Des de Moor
Press Cuttings: Chanson

BBC Radio 4 20 & 27 April, 4 May 2000, 11:30 - 12:00 hrs
Des in action
Photo: Eve Matthews

Singing in the Wilderness: Les chansons anglaises

The opening track of Des's Water of Europe album, 'Dirty Pictures', performed similar honours for this Radio 4 series on English political chansonniers. The three programmes looked at the history of songwriting on the fringes of the rock, folk and jazz worlds since the late 1950s, with a special focus on political songwriting and the influences of European models like Brel and Brassens.

Tom Robinson, a man who has written an enduring political song or two himself in his day, as well as covering the work of Brel and Kurt Weill, was the host for these three half-hour shows, produced in-house by Julian May.

The first programme, broadcast on Thursday 20 April 2000, used two clips from 'Dirty Pictures': the intro began the programme and a section of the first verse was used to illustrate a point later on. The show also included Barb Jungr singing extracts from Des's new translation of Brel's 'Ne me quitte pas'. The programme dealt with the emergence of the folk revival songwriters, satire and the influence of French chanson, especially Brel, on British songwriters from the mid-60s on.

The second programme, broadcast on 27 April, turned to the impact of German cabaret and theatre song in Britain, especially the Brechtian tradition. It included part of an interview with Des in which he talks about his early influences.

"My first big interest was David Bowie -- he was very much into the theatrical side of things and he used to cover Brel songs and some of his own songs were presented in a very dramatic way. I moved on to Brecht and Weill and stuff like that.

"In the early 80's I heard the Blitzstein version of The Threepenny Opera, which is actually quite a bowdlerised version, but at that time it was just like a revelation to me cos it was very very different. It wasn't like pop music or the folk music that I was used to, but you could hear it wasn't like classical music either cos it was sung in a certain kind of waythat made it very accessible, but at the same time the sonority of the arrangement and so on was quite complex and quite jagged as well.

"There was nothing romantic about it. It starts off with that...I just remember from the album cos I borrowed it from the library..with Kurt Weill's overture which is arranged for a wind band, with loads of clarinets and very sharp, cutting sounds that instantly jar you into a very different sort of aesthetic. That really stayed with me and was what I found I was getting more and more into doing."

After a discussion of the use of song by left-wing theatre companies, Tom remarks: "For Brecht and all those earnest Germans, [the theatre company] would have been right up their strasse, as would the uncompromising contemporary songs of Des de Moor." There follows an extract from 'Margins'.

In the final programme, on 4 May, Tom introduced further extracts from the interview thus: "European cabaret is a near obsession for songwriter and promoter Des de Moor. Dismissed as it is to the wilderness in this country, Des pinpoints the instinctive British suspicion of all things intellectual."

Des continues: "It's difficult to do stuff that's praps more literate and intelligent in the sphere of popular music. Y'know, in the way it's dealt with, the way it's written about in the media and so on there's a certain kind of philistinism, an expectation that if you aspire above a certain intellectual level you're being pretentious."

Also broadcast was most of 'Grandmother was a Hero', interspersed with Des talking about the story of the song. "My grandmother came from Dresden. She was a socialist and she met athe man who became my grandfather at a left wing conference in Austria. He was Dutch, came from Amsterdam, and was a communist. They went to live in The Netherlands and then the Second World War happened. Germany invaded The Netherlands so there was this situation where this couple of people, one of whom was actually German, a German citizen, on the other side politically but in an occupied country. And as most people know times were quite hard, especially towards the end of the war, the hunger winter, de hongerwinter, and my grandparents were involved in the resistance, helping to smuggle Jews out. My grandfather was eventually arrested and didn't survive to the end of the war.

"My grandmother...I used to absolutely loathe her when I was a child, but then I got to know about here and that gives you a different perspective on somebody. The song just tells her story, mainly, and it tries to...y'know, she wasn't a very bright person but at the same time, in that place and in that time she did the right thing."

Other artists featured and with many interesting things to say included Leon Rosselson, Barb Jungr, Robb Johnson, Philip Jeays and Attila the Stockbroker, all of whom also feature on the Pirate Jenny website, plus folk singers Frankie Armstrong and June Tabor, Steve Knightley of A Show of Hands, Steve Trafford of political theatre troupe Red Ladder, Billy Bragg, and Clive James, also a lyricist and collaborator with Pete Atkin.

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