The Times We’ve Been Through : Music for the Times We’re Going Through

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Ever found yourself singing along to a catchy tune and then blushing with embarrassment when the actual reactionary meaning of the lyrics dawns upon you? I confess, I have! There’s no danger of that when you listen to the new Peter Hicks CD. The Times We’ve Been Through, is full of catchy tunes guaranteed to get listeners singing. The collection is musically rich. The backing vocals superbly compliment the powerful lead vocals from Hicks. And far from being embarrassed, you’ll be inspired and entertained by lyrics which bring constant surprises.

The opening track, “Another War Out There,” is in the great tradition of anti-war songs. But it is also very different. Most of these tunes rely on protesting the horror of war as a means to promote a pacifist message. Not this one. Jeff Patterson, who at the start of the U.S. war against Iraq became the first Marine to refuse and resist, provided the inspiration. The infectious chorus ends with the words: “and our fight is not with people who have never done us wrong.” But songwriters Hicks and Geoff Francis are clear about those who have done us wrong: “There’s another war out there, it’s the one we should be fighting. It’s the war against poverty, starvation and disease.” Grandly internationalist, this song is a powerful antidote to patriotic rhetoric and speeches: “as I look across the ocean at the sea of human faces, my eyes see fellow workers, not a ruthless enemy.”

The Times We’ve Been Through contains haunting and moving tributes to very real people. “The Warmth of Summer” celebrates the story of two Germans who resisted the Nazis and survived. “So Much More In Him” is a song for Tom Holmes, an outstanding fiddle player who died in Risdon Prison at the age of 29.  Annie, whom Hicks sings about in “Book of Annie’s Life,” is a woman with much to give but who, in capitalist society, never quite belongs. The song is for all of the Annies.

Peter Hicks and Geoff Francis are a prolific duo, who are partners in many ways. In the album’s notes, Hicks says: “Geoff has shown me whole other dimensions to the meaning of love.” The love songs on the album are a refreshing alternative to the superficial and saccharine tunes churned out by capitalist culture. “The Power of Our Love” is a beautiful and uplifting song conveying comradeship, love, musical collaboration and making a difference for each other and humanity.

“Reconciliation,” dedicated to John Howard, is a song of rage, anger and vision. It is sung with a power and contempt “for a sad little man, with a sad little plan, whose two frightened eyes, watch history pass by.” The end is optimistic by pointing to the way “we’ll all live in harmony yet.” The song has clear, insistent demands: “to the stolen children, admit it and pay off the debt.”  And “justice and hope” will be achieved through the restoration of stolen land.

Hicks and Francis find musical inspiration from popular struggles. Their songs are a gift to the movement. I can see powerful mass protests marching to the refrain of “Mumia Abu-Jamal.” Over and over we hear how Mumia Abu-Jamal — the former Black Panther, journalist and radical activist on death row in the U.S. — was framed. The story musically unfolds:

Corruption and brutality,
he’d laid it bare for all to see,
And so the police went after him,
Made up more tales than the brothers Grimm.
With fabrications, threats and bribes,
Mumia’s face was in their sights
I guess you might believe them right
If night were day and day was night.
What about four pairs of eyes
Whose recollections turned to lies?
What about the three now dead
Who faked the words Mumia said?
What about two bullets switched
The ballistic evidence then ditched?
What about that mystery man,
With smoking gun seen in his hand?
What about the racist judge
And the jury rigged to bay for blood?
What about the evidence
That was not allowed for the defence?
What about those secret files
Where Mumia’s good name was reviled?
Just who was it behind the plan
To crucify a decent man?

“One Day in October” is an ode to leadership: “the debt that we owe to those first crazy few.” In October 1988 the struggle to repeal Tasmania’s anti-gay laws took centre stage when a small group of lesbians and gay men set up a stall at Salamanca Market in Hobart. This simple action brought a huge homophobic backlash, but it also planted the seeds for a mass movement which eventually had the bigots outnumbered. Tasmania now has some of the most progressive anti-discrimination laws in the world.

The Times We’ve Been Through is a musical collection to inspire us for the times we are going through. The ultimate message is that people matter, ideas matter and when people act collectively, we have and will continue to make a difference. So sing in the shower, sing in the streets and enjoy.

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