Diversions Volume 3: Songs From The Shipyards by The Unthanks


Richard Fenwick is a film director from the North East of England and in 2012 he was commissioned by Tyneside Cinema to produce a film which traced the story of shipbuilding in Britain. The narrative of the film mirrored the journey of Britain’s industrial cities and consists of archive film and still photographs. A significant part of the archive film that was used was from a 1973 film called “Launch” which was shot over a two-year period in Wallsend, North Tyneside and shows the construction and launching of two huge tankers. The Unthanks were asked to provide a musical accompaniment to the film and this album contains the songs that were either used in part or in full to enhance the film. As well as the brilliance of the music, one of the most impressive aspects to this album is the research that has taken place in order to find songs that truly represent the life experiences of working people who worked in the shipyards. Although the film covers shipbuilding in the whole of Britain, most of the music concentrates on the North-East. I was lucky enough to see the film in Bexhill in November 2012 and The Unthanks played live (although they were barely visible, the audience’s attention drawn towards the film). Here is a still from the film, showing a completed tanker dwarfing the houses on the road that leads to a shipyard on The Tees.

Track 1 The Romantic Tees (Prelude).

The album starts with a gentle piano piece composed and played by Adrian McNally. In the background, some industrial sounds can be heard, and these are from “Launch”. The soundtrack on the album is entirely artificial and was dubbed on in the garden of Amber studios with tin cans and other items. The film accentuates the difference between the people who actually constructed ships on the Tyne and the small number of people in power who benefitted from the hard graft of the workers. In the sleevenotes, Adrian McNally emphasises the point that the Tyne and the Tees are two different rivers, nearly 60 miles apart. Graham Miles wrote poetry, inspired by the River Tees and this, in turn, inspired much of the lyrical content of this album. However, as I wrote in the last paragraph, a lot of the archive material in “Songs From The Shipyards” is from “Launch”, which was shot on the Tyne. Adrian McNally writes “I like to think that this is a coming together of rival north-easterly regions – the Unthanks sisters; brought up 200 yards from the banks of the Tyne by parents raised on Teesside, embodying harmony across the North-East.”

Launch (1974) – Amber Collection (amber-online.com)

Track 2 A Great Northern River

A beautiful song, written by the aforementioned Graham Miles, who was a prolific writer of songs and poetry before his death in 2013. Becky and Rachel Unthank take turns to sing verses of this song which is wonderfully enhanced by Niopha Keegan’s violin. The song describes the hard work involved during the day before well-deserved relaxation in packed smoky pubs at the end of the day.

The Unthanks – Great Northern River on Vimeo

Track 3 Black Trade

Jez Lowe is a singer and songwriter from Easington in the North-East. His songs tend to be about the financial hardships endured by people of the North-East due to industrial decline. The “black trade” in the song refers to the workers (riggers, welders, metal-sheet workers, fitters etc) who are not appreciated for the work that they do. The black trade is what the workers who worked in the bowels of the ship called themselves. The draughtsmen and joiners, by contrast, end the working day all spic and span. As in the previous song, Rachel and Becky Unthank sing lead vocals on alternate verses and combine wonderfully well in harmony for a chorus which is a litany of jobs.

The Unthanks – Black Trade on Vimeo

Track 4 Fairfield Crane

The Fairfield Titan Crane was built in 1911 on The Clyde. It was designed to handle boilers, steam turbines and engine parts which could weigh more than 100 tons. “Fairfield Crane” was written by Archie Fisher and Norman Buchan and the original version consists of four verses, telling the story of someone who was born within the sounds of the crane, concluding with their feelings as they left school. The song is sometimes called “The Shipyard Apprentice” and was written for a BBC radio series called “Landmarks”. Archie Fisher wrote the lyrics, and he is a singer and songwriter, who was born in Glasgow in 1939. He has released seven solo albums and several collaborations. The Unthanks’ version is sung unaccompanied by Rachel Unthank and comprises the first two verses only. It is stunningly beautiful.

Track 5 Big Steamers

“Big Steamers” is a poem written by Rudyard Kipling in 1911 as one of 23 contributions to a book by Charles Fletcher called “School History of England”. It is a poem specifically written for children and attempts to explain the importance of merchant ships in maintaining an economy and putting food on the table of the population of a country. It explains why a country needs to defend itself if there is a threat to its waters. The music for this song was written by Peter Bellamy, who was a member of a folk group called The Young Tradition and whose first solo album, released in 1968 was called “Mainly Norfolk” which is also the name of a hugely informative website. The Unthanks’ version is sung by Niopha Keegan who rarely gets a lead vocal but has a superbly sad voice. Rachel and Becky Unthank provide their trademark harmonies. The Wilson family are a folk group from Billingham in County Durham consisting of five brothers and, occasionally, their sister. Their version of this song is authentically “folky”; The Unthanks’ version is beautifully sanitised.

Track 6 All In A Day

Alex Glasgow was folk singer from Gateshead who died in 2001. He railed against the tag of “folk singer”, generating his own style of political songs. He wrote a song called “Close The Coalhouse Door” which was recorded by The Unthanks on “Last”, after Rachel Unthank heard The Wilson Family perform it. He wrote “All In A Day” about the launching of a ship and how little the elite passengers know about the toil that has gone into building the ship. The song was part of a 19-minute song cycle called “The Tyne Slides By”, written for the BBC series “The Camera and the Song”. The cycle covers the life of a working person in Newcastle from childhood and schooling, early experience of work, the excitement of seeing Newcastle United play on a Saturday afternoon, feelings about a working life as a ship goes down the slipway, grandparenthood, and death. Becky Unthank sings this song in her marvellously breathless voice with a simple piano accompaniment by Adrian McNally.

Track 7 The Romantic Tees

(i) The Romantic Tees

A beautiful blend of piano, melodeon (similar to an accordion) and fiddle provide the background to Graeme Miles speaking the title of this song with several different emphases. In the sleevenotes, Adrian McNally emphasises the point that to romanticise an industry is absurd. Although we all wish to show respect to the people who worked hard in the shipbuilding industry, we shouldn’t view their lives through rose tinted glasses because the work was hard and dirty, and lives were at risk. In this way, the most telling part of the spoken lines is the implied question mark at the end. The romantic Tees? As in, you must be joking – it was bloody hard work. The point is also made that we should not forget the contrast between the relative poverty of the workers compared with the wealth of those who profited from the construction of the ships.

(ii) Tyne Slides By

Industrial noises link all three parts of this suite and Becky and Rachel Unthank repeat the first verse of Alex Glasgow’s 19-minute song that was also sampled in “All In A Day”. It’s very slow and very lovely.

(iii) The Looking Back Song

Johnny Handle wrote this song about a ship builder who is looking back on his life. Johnny Handle is a member of The High Level Ranters who performed between 1964 and 2004. They were instrumental in the revival of the use of Northumbrian pipes. Eric Burden first heard “House Of The Rising Sun” sung by Johnny Handle in a Newcastle folk club in 1964. He wrote a song called “Guard Your Man Well” which The Unthanks performed on “Diversions Volume 5”. Rachel Unthank sings the song only accompanied by a drone played on a harmonium by her husband. There is a remarkable YouTube video of Johnny Handle talking, unprompted and without interruption about his experience as a miner and his thoughts on community.

Track 8 Shipbuilding

The previous suite ends with the sounds of a marching band parading through a street. A few seconds silence is broken by a piano chord and Adrian McNally singing “Is it worth it?”, the opening lines to Elvis Costello’s well-known song with music composed by Clive Langer. Alan Wisntanley and Clive Langer have produced many albums including The Rockingbirds’ first album and “Too-Rye-Aye” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners. Robert Wyatt’s version snuck into the lower reaches of the Top 40. The lyrics are quite sophisticated, pointing out the irony of a war bringing prosperity to the North-East while, at the same time, putting the lives of young men at risk by sending them off to war in the ships that the community had built. Adrian McNally has a good voice but is rarely heard on Unthanks’ songs. When Chris Price, Niopha Keegan, Rachel and Becky Unthank’s harmonies sweep in, the song reaches an emotional high on this already incredible album.

Track 9 Monkey Dung Man

In 2005, the BBC commissioned a series of “Radio Ballads”, conceived as a follow up to programmes made in the 1950s and 1960s by Ewan MacColl and Charles Parker. The first programme was called “The Song of Steel” and was written and produced by John Tams and John Leonard. The second programme was “The Ballad of The Big Ships” and Jez Lowe was invited to compose songs that could be broadcast in the episode. He became one of the principal writers for all the subsequent series and wrote nearly 60 new songs, two of which are “Monkey Dung Man” and “Taking On Men”. Most of the pipework on the ships was insulated by asbestos and the workers who mixed the asbestos were called monkey dung men. This song dramatically describes the deadly effects that exposure to asbestos has. The guitar, chiming keyboard and pretty harmonies combine to give a sinister air, as if we are exploring a toyshop when a jack-in-the-box is about to explode.

Track 10 Taking On Men

A more joyous song describes the feelings when a shipyard announced that they wanted new workers. Rachel and Becky Unthank take it in turns to sing the verses in this short song which is less than 90 seconds long.

Track 11 Only Remembered

“Only Remembered” is a song, written by John Tams, which begins and ends the National Theatre’s adaptation of “The War Horse”. John Tams is and actor, singer, songwriter, composer, and musician. He was a member of The Albion Band and Home Service. He acted in the ITV series, “Sharpe”, co-writing the incidental music. The song is a beautiful way of describing how actions speak louder than words and how nobody can take away the glorious achievements of working people. It is sung in wonderful synchronous harmony with Rachel Unthank singing one verse. The pace slows, the instrumentation recedes, and this magnificent album draws to a close.

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

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