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Album Review Magnificent tribute to 'ordinary giants' who've shaped our radical vision

Robb Johnson
Ordinary Giants: A Life and Times, 1918-2018
(Irregular Records)


THIS triple CD is a magnificent labour of love, a song suite based on the life and times of Robb Johnson's father Ron, who volunteered for the RAF in 1939 and then worked as a teacher in the state sector.


Dedicated with love and respect to the generations referenced in the songs and all their aspirations and achievements, it’s a history too of a family and friends, the war and the birth of the welfare state.


It's performed superbly by many well-known names, including Tom Robinson, Alan Clayson, Boff Whalley, Roy Bailey, Frances O'Grady, Dennis Skinner, Steve White, Joe Solo, Tracey Curtis and Maddy Carty, as well as children from the school where Johnson taught.


His parents are sung by Phil Odgers (The Men They Couldn't Hang) and Miranda Sykes (Show of Hands) and musicians include Rory McLeod, Bobby Valentino, Jenny Carr and his longstanding rhythm section, John Forrester on bass and son Arvin on drums.


Johnson has poured his heart and soul into this music and cleverly brought alive the social realities of the 1930s, the rise of fascism, the experience of the war, the NHS, comprehensive schools, anti-racism and the attacks waged on the welfare state ever since.


Every emotion is targeted with pieces that are thoughtful, funny, sad and beautiful love songs while others are political satires — Did You Go to Eton? recited by a certain Mr Utterswine OBE, is spot on.


Johnson's father retired as a head teacher in 1982 and died some 30 years later and the album reflects his pride in his dad's commitment to the importance of education as a practical social strategy for developing and strengthening what he understood as the “human spirit.”


This commitment to the values of love, justice, kindness and generosity are all there in the trajectory of his father’s generation, born in the shadow of the first world war. They were “ordinary giants” forged together fighting against fascism who went on to fight and work for the creation of a better world, a new society full of ideas of humanity and equality and peace.


With 54 pieces/tracks lasting over three hours, this is a work to truly savour and appreciate fully over time. With a beautifully illustrated lyric book and notes, it's a work of art totally in tune with a time when politics is being redefined for the many and not the few.


Johnson has ensured his dad's memory and ideals will live on.


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