By my reckoning, the first time I sang this song in public must have been just over 29 years ago.
I can’t swear that I heard Billy Bragg’s first, mushroom biryani-inspired airplay on the John Peel show. But I’d heard his early Peel sessions, and admired both his songs and his attitude (although back then, the suggestion that he might one day appear on the bill at folk festivals, still less on the panel of Question Time, would have seemed quite preposterous). I first saw him, with my friend Adrian, in October 1984, in a sports hall at the University of Kent at Canterbury. This was part of the famous “Hank, Frank and Billy” tour, with Frank Chickens and the Hank Wangford Band.
I knew the songs from Life’s a Riot and, although it had only just come out, I was also familiar with quite a lot of the songs on Brewing Up from the Peel show. Of the new songs, the one which really made an impression was Between the Wars. A week or so later Billy was In Concert on Radio 1, and I had a cassette ready. That was early Saturday evening. The following lunchtime, at a small session at the Shipwright’s at Hollow Shore, I sang this for the first time.
Thereafter, I sang it wherever I went. The Oysterband certainly had it from me, and I think I was the first person Martin Carthy heard singing the song. That was in one of those lovely semi-formal singing sessions you used to get at the National Folk Festival at Sutton Bonington, in March or April 1985. By that time, of course, the Between the Wars EP had been released, and Billy was climbing up the singles chart (here he is singing the song on Top of the Pops). Naturally I included the song on my 1990 album Love Death and the Cossack.
This is a new recording from a couple of weeks ago. I have to confess that I could reach those top Gs with rather greater facility back in 1990 – judge for yourself at andyturner.bandcamp.com/track/between-the-wars – but frankly, I’m amazed I can still get them at all. And I still get a real buzz out of singing the song. Although born out of the conflict of the Thatcher years, specifically the bitter, year-long Miners’ strike, the sentiments of the song do not go out of date.
There has been no shortage of “skies all dark with bombers” over the last thirty years. And how about
For theirs is a land with a wall around it
And mine is a faith in my fellow man
does that resonate with anyone today?
And while Russell Brand talks of revolution, I prefer Billy’s plea
Sweet moderation, heart of this nation
Desert us not…
Between the Wars
Andy Turner – vocal, G/D anglo-concertina