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It took a nation of millions to hold back Matt McGinn - click opera
February 2010
 
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Wed, Jan. 14th, 2009 03:48 am
It took a nation of millions to hold back Matt McGinn

I stumbled on Matt McGinn -- communist, atheist, republican, and perhaps Scotland's most interesting satirical songwriter -- via a google image search. The starting point was this article by Ben Goldacre, which cites a staggering statistic: that life-expectancy in Calton, Glasgow's poorest area, is 28 years less than in Lenzie, a middle-class area just eight miles away. To get a feel for what these areas are like, I ran a google image search on "Lenzie Glasgow" and was soon inspecting this detached, comfortable villa:



The search on "Calton Glasgow" brought up images of high rise blocks, graveyards, tenement buildings... and this picture of Matt McGinn -- "McGinn of the Calton", as the tribute website calls him:



True to the Goldacre stats for Calton, McGinn died young -- a year short of his 50th birthday, in 1977, of smoke inhalation. I listened to a McGinn song called We'll Have a Mayday, a sort of socialist anthem, rousing and defiant. Then I turned to YouTube. The more videos of McGinn's songs I heard, the odder it became that I'd never heard his name before -- here was a Scottish Brassens, or Mani Matter, or Woody Guthrie (with, it's true, some worrying tinges of Rolf Harris and The Proclaimers).

It really does seem to have been a sort of deliberate conspiracy to keep McGinn off TV and radio and out of the newspapers in the 1960s and 1970s, when he was writing and performing his thousand or so songs. A Glasgow Herald editor more or less admits as much in this little documentary (ignore the Billy Connolly bit, please): "There are very few film clips of Matt McGinn singing, for the simple reason that television wasn't interested in him -- he was too dangerous."



Amazingly, the clip of McGinn singing here during a work-in at the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders Yard is the only existing film of the singer in performance. It's a completely scandalous dereliction of cultural duty on the part of the Scottish media of the time -- and completely attributable to the "communist, atheist, republican" stuff. (McGinn did, though, appear on Scottish TV as an actor from time to time.)



McGinn owed everything, even his Oxbridge education, to the unions. It was a trade union scholarship that allowed him to study economics and political science at Ruskin College, Oxford in his early thirties. Here's a song of gratitude: If It Wisnae For The Union:



Becoming an Oxford graduate didn't give McGinn any grand ideas -- a couple of years later he was organising an adventure playground in the Gorbals. A song he wrote called The Foreman O'Rourke won a folk song contest, and McGinn was championed by Pete Seeger, who got McGinn into a concert at the Carnegie Hall (where he met Bob Dylan). "His performances in clubs and concert halls were hugely popular, often leaving the audience in tears of laughter," the short Wikipedia entry ends; "He passionately believed in the overthrow of capitalism and supported many union disputes and always sided with the oppresed and down-trodden." Hence, presumably, the radio silence and lack of film footage.

I don't know what Billy Connolly (now there's a man vastly over-exposed by the media!) means when he claims that McGinn couldn't sing in tune or in time -- listening to his songs, I was struck by his really great sense of rhythm, and the pitch is fine. Here's a catchy number called Get Up, Get Out:



McGinn was also a hell of a lot funnier than Connolly; here's I Was Born 10,000 Years Ago, which had me chuckling, anyway:



And here's the Benny Hill-ish Sugary Cake And Candy Man:



I could almost imagine Joe Howe reworking Our Wee Wean into something like The Cooper o' Fife:



Which means, too, that I could totally imagine a Momus album of Matt McGinn cover versions in which we take this material into strange new areas. Because the core of it -- the words and rhythms and sentiments -- is really solid and interesting. The songs are unsentimental, documenting working class life. Here's a tribute to the shipbuilders of the Clyde, Ballad of the Q4:



And here's one about workers' tea breaks, The Can O' Tea:



There are extraordinary topical-satirical barbs against Christianity (Ban The Beatles) and against conservative counter-revolutionary entertainers (Frankie Vaughan). There are ditties about Gay Liberation and birth control, but sometimes McGinn can be compelling just singing about a red yoyo with a wee yellow stripe:



Here's a great formalist joke, a ballad that rings the changes on the sound of words ending in "arra":



I suppose we should end with McGinn's completely outrageous and bizarre rendition of the Jewish traditional song Hava Nagila as Have A Banana:



Eight miles away in Lenzie they might live to 80, but it was Calton that produced Matt McGinn. It took a nation of millions to hide him from me... until today.

48CommentReply

mancunian
mancunian
Mr Sunglasses All The Time
Wed, Jan. 14th, 2009 03:14 am (UTC)

Sorry, are you familiar with lj-cut?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Jan. 14th, 2009 03:17 am (UTC)

And they're still trying to censor the man!


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eptified
eptified
H. Duck
Wed, Jan. 14th, 2009 03:37 am (UTC)

I wholeheartedly endorse the proposed project


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eptified
eptified
H. Duck
Wed, Jan. 14th, 2009 03:43 am (UTC)

Although to keep up the theme of responding to an excellent post with idiotic nitpicking I should point out that your youtube embeds are a little out of joint, and I had to go looking for the baffling/offensive/wonderful have a banana bit


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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Jan. 14th, 2009 04:34 am (UTC)

I nearly embedded that one too, which would have increased the ire of the lj-cut crew.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jan. 14th, 2009 09:32 am (UTC)

Nick Currie, working class hero.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jan. 14th, 2009 09:39 am (UTC)

Actually, one thing I don't think you've ever written about is what was it like trying to make it in British pop in the eighties as a public-school educated boy, when the vast majority of artists at that time were either working class or lower middle class. Do you think it made things harder for you? Did you ever feel discriminated against?


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craig_pulsar
craig_pulsar
craig_pulsar
Wed, Jan. 14th, 2009 10:38 am (UTC)
McGinn

You should listen to 'Ding Dong Dollar' too - CND protesters sang it outside the US nuclear sub base at Holy Loch. The tune is Coming Round the Mountain/Canne Shove Yer Granny:

Oh ye cannae spend a dollar when ye're deid
No ye cannae spend a dollar when ye're deid
Singing, Ding Dong Dollar, everybody holler
Ye cannae spend a dollar when ye're deid

On another note, thought you'd like this Czech art installation that lampoons European national stereotypes - it is causing a bit of a stushie in Brussels:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/7827738.stm


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mcgazz
mcgazz
McGazz
Wed, Jan. 14th, 2009 11:02 am (UTC)
Re: McGinn

I thought of you when I read about McGinn :)


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(no subject) - (Anonymous)

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Nope - (Anonymous) Expand

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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jan. 14th, 2009 01:42 pm (UTC)
Adam McNaughtan

Do you know the work of Adam McNaughtan - http://textualities.net/jennie-renton/adam-mcnaughtan/ ? Might possibly be someone you'd find interesting.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Jan. 14th, 2009 02:29 pm (UTC)
Re: Adam McNaughtan

Ah, that's getting more into Hamish Henderson territory now! I saw Henderson lecture when I was a student in Aberdeen.


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xyzedd
xyzedd
xyzedd
Wed, Jan. 14th, 2009 02:58 pm (UTC)
Burrr!

Uh--could someone translate these songs into English for us dumb Americans? Honestly, I am glad to make the acquaintance, and I must admit I usually don't understand half the lyrics of the average pop song. (No wonder I sometimes have to watch British films with the closed-captioning on.) And I've heard British Travelers' ballads and Appalachian reels that are much harder to understand. Besides all that, Matt McGinn makes revolution sounds fun!


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jan. 14th, 2009 06:45 pm (UTC)
Re: Burrr!

Google "Matt mcginn lyrics [song title]". Or use alta vista or something, if you want to feel anti-establishment.
I've come to realise that going to Uni in Edinburgh in no way qualifies me to understand Glaswegian... I don't know how you do it, Momus...

Oh, and once again, thank you, Momus. As usual. And here I was thinking I was all knowledgeable cus I have John Martyn's discography...
-D.L.


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endoftheseason
endoftheseason
Wed, Jan. 14th, 2009 09:09 pm (UTC)
Two Questions on Scotland for Momus

I have some questions for you, Momus:

1) Do you ever have a hankering to return to Bonnie Auld Scotland, perhaps to live out your dotage? And if so, do you see it ever actually happening? Where would you go there?

2) Do you have any opinion on this sort of Scottishness?:


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Jan. 14th, 2009 09:20 pm (UTC)
Re: Two Questions on Scotland for Momus

1. Yes. I would probably choose an extremely austere cottage on an extremely austere island and write extremely austere haikus. But I hope to live out my twilight years in Japan.

2. I don't know what that's from, but the Edinburgh locations are all places I know very well, and have seen change over four decades. And although I think the music is terrible, I recall that the keyboard player in my first band (he's now a lecturer at the Department of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University) auditioned for the band that made it. So it's all "family" in a sense (not necessarily in a good way).


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Jan. 15th, 2009 03:22 am (UTC)
The Big Yin

Hi Momus,

What's your problem with W. Connolly, Jr.? (I like him, but have my own problems with him - just curious to see what yours are.)


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Jan. 15th, 2009 09:08 am (UTC)
Re: The Big Yin

I just find everything about him gently but insistently annoying. His banana boots, his bulgy-eyed enthusiasm, his wilting 70s style, his pretentious serious interests, his biting of Tiny Tim's style without the eccentricity, his general over-exposure on South Bank Show-type programmes, his marriage to Pamela Stephenson, there's just something viscerally and visually annoying about it all. I like plenty of comedians, but there's never been a moment -- not a single one -- when I've heard a Connolly sketch and thought: "Wow, he took a risk there!" or "This is really funny!" or "This has got something!" Give me Stanley Baxter, give me Ivor Cutler, give me Arnold Brown, but don't give me "The Middlin' Yin"!


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Re: The Big Yin - (Anonymous) Expand

pictorialsoup
pictorialsoup
Fri, Jan. 16th, 2009 10:40 pm (UTC)
Matt McGinn

Brilliant feature on Matt McGinn. Well done for giving the guy such a good mention.
Sad but true about the stats for life expectancy in the East End of Glasgow. Enjoyed your post.

JF


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jan. 21st, 2009 04:25 am (UTC)

Great post- Matt McGinn is great, thank you for collecting these all here and I liked your comments. If you liked Oor Wee Wean, give a peak to Leadbelly's Pick a Bale of Cotton (which I'm guessing Wee Wean is a parody of) for some great Americana. Thanks again for the post!


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