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“RICHES from the earth” — E terra divitiæ — is the motto of the South Derbyshire town of Swadlincote, in recognition of the former mining community’s bounteous deposits of fireclay and coal.
Today, it’s a commuter town but there are still some riches to be found there, not least the band Thee Deadtime Philharmonic who appear at the Merthyr Rising festival later this month.
Named after the historic workers’ revolt against wage cuts and forcible unemployment in Merthyr Tydfil in May 1831, the three-day festival celebrates working-class culture and resistance and the Philharmonic hope to inspire some of that same resolve, “where unheard voices and the downtrodden unite and make a stand.”
Wayne Murdoch’s songs are ballsy, bitter-sweet vignettes of working-class life, evoking Jam-era Paul Weller and Billy Bragg, and the band’s admirers include The Clash’s Mick Jones, Jarvis Cocker and Tom Robinson.
He attributes his political class consciousness to his grandfather — a miner at 13 and a father figure to the singer when his real one left — and his mother.
“My mam worked three jobs and brought me up single-handedly,” he says. “If you want to talk about feminism and strong women, she was the definition of that — standing her ground and coming through the other side of a domestically violent relationship with my father.”
Sadly, his mother passed away from cancer when Murdoch was 20 but her influence is ever-present. “My class and upbringing is everything to my writing. It’s the core of who I am, what I’ve experienced, what I’ve seen, what I do and what I’ve done. Lyrically, I try to be as true to myself and life as possible.”
The Philharmonic’s album Estate of the Heart is a case in point. From the ska-dub discourse of Protected —“We are leaders, led by followers” — to the heart-pummelling Play-for-Today anguish of Idiot Village, Murdoch’s song writing is compassionate, unflinching and with a keen eye for the filmic: “I love Shane Meadows. He is from round our way. A lot of people have said to us, we are the musical equivalent, high praise indeed.”
The current line-up, including his ex-girlfriend Kerry Ann Dunbar and long-time drummer Lee Shaw, is the best it’s ever been, Murdoch says. “We’ve managed to keep it going through deaths, addiction, knock-backs, mental health issues and relationship breakdowns. We are still doing it for the right reason — the song is king.”
Who does Murdoch see as the band’s peers? “Lisa McKenzie, a working-class author, academic and activist has always championed the band and is very much a kindred spirit,” he says. “MC Tanzanite, who guested on a couple of tracks on the album and fellow Strummerville band Bless, from London, are top lads as well.”
Recommended by McKenzie to programme makers, Murdoch recently appeared on Russia Today’s Going Underground to discuss the legacy of the miners’ strike and perform a gorgeous acoustic version of Idiot Village. “The producer came to see us at a London gig and it blew his head off! He even bought a T-shirt,” Murdoch says.
At one point in the interview, presenter Afshin Rattansi suggested that illiteracy was still a reality for working-class communities across Britain. “I was caught out a bit by that question,” Murdoch confesses.
“It’s more learning difficulties not being addressed early enough, so kids misbehave and get thrown out of mainstream education or go down other disruptive avenues, such as drugs and crime, and get caught in a cycle.
“Some of the best minds I’ve ever known are from council estates, though most could never reach their full potential because the funds weren’t there. But if there’s one thing about working-class people, it’s their determination and ability to keep getting up after being knocked down.
“Responsibility lies with us to inspire the youth.”
With a new double A-side single, a British tour and a book of lyrics and poems soon to be published, Murdoch’s Thee Deadtime Philharmonic is mining a rich seam.
E terra divitiæ, indeed.
Thee Deadtime Philharmonic play Merthyr Rising festival, which runs from May 24-26, on May 25, Brayshertickets: merthyrrising.uk/ You can find our more about what they're up to on facebook.com/pg/TheeDeadtimePhilharmonic
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