INTERVIEW: The Young’uns | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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By the end of my first listen to the new album from The Young’uns, I was in floods of tears. Given five star ratings in both the Guardian and Mojo, The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff is an emotive and historical tour-de-force which tells the true story of one man’s adventure from begging on the streets in the North of England to fighting against fascism in the Spanish Civil War. It’s a superb piece of work.

“In May of 2015, when we were on tour and starting to think about our next album, Duncan Longstaff approached us after a show with a picture of a scruffy teenager, his dad, and a sheet about the life that he’d lived. The teenager in the picture turned out to be Johnny Longstaff,” explains one third of The Young’uns, Sean Cooney. “Like us Johnny had come from Stockton-on-Tees and as a historian I found that interesting. What I found most interesting though was the story of Johnny’s life which was so incredible and powerful; it turned out that he had lived through some of the most defining moments of working class history in the 20th Century.”

Initially interested in writing a song in tribute to Johnny, the more research Sean conducted, the more his reverence for the man grew and the greater his source material became. “Duncan and the Longstaff family were amazing in providing access to Johnny’s memoirs and old record books. There were journals to read, pictures to look at, as well as these incredible recordings Johnny had made for the Imperial War Museum’s archive where he told the story of his life; I couldn’t believe how much this man had achieved, and what he had fought against. This was the tale of a Northern boy trapped by mass unemployment and poverty, a teenager willing to join Stockton to London hunger marches, and a man who ended up fighting in the Spanish Civil War. And he did all of this before the age of 19.”

Profoundly moved by the six hours of Imperial War Museum recordings, Sean decided to tell Johnny’s life story as a full album, incorporating his voice into the recordings: “By hearing Johnny’s voice, this deep, warm, funny, Teesside accent, we all came to the agreement that we wanted to use his voice as a narrator of the piece.”  A fine production technique, Johnny’s voice provides an emotional anchor to the narrative and an interesting juxtaposition to the traditional folk harmonies of The Young’uns and their deliberate attempt to sound more North Eastern than ever. “In a way we did try to capture the sound of the North East in our music because Johnny’s voice is our voice, and Johnny’s story is our story; the hardships, the unemployment, the struggles of the North East.”  

Johnny’s voice provides an emotional anchor to the narrative and an interesting juxtaposition to the traditional folk harmonies of The Young’uns

Captured across standouts Any Bread? and Hostel Strike, The Battle of Johnny Longstaff has a feel of being directly descended from the socialist folk works of Alan Hull, Tommy Armstrong and the Pitman Poets. With pin-point harmonies and gentle guitar backing, this may be The Young’uns at their strongest to date.

With regards to the parallels between the early 20th Century and today’s socio-political climate, Sean is less keen to use the past as a statement for the future: “There are parts of history that haven’t changed, particularly in the North East where times can still be tough and yet we retain that sense of humour, but any parallels between that time and today is not up to the band to preach about. Our role is to tell the stories as objectively as possible and let people make their own minds up. If I was to be drawn on any key message though I would make it about Johnny’s bravery as a young man – a teenager – to stand up for himself and others. Johnny fought for equality and stood up for people, his life was about improving the lives of others yet he was very humble about it.  I’m sure that if Johnny was here today he’d be incredibly embarrassed by the attention, arguing that there were thousands of people like him.”

Yet there weren’t thousands of people like Johnny, not really, something that has been made more apparent as the album has gained attention. “Given the story of his life, and his bravery, people outside of the North East have presumed that Johnny is a cult figure and that there are streets named after him.” 

Having released the album in a multi-medium style (the 1930s-style package includes notes and rare images plus a revolutionary newspaper and limited-edition poster), the band’s live show will be an audio-visual treat, and Sean admits that there is still more content available for later volumes. “We finish the album when Sean is 19 and heading to the First World War. There’s so much to his life, and we may visit his later years in the future.  We’ll see.” 

Further stories about selflessness and bravery, set alongside lush vocals and fantastic folk? I’ll get the tissues ready.

The Young’Uns play Middlesbrough Town Hall on Friday 8th February. The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff is available now via Hereteu Records.



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