SONS OF THE CENTURY
A long and deep look at the history of the last one hundred years, this song was a startling introduction to the first album on a new label, Green Linnet. The arrangement seems to have been one that was never mastered for “live” performance: the song was performed on very few occasions by the group around the time of the album’s release, and was quietly dropped soon afterwards. It reappeared on a list of songs for rehearsal when the group’s line-up changed in 1997, but so far it remains a notable absentee from their concert repertoire.
Only a month or so before it was recorded by the band, Jez did a very different solo version of SONS OF THE CENTURY for BBC Radio Two’s “Folk on Two” programme, along with a batch of other songs that were to appear on “Tenterhooks”. This solo version was in basic waltz tempo, with many lyric variations. No-one seems to recall him ever performing it in this fashion at any other time. It was obviously a song destined to be exclusively listened to in a recorded version, unlike almost every other song from the Jez Lowe pen, which all seem to have “In Concert” potential in one form or another.
At a songwriter’s workshop at Beverley Folk Festival in 1995, Jez was heard to speak of a song “in progress”, of which he had completed around twenty finished lyrics, none of which he was satisfied with. A Bad Penny sitting in on the session commented that while Jez usually wrote from a “local” perspective looking outward, this difficult lyric found him tackling a much broader perspective, broad enough to encompass the whole world and its history, hence the problems he seemed to be having. It’s a fair guess that the song under discussion was SONS OF THE CENTURY. Judging by the evidence on a rough mix tape that emanated from Fellside Studios during the recording of “Tenterhooks”, the lyrics varied from take to take, even as the final version was being laid down.
The final arrangement of the song itself actually came together as the session was in progress, according to those who were there. The change in rhythm was decided upon while Jez and Bev Sanders sat in the van outside Hillingdon Tube Station, west of London, using a somewhat resonant steering wheel as a percussion instrument! This was exchanged for a bodhran in the studio, with recording engineer Graham Bell adding some varispeeded blows on a didgeridoo that he’d just bought at Womad Festival the weekend before. Then Billy Surgeoner scraped the decisive sawing motions across the deepest string of his brother Bob’s double bass, and even the usually laid back frame of producer Paul Adams was seen to jerk forward in recognition that something special had fallen into place.
The introductory chant of “Mea culpa” (“Through my fault”) obviously harks back to Jez’s Irish Catholic upbringing, and echoes also the chant that precedes THESE COAL TOWN DAYS on the band’s previous album, “Bede Weeps”.
The Bad Pennies have a collective theory that much of what seems spontaneous in arranging these songs is in fact in Jez Lowe’s mind all along in one form or another, and he just gently prods them along until the ideas burst forth, seemingly from a collective inspiration, thus giving everyone the misapprehension that the band is a co-operative venture! There is a standing joke to this effect in Jez’s concert performances, wherein he refers to the band as “my backing group”.
To these ears, if ever one needed proof that The Bad Pennies were more than a “backing group”, then SONS OF THE CENTURY is it. There are those who may prefer Jez Lowe solo, others who prefer the presence on stage of the other musicians, and still others who see the two approaches as completely different, but equally valid. This final choice seems the ideal position to take. As this is written, there is almost a completely different repertoire of Jez Lowe songs for each “live” direction, solo or band. Only a few of the old favourites remain common to both sets. There is no new album in sight, but we hear tell of a batch of new songs to feature at forthcoming concerts, which is something I look forward to with relish. And with any luck, SONS OF THE CENTURY, my personal favourite, might even rear its noble head for us, somewhere along the road.