'And that means you' — Joe Solo, English musician and socialist

Friday, March 11, 2016


Joe Solo.

Joe Solo is a “folk, punk and blues” artist from north Yorkshire, who sings about how it is in working-class Britain, without all the pretence and romance. And, as the name suggests, it's just him and his guitar.

He's a prolific live performer, recording artist and writer, and was also instrumental behind various projects like We Shall Overcome (WSO) — a series of gigs with “the purpose of uniting in the face of a government whose agenda of austerity we oppose”.

He may not be a familiar name, but his campaigning attitude ain't ever going to gain traction with Radio Happy. An album, Never Be Defeated, was released in October last year and is an excellent work with hard-hitting lyrics.

Britain under the Conservative regime is an unhappy, cruel and austere place; on the one hand David Cameron's rich boys and girls say the national debt needs to be curtailed by cutting benefits to vulnerable people, and on the other it orders planes to bomb a foreign country.

There's plenty of opportunity to expose some lies and hypocrisy, which Solo does quite well. Craig Haggis caught up to ask him about his music and the struggle against austerity.

* * *

It must be hard to be a campaigning, independent songwriter in a time of heartless Tory cuts, rampant neoliberalism and war. Is socialism still relevant — and achievable — in this environment?

Socialism is needed more than ever, but it is needed in the true sense and not the well-thumbed pages of dry political tract.

Socialism at its core is about people, and if you put people first – before profit, before self-interest – then you are a socialist in attitude without relying on scripture.

We need to put the politics of compassion and equality into action, not just spend hours talking about how everything is terrible and how cruel the world is. That's the way of the coward.

It's easier to imagine the task is impossible, because that excuses you from trying. It isn't impossible. People just need the alternative voice, and because they don't hear it they follow the pervading narrative of looking after Number 1, of commodity culture.

Stand up. Speak up. We have a world to change.

Is there still a place for campaigning, anti-establishment bands, especially when it's all Katy and Justin on the radio?

I don't think the radio matters any more. That's just background music for people to do the ironing to. If you want real music you look for it somewhere else.

That somewhere else is no longer in the mainstream media via the record companies, so in that sense the industry which propelled Billy Bragg or The Housemartins or New Model Army, say, to mainstream ears in the 1980s, is dead.

As such it is harder to survive, because getting a band out there and keeping it on the road costs money, money you can't make without a name, which you can't make without the industry. It's catch-22.

But that doesn't make the music less relevant. There just aren't the breaks anymore, so you have to be prepared to knuckle down for the long haul and stand your ground.

That makes you stronger, and if we stick together and help each other, then we have a scene of our own that the industry played no part in creating — a stronger, more inclusive scene built on support and mutual respect, rather than one competing for the limelight.

Britain now has the most-right government since the Thatcher regime and a party, the UK Independence Party (UKIP), doing well with a racist and bigoted program. In this environment can a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party really provide an alternative?

In short, yes. The Tories will wreak havoc, as always, until they pass the point of being unelectable. It always happens. You just have to expose them at every step, fight them where possible, and be patient.

UKIP have been essentially wrong-footed by Cameron calling a referendum [Britain's membership of the European Union]; once that has been and gone, win or lose, they will have had what they were demanding.

Their anti-immigration rhetoric played well in certain communities, though I personally don't think Britain is racist, I just think we don't engage our brains before we start nodding and cheering.

It is easy for [UKIP leader] Nigel Farage to blame the fact you can't get a job or a council house on immigrants “coming over here and taking all our … etc”; much harder to talk of the real problem, that of chronic underfunding in schools, hospitals, public services and a decades-old lack of investment in public housing.

That is a problem you have to blame on the politicians themselves, so they naturally don't want you to do that and point the finger elsewhere.

Corbyn has to win that argument, expose the lie at the heart of austerity and the cuts, and fill the void with constructive policy. If he does that, he wins back UKIP votes, and more importantly, reawakens the Old Labour voters who have deserted politics.

If he adds this to a rising tide of young voters whose ideas of socialism aren't tainted by decades old pre-programmed Cold War propaganda, he has the country.

You also have to look at social media and the fact that we are five years away from the election. By 2020, the traditional press will be less influential, and peer-formed opinions much more the order of the day.

Corbyn is shrewd. He knows his mandate to run the party comes from here and not the [Parliamentary Labour Party], and he knows young people represent the future, and the Tory old guard the past. We need to support him, to use our voices to expose the Tory counter-narrative against him ... and to hold our nerve. These are exciting times.

Has his election given hope to those who need it most, or is this just another false dawn, AS the establishment always wins in the end?

It has certainly energised a lot of people, and that can only be a good thing. Nothing ever changes from the top down, we have to force it from down here. That has always been the way.

If his election [as Labour leader] has galvanised the people who make things happen, it will have been a good thing regardless of how The Establishment plays it.

I'm not saying it won't get messy, but I do believe the more people there are talking about politics, organising, marching, campaigning, fundraising and exposing the lie at the heart of the system, the better.

Never Be Defeated tells the stories of miners and their families during the miner's strike of 1984/85. How did this project come about and evolve?

I was asked to sing a few songs at Stainforth Pit Club [in Doncaster] as part of the [miners' strike] 30th anniversary commemorations, and it grew from there. I was just so inspired by the lads and lasses down there and their stories and speeches that I started writing and couldn't stop.

I wanted to tell the story of the strike through first-hand recollections of people who lived through it, rather than dry polemic from me.

The Hatfield Brigade are such an incredible and inspiring bunch of people that the record is effectively just me making them rhyme. I'm very proud of it, and the only review that matters is the thumbs up I got from them.

I wanted to give something back to the people who helped define my politics back in the '80s. That thumbs-up meant everything.

Tell us about We Shall Overcome?

WSO was something a bunch of us started the day after the election in May. We wanted to put together a night of musical defiance and raise provisions and cash for food banks and homeless shelters as we did it. We thought maybe, if we were lucky, we might get 10 to 15 gigs together on the same night and make a point. We tagged everyone we knew, and the idea exploded.

By the time we ran our weekend [of gigs] in October, we had 250 gigs in 123 towns across eight counties raising an estimated £125,000 worth of food, cash, bedding and clothing for those hardest hit in our communities.

It was monumental, and so many people were involved in so many different communities. It was a lesson in solidarity and togetherness I will never forget as long as I live.

This year we do it all again, and again, and again until there is no need for it. Music, politics and community are all a part of the same thing, but people forget that.

How important is it for you to play benefit gigs?

Massively. I can talk, write and sing, but they mean nothing if I can't put them to some use. I believe music was born around campfires to tell stories and to raise spirits and to help people through hard times, and they can industrialise it and commoditise it all they like, at its heart, music is hope.

That is what I want to bring to a gig. If I can help raise funds doing that, then fantastic. It matters. It all matters.

Which artists have most inspired you?

Too many to mention. I'm a huge Clash fan and a punk at heart, but I love music of all genres. Anything that lifts your spirits, picks you up, makes you feel and think and strive.
I'm typing this on the anniversary of Joe Strummer's death, so it seems fitting to say that I am what I am because on Complete Control he shouted 'AND THAT MEANS YOU', and I believed him.

[Reprinted from craighaggis.wordpress.com. Also check out joesolomusic.com.]

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