Timing is everything. Although I was aware of The Men They Couldn’t Hang before this gig, I had neither of the two albums that were already out, but they were certainly one of the bands that I had told myself that I definitely want to catch, not that you could be anywhere in The Bowl and not hear the music of anyone that was onstage. My timing was perfect catching the band as they were touring the songs that made up the album that was soon to become one of my favourite albums of all time, Waiting For Bonaparte. TMTCH were a rare breed in the pre-Levellers period, before folk had undergone a revival amongst the ex-punks and squat bands, before terms like new age traveller and crusty were terms familiar on the underground music scene. They mixed rock music with folk, in a very British, non-celtic style and on this album in particular told stories from the darker moments of this country’s past. Themes ranged from The Industrial Revolution to World War Two, The Battle of Cable Street to brandy smugglers. The Colours, the track from which title is taken told of an English mutineer sailor during the Napoleonic War and was actually blacklisted by The BBC because of the line ” You’ve Come Here To Watch me Hang” which apparently echoed events happening in the townships of South Africa at the time, particularly the plight of The Sharpeville Six. Despite this the European festival circuit had helped propel them to stardom outside of the UK.
They were also a band who knew how to make an entrance, a fast drum shuffle seemed to go on for ever, building tension as the rest of the band tuned, preened and prepared and as the atmosphere had built to a crescendo and the crowd were baying for blood, the band exploded into the now legendary mandolin break that starts The Crest, the tale of a stretcher bearer serving in the Italy Campaign of World War 2. After that classic song after classic song was served up to the crowds delight and we witnessed a performance that has gone down in history…but only amongst underground, punk-folk fans of a certain age. The rest of you don’t know what you missed.
On a personal note, they are also the band that made me say, “hey, I want to be in a band and play songs like that” Within a year I was taking my first steps into playing music live, still do as a matter of fact. It would be another twelve years before I was able to form a band that came close to the themes and nature of the band I saw that day.
I have seen the band since on numerous occasions, chatted to them, drunk rum with them and have found them to be nothing short of wonderful human beings and everything you want you heroes to be. When people say that you should never meet your heroes, maybe they are just choosing the wrong heroes.