X marks the spot

Two years ago, I wrote a lot in the run-up to and aftermath of the UK general election, and my “morning after” post remains about the most-read thing I’ve ever written. I don’t plan on trying to repeat that. Except to say, if you live in the UK and you have a vote, stop reading this and go do something more important.

Then once you’ve voted, there’s one more thing to which I’d like to direct your attention, in these in-between hours before Big Ben bongs and they unveil the exit poll.

Long-time readers may remember a madcap project during the closing week of the 2015 election campaign in which my old friends Billy and Martine rode trains across England, singing in the street and talking to everyone they met about power: Who has the power? What does power mean? What kind of power would you want to have?

This was, in effect, Act II of a performance that started earlier that year, when they popped up on BBC1’s The Voice with their reworking of Snap’s 90s rave-pop anthem, The Power. Ask them why they did that, as serious musicians (well, silly-serious musicians), and Billy will tell you about the samba band they run with people with so-called learning disabilities, and how they realised that for the people they were making music with, shows like The Voice were serious – were music. So Billy wanted to show them that someone they knew could be on that show – and to see how much of the liveliness of their music-making could be squeezed through the narrow pipes of the TV production machine. (Later, when they released The Power as a single, the samba band played on the recording – and you’ll see them in the video…)

If that was Act I, then Act II was the ‘power trip’ in which Billy and Martine played the song on high streets and market squares and seafronts, filming conversations about power with whoever they met, culminating in their arrival at Westminster on election night by milk float.

Over the months that followed, Act III began to take shape. Back home in Devon, Billy took the words of people they’d met on that trip and set them to music. The result was The Other Place, a ‘vox-popera’, a street-level journey through the state of UK democracy. Over the past year, with their band The Multiple, they’ve toured it as a live show across England, each show a retelling of the story of their election-week trip and a ritual of democratic imagination in which the audience takes part. (Here’s a great write-up of the show at Camden People’s Theatre in November, where it was part of All The Right Notes, a festival ‘exploring what happens when gigs and theatre collide’.)

Now they’re recording it as an album – and, as every self-respecting gang of independent musicians does these days, they’re running a crowdfunder. So yeah, I’m writing about this because I want to persuade you to chip in, pre-order a copy of the album and help them make it happen. (Heck, if you’re feeling generous and deep-pocketed, you can even get Billy’s famous pink bodywarmeras seen on TV – into the deal…)

But I’m also writing about this because I think The Other Place is an amazing piece of art. For a start – and maybe this is because I started out as a radio journalist, sticking a microphone in shoppers’ faces on The Moor in Sheffield – there’s something beautiful about going to the opposite extreme from the way such material is normally treated. The conversations on which The Other Place is based start in the realm of the vox-pop, where people’s first response is to recycle newspaper headline clichés, saying the things they think you want to hear – but as they realise that Billy and Martine are actually interested, they wander off in more interesting directions, voicing their uncertainties, telling stories about their lives. And whereas in a newsroom, you’d be clipping out eight second soundbites and slamming them together in time for the next bulletin, here the recordings have been worked with for months by a composer, and there’s something tender and subversive about giving that much care to people’s words. It ends up somewhere between John Harris and John Domokos’s essential Anywhere But Westminster video series for the Guardian and Rajni Shah’s extraordinary musical, Glorious.

Musically, Billy and co are rooted in the borderlands of folk and jazz, inspired by the Canterbury scene of the 1970s. (Besides performing and recording their own material, they’ve made an album with Dave Sinclair of Caravan and are regular collaborators with jazz theatre composer Mike Westbrook.) When it comes to The Other Place, the music is led in different directions by the shifting moods as they move across the country. So in Bristol, there’s an anti-austerity anthem worthy of the Manic Street Preachers, while a swing through Kent (as Nigel Farage fights for Thanet South) takes us into Kurt Weill territory, and the final milk-float ride through London produces the punky electronica of ‘We Are Merely Plebs!’

The journey whose story is told in The Other Place took place in another world – a world where Ed Miliband seemed likely to become prime minister, Russell Brand seemed like a figure who might influence the outcome of a general election and Donald Trump seemed like a reality TV joke. Two years on, the joke isn’t funny anymore, but many of the themes that have surfaced as pundits try to make sense of the political events of the past two years are already there in these conversations. The widening distance between cities and towns, the sense that democracy is broken, bewilderment and mistrust, an anger and an ache.

Full disclosure: I’ve played a background role in The Other Place, helping tell the story of the road trip as it went along, contributing a few lyrics and generally being a sounding board when the show was in development. But mostly, I’ve admired from a distance, and having lived with these songs since they were demos, I can’t wait to hear the studio album. So, um, please get over to PledgeMusic and support their campaign, sometime between now and 17 June, so that they can get on with mixing it!

Here’s the bit I wrote, by the way. It comes at the end of the first half of the show, half-way through the trip, as Billy sits down with a postal ballot paper:

X marks the spot
The place you find the treasure
X is the mystery, the unknown variable
X, the one you used to love
The signature of the unlettered
The wrong answer…

Imagine if we all sat down to write
All the things you can’t say with an X
But can with all the other letters…

Rereading that, it hits me that I missed the obvious: X is also a kiss, a mark of love. So how’s that for a polling day message? Go out and say it with an X.

  • This is taken from today’s edition of Crossed Lines, an occasional newsletter where I ramble about whatever I’m thinking, reading or writing about. Sign up here to get words in your inbox.