“Let’s not have barriers where we can avoid them”: An Interview with Mike and Kate Westbrook
Interviewers: David Grundy and Noa Corcoran-Tadd. Article by DG.
Mike and Kate Westbrook are, and have been, two of the most significant figures in British jazz for more than forty years. He – a superb composer and arranger, and a mean pianist –and she, a painter, lyricist, and strikingly individual singer – have more than a right to challenge Cleo Laine and John Dankworth as Britain’s leading jazz couple, and their creative powers are still as strong as ever. Over the years, they’ve brought a distinctly European sensibility into their work, while remaining very aware of the music’s American roots (as evidenced by the stunning ‘On Duke’s Birthday’, recently re-issued by Hat Hut).
At its best, Mike’s Concert Band, which in the 60s and 70s contained the likes of Mike Osborne, John Surman, and Paul Rutherford, was capable of generating a boisterous, buoyant joyfulness that has rarely been equalled. But there’s also a distinctly tough, rough, gritty edge, too, seen most notably in Kate’s deep-voiced, highly dramatic vocal style, arising from her penchant for Kurt Weill-esque music theatre: her voice has qualities which most jazz singers seem to lack. Astonishingly wide-ranging in subject-matter, they’ve tackled everything from Peter Lorre to nursery rhyme, the Beatles to Rossini, European birds to Europan painters, and in this latest work, the wonders and dangers of the internet, and, together, seem to have found the perfect balance between tradition and innovation, high-brow and low-brow, the old and the new.
All these things are true of their latest group, the Village Band, which, back in November 2007, appeared for a performance at the intimate venue of Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge. Joining Mike, who played euphonium, and either composed or arranged the music that was played, and Kate, who played tenor horn, sang, and wrote lyrics, were Gary Bayler on tenor sax, Stan Willis on alto sax, Mike Brewer on trumpet, and Sam Smith on trombone. An unusual line-up for a jazz group, and one with an interesting repertoire: they begin with ‘The Waxeywork Show’ – a suite with music by Mike, and extraordinary lyrics by Kate, which draw parallels between Victorian waxwork shows and the internet – and end with ‘All that Jazz’, another suite which encapsulates a good deal of jazz history, in a collection of classic pieces and standards from Jelly Roll Morton to Mingus. The band’s also got an interesting history behind it, as Mike went on to tell us, in a conversation that skirted through the Westbrooks’ entire career, and a good deal of jazz history too!
David Grundy: Perhaps we could start with this project, with the Village Band: the genesis behind it, how it came about, what you’re trying to do with it.
Mike Westbrook: Well, it really did begin as a little band in the little village in South Devon, where Kate and I were living about 10 years ago. It was very much an affair with local musicians, kids, school-kids, and one or two other amateur players, with me writing simple arrangements; and, as Kate plays the tenor horn, and I play the euphonium, it was a chance for us to [play those instruments]. The idea was to try and just contribute to the community, playing music at Christmas time, or at a summer fete, or whatever it was. So I started writing arrangements which were tailored to the abilities of the people in the band, and gradually the repertoire grew and gradually we got a little bit better: the standard improved, we used to rehearse every week, and it was a thing motivated really just by the sheer pleasure of playing, and particularly playing brass instruments.
And then there a bit of a transition, because sometimes some of the local amateur players weren’t available for one of these local gigs that we were asked to do from time to time, so we started to call on friends in the area, particular Stan Willis, the alto player in the Village Band, who lived locally and we knew, to come and help out. Sometimes we’d wind up doing one of these summer fetes with a band of professional-standard musicians playing these very simple arrangements – which was terrific – and sometimes a combination of the two: rank amateurs alongside very accomplished professionals.
There was a very good community feeling about it all, and it was great fun, but there was a point where we had two bands, the amateurish one and the more professional one, and I started writing some arrangements which were slightly more complicated and demanding, for the professional one. It didn’t really go much further than that until we had to move from that village to where we are now (Dawlish, near Exeter). Sadly, that meant we couldn’t keep the Village band going any longer, but we did have this relationship with the other guys that had become involved over the years, and so we started rehearsing every week with this line-up that you’ll see tonight, who all live locally. We’re in Dawlish, Sam, the trombonist, is an Exeter player, the trumpet player Mike is from Newton Abbott, Gary, the tenor player, lives in Dawlish – so they’re all local, and we just met in a bar every week. I would write some arrangements and we’d practise them – again, not really with any definite plans to do anything with it, professionally; it was really just for the pleasure of playing, partly a social thing and partly just for the joy of music.
But there was a point in our rehearsals where I was starting to do some slightly more advanced writing, and the thing suddenly sort of gelled. I suddenly realised that this was a serious musical enterprise – perhaps the experience of playing together, maybe the way my writing was developing – whatever it was, we started getting into something that did demand taking seriously, rather than just as a kind of relaxation, and so at that point Kate and I decided to write a piece specially for the band. And that was the Waxeywork Show, which we rehearsed, premiered and so on – and now we’ve recorded it and performed it in various places, and it’s going very well – and that helped to give the band a sort of identity as well.
So we do that, which is a very original piece, with Kate’s lyrics and my music, and so on, but we also, still, play some of the classic jazz pieces as well – you can see that bulging pile of music over there! We can play different kind of programmes, because there is still a kind of community element in this: the idea of music with a social function, which I think is a jazz thing, harking back to New Orleans, the Jazz funeral, the wake, and so on – music was part of all these activities – and the idea of a little band of people who can move about very easily. Because we play portable instruments, we don’t have to worry about a drum-kit, or amplifiers, or anything like that – we can just go into the corner of a field and strike up if we want to, and we’ve done that, at a farm hog-roast sort of situation.
So there is that element of trying to get music to different places, places it wouldn’t normally be heard, as well as, obviously, the more serious concert area of things. It’s still very early days with the group, even though, as I say, it’s not something that’s just happened overnight; there was a hinterland, it’s gradually built up over this period, and it’s evolved organically really – it isn’t like the idea of ‘let’s form a band and make some money’ kind of business, it’s been much more letting the music lead things.
DG: Just for the pleasure of it…
MW: Well, I think that element’s still there, but of course, we have to try to make a living as well, and we’re slightly upping the level these days – we’re getting some slightly bigger gigs, and we’re happy to do that, but we still play in local pubs in South Devon, and that sort of work’s very gratifying too.
It’s just the sound of acoustic music – and again, there’s a tremendous brass band tradition in the jazz field, which I think this has slightly died out now. Because of the economics of the current situation, you won’t often see a band with six horns in it – imagine that and then adding a rhythm section…It’s totally uneconomical, so you don’t actually get what I like – that rich sound of six instruments playing in harmony, and all the possibilities that brings: something that used to be part of jazz very much, but I think is less around these days – not that people don’t like it, but it’s just so difficult to organise, and it’s so difficult to afford larger bands…
DG: One thing about the Village Band is the way it seems to be a mixture between the British heritage – the community spirit, the brass band element – and then the fact that you’re playing American tunes as well – Jelly Roll Morton, Mingus, and so on. Was there a deliberate attempt to fuse the two, or was that just the way it evolved?
MW: Well it began, actually, almost entirely as arrangements of either Christmas carols or Trad Jazz numbers, and the occasional simple modern piece. Then, at one point, we had a chance to do a concert in a local festival, and decided to do something that was a kind of introduction to jazz history, which we called ‘All That Jazz’ – it went right through from ragtime to modern, and I played piano on some numbers, and we had a whole evening of going back through that. I and everybody in the band particularly enjoy playing those classics, and I feel it’s important to keep that sense of history alive. This is one way of doing that: by not having a conventional line-up, with the usual rhythm section and so on, it’s slightly taking the music away from its origins, and listening to it just as music – which means that you can then put a piece of Jelly Roll Morton next to Renaissance music, and you’re just listening to six instruments playing music, basically. And, you know, there’s a lot in common between these different forms.
I think that the older I get, the more I feel it’s so important to hang on to the work of Thelonious Monk, Mingus, Ellington. It shhould be kept alive, but not necessarily by trying to replicate the way it was originally done…very much as in classical music, people still play Mozart, we so we should still play Jelly Roll [Morton] or whoever.
DG: That brings us on to the question of classical music, and the connection you have with that genre: you’ve written opera, you’ve written the Rossini piece, and so on. Quite a few people who like classical music often seem to look down on jazz, to see it not as a serious art-form, but as something inferior – yet you’re bringing it into the concert hall, bringing in more complex arrangements and so on. You once said that jazz was an important way of reconciling “high art and low culture”, and so I wondered if you could talk a bit about the relation between the two.
MW: Well, the tradition of jazz was that it was the popular music of the time – it was dance music, it was entertainment. Take [Duke] Ellington’s band: Ellington’s regarded as one of the great serious composers of the twentieth century, but right till the end they were doing dances in colleges, and all this kind of thing, because he was used to working in a showbiz world. He didn’t get subsidies, the arts council wasn’t paying pay him – he just had to earn money by playing and recording, by selling records in the commercial world. At the same time, though, you also got very serious music, experimentation, going on within that jazz milieu. An Ellington concert I particularly like is Carnegie Hall in 1948: a two-and-a-half-hour concert, which had absolutely everything: pop songs of the day; R & B; new suites, with very adventurous writing – all one after the other. Everything was there, and he seemed to quite enjoy all of it: he enjoyed entertaining the public and getting a good reaction, but he also wanted to say, “OK, you enjoyed that, now listen to this.”
You walk a tightrope between trying to exist commercially and trying to exist as an artist, which everybody has to try to handle in their own way. I think it is very important, and I suppose that’s what I like about jazz – that it’s got this sort of foothold in the real world. Composers in jazz tend to be people who don’t sit in some university faculty writing the odd symphony every 10 years, then sending it off for somebody else to play – and they don’t even have to there necessarily. It’s much more the Ellington thing of writing a tune in the afternoon and trying it out in the evening, and having to run your own band if you want to hear your music played. I occasionally do write things now for other ensembles – Kate and I have written things like operas which we’re not performing, other people are doing it. Still, the massive thing is this: have a band, and try and organise it, in order to play what you want to play.
We then went on to talk about the ‘star system’ in jazz.
MW: I don’t know whether it’s particularly fashionable, but I feel that I’m very against the star system, and the elitist feeling that can build up so easily around artists, around musicians. I mean, obviously, it’s incredibly pertinent in the pop world, but also in the jazz world, to a degree: people achieve a sort of halo, a kind of eminence…They are brilliant, and of course they deserve all the prestige, or whatever, that they can earn for their efforts, but sometimes people get a greater sense of their importance than they should have. I very much feel more comfortable with the notion that we are contributors to the community in some way or other. We’re not big stars, but there are people, thank God, in various countries around the place, who follow our music, buy all the records, and we meet them from time to time. So we know that there’s something important – by us working on what we’re trying to do and trying to perfect it and so on –and that this has meaning in terms of raising consciousness, raising people’s sense of whatever – beauty? So I’m very much more inclined to that, and a little bit against the over self-importance of artists, really. That’s all I can say on it!
And, then, about the avant-garde…
MW: Might be a can of worms…what are your thoughts?
DG: I was thinking about the fact that someone like Paul Rutherford could be in your band, which is more mainstream, but at the same time could perform free improvisation, which is not very popular music. There seems to be a close relationship between players who can play on both the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’ – do you think that’s still the case now, or do you think that a division’s opened up between the two?
MW: Well, my sense is that it is more divided. Of course, when we all started, these divisions weren’t a problem really – people had different ways of playing, and different interests. On the whole, as a composer, I’ve always liked that, because I’ve always liked different attitudes – and indeed, you’ll find that in the Village Band, with the two sax players. You’ve got Stan, on alto, who’s a tremendous musician, but there’s a bit of a distinction between him and Gary, on tenor, who’s more drawn to the avant-garde. Yet they’re both superb players of their instruments, and both very appreciative of what the other does, admiring and thinking ‘yeah, that’s something I can’t do, but…’
[Above – Stan Willis on alto sax]
In a band, I think that sort of thing’s fantastically interesting: one guy gets up and does one thing, and then the other gets up and does something completely different. Back to the Village Band, you’ve also got Mike, the trumpeter, who’s a lead trumpet player really – he has an extraordinary range, and he could be leading a big band. It’s a tremendous luxury for this band to have such a fantastically lead trumpet player- and he has a tremendous sense of blues. And then you’ve got Kate with her lyrics, which are sometimes very surreal, sometimes very political, sometimes quite bizarre – ‘The Waxeywork Show’ goes through a whole range of things, and very strange sort of poetic imagery is used in it – and then she’ll also belt out a blues or whatever. I like it, when it’s like a family of people who do different things.
So, for me, it isn’t a problem embracing these different things, and I never really felt it was for Paul [Rutherford] either – we were very easily able to go from playing a hymn or a comic song to some free improvisation, and it wasn’t a problem. I think I’ve always rather kept to that sort of feeling in the bands that I’ve had. Spiritually, I’m very close to the avant-garde players and that spirit, more than I am towards the mainstream – the kind of straightforward, swinging jazz that people play – I’m not really part of that at all, and haven’t been for 40 years. So, I’m much more interested in the freer spirit, if you like: but, of course I’m a composer, so I write, and I’m bound to be involved with structure and planning, and all that kind of thing, which in a sense a free instrumentalist doesn’t have to concern himself with.
I regret it if there are splits, I don’t think they need, or needed, to happen – for me, anyway. One thing I suppose I’ve been working towards is creating a context in which freer and the more mainstream can co-exist, in which that relationship can somehow be made to work. Not everybody may think it does work, but I feel that is a healthier situation, rather than people getting into these sort of ghettoes. I mean, one example would be one of my favourite guys, Alan Barnes – a lovely sax player, who’s been on and off in the big band. I remember various memorable occasions where we’ve played, and he’s been sitting next to Chris Biscoe, who’s very, very contemporary, and the two absolutely knock the spots off each-other – it’s fantastic! Though you usually hear Alan in a fairly medium, mainstream sort of context, I feel that there’s another dimension to him which he can easily get into, in another context. Then you could also take a superb musician like Peter King, known as the great bebopper – but put him in a free improvising context, and he’s fantastic.
I don’t think there’s a problem with musicians – maybe with the public? I would like to see it all hold together: what with the problems of the world, and the problems of jazz, let’s not have barriers where we can avoid them – let’s try and hold it together, if we really believe in things. That’s what I’d like to feel we [the Westbrooks] are trying to do.
We were now joined by Kate Westbrook, who was able to go into a little more detail on ‘The Waxeywork Show’, and how it came to be written.
David Grundy: Earlier on, I didn’t get to talk quite so much about the actual piece, ‘The Waxeywork Show’, so I was wondering what lies behind the lyrics and so on, because it’s quite an unusual idea, this fusing of Victorian fairground and the internet.
Kate Westbrook: Well, Mike wanted to write a piece for the Village Band expressly, and it just happened to be at the time when I got my first mac. Before then I’d been computer-illiterate, and it was just such an extraordinary new world, for someone of my age. I happened to reading a Dickens at the time in which there’s a waxwork show, and the people seeing the waxwork show –all its horrors and beauties and possibilities, its dangers and so on – were as fascinated as I was by this new world. A waxwork show would hold no horrors for me, and so I thought about the fact that each generation has its own new world which opens up – Galileo or whatever it might be – full of horrors and dangers and beauties – and presumably it has the same impact on every generation. What comes next I can’t imagine – perhaps space – and I both loved and hated and feared it.
DG: So a fairly ambivalent reaction…
KW: Yes: the juxtapositions you get are very extraordinary – when you’re just surfing, you just get such odd bedfellows, with the information and the wonderful resource that there is. But, as for Google, there was a big article in the London Review of books about Google at the time they were in China. One really has mixed feelings about the way that they behaved, with the censorship. Also, their slogan is ‘organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’ – That’s quite a thing, verging on the megalomaniac, really – and their motto is ‘don’t be evil’; I mean if you have a motto and a slogan and they’re that set in a halo, it’s quite alarming…So I’m very fascinated by Google and I can see that it’s a great tool for democracy, but I also think that it could, in the wrong hands, as they say, be a great risk to us all.
So I do have ambivalent feelings. I didn’t want it to be a polemic, though, so I made it slightly Alice-in-Wonderland-y. I made the waxwork show the beginning of it, with the ‘gizzards all gory’ and so on: it’s like creating a new life out of the wax, or the new products you can buy on the internet. I’m sure we’ll soon be able to buy gene banks and that sort of thing…. Then, at the end of the piece, there are power-cuts and the whole thing goes BUNG…Wouldn’t we all totally lost without technology, without the internet – we couldn’t be without it now.
Anyway, I wrote the texts, and then put them on the piano for Mike to look at and, as often happens, he said ‘I don’t see that this can work’, and it was put on the side for a little while. Then he came back and started writing, and of course, to me, he got exactly the right idiom. And then we started rehearsing with the Village Band, because we all live in Devon; it was a very nice process of rehearsing, and I changed some texts, Mike changed some music, and then Mike would show me these changes, and he would say, ‘add another line here, or take another line out’ – so it’s a constant dialogue that evolves quite organically, really…
DG: Is that the way your creative partnership works generally…do the lyrics come first, then the music, or…
KW: Sometimes…If there were tunes of Mike’s that I’ve thought were particularly lovely, I’ve written words: several songs came that way round. Or, as I was saying, Mike’ll say sometimes, ‘can you expand this, do another verse, because I want to do another development in the chord sequence, it needs another verse,’ and sometimes he says ‘can we cut that’…
MW: Yes: a lot of the time, I would say that the text is first – we did a full-scale opera, last year, ‘Cape Gloss’, and we’ve done another one that’s going to be launched next February – at least, I’ve got the lyrics, but haven’t written a note of music…[‘English Soup’, to be premiered in February 2008]. It’s going to have to happen – I think it’s going to be one of those Rossinis…you know, the Barber of Seville was written in a fortnight – but he was awfully quick!
DG: One question I wanted to ask was in relation to the idea of texts and so on…the role of literature in your collaborative work, such as your settings of William Blake, and how it feeds into the music.
MW: There have been a few things, yes, though I don’t think the literary sources have been the main thing, really. There were things like ‘The Ass’ (1985) – which came about when we were commissioned to do something for the D.H. Lawrence festival, based on his animal poetry. ‘The Ass’ was the first one really that we wrote together, we wrote a whole scenario an hour and a quarter long, which was done by a theatre company, and which we performed as well, and played on stage –it was really very enjoyable…
KW: You know, my favourite D.H. Lawrence poem is ‘The Snake’, which, if you look at it, is so perfect, is such a flawless piece, that I wouldn’t be happy if Mike set it to music, because I don’t think it needs music. Meanwhile, ‘The Ass’ is very flawed – it’s actually not a very good poem – but it made a wonderful music theatre piece, because it has all those open edges and strange noises and things, which he’s written out onomatopaically, and it incorporated some of his letters from Taormina and so on.
As for Blake, well, I think Mike’s settings of Blake are absolutely sublime. Some people do think they’re too good poetry to be set but obviously Mike had to do it…
MW: Yes, that was not the sort of thing I thought of, but I was commissioned to do it by the National Theatre, and it wasn’t something I’d thought of at all – I was completely ignorant about Blake’s work, about his poetry, but the particular thing about them was that they lent themselves to this very simple song form, almost like pop music, and so they made up ‘Glad Day’. There was also a piece like ‘Cortege’…
Noa Corcoran-Tadd: …The European poetry piece, with poetry by people like Rimbaud and Lorca…
MW: Yes, we had various friends in different countries who sent us poems.
KW: Neither of us is a good enough linguist to be able to read poems in another language, but because we’d travelled so much in the last 30 years – all over most of the known world, actually, but mostly in Europe – we’d made very good friends that we trust and who understand the music, and so we could safely say to them ‘we want a short, Romantic poem, which you think would work here’, and so it was a collective effort really.
DG: Yes, and I suppose then there’s visual art – the ‘Art Wolf’ project for example. [To Kate] You’re a painter, so you’ve got that visual training – is there a way in which the visual art influences the way you make the music, or are they separate?
KW: I think there’s a degree of synaesthesia in all these things. Mike started as a painter as well, he was originally an artist, and it’s just that I’ve carried on with it. We talk sometimes about the palette, and if I’m struggling with a painting Mike will come up in the studio and talk about it and sometimes the problem becomes the solution – you’ve got something not terribly interesting, but it’s got a problem in it, and by dealing with that problem you overcome the dullness of it and find the solution, which takes you through onto another level. I think that happens to the music too, and then with the texts – we often refer to the way other disciplines work, in order to get through any knotty problem that we have in the one we’re dealing with at the time. Is that true, Mike?
MW: Yes…You’re a tremendous colourist, and there’s an analogy between the colour and the harmony, the nuances of it, which is very parallel to what’s going on in the painting.
KW: And sometimes Mike draws, in the early stages of a new piece: whirls, and busy bits, and tranquil bits, and down bits, so that he’s got a kind of maquette with which to build the music.
In connection with this relation between sound and colour, I mentioned the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, who famously heard tones and chords as he painted, theorizing that yellow is the colour of middle-C on a piano, and a brassy trumpet blast; black is the colour of closure and the ends of things; and that combinations and associations of colors produce vibrational frequencies akin to chords played on a piano.
KW: I don’t think it’s as literal as that: in fact, I don’t think it even arises, unless there’s a question or problem which provokes that sort of discussion. Sometimes it just happens so naturally and organically that you don’t need to go there, you don’t need to exercise it.
DG: [To Kate] Perhaps we could discuss your vocal style, which is different to mainstream of jazz vocal – it seems to have more in common with the Kurt Weill style than Billie Holiday or someone, with a great sense of drama, irony, changes of tone – like acting while you’re singing, at the same time.
KW: I think it did come out of the music-theatre of Brecht-Weill and Stravinsky’s ‘Soldier’s Tale’, a piece we both like very much. It takes a little while to find you own voice; in the early days, when I joined the band, I just played tenor horn, then I did a piece, ‘Don’t Explain’, which was one of the first songs I did. I got very fascinated by not only working up the voice, up into the upper register, but also by working down the voice, so that I can sing in the baritone range – so, it opens up new possibilities, some of them perhaps more theatrical than musical. But I always hope there is always music in performing any song, that it isn’t the only thing, but there has to be a balance between the drama and the interpretation and the musicality of it – so that the theatricality doesn’t swamp it. That is my aim: to keep the balance, which can sometimes mean even using the voice like an instrument: with, ‘If You Could See My Now’ [Mike Westbrook’s arrangement of which is performed at the Village Band concerts as part of the ‘All That Jazz’ suite], that I don’t really act all, I just sing it as it’s written, because then it goes with the horns, and I think that’s a better way to do it; if I did with great bravura I don’t think it would really work – it’s such a dense arrangement, the harmony is so interesting.
DG: One final area was the political aspect present in certain parts of your work – the album ‘Marching Song’, and the William Blake poems, with his social criticism, relating to the mistreatment of chimney-sweepers and so on. Does jazz in particular lend itself as a form for expressing social and political disquiet, discourse?
MW: Well, I think there’ve been very few examples – I think that’s what drew us to the Brecht-Weill repertoire, because these are songs that matter. But there are lyrics in some of the American songbook – you probably know the whole story of Cole Porter’s ‘Love for Sale.’ We were doing a lot of Brecht-Weill material – sometimes Kate was singing in the original German, sometimes in translation, and a song like ‘Pirate Jenny’, which we still do quite a bit. And then we thought let’s see what happens if we translate ‘Love for Sale’ into German, and it’s just like ‘Pirate Jenny’ – a really strong song about prostitution and exploitation, once you take it out of it’s Broadway milieu. And that was a very important turning point. I mean, the song’s been played to death by every jazz musician under the song, and also sung by people like Ella Fitzgerald and all these kind of people– you’d listen to it and think, ‘this isn’t a song about prostitution’: you wouldn’t know what it was about, really. So I think it was important to put it into that Brechtian sort of context…
Actually, it was Cole Porter’s favourite, of all the ones that he wrote: he really thought he’d got something there. It was very controversial: when the show first opened in New York, ‘Love for Sale’ was sung by a white singer, and critics were completely outraged. The song was banned, and they changed it to a black girl singing it, to make it more simple, and it couldn’t be played on the radio for years, and that kind of thing – it really touched a nerve. I mean, most of the time, Cole Porter wrote this wonderful escapist, romantic music, but there were exceptions, like ‘Love For Sale’, and some of the other songs also…I think that’s what we were seeking at the time, as we developed some material.
I think one of the really most important works is ‘London Bridge is Broken Down’, which is going to be re-issued in the New Year (originally released in 1987, it will be available again in February 2008), and I’m really looking forward to that coming out again, because that really went further than a lot of things. It had a classical orchestra, and a European kind of feel – it’s very strong, the anti-war sentiment is tremendously strong. Nearly all the material is very hard-hitting.
KW: We heard something that touched us very much: one of the local student radio stations, on the day the wall came down in ’89, they played the German section of London Bridge, as the wall was coming down.
MW: I think there’s an awful lot in that, and although it’s of it’s time – there’s a whole section about Wenceslas Square, in Prague. The square’s now full of McDonalds and so on, but in those days, it was a huge long boulevard with a kind of diamond running up the whole of the middle, dominated by this very impressive statue of the guy who founded the republic. But anyway, the point was, the night we were in Berlin – a cold, November night, deserted – there was this incredible feeling of the reality, we knew, we could sense the human struggle. We were in a strange situation, playing at a jazz festival, which was managed by the state, and it was held once a year, at this amazing place, an old ballroom, and you’d have all-night playing with these German jazz bands and these bands from all over Europe, but it was only just brief moment a year when everybody could get together; it was closed off the rest of the time. So there were all kind of – although there weren’t any lyrics in that piece – it was very much about that time…
KW: The only lyrics I wrote were for London Bridge itself, which is the child’s rhyme, which I wrote when Thatcher was in power. I found in the Opie book about children’s nursery rhymes (The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, edited by Iona and Peter Opie), that they built a baby into the base to make it stand (as a magical charm to placate the water spirits, who would object to a bridge built, as it was an ‘invasion’ of their territory). So that’s why I used it as a kind of Thatcherite metaphor – I got my Margaret-Thatcher voice on for that…
MW: Yes, the dialogue between the proletariat and Margaret…On the whole, though, I don’t think we tend to focus on the social and political side so much.
And so, that brought to an end our conversation with Mike and Kate Westbrook. I’d just like to thank them for their patience and willingness to give the interview.