Review: Plague Songs is weapons-grade artistic material designed to shock and unsettle
In 1980 the Mancunian poet John Cooper Clarke painted a chillingly dark picture of Britain in his song ‘Beasley Street,’ which reserved special venom for Keith Joseph, who played the axeman as Margaret Thatcher’s Minister for Industry and was subsequently a controversial Minister for Education and Science:
Where the action isn’t
That’s where it is
State your position
In an X-certificate exercise
Keith Joseph smiles and a baby dies
In a box on Beasley Street
In Plague Songs the veteran Guardian and Daily Mirror cartoonist Martin Rowson has collected ‘furious, bleakly funny and often offensive poems and songs about Covid, all written during lockdown.’ Like Cooper Clarke’s sharp-slicing satire Rawson has a slew of politicians and public figures in his line of attack and he wields his cartoonist’s pen like a scalpel.
His friend, the Laugharne-based playwright Jon Tregenna has constructed a dark-timbred musical score to accompany the words and images and drawn together a solid cast of actors such as Celyn Jones, Miranda Harrison and Jack Klaff to voice the poems. Tregenna managed this despite what must have been huge frustration in his life as ‘Hail Cremation,’ his musical odyssey through the life of Dr William Price for National Theatre Wales was cancelled because of the lockdown.
Plague Songs offer a troubling and invective-charged account of the times we’ve just lived through, or tragically, in the case of so many, not managed to live through, not least those in care homes into which patients tested positive for COVID-19 positive were discharged by politicians with what seems like a criminally negligent attitude, a case of couldn’t care less. The songbook naturally suppurates with a seething anger.
As the comedian Robin Ince puts it, this is ‘Another repellent, ghastly and entirely necessary piece of work from Martin Rowson. Who needs to bother creating their own nightmares when Martin is so eager to draw them for us?’
In songs such as ‘Angry White Man Blues’ and in splenetic poems which manage to rhyme ‘bovid’ with ‘covid’ Rowson does indeed chart out nightmare territories and many of his images are not for the faint-hearted. This is in-your-face material, no holds barred. But it’s far from the clipped world of condensed cartoon captioning. These are poems after all and as one poem avers ‘It seems it isn’t safe/That social distancing the teeming souls/Along the Styx’s sepulchral banks won’t wash.’
In the brisk poem ‘Barney Castle’ – controversially visited by Downing Street Svengali Dominic Cummings with a flagrant disregard for lockdown law – the imagery is simple, just a jigsaw puzzle of the Durham landmark missing a few salient pieces. The lyrics are spare and bald, but no less condemnatory for all that as they suggest ‘The journos were lame on the lawn/The Dommo was doing his shit…’ referring to Cummings’ press briefing in the Rose Garden at 10 Downing Street where everything didn’t come up smelling of roses.
Meanwhile, Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty is portrayed and pilloried in grim black and white lines. He is Frankenstein’s monster, in keeping with the attendant poem’s refrain of ‘I’m following the science.’ He’s following it all right, according to Rowson, ‘straight past Cottontail and Flopsy/ And Peter Rabbit in a cage/awaiting an autopsy.’ That “flopsy”/“autopsy” rhyme, with its macabre hint of vivisection is hardly perfect as rhymes go but it is unexpected. I was reminded of the fine couplet in the Ramones’ single ‘Teenage Lobotomy’ which goes ‘Guess I’m gonna have to tell ‘em/ That I’ve got no cerebellum.’
There’s a lot of such grotesque anatomy in view in this work, from the green sputum of lungs in the opening song, which rhymes ‘alveoli’ with ‘ravioli’ to the practical considerations of removing a backbone from a member of the present Cabinet, complete with an image of said spineless politician’s rear view after a small rack of vertebrae have been summarily excised.
Of course, the key human organ in all this endeavour is spleen and it is a dastardly, splenetic and determined pen that sets to work to conjure up the English Health Minister. A feckless Matt Hancock is drawn as a ghastly, blood-bespattered apparition with damned and haunted eyes. Here is a man that even murderers such as Peter Sutcliffe and Harold Shipman are thankful for, as he will take up their reserved places in hell as ‘neither one could match/The speed and the despatch/ Of Killer Matt.’
‘Killer Matt’ is an insistent and biliously dark song, right from the opening plangent guitar chords while the chorus sports a very effective hook, sufficiently so for it to have dislodged the various snatches of ‘Hamilton’ that have ear-wormed their way into my head this past week. Small mercies.
‘Plague Songs’ is, as the distinguished film-maker Ken Loach puts it, ‘Powerful stuff. Words and music as angry and disturbing as these present times.’ This is art as public enquiry, probing into the dark places to see what went wrong in dealing, or not dealing with coronavirus, even as other ills spread throughout society at a pandemic lick.
It’s a troubling watch but then this is weapons-grade artistic material designed to shock and unsettle and castigate. And shock it does, like licking your finger twice before inserting it into the National Grid. That grade of shocking. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.