Remembering Alex Glasgow, a working-class singer


Songs of Alex Glasgow 1 & 2
Now & Then: Songs of Alex Glasgow 3
Northern Drift & Joe Lives
Alex Glasgow

During the British miners’ strike in 1984, when Margaret Thatcher set out to break the National Union of Miners and push for her neoliberal counter-revolution, I somehow received word that Alex Glasgow was flying to Britain to perform solidarity concerts.

I hadn’t even known he was living in Perth and all I knew of him was that he had written the theme song for the hit TV show, When the Boat Comes In. Only recently have I discovered that he also wrote four of its episodes.

When the Boat Comes In, which must be one of the best-quality “soap operas” ever produced, used the lives of working class characters in the north-east of England to illustrate the political upheavals of the 1920s and '30s. A large part of its addictive charm was the theme song.

I tracked Glasgow down on the phone, found out he was leaving the next day and got his agreement to deliver a donation to the miners. A quick ring around of Socialist Workers Party supporters in Perth gathered pledges of $150 and I rushed about on my motorbike collecting and delivering it to Glasgow’s home that evening.

Only later did I realise how large Glasgow loomed in the working-class folk music tradition of Newcastle on Tyne. These three CDs demonstrate why.

Glasgow seamlessly combined several talents. He was blessed with a beautiful tenor voice, wrote sometimes hilarious, often piercingly sensitive ballads, and contributed to British radio and TV.

The tradition he kept alive was related to the northern England's popular music hall heritage, with broad humour, lovely orchestrations and colloquial phrasings. He was also often controversial.

Coinciding with a 1970s Conservative Party conference, Glasgow sang a song on the BBC North Region radio that went: “I'm going to sell a little bomb to South Africa, Just a teeny-weeny bomb to South Africa .” The Tories hit the roof, Glasgow was sacked and his colleagues quit in solidarity.

I don’t know if he was a member of any left party, but his staunchly anti-social democrat, pro-Trotskyist, working-class sympathies shine through in his songs “The Socialist ABC”, “The Candidate” and “My Daddy is a Left Wing Intellectual”.

Glasgow never lost his love for the people of Newcastle upon Tyne. There are many beautifully drawn word pictures of working-class life all over these CDs.

Glasgow had the unusual talents of perfect enunciation combined with a Geordie accent. He also often wrote in Geordie dialect, which is like a secret language to Australian ears. Without the lyrics sheet it is sometimes near impossible to understand what he is singing ― though it sounds sonorous.

As much as he loved the working class, Glasgow also shone a torch on its limitations. “As Soon as This Pub Closes (The Revolution Starts)” is a classic statement on the matter.

Glasgow died in Perth in 2001, but his work is maintained by Mawson and Wareham in Newcastle upon Tyne, which holds a huge archive of music from the region between north Yorkshire and the Scottish border.

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