The Songs Of Robert Wyatt And Antony And The Johnsons – The Unthanks


I taught at Oakmeeds in Burgess Hill for over 13 years. By the end I had a great job. I was called “Director Of Studies” and it meant I was responsible for writing the timetable, sorting out the GCSE options for every Year 9 student, managing the report writing and data tracking systems, organising the cover for absent teachers, provision for Gifted and Talented students and I was also Professional Tutor for trainee teachers and newly qualified teachers. I had a large office right next to my teaching room. Pupils at the school were not always easy but as time went on, I found managing difficult behaviour much easier. I assumed I would work there until I was 60 and then I would retire.

I got on with the Headteacher on a personal basis but there wasn’t much mutual respect. In June 2011 I had a falling out with him when he wanted me to cancel a Year 10 lesson the day before one of their assessments (which counted for 25% of their final exam) so that I could attend an INSET session run by his wife. I only attended after my lesson had ended. The following September, he told me that my job was disappearing at the end of the current academic year and although my salary was protected for two years, my teaching commitment would increase as my responsibility disappeared.

A couple of months later, my very good and trustworthy friend Keith told me that his son was leaving the Maths department of the Sixth form College in Brighton (BHASVIC) where he was working. I contacted my old friend Peter who was also working there and he made enquiries on my behalf about how they were going to replace Keith’s son. I downloaded the application forms one Saturday and emailed the Head at Oakmeeds asking whether he would be prepared to accept my resignation at Christmas, even though the deadline for accepting resignations had passed. I expected a reply within three or four days but an hour later, on this Saturday afternoon, I got a reply saying that he would accept my resignation. I assumed that his quick response was for one of three reasons. Either he was a very generous guy and didn’t want to stand in the way of me doing what I wanted to do (I heard him saying this to a group of teachers at my leaving do). Or he hated me so much that he wanted me to go whatever the inconvenience. Or he was looking to save money and I could be replaced by someone earning far less. Looking back nearly nine years later, I’m guessing it was a mixture of all three but possibly the last was uppermost in his mind.

I went for an interview in early December, got the job and handed my notice in with about 2 weeks to go before the end of term. It all happened very quickly. The last two weeks passed in a blur of good wishes. My Year 11 class gave me a tie and baked me a cake. I had a leaving drinking session in Brighton at the end of the penultimate week there. I would have gone out on the last day but I had arranged for Rob to come and stay for a couple of days because we were going to see The Unthanks in Canterbury.

I had seen the gig advertised a couple of months before. Canterbury is 90 miles away but they were not playing anywhere closer. I asked Rob if he fancied it and when he said he did, I bought two tickets. At that time I had no idea that this would be my last day at the place I had worked the longest. After the tickets came, I saw that The Unthanks had put on extra gigs – one of them in Brighton, the day after Canterbury! Oh well. “Rob, do you fancy going to two Unthanks concerts in two days? Yes? Brilliant. I’ll get tickets.”

So after receiving the cake from my Year 11 students, having listened to Frank make a lovely leaving speech about me and having made my rubbish reply (to about 100 members of staff), with the good wishes of all ringing in my ears, I rushed out of Oakmeeds for the last time in order to meet Rob and drive to Canterbury. I’ve never been back. Teaching at BHASVIC has been an absolute pleasure. leaving was one of the best things I’ve ever done.

The concerts were spectacular. In Canterbury we were very close to the stage; in Brighton we were much further back in the Circle but got a great overall perspective. The set was in two halves. The first half consisted of songs written by Antony Hegarty (of Antony & The Johnsons) and the second half consisted of songs previously performed by Robert Wyatt.

Trying to describe the records made by The Unthanks is quite confusing. Originally they were called Rachel Unthank and The Winterset but when Rachel’s younger sister decided to join the band full time they became The Unthanks. With the former name they released 2 records and as the latter, they have released 3 albums. But in a parallel set of releases called “Diversions”, they have released 5 records. Volume 1 is the one I am writing about here, Volume 2 is with the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band, Volume 3 is a soundtrack to a film called “Songs from the Shipyards”, Volume 4 is the songs and poems of Molly Drake (Nick Drake’s mother) and Volume 5 is Unaccompanied. In addition to all this they released a triple album set called Lines which consist of songs written about a ship disaster in Hull, poems and letters from World War One and the poems of Emily Bronte. Finally, a few years ago they released a “Treasure Box” which included a CD of previously unreleased material. Everything they do is done with superb taste.

The group consists of Rachel Unthank, her sister Becky Unthank, Rachel’s husband Adrian McNally, Niopha Keegan and Chris Price. However, they are often augmented by up to 5 extra musicians. My favourite of these is Lizzie Jones who plays trumpet. On this album, Adrian McNally plays piano or drums, Niopha Keegan sings and plays violin and accordion. Chris Price plays drums or bass. The extra musicians play violin, viola, cello and double bass. Additionally Jonny Kearney plays piano when Adrian McNally is playing drums. His piano playing on the first six songs is beautifully delicate. On “Dondestan” Rachel and Becky do a clog dance – they do this at least once in most concerts that I’ve seen. It’s quite disconcerting but works wonderfully well.

I didn’t know any of these songs before I saw them play. I have subsequently listened to all the originals. I guess if I was a big fan of either Antony & The Johnsons or Robert Wyatt, I would feel that the Unthanks sanitise the hard hitting originals. As it is, I think that every song is amazing. Live (but not on this record) they also played a ten minute instrumental which may or may not be called “Alifi Alifi”. You can see it on YouTube. There are so many things I love about The Unthanks but one of them is that Adrian McNally is clearly a progressive rock fan and this song clearly demonstrates this with its changes of tempo, mood and key. The lyrics of “Out Of The Blue” end with the aftermath of a bombing in (I think) Palestine: “My rooms won’t give you shelter/They’re open to the air/The upper story’s out of reach/The stairs no longer there/You’ve planted all your everlasting hatred in my heart”. Rachel’s voice is very strong and powerful; she also enunciates every syllable brilliantly. Other songs are more gentle. “Paddy’s Gone” features beautiful harmonies from Rachel, Becky and Niopha and exquisite piano from Jonny Kearney. “Stay Tuned” has fantastic trumpet playing from Lizzie Jones. In “Free Will And Testament”, the strings add a beautiful haunting backing to Becky’s weary voice. Generally, the first 6 songs (Antony & The Johnsons) are gentler and the last 9 songs (Robert Wyatt) are more complex. This made for a brilliant gig as the intensity grew through the set.

Walking away from Oakmeeds at the end of 2011 was made so much easier by the beauty and intensity of seeing this amazing group and listening to their magical music.

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

One thought on “The Songs Of Robert Wyatt And Antony And The Johnsons – The Unthanks

  1. Good grief, is it really that long ago that we went to see them? If anyone had asked me I’d have said it was around 2015. They were two fantastic nights though and I well remember your stories about your last day and the events leading up to it. I think it was the first time I’d ever seen a band on two consecutive nights and I remember thinking how surprisingly different each of them was. The Unthanks are one of those rare acts that draw you in with their quietness and intensity. And the clog dancing was amazing – who needs guitar solos when you can have that?

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: