Joe Solo Interview

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Never Be Defeated – Joe Solo talks about the research and recording of his album about Hatfield Main Colliery during the Miners’ Strike.

Hatfield Main Colliery in South Yorkshire has much in common with other mining communities that experienced the full impact of the 1984-85 Miner’s Strike first hand. Like many others, it was economically and socially dependent on the main employer which was the coal mine. Also like many others, the community suffered the hammer blow of the pit closure as a result of the ‘victory’ that the Conservative government of the times achieved over its own people. Even today, over thirty years after the ‘victory’ of the Thatcher government in this bitter industrial dispute, the logic of a government declaring war on workers and their communities is still impossible to fathom. The Hatfield story looked at one stage like it may have a happy ending when the pit started producing coal again in 2007 but economic realities saw this historic mine finally close in 2015.

What lives on however, as in so many of these communities, is a spirit of pride and a catalogue of memories of one of the most bitter periods in modern British history. A community though, is only a collection of individuals with a shared location and experiences and an examination of these experiences can provide a much deeper understanding of a wider event that we thought we already knew about.

Enter Joe Solo, who has taken this opportunity to produce Never Be Defeated, one of the more remarkable albums of the year, distilling this spirit and experience into a musical testament of the strike and its legacy through the prism of the Hatfield experience. What is his background?

Joe Solo: All I’ve ever wanted to do since the age of 14 was make music. First time I heard ‘Roots, Radicals, Rockers and Reggae’ by Stiff Little Fingers…..needle on vinyl….crackle….BANG….something exploded in me. I wanted to do THAT. Took a while, I played in bash-em-out punk cover bands in school but they didn’t last long. I hitched around the country busking in the late 80s and early 90s. Ended up singing on street corners all over Europe, but I came back to form a band and spent 10 years- from 1991 to 2001- fronting Lithium Joe. When they split I went off on my own again. I’ve recorded 14 albums since 2004. Never made a penny profit in 29 years, in fact I only ever met one person who worked in the music industry and frankly that was one too many! So to make ends meet I’ve done all sorts of dead end jobs before falling back on the family trade- we’ve mended washing machines for three generations, it’s in our blood.

The Solo catalogue is fascinating in that it covers working class issues, often from an individual perspective. It is the ability to give to ‘ordinary’ characters from some momentous periods that allows events to come to life through music and almost put the listener in the moment.

JS: The current rhetoric of ‘social mobility’ and ‘aspiration’ really offends me. They’re just another way of describing what used to be called ‘social climbing’. I loathe the whole concept. It’s political encouragement to stab your family, friends and neighbours in the back. There is nothing wrong with who you are and where you come from. I also get really frustrated that people always imagine life is something that happens somewhere else, as if you only become relevant as a person if you’re being photographed or filmed or something. Real life is full of love and loss and tragedy and heroism and romance, but we’re all so wrapped up in what’s over the horizon that we miss it. I write about the extraordinary things that happen to ordinary people, because if you think your life means nothing you are disempowered; but if you wake up to the fact that your life means as much as anybody’s, then suddenly anything is possible. That’s what I want my songs to leave you with, the feeling that your life is here and now and matters.

So, how powerful do you find the individual perspective?

JS: I think it brings the past to life if you can make people understand their own connection to it, so I’ve written about the trenches, about the International Brigades and about the Miner’s Strike because I think if you land a narrator inside a significant event it normalises it. If you can do that then there are two lessons you learn- firstly, that nothing is pre-determined, that a split-second decision taken by any one of us can change the course of history; secondly, it helps you see history as a constant rolling narrative and not just some stuff that happened years ago. Both these lessons empower you. That’s the theory at least, that’s why I write that way.

The Miners’ Strike was a defining period for many of us, whether we were living in the communities or not. At the time the whole thing seemed so utterly senseless and bound to have social consequences that we are still living with. I can’t be the only one whose politics was shaped by the sight of pitched battles between the police and people trying to defend their communities and livelihood.

JS: I’m 46 and not from mining stock myself, but The Strike was my political awakening. I remember the early 80s and the riots and the unemployment and the way the TV and papers were all over the “loafers” and “ne’er do wells” for bringing violence to our streets, fighting because they didn’t have a job; then during the Miner’s Strike they were all over people fighting because they DID have a job and wanted to keep it! I remember thinking that something was very wrong. I grew not to trust the papers or the TV or the government or the police….or anybody who told me I should. I’ve never recovered from that. In certain parts of South Yorkshire and County Durham a Police State was born, and the freedom the Thatcher government gave them made them brave and corrupt and had a direct influence on the way they dealt with Wapping and Hillsborough. A lot of very bad people carried way too much influence and still pull the strings today.

Never Be Defeated is a powerful piece of work that seems to sit well with your previous offerings. How long have you had the idea of an album like this?

JS:I had always planned five Potter’s Field albums. One in the trenches, one in the aftermath, one in Spain (which became ‘No Pasaran’), one in Hull during The Blitz, and one in the Miner’s Strike. Thing was, I’d invented all the characters in the first two and although they worked as stories, to me they felt too detached. ‘No Pasaran’ was based around real people whose stories I researched and then walked a mile in their shoes. I knew I had to do the same for the last two and I’d started researching stories from The Blitz for the fourth. Then I got a call to say someone had pulled out of a 30th Anniversary gathering in Stainforth Pit Club and would I sing a few songs. I went down there and met all the lads and lasses and listened to their speeches and stories and I soaked them all up. The following March I was asked back to sing at the 30th Anniversary of the Long March Back. By then I’d started writing and the songs just kept coming. I think the Miners were at the front line of the fight against what is now called neo-liberalism before any of us knew there even WAS one. I think their struggle- going a full year without pay fighting to save their jobs and communities, to safeguard a future for their children- will go down as one of the greatest and most pivotal moments in Working Class history. I think they will be held in the same regard, the same awe as the Tolpuddle Martyrs or the volunteers for the International Brigades. I knew how much their sacrifice had influenced and inspired me, and I wanted to write them a record which told THEIR story with all its struggles, black comedy, and triumph in defeat. I wanted to give them something back.

Was it difficult to find people willing to share their experiences about this period?

JS: Hahaha. You don’t know the Hatfield Brigade! It’s harder getting the buggers to stop!

Was it a case of completing the research then sitting down and writing or did you write as you went along? Or maybe were some songs formed already?

JS: I read a few books to get a full overview, but most of the work wasn’t work at all, it was just watching and listening. Speeches, conversations, emails, Facebook threads, loans of archive footage and newspaper clippings; it was a total labour of love and every second was special. I doubt I will ever write something I enjoyed this much again. I was sad to see it all end.

The album is pretty much a narrative through the events of the strike – was that the intention at the start or did it emerge as that?

JS: I wanted to write The Strike chronologically so you could follow the emotions through the various set-pieces, and the problems they faced. That way you had the overview at the same time as you saw it from the picket lines and soup kitchens. It seemed to matter more that way, rather than a collection of scattered songs. It’s a proper old-school ALBUM.

A number of characters emerge in the narrative. Can you tell us a bit more about them?

JS: Pretty much all of the songs come from stories told me by striking miners and their wives, I’ve written them in the first person, but these are the stories of Mick Lanaghan, Les Moore, Tony Clegg, Harry Harle, Will Moore, Carol Mccardle, Sheena Moore, Pat Dignan, Nij Hughes…..it’s a long list, but they each have a thousand stories to tell. I’ve written about the family history, of mining being passed father to son; the picket lines, the struggles with money, the police threats and violence, the conveyor belt in the court rooms; I covered the Stainforth riots, the Great Potato Raid, Christmas on strike; then the hurt of being called back to work before sacked miners had been reinstated. Ultimately it ends with their sacrifice being redeemed by history, the fact that all the things they fought so hard to prevent, and which the Thatcher government lied about, all came to pass- the pits WERE all closed, privatisation DID run rampant, the unions WERE cowed. They have been proved right on every level, it was the rest of the country who got it wrong and boy are we paying the price for that now.

During your research, did anything emerge that surprised you, or maybe altered your perspective on the strike and related issues?

JS: It’s the little details that hit you. I don’t think my perspective on The Strike overall was changed, but I think I learned a lot more about the individual hardships involved, particularly the women trying to make ends meet and feed the kids; or the sheer brutality of the police; the strain it put on marriages. The legacy though is phenomenal. The Strike casts a long shadow. You only have to watch the film ‘Pride’ to see the lasting effect it had on Gay Rights; and once the women had left the kitchen sink for the picket lines and the lecture theatres, many were never to return. So aside from standing up to the forces of evil and inspiring a generation, there’s a lasting legacy of liberation and equality. Maybe that’s a whole new album…..

Any stories that you just couldn’t get into a song, despite trying, or did everything come together easily?

JS: Once I set my mind to it I tame ’em easy enough.

Rebekah Findlay’s vocals are an essential part of the album, giving voice to the wives of striking miners and adding a valuable depth to the story. Can you tell us a bit more about her and your previous collaborations?

JS: Rebekah is incredible. I first shared a bill with her about seven years ago and was amazed by her voice and musicianship. She has a really instinctive ear for what it needed, rather than just what fits, and that matters when you’re telling stories because the music has to embellish the words and lead you through the narrative. If you get that wrong it’s cluttered and you break the spell you’re trying to cast. Rebekah always does just enough, never too much and never too little. That’s an a priceless talent and I’m very lucky she’ll play with me. The two songs she takes lead vocal on are my favourites on the record, she takes you right into the heart of the lyric and keeps you there until the last breath. Amazing.

What has the reaction been like among those who contributed stories?

JS: Theirs is the only opinion that really matters at the end of the day. I was sharing the songs with them as I wrote them, so they knew how it was shaping up. I remember writing a few of the darker ones first and I got a call from Mick Lanaghan saying, “Howay Joe lad, it were a laugh n’all y’know! There was this time when…….” and he practically wrote the next song on the phone! I was sat there scribbling away furiously. All I had to do was make his story rhyme. That was the song ‘Starve Us Back To Work’. The good thing about them all is they are proper honest. I remember when I first started I was talking to a mate of mine and said, “I’m just worried I get it wrong and offend them”, he just laughed and came back with, “Joe, this is Hatfield we’re talking about, you get it wrong and you’ll know about it!” Hehe. Seriously though, they could not have been more supportive and I wear my ‘Honorary Member of The Hatfield Brigade’ hat with pride. Only two people in the world have them, and the other is Paul Heaton.

How significant do you feel the events you have written about are in British history?

JS: Like I said, The Strike will be viewed by future generations as a heroic stand against oppression, and if they’d had the backing of the TUC and some of the other unions, who knows what this country would look like today. They were so close to winning, to beating that bitch, that it’s painful. Imagine if we could have stopped neo-liberalism in its tracks and built a fairer, more equal society in its place? A bit more unity and we could have changed the world. That is a lesson from the past for the future, precisely why this record had to be written. We now have another fight on our hands, against the same enemy, and if we get it wrong AGAIN we will lose the NHS and the Welfare State for good.

How satisfied are you with the finished album?

JS: Well I always criticise everything I do to the nth degree because that’s how you learn, but as a collection of songs I did exactly what I set out to, there’s different styles and textures and Rebekah’s voice gives people a break from my own which helps carry the record. I’m really pleased with it, and I feel like I told their story the way it needed to be told so I could have done no more. Like everything, history will judge it, but I loved every last second of writing it and I hope that shows.

Never Be Defeated is quite an achievement but I get the feeling you won’t be resting on your laurels. What are your next plans?

JS: Always busy. Too much wrong in the world. Main plans for the year now are May Day Festival of Solidarity on May 1st, a huge gathering of the tribes myself and Tony from The Hurriers have organised in Barnsley. We’ve got voices from music and politics together to celebrate International Worker’s Day and to present a united front against the Tories. Once that’s over I have a week to rest before We Shall Overcome starts all over again. Last year we managed 250 gigs in 123 towns and cities across 8 countries on 3 continents raising £125,000 worth of cash, food, clothing and bedding for those hardest hit by State-inflicted poverty. This year we want to top that. In the 21st Century we shouldn’t need to, but then the country didn’t back the miners, and this is the world that left us with. There’s a new fight now, and we’ve ALL got a part to play. I for one am not going to duck that fight, but then I had good role models didn’t I?

For more information about Joe Solo’s work and to purchase anything, please visit his website Joe is also on Twitter as @joesolomusic

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