The iJamming! Weekly Download: Faith Brothers
We computer addicts – at least those of us with a conscience – spend a fair amount of time debating the morality of free/illicit music downloads. And the musicians themselves spend a fair amount of time wondering if their livelihood is being stolen from them by their so-called fans.
So let’s enjoy this one while we can. Billy Franks has made available, for completely free download, the entire catalogue of his 1980’s band Faith Brothers.
There’s a strong personal connection here. Back in 1984 – wow, but that seems such a long time ago – I found myself raving about a 7” single that had been sent to Jamming! Magazine for review. Faith Brothers’ ‘The Tradesman’s Entrance’ was a self-pressed 7” of poor aural/visual quality yet astounding songwriting ability. A ballad firmly in the Springsteen tradition, with piano playing by Henry Tresize to rival that of the E Street Band’s Roy Bittan, it told the age-old tale of unemployment in a remarkably enduring and yet distinctly uncontemporary manner.
The core Faith Brothers were songwriter-guitarist-lead vocalist Billy Franks, and bassist-vocalist Lee Hirons who, it turned out, I knew from his former mod band, The Shout. Excited by what else I heard from them, I shared Faith Brothers’ music with friends, and things suddenly took on a force of their own. Within a few months, the group was 6 members strong, complete with brass section, signed to a two-album firm deal with new Virgin offshoot Siren, and their first two “major label” singles, the Jam-like ‘Country Of The Blind’ and what I thought was the superior ‘A Stranger On Home Ground,’ had become minor hits. Oh, and I was spending a hell of a lot of time with them.
It seemed, at least through the first half of 1985, as if Faith Brothers were going to become a major British act. But things did not work out that way, as they don’t for so many groups. Some of that was down to changing fashions, some to finances, and some to the inevitable conflict between major label marketing and working class musicians. And some of it, to be fair, was down to the recordings themselves: the two albums simply did not do justice to Billy Franks’ songwriting, his vast voice (as intense as Kevin Rowland, but without the histrionics), nor the group’s intensely communal live shows. The 1985 debut Eventide suffered from a generally insipid and now dated production that seemed to sap songs like ‘Storyteller’ and ‘Whistling in The Dark’ of their initial urgency. It didn’t help that, in the “value-for-money” spirit of the pre-CD age, it also lacked the hit singles. And then again, it may just have been because the intelligence of songs like ‘Sunday (Rebel Soul)’ and ‘A Daydreamer’s Philosophy’ went right over peoples’ heads.
A year later, Faith Brothers released their second album. “I always thought the songwriting was far superior on A Human Sound,” says Franks today. “The opening track, ‘With No Constitution But My Own’ still sounds great to me today. And the lyric may be my favourite from this collection.” It’s true: had A Human Sound arrived out of nowhere, it would surely have been afforded more attention, and ‘Consider Me’ and ‘You Can’t Go Home Again’ have well stood the test of time. But the album was perilously brief – barely 32 minutes – and coming so soon on the heels of the underachieving Eventide, it was destined for an equally short shelf life. Faith Brothers broke up not too long later.
Thinking back on our relationship over 20 years later, I realize I have much to thank Billy for, not only for exposing me first-hand to his superbly intelligent songwriting, but for his teachings and conversations. Billy bought me books of poetry, and Robert Tressell’s novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – both of which, he may be pleased to know, are still prominently displayed on my book shelf. “A more damning denunciation of capitalism would be hard to find,” reads his inscription to the latter.
Some of Billy’s politics were far out even by the standards of the mid-80s English far left. Or maybe not: praise for Fidel Castro was quite common in certain circles in those days. But then there were the occasions when I grasped the source of his radical politics. We drove back to the group’s council estate Fulham Court (immortalized in the Faith Brothers song of the same name) after an out-of-town gig one night to find, I kid you not, dozens (maybe even hundreds) of police in full protective/aggressive riot gear, all to deal with one troubled resident who had climbed on to the roof. The council wanted to sell off what Billy labeled in song “the dumping ground of the borough,” and they were using every heavy-handed tactic they could find. Ultimately, sadly, they succeeded.
Billy Franks continues to perform and occasionally record as a solo artist; he would appear to have a small and understandably devoted audience. He briefly made the Faith Brothers albums available online a few years ago, but then they disappeared. Last week, he sent out an e-mail to announce that they were back online for free download, complete with artwork and, in the case of Eventide, with the addition of the singles ‘Country Of The Blind’ and ‘A Stranger On Home Ground.’
Better yet, if you visit his site, you’ll find two additional zip files for download. One is a newly unveiled live BBC Radio 1 ‘In Concert’ recording from 1985, which finds the group at a performing peak, offering many superior versions of the songs that became Eventide. The other is a collection of B-sides, including an astonishing live cover of Peter Gabriel‘s ‘Biko,’ an uptempo ‘Doctor My Eyes,’ and some studio B-sides from A Human Sound that even I’ve never heard before.
Picking a specific recording to spotlight out of all four folders is a tough task, but if there’s one song that truly transcends its era, it is ‘Easter Parade.’ Billy wrote it about the Falklands War, specifically about the “thanksgiving” service Thatcher held in St. Paul’s Cathedral to which the more visibly maimed soldiers were forbidden from attending, for fear of upsetting the photo-op. Plus ca change, as they say. A lyric written about 19-year old British kids sent 8,000 miles across the Atlantic to recapture “sovereign” property in the 1980s, could apply just as easily to those sent to Iraq under false expectations.
‘Easter Parade’ was released twice: the original B-side to ‘Country of The Blind’ is far superior to the re-recording for Eventide. Where Faith Brothers’ up-tempo material was readily (and rightly) compared to the brassy sound of the late Jam and FBs contemporaries Big Sound Authority, and whereas piano-driven ballads like ‘The Tradesman’s Entrance’ and ‘Fulham Court’ were clearly born of Billy’s Springsteen infatuation, the essentially acoustic ‘Easter Parade’ is very much its own piece of music. Yet context is unavoidable, so perhaps the best compliment I can pay is to suggest that you play it alongside two renowned and relevant contemporaries, ‘Shipbuilding’ by Elvis Costello and ‘Between The Wars’ by Billy Bragg, and see if you don’t agree that it deserves equal ranking.
Billy plans to keep the album and bonus folders online for a short time only. I suggest you snatch them up while you have the chance. There is no charge, but there is a Paypal button through which you can make a contribution. If ever I felt there was an occasion to pay for free music, this would be it. Enjoy.
I asked and received permission to reprint the lyrics to ‘Easter Parade’; Billy threw the guitar chords thrown in to the bargain.
THE EASTER PARADE
Dressed to kill one cool spring morning.
Got on board the first from Portsmouth
On the crest of a rising wave
Of hate for strangers of our own kind
But the headlines cheering crowds and flags
I must admit stirred something
That faded as we pulled away
And turned out to be only fear disguised
The bulldogs bayed
The pious prayed
I think it rained
On the Easter parade.
Down south the old and desperate men
Sacrifice the young and ready
At the alter of their crumbling gods
Mourning for a long lost glory
For nineteen years you chart my life
With your morals and your incentives
In six weeks pull it all apart
For horror’s real and you are far away
My mind engrained
I came home maimed
So was kept away
From the Easter parade
B `Abm E
Hooked on a kind of freedom
I still need to hurt somebody
B Abm E
Too estranged to talk about it
Or get close to anyone
The mother of the nation cries
“Rejoice” and I can hardly shuffle
Struck down by what the mean can do
For political ambition
And now the truth begins to surface
Like a spectre from dark water
Rising up to bring them down
I can’t take heart – only wonder why
Is our conscience lame
Is a fall to shame
All to be gained
From the Easter parade