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Darren Hayman - Chants for Socialists

  by Adrian Janes

published: 14 / 3 / 2015

Darren Hayman - Chants for Socialists
Format: CD


Fragmentarily successful latest album from former Hefner front man Darren Hayman, which sets to music 19th century designer William Morris’ forgotten Marxist poems

For many people today William Morris is best known as a designer of wallpaper, books and furniture, who tried to restore in the 19th century some sense of the craftsmanship and satisfaction in work that a medieval worker might have had. With such a legacy, it’s little wonder that Morris has to a large extent been domesticated. This would be a mistake, since even though he drew inspiration from the past, Morris was a Marxist. The values he tried to instil in his work were intended to be a criticism of the ugliness wrought by industrial capitalism, and the equally brutal and destructive effects it had on the lives of the workers whose labour maintained it. But he wasn’t merely an aesthete, for he vigorously wrote about and lectured on transcending these conditions via socialism and also wrote poetry for ‘The Cause’. It’s some of this poetry that former Hefner front-man Darren Hayman, in part aided by collaborators like Robert Rotifer, has adapted on this album. Lyrically, he has done a good job of getting to its heart: Morris’ prolix originals have little of the effective simplicity of a song like ‘Power to the People’, but the collective chanting of the title on concluding track ‘No Master High or Low’ could almost make it a socialist ‘Hey Jude’. Yet with unfortunate irony, it’s Hayman’s voice that is often the album’s weakest element, being generally thin and possessing little range. It would be a disservice both to Morris’ vision and the largely folk-rock music for the lead vocal to bludgeon home the message. But the hopeful sentiment of ‘The Day is Coming’, for example, with its repeated “We will it”, is sung in too weak a way to convince or inspire. However this same largely orthodox track also displays some real musical imagination towards the end, with echoing piano which adds an unexpected depth. Similarly, a curious bubbling keyboard underlies ‘A Death Song’, and there is a nicely jagged guitar tone on ‘May Day 1894’, a sunny air which sounds like it could have originated in 1970s California. The songs are as much about workers’ suffering as the hope of overcoming it, perhaps too much so as the music is at best mid-paced, and in the case of ‘March Of The Workers” and ‘The Voice Of Toil’, positively funereal. Hayman might have done more to disentangle the anger from Morris’ words, as well as the sorrow that’s clearly there and which is effectively conveyed on ‘All for the Cause’ through its distant melodica and female chorus. Penultimate track, ‘The Message of the March Wind’, finally brings together the fragmentary promise scattered over the rest of the album with one of the most affecting melodies and Hayman’s voice really blending well with some strong backing singers. Recording the album mainly in Morris’ old houses in Walthamstow and Hammersmith, these are apparently simply local people who volunteered themselves - perhaps this accounts for the variability of the performances, for whereas on ‘March Wind’ the singers complement and complete Hayman, on other tracks they’re as diffident as he often sounds himself. Too restrained to be really inspiring or deeply moving, several of the songs here do have some very good moments. Hayman and his occasional partners also deserve credit for quarrying Morris’ words and turning them into modern lyrics. Yet I can’t help thinking that, if he linked his songwriting talent to a strong lead vocalist, these songs would have much more impact. Nonetheless he should be applauded for breathing some present-day life into these old chants, and rightly making Morris less a part of the cultural furniture.

Track Listing:-
1 Awake London Lads
2 May Day 1894
3 March of the Workers
4 The Day Is Coming
5 Down Among the Dead Men
6 A Death Song
7 All for the Cause
8 The Voice of Toil
9 The Message of the March Wind
10 No Master High or Low

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