It is 11.20am at Euston station. Swarms of people are positioned on their starting blocks in front of the announcement board. The 11.40 to Liverpool has already been called on platform 8, yet the 11.23 to Birmingham has still not been placed. There is a sense of tension in the air – then suddenly it appears on the monitor. Release gives way to mass pandemonium as a stampede of people push and jostle their way to platform 13.
We clutch our paper coffee cups with grim determination and lead the throng. This is the start of a four hour journey from London into the deepest Shropshire countryside. Our mission is to interview retired folk singer Harvey Andrews. This man has had a 50 year career touring, but still, few people have heard of him. It seems something is awry with this: he is a talented lyricist, tells genuinely human stories about blind great aunts and underdogs and, as we’re soon to find out, is extremely self-deprecating. In fact he embodies all those admirable qualities that ought to get applauded… but rarely do.
Andrews was born in Birmingham in 1943 and began gigging in 1964. Through the decades he has straddled unfathomable controversies, achieved limited chart success and earned lifetime fan devotion. He played a part in the great folk revival of the 60s, supported massive acts like Focus and the Kinks. And even wrote the music for Birmingham musical, ‘Go Play Up Your Own End’ starring Jasper Carrot. Some of his songs, like ‘Margarita’, sound like they ought to be ridiculously well known, but for whatever reason, they just aren’t.
As our first Virgin train hurtles North the landscape gradually changes. We take a headphone each and put the ‘Margarita Collection’ on the iPod. The light guitar strum begins, the voice opens: “They’re playing our song Margarita…” Whilst the sky turns slightly greyer, the fields fill with dazzling yellow rapeseed. Oh yes, this is clearly a trip into the Midlands.
We manage to swap trains at Brummagem, despite delays. We reach picturesque Shrewsbury late and hunt down our anxious taxi driver, who takes a detour round to his house to collect the sat nav. This is necessary it seems to navigate the winding road closures. Eventually we’re deposited outside an isolated pub somewhere in the middle of the countryside. Nonplussed, we knock on a couple of doors and are pointed up the hill to a bungalow on the right. It is a lovely spot with stunning views of very Welsh-looking greenery. The door bursts open with smiles and warm hospitality from Harvey Andrews and his wife, Wendy.
“I never wanted to be famous,” says Harvey Andrews, comfortably seated at the far side of his living room facing the beautiful scenery. It is a light, spacious room and we are offered much needed cans of beer and the even more gratefully accepted offer of a lift back to the station later. “I wanted the songs to be famous [of course]. My dream was to be able to sit somewhere in a pub and hear someone put one of my songs on the jukebox, and not know that I was there and I was the guy that had written them, and that it was number one.”
“I kept that dream until about five years ago,” he continues matter-of-factly. “I always hoped that that might happen. That one of my songs would become like Ralph [McTell’s] ‘Streets of London’. I don’t have a ‘Streets of London’. I have sixteen albums. I have a body of work, but not one of them has impacted on the general public and that’s the one thing of all the things.”
Why is ‘Margarita’ not More Well Known?
In a lot of ways this all seems incredibly arbitrary, ‘Margarita’ especially, has everything that should make for a slow burn, folk hit: the voice is clean, the melody is haunting and the story, as always, is intensely human. It tells the tale of Andrews’ great aunt, Annie Pearce, who lost her love in World War I, and as she aged and gradually went blind the photo of her dead fiancé faded to nothing in the intense sunlight on the wall. Nobody told her, so even eight year-old Harvey knew he must say the man looked the same whenever she asked: yes, he was tall, young, smiling.
Poignant and pertinent; this could be an anthem for this World War I centenary. It shows the boys who had no idea what was about to hit them on the ‘Somme’. It paints of the girls who were left behind with nobody to marry, and highlights a world that changed irrevocably. It is not anywhere near as panoramic as ‘Streets of London’, but in the way only certain music can, it provides a small haunting slice of time, which illuminates a far bigger picture.
“You go to Shrewsbury, stop anyone in the street and say ‘do you know this song?’, and play Margarita and they’ll say ‘no’. You play ‘Streets of London’ and they’ll say ‘yes’,” says Andrews. “[And of course] it’s very depressing [in a way, but] it’s ok for me – I mean I’ve done ok.”
“We live a simple life [my wife] Wendy and I,” says Andrews. “You can see we do.” Andrews has a nice, normal home and almost as soon as we arrive shows us his book room, as a true insight into his world. “We’re not consumers. I’ve never been interested in money really in that sense so – I mean I could if I wanted have a very very expensive watch. Course I could. I could have a very very expensive car. It wouldn’t be a problem to me. But the point is if I can buy a watch for a fiver – I want a watch for a fiver, you know. I’m not interested in displaying wealth – oh look at my watch. I mean a watch is for telling the f***ing time. It’s not telling the people – look I’m a rich bastard.”
“It just completely leaves me cold all that. So it’s never been about the money. Whereas I know [some] people for whom it’s always been about the money and they’ve done incredibly well. [The thing is though] you’ve got to be totally single-minded. You’ve got to want that thing single-mindedly. I never wanted anything single-mindedly enough. So what I ended up with was a career. It just went on and on and on. And – oh it’s another year. They still want me – great. Until I just fell out of love with the road.”
Andrews is impressively talented and has spent decades on the road, touring, in the way only truly talented people can. He is a brilliant mimic, recites lyrics as poetry and is certainly no tortured artist. In fact he prides himself on the fact that he can deliver pretty much anything. It is quite a refreshing attitude to have and comes as something of a surprise to many, as it flies in the face of the notion that the creative arts come from some kind of mystical divinity, as opposed to a combination of innate ability and hard graft.
Some of this comes down to “a sense of the value of learning your trade, learning your craft,” inherent in the local Birmingham culture of his youth. “All my family males were craftsmen of one form or another. A neighbour had a jewellery workshop in the back garden and he used all the age old hand working methods to create works of art. My father painted and drew and built his own etching press. My uncle was a fine woodworker and made some of our furniture. That pleasure they all took in their craft came to me as I worked with words to fashion songs.”
What is the Hype Around ‘Soldier’?
This ability to consistently deliver has seen Andrews travel all over Europe and Canada. Since joining the Air Training Corps in his teens he has also held a special affection for the Forces and played on numerous bases. Yet this long term affiliation has also led to his greatest controversy, the hoo-ha surrounding his 1972 song, ‘Soldier’. The song sold well, but proved something of a double-edged sword resulting in the label of ‘right wing’ by people who – clearly – didn’t listen to the lyrics. Andrews is absolutely baffled by all this. He was simply doing what he had always done, telling the human story behind the hype:
“Let me tell you about this guy that I knew back then, a working class lad who wanted to get on and the army said ‘come on son, we’ll give you a trade, you know, we’ll give you some training. Just sign on for three or four years and then you can go into civvi street and you’ll be a plumber or – whatever – we’ll give you a trade’. Well you know when there’s a lot of unemployment, that seemed like a fairly decent idea.”
“We hadn’t seen a war since Suez, and that was a joke. It lasted two days. You know the Second World War was a long time ago to us [from the perspective of the early 70s] and so a lot of young people thought the Forces were fair – and you were going to fight enemies, like Hitler.”
“And so [in the song] I lay it out. He [the soldier] was unemployed. He couldn’t get a job so he joined the army and it was going to benefit him as it benefited a lot of soldiers [who] had good lives after they’d served. It saved [a lot of] them from maybe the drugs and the back streets and the problems.”
“Right, then of course, he gets called to Ireland. Now the thing is, the troubles were just starting then. They were literally [just beginning] – we had no idea. I had been in folk clubs like so many others singing Irish rebel songs. We had an Irish folk club in Birmingham called The Holy Ground, where sort of IRA supporters and so on were singing these songs. We knew all the rebel songs.”
“So suddenly this war starts in Ireland and this guy was a victim of this. He didn’t want to be there. I say he didn’t want to be there in the song. [The song] was based on an incident where Sgt Willetts got blown up clearing a station of people. He got the children and a mother and father out and then stood in the doorway and the bomb had gone off [but] when he was carried out there were people outside who jeered and clapped and spat on him.”
“You know this man, he hadn’t fired at them, he hadn’t done anything, he was actually helping them. How can you do that to someone who’s helping them? I know why you do that – because you just see the uniform don’t you. You don’t see the person.”
“[But] I didn’t understand the depth of bigotry and hatred in the world until the Northern Ireland situation came about, and that was a terrible thing to discover – how awful and terrible bigotry was. We hadn’t got rid of it when we got rid of the Nazis and we liberated Buchenwald. These people were just the same, only they were planting bombs in pubs in Birmingham. They were just the same. They’d got their faith. They were killing for it.”
“You see, the problem is people who have got beliefs, whether it be political beliefs, religious beliefs, whatever. They put themselves in a box and they cut out their peripheral vision – totally and they stop thinking. They have a book. Whether it’s Karl Marx, whether it’s Mao, whether it’s Hitler, whether it’s Mohammed, whether it’s Jesus – they have a book, and what the book says [only] life isn’t like that. Life isn’t that simple. Life isn’t that easy. Life is incredibly complicated. God save us from people who’ve got books – they always end up bringing blood.”
“I’ve only ever been interested in the victim because I see everybody as victims of people with the books or the power. The book leads to power. You know it doesn’t matter who gets there. They’re all the same. Whether it’s what you call your left or your right or whatever religion – they’re the same people. They want the power. They’re bastards. Every single one of them that ever gets there is a bastard because they’ve killed, they’ve trampled, they’ve fought to get power, whether it be a religious leader, political [leader]… or whatever. That’s what they’re interested in and it so often turns out the same.”
“What interests me is the victims of these people, you see.” And this is the nub of Andrews’ philosophy; a vein which travels through half a century of extremely varied material.
The Truth About a 50-Year Career
To some, Andrews’ work may feel disjointed. The tunes and styles of delivery feel different through the decades, yet the linking factor is always the human story and character driven narrative. Andrews has incredible verbal dexterity; he peppers his speech with a variety of different accents, recites lyrics as verse poems and regularly breaks into song. He has the ability to deliver in a variety of different ways and does so at will. He sees this as a problem: “I’ve never found a schtick.”
“If you put all my albums together you get basically a picture of the times I’ve lived through you know, and that’s what interested me,” he says. “But the melodies are not folkie type melodies. My lyrics stand but the music was [always] probably a little too loungey if you see what I mean, a little too croony for that folkie type audience so we lost them a bit.”
One record company [Transatlantic] tried to fashion him into something marketable “but I wasn’t a ‘pretty boy’. I was not imageable, you know. And I just didn’t want to be that pushy type. It wasn’t me. It just wasn’t me.”
“I’m not part of it now. I’m completely out of it. I can’t get on the festivals. I’m considered completely out of the folk world.” There are no regrets coming across as he speaks. Like his vision of folk music and storytelling, Harvey Andrews is never anything less than matter-of-fact. “I’ve written songs about how we live our lives, because that’s what folk music was about. Folk music wasn’t about just about love songs. It was songs about: this is how we live our lives. This is how it is.”
“I wanted to bounce off people because deep down I didn’t want to be a performer,” he says. “I wanted to be a lyricist. I was born at the wrong time. I should have been born in about 1910 and then I could have been a lyricist of the twenties and the thirties and the forties. I love those songs.”
Yet whilst Andrews may not have rights to all his songs he has quietly, stealthily you might say, done very well for himself. There has been no shouting, no breakdowns, no artist angst; he has just pulled out his guitar and gotten on with it. “I’ve made my living from live work and television and radio appearances and cd sales and album sales in the past, but you weren’t allowed to sell them yourself on gigs.”
Of course it would have been extremely different if the internet had been around in the early days and if he’d been able to sell his music direct to consumers, but then the pressures would have been different. However, he sells his work online now and describes how: “The website ticks over, so every week there’s a certain amount of downloads, certain amount of cd sales to go in the post added to my state pension, my two little annuities.”
“I was canny I suppose in a simple way,” he adds. “Many years ago I decided that pensions were a rip-off. You know, I really couldn’t make sense of the idea of paying everything into a pension where you’d build up this big pot and they’d keep it and pay you a bit every year. I thought that don’t make sense. Even with tax relief, that doesn’t make sense, so I decided that what I was going to do was save cash. Not put it into a pension. Save it in the bank. Keep it simple.”
That is exactly what he does. And despite officially retiring in 2007 Andrews still does the odd charity performance and everything remains pretty much as before: “[My latest gig was lovely]. About 85% of the audience didn’t know me from Adam which I love because I know what I’m going to do is going to work brilliantly because they’ve taken a punt and they’re sitting there thinking I never heard of this guy, why am I here?”
“[People are thinking] I could be at home watching TV, [oh well] I suppose because it’s for charity. And then this old guy – who’s bald – comes on with a guitar and [they think] oh f*** me no.”
“And then you do what you do – the one thing you can do. You can’t put a screw in wood straight. You can’t put a shelf up. You can’t do anything with a car. You don’t even own a mobile phone. But you can do one thing: I can play a guitar, I’ve got a voice – here it is – and here’s a song that will mean something to you if you listen to the words. And it finishes and you hear an audible sigh. Ah – I love that moment…”
Harvey Andrews: Songwriter & Storyteller
Six years into retirement he released the brand new album, Encore – a collaboration with Bruce Davies and arguably his best work since the 70s. The arrangements are crisp and new, the music stripped back and raw, with 70-year-old Harvey still sounding like a 25-year-old troubadour. Full of new stories with contemporary lyrics – alongside his trademark tales of the past – it represents everything that’s great about his ‘shtick’.
Most artists might be – understandably – bitter at the fact they’ve built up a great body of work that hardly anybody knows about… but there’s not even a hint of that here. There’s just a happy, content and financially secure songwriter, who will quite happily take on another project tomorrow, should the right one come along.
It’s wonderful listening to him entertaining us in his own home. It cuts through the media hype about divas and all those tortured types who never really seem to do much anyway. Forget the autobiographies of talentless X-Factor 20-year olds and nonsense about art: this is the real deal. Just some humble chap, who has a spent half a century performing songs and telling stories – not because he wants to grab the limelight but because, in his own words, it is his one skill.
Then suddenly it is time to go. And a very nice, faintly Brummie legend is driving us 40-minutes back to the station and worrying that we’re going to miss our train. We don’t of course – we’re in plenty of time.
We grab a couple of beers at the ‘Pumpkin’ on the platform and slope onto the 6.40 to Wolverhampton. Sliding back into our seats we take a headphone each, press play on the iPod, and the closing verse of ‘Margarita’ emerges crystal clear: 1916 is a breath away; 1951 is even closer. Andrews’ long dead, blind, great aunt asks brightly: ‘Is he smiling?’ He would say ‘He’s the same.’
It’s just funny that her words, and his, aren’t better known…