Together for just four years and releasing just one album. But The Redskins remain one of the most talked-about bands of the era.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the Redskins of late, not least because that one album, Neither Washington Nor Moscow, has just had a reissue on CD and vinyl. It has got me listening to the album again and remembering an era when they loomed large over the UK music scene.
The band formed in 1982, but it was a couple of years after that they came to my attention. I think a mate bought ‘Bring It Down’ and with a move to a big label, the band also started to appear on TV. And in very bizarre ways.
I can’t think of The Redskins without thinking of them playing live on ITV kids show Number 73. The restrained anger of that performance (‘Bring It Down’) in a basement is mesmerising. An amazing song in an unexpected setting. Later in the show they played some kind of funky jam (I can’t remember the name of it), with the hosts and pop band Five Star dancing in the background in a moment that pretty much summed up the randomness of TV in the mid-80s. It must have helped. ‘Bring It Down’ even made the top 40. But not Top Of The Pops, sadly. That would have been something else. Not that they wold have done it.
Not long after I picked up ‘Kick Over The Statues’, which ended up in the clearance box at the local HMV (think I paid 10p) and soon after I picked the that one and only album. Neither Washington Nor Moscow remains a classic and an album that has aged incredibly well. At the very least, you should listen to it and to be honest, consider buying it.
A mix of soul, pop, punk and funk that just worked. Others have tried, but few have been on the money like The Redskins. And it all came with a message. A strong message.
The Redskins were a band who used music as a ‘force for change’. And in the mid-1980s, the world was a very volatile place. You tended to chose your side politically and many fought hard for those beliefs.
It was the height of the Thatcher era, the miner’s strike, high unemployment, and a time when the Labour Party was regrouping after a heavy election defeat and effectively very weak in opposition. Oh yes, the Cold War was at its height too. We could have been blown out of existence at any point. We still might today. But it seemed that bit closer back then.
Red Wedge was just starting up too, which was a music collective dedicated to engaging young people in politics, with the hope that it boosted the support of the Labour Party. I remember spending a rather nice evening watching the likes of Billy Bragg, the Style Council, The Smiths (well, three-quarters of them) and oddly, Gary Kemp, at the Manchester Apollo. It was all very civilised and very entertaining for a protest.
Not that I’m having a go at Red Wedge. Far from it. It was incredibly brave for the participants of that movement to put themselves out there at that point and history has been kind to them as a result. In my eyes, everyone who took part deserves credit for taking a stand and to engage with young people politically at the time. If you want to know more the movement and the era, I would recommend a read of Walls Come Tumbling Down: The Music and Politics of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge.
But Red Wedge wasn’t radical enough for The Redskins. The band was aligned with the Socialist Workers Party (as you probably guessed from the album name), who you might recall on every high street in the UK selling their newspapers on a Saturday. I still half expect to see someone trying to sell me a copy as I pass the Nationwide Building Society in Bolton!
The band played with their politics on their sleeves. Happy to support what was becoming a disenfranchised youth and play benefits for causes from anti-racism to youth unemployment and of course supporting the miners politically and financially.
They also pushed their message at every gig they played (including inviting socialist groups and miner’s groups to have stalls inside). But perhaps most famously (or infamously), their message was beamed into homes when they were booked for TV show The Tube. Or at least, that was the plan.
During the set, the band asked a striking Durham miner onto the stage to give a speech about the strike and their cause. Controversially, it was heard by the front row of the studio audience and no one else as the microphone suddenly cut out.
To this day, no one knows if that was intentional or accidental. If anything, the microphone scenario only added to the band’s reputation. And they did fire out a blistering performance of (for me) their finest tune – ‘Keep On Keeping’ On’, as well as ending the set with a ‘victory to the miners’ salvo for the watching teatime audience.
It didn’t last. There’s a fascinating interview on YouTube with bassist Martin Hewes, who explains that the band essentially imploded, a result of ongoing tensions within the band and what sounds like a distancing between Chris Dean and the others both musically and politically. Perhaps the band had just run its course. Whatever the reason, in 1986 it was all over.
And it really was over. What happened to Chris Dean? Martin Hewe is still out there teaching music, but the one-time NME writer seemed to disappear after the band split. Heard of in France and later his hometown of York, he’s never reappeared on the music scene and to quote one of his lyrics, that’s a ‘crying shame’. I suspect the chances of a Redskins reunion are on a par with me winning a Lotto jackpot. And to be fair, replaying it all just wouldn’t work anyway. The Redskins was a band of a very specific era.
But we still have that one amazing album. Neither Washington Nor Moscow has been around on CD for a few years, but has only recently seen a vinyl reissue. It’s been refreshing to see the reissue getting such a great reception – and I hope the band know this. I think part of the reason for writing this is to do just that.
Neither Washington Nor Moscow brought a punk attitude and energy to the dance floor. Soulful, funky (almost northern soul-like) grooves with a message and song titles that left you in little doubt what each song was about. ‘The Power Is Yours’, ‘Kick Over The Statues’, ‘Go Get Organised’, ‘Bring It Down’, ‘Take No Heroes’….you get the idea.
The fact that this album was released by a major with this title is something in itself. Each song is something of a mission statement of the band and while that might sound a little heavyweight for some, The Redskins didn’t forget one thing. At the end of the day you are making and selling music. These tunes are catchy as hell and (thankfully) don’t suffer too much from a 1980s production job. Every note remains as fresh as a daisy. The Redskins might well be trapped in a certain point in time, but for me, the music really isn’t.
If you don’t own the album, do yourself a favour and pick a copy up. For me, one of the finest releases of the era. Rumour has it that a follow-up was recorded and never released. It is probably just a rumour but wouldn’t that be something? But for now, there’s a boxset of the album available with alternate tracks, rarities and sessions. That’s about as complete as you are going to get.
Oh if you are out there Chris Dean, do give me a shout. We’d all like to hear from you.
Find out more about the Neither Washington Nor Moscow CD and vinyl reissue or buy a copy at Rough Trade.