The Men They Couldn't Hang
Our man Chris Maillard meets the Men for a man-to-Men chat
The Men They Couldn't Hang. The Men They Couldn't Stop Gigging. Call them Cowpunkabillies, call them the hottest live act in the country, just don't call time when they're drinking.
Live is Life, as Opus gurgled in their delightfully Teutonic manner recently. You might have been less than one hundred per cent delighted with the song as an example of the very pinnacle of composing perfection, but it did have one fairly valid point to make — playing to an audience is still a reasonably good way to have a fun evening. And vice versa, a band that treat gigs with the delight they deserve is likely to be worth going to see.
However, the art of playing live is damn close to a lost art these days, as a quick scan through the columns of your local rag will confirm. There are precious few bands that do more than stand still and exude menace (Gothic or otherwise), or take great chunks from the Metal Poser Annual 1973 and reproduce them in all their Spandex glory.
So when somebody like The Men They Couldn't Hang come along to galvanise a crowd — yes, even the cynical hard-bitten seen-it-all-before London crowds — into action, it's both welcome and unexpected. Their enthusiasm is infectious, their sense of humour impeccable and their stage antics exhausting without being cretinous. In short, they're a damn fine live band.
They have been into the studio, true, and recorded an album and a clutch of singles, but these have done little more than reiterate their on-stage sound with occasional artificial bolstering and tightening added where the spotlight of the studio exposed gaps. They may be about to change that, with a Nick Lowe-produced seven-inch soon to be taped, but at the moment their meatier is very definitely the sweaty beer-fuelled hothouse of pubs, clubs and colleges.
So to keep the conversation on the right lines, we met in the bar of a London pub. All the menfolk of the Men were there — four of the five in other words, because bassistette Shanne was elsewhere. The main songwriter, lead guitarist and bouzouki player is Paul Simmonds, the two singers and rhythm guitarists Swill and Cush respectively, and the drummer Swill's younger brother Jon Henry Odgers. The flow of lager was continuous, the talk scarcely less so, and the subjects multifarious. But let's start at the beginning.
Cush: "We started by busking down in Hammersmith subway about a year and a half ago. We only started it off as a laugh, really, because none of us could play guitar very well and we just learnt a few songs and had ago. The thing is nearly all the buskers are dead serious and we were doing lively stuff, jumping around and things. We made relatively good amounts of money, a tenner an hour or so between us. It was particularly good when there were gigs on at Hammersmith Palais, we used to really clean up.
"All the other buskers got really pissed off because they were really good musicians but they didn't make much money. After all, playing lead acoustic guitar in a subway doesn't have that much impact. Playing three chord stuff like we did, everybody can appreciate it. We did a couple of Clash songs, Just Like Eddie, Where Have All The Flowers Gone... anything that we could... err... interpret in our own style.
"Half the songs we didn't know how to play, we'd just, literally, busk it.
"Then we got offered a gig by someone we knew, and we got Shanne in on bass, and Jon, and it all just started from there."
So why end up playing the high-energy mixture of Country/Folk/Irish/Punk/Rockabilly/Whatever that the Men have made their own? After all, nobody in the band wears a stetson, an Aran sweater or a noticeable shamrock and the only identifiable piece of subculture paraphernalia in evidence is Cush's Clash T-shirt. Paul explains.
"It's just common ground, stuff that we all like. We've got very varied tastes, all our record collections are very different from each other but the music we do is stuff we all like.
"It started with the Punk thing really, that was what got us all into it."
But I can't imagine anything further from the spiky thrash of 1977 than the centrepiece of their set, the First World War requiem The Green Fields Of France. Written by Folk hero Eric Bogle, it's very slow and tear jerkingly emotional and not at all wacky. At all. So why did the band choose to cover something that's a staple of the pewter tankard set? Swill has the answer.
"It's just a great song. The words are the main thing with it, they're so moving. Somebody came up to me after a gig once and said 'don't you get bored with doing that song all the time? Surely you can't be sincere about it every time?' and I almost hit them. It's an emotional experience every time we play it or we wouldn't do it. We really mean it. I've seen some of those professional Folk bands like the Dubliners and the Fureys do that song and it's too smooth, too polished to be sincere. We put everything into that song every time. And into all our songs, in fact."
Fair enough. That's not a bad thing, with songs as strong as the unionist rallying cry Ironmasters or their warning against the perils of big city life Johnny Come Home. But how do you go about translating the stirring live sound onto tape and then vinyl? Paul admitted they hadn't yet got it right.
"We've never been completely happy with anything we've recorded. The album Night Of A Thousand Candles was done over a period of about a month, but not a whole month of recording time, just dribs and drabs, a day here and a day there when we could get into the studio. So it's a bit disjointed because of that.
"One problem was that we couldn't work to a click track properly because we're used to speeding up and slowing down throughout the songs. We always tend to push the fast bits and drag on the slow ones.
"So when the Ironmasters single came out, radio DJs wouldn't play it because it didn't fit their format. The sound wasn't like the latest Madonna single for sure, but also it varied speed and that made it sound different to all the Pop records where they've just used a drum machine and it's very static.
"We did use a few studio tricks — on a couple of things we went round the studio belting walls and so on with Jon's shoes and sampled it into a... a something with a keyboard on it. A Casio, maybe, I don't know. And we layered it and used it to beef up the rhythm track. It sounded great when we'd finished.
"But one of the best recording sessions we did was for two tracks on the B-side of a single; our manager booked into somewhere really cheap and so we just plugged in and played pretty much live and it sounds good. It really does sound like a band playing together live. Not with a deliberately bad sound, like The Milkshakes did, but definitely a bit more raw."
"We started by busking down Hammersmith subway about a year and a half ago"
If the seasoned hand of Nick Lowe manages to capture that essence of raw power without losing the light lyrical touch of Paul, the Men They Couldn't Hang may become The Men They Couldn't Stop. In the meantime, keep a careful eye on the gig listings for The Men You Shouldn't Miss...