Juxta-proposing!

I used to have a philosophy tutor called Hugh Price. Hugh was astonishingly well read and quite unlike any other teacher I have ever known. He would read us passages from various texts, highlight common or recurring lines or phrases, and just lay them out side by side. Sometimes he’d comment on translation. Sometimes he’d link philosophers and their ideas in very surprising ways. Sometimes you saw what he was getting at, sometimes you didn’t. Sometimes his approach was illuminating, sometimes it wasn’t. Sometimes he was inspired and inspiring. His approach didn’t help you write exam essays, but it taught you to look and think, and it taught you the value of drawing together different perspectives. He was an amazing guy, and his methods left their mark.

On Marillion’s Radiation album there’s a slow blues track called ‘Born to Run’, in which Steve Hogarth sings of the north of England, where he spent his childhood. He notes”the quiet sadness of the people in the north” that’s “reflected in the rainskimmed slate grey, battleship grey, hardship grey” around them.

It’s a great track, and, believe it or not, it always puts me in mind of Welsh comedian Max Boyce. Max, a miner’s son and former miner himself, is well known for his over-the-top rugby comedy (that was great in the 1970s but is probably, for all the fondness we feel for him, a touch outdated now). What’s less well known, outside of Wales at least, is that as well as being a comic, Max is a songwriter and performer of no little talent. In amongst tales of outside halves and famous victories, are some real folk gems … none more so than a song called ‘Rhondda Grey’. Max often sang about industrial South Wales, an area, like the industrial north of England, which has a proud working class history; a history that tells of hardness and struggle as well as community, and a history that has left communities bereft and deprived since the decline of the heavy industries that were both their lifeblood and the cause of so many health problems.

‘Rhondda Grey’ tells the story of a young boy sent home from school to paint the valley for homework. He thinks his parents will be able to pick up the colours he needs at the local shop, but he learns quickly that the real colour of the valley can only be seen in the faces of the old men who’ve put their lives into mining coal:

It’s a colour you can’t buy, lad
No matter what you pay
But that’s the colour that we want
It’s a sort of Rhondda Grey

Two very different artists, nearly 40 years apart, singing about different parts of the country, singing from different perspectives but combining to enhance our understanding.

To go back to Marillion, but sticking with the theme of meaningful music, there’s a track I particularly like on their Somewhere Else album called ‘Last Century For Man’. The lyrics are fine, if a little ‘preachy’, but at one point there’s a fantastic chord change that really lifts the song and seems to enhance the meaning of the words. The other night I was listening to Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left album and heard the exact same chord change in a song called ‘Saturday Sun’. (I’m afraid I lack the technical knowledge to tell you what it is in musical terms.) It’s only a chord sequence, but as with ‘Last Century For Man’, it seems to transform the song. Again, two artists, nearly 40 years apart, using the same subtle chord changes to achieve a similar musical effect.

If Hugh were still with us, I’d rush around to his house and play him everything I’ve mentioned above. He’d know Max Boyce, but Marillion and Nick Drake would probably be new to him. I’d sit nervously waiting for him to comment. At the end of it all, he’d probably walk over to his bookcase, pick out a slim volume and read me some Dylan Thomas. Years ago, that would have been the end of the matter, and I’d have gone away to think about what he’d just read to me (and why). These days I’d be able to reply: “You know, Marillion have just recorded a version of ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’.” And boy would I like to know what he’d have made of that!

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