nation. Not surprisingly, Jez’s immediate reaction was to scrap the song and forget about it, and for the next 12 months no more work was done on it.
By the time that the Bad Pennies began to rehearse for their forthcoming album, in mid-1993, “Just like Moses” had reappeared in its complete form, with melody and quite distinctive guitar chords and rhythm to drive it along. Billy Surgeoner was asked by Jez to work out a string-led backing to follow the guitar part, and the laborious honing of this arrangement is captured on the video mentioned above: both violin and double bass being bowed behind the guitar, a technique that was later dropped when the band introduced the electric ‘stick’ bass in 1995, which did not lend itself to the use of the bow. It is clear on the video that every note of the arrangement is set fast and made to count. (At one point this set up is abandoned and the string backing played experimentally on a sampled keyboard, much to the disgust of certain band members! Ultimately good sense and taste prevailed.)
Much later on, after the album had been released, Jez was urged to rewrite and re-record the song as a Christmas single! Once more good sense and taste saved the day from that folly! JUST LIKE MOSES was the song that, at Edmonton Folk Festival in 1999, caused Loudon Wainwright to stop Jez on the street and offer his congratulations on a remarkable job. And there are those of us who would agree whole heartedly with that.