thu 18/04/2024

The Men They Couldn't Hang, Shepherd's Bush Empire | reviews, news & interviews

The Men They Couldn't Hang, Shepherd's Bush Empire

The Men They Couldn't Hang, Shepherd's Bush Empire

Fiery anniversary gig for indestructible folk punk rebels

Swill and Cush of The Men They Couldn't Hang: rebellious, but melodicMax Ellis

From the balcony overlooking the mosh pit you get a good idea of how long a band has been going. Last night at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, The Men They Couldn’t Hang celebrated their 30th anniversary while a small kinetic cluster of mainly bald 50-year-olds pinged into one another like shiny billiard balls. A fiver says a sheepish accountant or two will have had some explaining to do this morning in A&E.

The Men could and should have been contenders. For the second half of the Eighties, they were. Forged in the crucible of Thatcherism, they quickly established themselves as England’s answer to the Pogues, a raffish pub band plugged into not only some very loud speakers but also a rich deep folk memory. They embodied something that got tagged as cowpunk, which was less the missing link between the Clash and the Wurzels than fiery foursquare tunesmithery that harked back past the Miners' Strike to Cable Street, the trenches and beyond to before the Industrial Revolution. Rebelliously but melodically, The Men sang for and about the underdog, the unmoneyed, the disenfranchised, invoking with angry sentimentalism an England that no longer exists, and maybe never did.

Where Odgers supplies the velvet, Cush has a mallet for a larynx

And they still do. The band has long since scattered to other corners of the UK, but for their birthday gig they came back to the Bush, the former haunt where it all started. Gentrification has since sunk its talons into the Goldhawk Road, where their old watering hole is now a Costa retailing chai lattes. Similar market forces did their worst to The Men a long time ago – I went to a farewell gig more than 20 years ago – but, as this gathering proved, their passion for collective music-making is indestructible.

Their signature is rooted in the blending of two very distinct leaders – Phil “Swill” Odgers and Stefan “Cush” Cush (the nicknames suggest shanty-chanting navvies) - whose harmonising voices play off each other, as songwriters and singers, like any other chalk-and-cheese double-fronted band you care to think of. Where Odgers supplies the vocal velvet, Cush has a mallet for a larynx. (The differences – folkie v rocker - were nicely laid out in their acoustic slots.) Meanwhile, slightly to the side, is the band’s other composer Paul Simmonds (pictured above right), exuding an air of amused detachment on electric mandolin. As often as not it’s Simmonds’ skirling licks which open The Men’s songs before the rest of the band crash in with a satisfying wallop.

The good news is there’s a new album coming, supported by fans’ crowd-funding, and the new songs can hold their heads up in the company of the oldies. But it was the latter that everyone came to hear, and they tumbled out with a hefty weight of conviction: “Bounty Hunter”, “The Crest” (featuring a punchy return for original drummer Jon Odgers), "Lobotomy Gets 'em Home!" (about troubled Hollywood starlet Frances Farmer), “Smugglers”. The last three songs of the main set found The Men at their rambling, sabre-rattling essence: “Rosettes” (about football hooligans), “The Colours” (about mutiny in the Napoleonic wars) and “Ironmasters” (which compares the treatment of the working classes in the 19th century and the 1980s).

Throughout this magnificent celebration, guests came and went – among them fiddle and dulcimer so that at one point seven stringed instruments across the lip of the stage were serving up anglicised, amped-up bluegrass. It’s hard to imagine that a band with such a strong whiff of testosterone in their very name once included a woman, but for the first encore original bassist Shanne Bradley returned to thump out the languorous rhythms of the band’s first single, the lament for the Tommies of World War One “The Green Fields of France”. A final camp cameo for Edward Tudor-Pole rooted the band back in punk, but The Men they still haven't hanged are somehow older and definitely better than that. Long may they dodge the noose.

The good news is there’s a new album coming, and the new songs can hold their heads up in the company of the oldies


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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Great write up of what was a fantastic show. I'm an accountant in his 40s btw!

A proper review, that. Wish I could have been there to witness at first hand, but I've seen TMTCH often enough to be able to imagine myself there. Give it a few years (when I'm even further into my 50s and even more bald) and I'll have convinced myself I was!

What a great night! Well done fellas. How about a gig in Essex? I have all my hair and do bomb disposal as a job at 52!

Fantastic night - as always. Looking forward to DVD. Excellent to see Shanne back for Greenfields of France.

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