An album of full of socialist chants an oddity even in the early ’80s, a decade defined by class warfare and strife. These days there is little in the way of effective politicised music being created, or indeed musical movements and tribal cultures. There are no equivalents to the Teddy Boys, Skins, Mods. There’s nothing like Red Wedge, no Hippies; there’s little in the way of motivated, achievable youth culture. Bling is hardly something to rally around. Politics appears to revolve around the individual, rather than what is right and fair for all.
At the moment, unity is at a low ebb, as is politics in music. This last is perhaps no great loss. With few exceptions, the marriage of music and politics is difficult and rarely gets beyond sloganeering. When done well, it can be electrifying, but often the message gets in the way of the songwriting, or the message becomes a worthless soundbite.
Darren Hayman is no stranger to mixing politics with music; often successfully. The Day That Thatcher Dies might have been something of a blunt tool, but it had one hell of a hook. The idea behind Chants For Socialists came from a pamphlet of lyrics found at the William Morris Museum. Hayman’s work is often meticulously researched and fine details are important to the richness of the final songs and the concept as a whole, and this is no exception. It is no surprise to learn that Chants For Socialists was recorded in three of Morris’ residences, or Morris’ piano was used for the recordings as was his printing set for the limited run of vinyl. By adopting a communal approach to the recording process (a left wing choir aided and abetted, whilst volunteers help printing) and allowing people to pay what they want for the album, the socialist ethics contained in these songs runs right through the venture and chimes perfectly with the source material.
Of course, all this effort would be for naught if the songs weren’t worth hearing. Fortunately, Chants For Socialists is full of beautifully written and well-crafted tunes. These are not songs written to agitate, for that’s not really Hayman’s style; instead they offer comfort, hope, and occasionally a little sadness. For the most part, it’s an album of gentle lilting folk that has come to define many of his projects, but May Day 1894 is an electrifying pop gem. Morris’ lyrics have been paired down considerably, but Hayman retains their positive outlook. It’s an appropriately summery start to the album, and one that suggests hope for the future.
The rest of the album is not quite so direct. There’s optimism in the lyrics but there’s sadness too. March Of The Workers for example reflects on the hopes and togetherness of the working class, but it’s delivered as a lament. Whilst the lines “They come from grief, they come from torment, they want health, they want mirth…you can buy them, you can sell them, but there’s always more” differ slightly from the original, the meaning does not; their relevance still stands.
Down Among The Dead Men’s militaristic percussion adds a little steel and heart to a song that celebrates togetherness but the delicate hushed melodies of The Voice Of Toil are perhaps more effective. The refrain of “Are we not stronger than the rich and the wronger, when day breaks over dreams and sleep” sung beautifully by Hayman and his choir is a gentle reminder that unity is important, but dreams cannot be dimmed by anyone. Themes of death, the power of the few, and a will to be free run throughout these songs. Most important is the sense of decency and kindness contained within them, there is nothing but heart to be found here. Hayman considers some of Morris’ lyrics to be emergency protest songs, and with the UK general election fast approaching, this is an album that should provide guidance.