So there I was in London at the Brit Awards, the UK music scene’s annual shindig, which was being broadcast live across the country. Attending this event is the ultimate accolade in a musician’s career – or so I’d been told. I was with a bunch of friends staring at an ice bucket on a table filled with expensive champagne and crudités. The question on all our minds felt like one of seismic political and cultural significance: should we pour the bucket of ice over the UK Deputy Prime Minister, who that moment was sitting a few tables away?
I’m not sure how I got there. I think I need to refresh my memory. Music, please!
There were only two people who were musical in my family. My Scottish gran used to knock out tunes on an old piano if you sung them to her. She played by ear, but she never developed her extraordinary talent. It wasn’t for the likes of a woman from her background in those days. The other was a crazy Hungarian relative whom I never met, also a piano player. There were lots of stories about him. He was a legend in my family – but also a stark warning.
Music for me as a kid was like disappearing into alternate universe, like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. I used to listen to Telegram Sam by T. Rex on repeat when I was three years old. The song painted colours in my head and drew me into different world. I like to think that was the age I decided I wanted to make people feel that way. There was never any question in my mind that music was what I was going to do with my life.
Politics was all around me, but it was in the background like a pernicious force. We were an immigrant family and it was a scary time. Politics had made my dad leave Hungary and settle in London with my mum. Growing up during the Cold War in the 70s and 80s we were made to feel like we were the “other”, the baddies – “reds under the bed”. Yet when we finally got to go back to Hungary to visit, it was all barbed wire and soldiers and Kafkaesque questions at the border. Where did I actually belong?
Back home in the UK, we had our phone calls listened to, hassle from cops and there were actual fascists were on the march. I can relate a little bit to what Muslim people in the west feel like now because of this. Politics shaped us, but I didn’t want to immerse myself in it head on at the time. Like I said, it was just too scary.
As I grew up, the wonderland that music opened up in me became fraught with possibilities. Was that other world something attainable here and now? The brutal reality of what was going around on made me ponder this. Thatcher’s Britain seemed to cleave the country in two. You were either with the power structure or against it.
I kept my head down and rocked out to the Specials and Two-Tone. Later on came Billy Bragg, the Smiths, Phranc the All-American Jewish lesbian folk singer, the Levellers, punk, illegal raves…all kinds of music lifted my spirits! It insulated me from the world out there, whilst at the same time pointing at new, urgent alternatives. Most importantly, it allowed me to connect with like-minded people.
This was the point of departure and the intended destination for me as I picked up a guitar and started writing songs, recording them on a scratchy tape machine. It kept me going as I started working with bands and playing solo. I started the slow, painstaking process of learning how to create other worlds with music.
Let’s fast forward now to the 1990s. In Brighton, I’d found some kindred spirits and we were cresting a wave with our band Flannel. One time in 1998, I was a demonstration against low pay in London outside the Brit awards. The band Chumbawamba and their anarchic mix of music and politics were storming the mainstream. They were up for an award that year themselves, and they sneaked some of us in to cause mischief. I found myself hobnobbing with some of the big stars of the day: Spice Girls, All Saints and Goldie! And John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, was also in attendance, hoping to put some pop sheen on his government’s evil antics.
That’s how I came to be at staring at a bucket of ice on Chumbawamba’s table. In the end, it was decided that the bucket had to go over the Deputy Prime Minister’s head!
What happened next was a blur. All I remember was getting unceremoniously bundled out the arena by security. I ended up penniless on a train with my band mate Gibby, begging the inspector to let us travel for free. But oh how we laughed. The next day, Chumbawamba were all over the papers for bucketing John Prescott. Seeing the hostile media coverage, I felt I’d had a lucky escape. But at that moment, something had crystalised in my head. Of course music and politics can mix! And it can be fun, daft and empowering as well as serious and scary.
All through my journey as a musician, I’ve been put up, paid in full, ripped off and passed over. I’ve seen people become famous then disappear. I’ve worked with everyone from committed activists to those who have more interest in getting high than anything else. But at the end of the day, for me it’s not about money or fame or swanning around at fancy award ceremonies. It’s about people: those who want to change the world with whatever they’ve got at hand, even just for a brief moment. And those who like me are in love with the power of song and music and the possibilities they can invoke. I look forward to many more sometimes hard, sometimes ugly, always worthwhile experiences along this musical journey. Play on! And thank you for being part of it 😉
If you’d like to read about a recent milestone of that journey, click here to check out a recent album, ‘Vote Nobody’.
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