Turn things Upside Down

By The Happy End

  • Released: 1990 by Cooking Vinyl – cassette and compact disc
  • Produced by: Timothy Cumming, Glen Gordon and Danny Manners
  • Playing Time: 54:58
  • The Artists:
    • Bernadette Keefe – vocals
    • Angus Avison – trumpet
    • Lydie Drouillet – trumpet
    • Glen Gordon – trumpet
    • Loz Speyer – trumpet
    • Richard Avison – trombone, Chinese autolute
    • Shirley McCaw – trombone
    • Sue Samuelsson – trombone
    • Rachel Ponsonby – flute, tenor sax
    • Age Northover – soprano sax, alto sax, percussion
    • Pete Boyse – alto sax
    • Rob Ogleby – alto sax
    • Rachel Bartlett - tenor sax, soprano sax
    • Sue Lynch – tenor sax
    • Mark Allan – baritone sax, bass clarinet
    • Sarha Moore – baritone sax, congas
    • Mat Fox – dulcimer, vocals, percussion, vibraphone
    • Sarah Allen – accordion, flute, piccolo
    • Caroline Hall – vibraphone, trombone, clarinet, percussion
    • Danny Manners – double bass
    • Tim Walmsley – drums, percussion
    • Guests:
      • Robert Wyatt – vocals on 'Turn Things Upside Down'
      • Keith Moore - tuba
      • Eilidh Thompson – vocals on 'Starstruck'
      • Tim Cumming – 'assorted wildlife'

The Tracks:

  • 1. The Oakey Strike Evictions
    Words: Tommy Armstrong
    Music: Traditional/Glen Gordon
  • 2. Turn Things Upside Down
    Words: J. Bruce Glasier
    Music: Mat Fox
  • 3. What Keeps Mankind Alive
    Words: Bertolt Brecht
    Music: Kurt Weill arranged by Danny Manners
  • 4. Nkosi Sikelelei' Afrika / ANC
    Music Enoch Sontonga / Glen Gordon
  • 5. Sailing the Seas
    Part I
    Words and Music: traditional Chinese arranged by Mat Fox
    Part II
    Words and Music: Mat Fox
  • 6. Starstruck
    Words and Music: Mat Fox
  • 7. The Big Rock Candy Mountain
    Words: Harry McClintock
    Music: Traditional / Glen Gordon
  • 8. Rhumba for Nicaragua
    Music: adapted from 'Bella Cubana' by M. Rivera y Chorolo arranged by Caroline Hall and The Happy End
  • 9. The Red Flag
    Words: James Connell
    Music: Traditional / Danny Manners and Count Basie

All from the cd inlay

I knew nothing about The Happy End when I first went to see them. I'd happened across Mat Fox a few years earlier whilst I was involved in a youth theatre, and he'd been in charge of the music for the production. He said to the cast that if any of us were ever able to go and see his band 'The Happy End' play, he'd buy us a pint in the interval. I shelved the name of the band away, just in case, and had forgotten all about it until I was at University and saw a poster for a 'Happy End' gig. The music was, simply, incredible. By the time the interval came, I was queuing for the album.

It's difficult to articulate simply where this album gets its inspiration, but holistically it's obvious. The band is, on the whole, socialist, people centred, and opposed to anything reactionary, and there is a clear political agenda throughout the playlist, from the very obvious 'The Red Flag' and 'Turn Things Upside Down' to the less blatant 'The Big Rock Candy Mountain' and the instrumentals 'Nkosi Sikelelei' Afrika' and 'Rhumba Por Nicaragua'. It is, in places, a hugely uplifting whole, although there are some sombre and self-reflexive moments, as well as some unsettling ones too.

'The Oakey Strike Evictions' is a minor classic. Tommy Armstrong, allegedly, improvised the lyrics in a 'pub duel in defence of his title as the 'pitman’s poet''. The song details the Oakey pit strike when striking miners were forcefully evicted from their company owned homes. The subject matter is, then, rather bitter and perhaps even a little vitriolic: it's easy to see Armstrong reeling off verse after verse in a pub, shouted on by the very miners whose plight he was depicting. The track manages to created this double-edgedness of the context. The music is celebratory with a very fast percussion backing, and whistles, shouts and voices underscoring Bernadette Keefe's amazingly gleeful 'smiley' voice.

The same sort of counterpoint can be found in the last track, 'The Red Flag' which begins extremely mournfully until the Count Basie arrangement kicks in with its swing rhythm. It would have been very easy, I suspect, to finish the album with a celebratory continuation of the Count Basie arrangement, but the tempo and tone switch back to the mournful and almost pessimistic for the last line with its long drawn out last note. There is no celebration, it would suggest, unless the listener goes and does something about it.

'Turn Things Upside Down' is so clever it hurts; it suggests that the arguments that the rich use to convince the poor that their lot in life is adequate should be taken to their logical conclusion.

Plain living may be wholesome, and wondrous virtues may
Abound beneath ribs scant of flesh and pockets scant of pay.
And it may be poverty is best if rightly understood
But we'll turn things upside down because we don't want all that good.

The mood of the track is wonderfully gloomy, and Robert Wyatt's voice (which sounds as if it's being forcibly projected through treacle) matches it wonderfully.

The next track, 'What Keeps Mankind Alive', is by Bertolt Brecht and comes from his 'The Threepenny Opera'– the band's name is taken from a Brecht play, and the song follows Brecht and Weill's philosophy of 'atonal' music very well (the music's not supposed to sound bad, but it is supposed to stop you from 'just listening' to the stuff, and to pay attention to it, in much the same way that Brecht's ideas of Alienation ('Verfremdungs (or the 'V') Effeckt') were supposed to keep the audience alert and observing his plays rather than just watching them). The track starts with a drumstick being scraped around a cymbal, which isn’t particularly pleasant: the tune itself seems to be catching up with itself all the time, or hobbling even. Keefe again seems to molest the words as they come out rather than sing them. It's wonderful stuff, entirely in keeping with the ethos of the song and its lyrics too:

You gentlemen who think you have a mission
To purge us of the seven deadly sins
Should first sort out the basic food position,
Then start your preaching – that's where it begins.

In other words, it's no good trying to make the world a better place by preaching morality – people need food first and foremost. Food before morals. The song also touches on the hypocrisy of preaching restraint to those without food, whilst the preachers themselves have plenty of food on the table. (Interestingly enough, the Pet Shop Boys did a version of this song for a b-side and can be heard on 'Alternative – Pet Shop Boys'. Their version was pretty good too.)

'Starstruck' is perhaps my least favourite track on the album, not least because it seems to be following the same sort of atonality as 'What Keeps Mankind Alive', but whereas that track keeps itself together by dint of its argument, this track's argument isn't quite as direct. Ostensibly it's about Reagan's 'Star Wars Defence Shield' but takes swipes at Thatcher and the West's general complacency too. It's worth listening to, though, as the argument is valid. (It also feature samples of Reagan and Thatcher's public speaking.)

A wonderful piece of children's music, 'The Big Rock Candy Mountain' never struck me as a piece of socialist polemic, but it is of course, and its inclusion on the album easily demonstrates it. I think its idealising is a little idealistic, but it's a great piece. The band are obviously having fun playing it – at the live performance of it, I remember band members who were not playing reading papers or going to sleep – using their trombones as paddles to paddle an imaginary canoe at a pertinent moment in the song. Smashing.

'Sailing the Seas (Depends Upon the Helmsman)' is the best track on the album. It takes as its premise 'a piece of Chinese propaganda from the days of the Cultural Revolution' for Part 1 ('Sailing the seas depends upon the helmsman/ Life and growth depend upon the sun'), and then rethinks it for Part 2 ('Sailing the seas don't depend upon no helmsman, honey/ All we have to do is build a decent boat.'). The rhythm and the music are infectious and the instrumental section in the middle of Part 2 sublime. I'm not so sure if this, though, like 'The Big Rock Candy Mountain', isn't rather too idealistic. Perhaps, however, I'm missing the point: maybe the propaganda is 'too easy' and the band's answer is 'too easy' too. Maybe the whole point of these songs is to get us to think, at least, about the ideas of state, socialism, money and our relationships to them. No answers, then – just great ways of rephrasing the question?

It's wonderful album, even if it is a little patchy in places – perhaps the polemic doesn't always hit as hard as the music undoubtedly does. Having said that, turn it up and listen to the whole thing from start to finish and I guarantee you'll have goose-pimples by the end of the last track. Perhaps I know they're having fun playing the stuff 'cos I saw them do it live (at the Cabaret Theatre in Exeter Arts Centre, Friday 22 nd June, 1990 – and now I feel old). You can't see them live anymore, as they split up – not so long after that gig – they didn't release another album as far as I know. A shame, really.

It's wonderful, wonderful stuff – and Mat, you owe me a pint!

All quotations are from the cd inlay

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