Phil “Swill” Odgers talks Dave Jennings through his stunning new album and pays moving tribute to The Men They Couldn’t Hang bandmate Stefan Cush.
Phil “Swill” Odgers has released his long-delayed new album Ghosts Of Rock ‘n’ Roll and it has certainly proved worth the wait. This is a fine collection of songs that will bring a smile to your face and maybe even a tear to your eye. There is no escaping the sad backdrop to the album release with Odgers’ long- time friend and bandmate, the legendary Stefan Cush, passing away earlier this year. The album is dedicated to him and stands as a fitting tribute.
From the beautifully contemplative opening track, recent single The Serpent, The Maiden and The Bear, Ghosts Of Rock ‘n’ Roll flows seamlessly through a collection of songs as good as any Odgers has written. The trademark lyrical dexterity is consistently to the fore and his ear for a good melody is as sharp now as it ever was and this is perfectly evidenced on the irresistible The Last Thing on My Mind is Regrets and the soulfully infectious Uke Town.
Two arrangements on the album particularly grab attention. The cover version of Phil Ochs song, The Flower Lady with Sid Griffin, is a blistering beauty, a contrast to the more restrained other tracks and a sure-fire winner. However, Brooklyn Bridge, from a poem by Joe Solo, is a moving commentary on the sad reality of aging and the onset of dementia. Odgers has delivered a stunning arrangement here and, for me at least, the song ranks alongside Hello In There by John Prine on this sad subject.
Ghosts Of Rock ‘n’ Roll is an outstanding album and a welcome reminder of the true beauty of the craft of the songwriter. I caught up with Phil Odgers to discuss the album and how he has cope with a difficult year.
LTW: Congratulations on a great album Swill, is it fair to say that it has been a while in the making?
Swill: I don’t usually take that long to write and record material but this has been a marathon effort. It all started a couple of years ago when I went on holiday to Malta with my family. I took a ukulele with me, just for a bit of fun really, but I got quite obsessed with it. I found I can write songs and melodies on it, different to how I do on a guitar, the sound takes you off in different directions.
I went with Pledge Music and all was going well as I started to put the album together, but then these rumours started going around that things weren’t right. The next thing they went bankrupt, so all the money that had been got in for the album through Pledge went, as did the funds for The Men They Couldn’t Hang album too.
But then I did a Demo album which was the inception of this album. I took eight songs off the Demo album, wrote one more and put a cover in there too. By the time I’d got my funds back up to get into the studio again, lockdown came in so I couldn’t go and record. I wanted to make it a full band record so there was no point in trying to work remotely. However, we got that period in October 2020 when conditions were eased and we could get the band together. We were socially distanced in the studio but knocked the album out, basically live. It took four days to record and mix. Funnily enough, a lot of my inspiration for this album was the early Stiff albums and I ended up recording it in the same way they were – everything played live with a couple of overdubs after. It’s an album that was three, maybe four, years in the making which was recorded in three or four days.
On a recent visit to a Beatles museum, I saw a ukulele that was one of George Harrison’s first. It was an instrument that held huge significance for him, and was important in the inception of The Ghosts Of Rock ‘n’ Roll wasn’t it?
It’s a totally different sound and feel, and George Harrison is a good example of how you can get hooked on the instrument. He believed ukuleles spread happiness and I think he carried one round with him all the time. Joe Strummer is another example of someone who really believed in them. I did previously see the ukulele as like a joke thing, but it is something that makes you feel really good. It’s like meditating. I’ve actually got seven now. My advice for anyone who is thinking about getting one is get a reasonably good one that is in tune and you can learn on that. It’s the same principle as a guitar – don’t buy a cheap crappy one. You can noodle around on a ukulele and it’s only got four strings, so how far wrong can you go? I used it to get the basis of most of the songs on this album and love playing it.
Your new single, The Serpent, The Maiden and the Bear, conjures images of you on a quiet summer night during lockdown, is that when it was written?
Yes, it is the most recent song on the album and this is how it works sometimes for me, and I know it’s the same for Phil (Simmonds of The Men They Couldn’t Hang). A song just sort of pops into your head. It’s quite common to spend months working on a song, struggling with the lyrics and what direction it’s going to go in. The song was written during the short break in lockdown when you were allowed to travel as a family. We went to stay in an old converted barn near Norwich, and one night I was sitting outside on the porch having a drink and a cigarette and I just looked up at the sky. I live in London, which was not as smoggy as it normally is, but this was so different – it was such a clear starry night and the song literally just came into my head. I went inside and jotted it down and did a rough demo of it. I haven’t changed anything on it so that’s the version you hear on the album.
There’s going to be another version of it when the album comes out on vinyl next year. I was desperate for it to be released on vinyl as I love the whole idea of the record, and the artwork on it will look great when it’s bigger. The problem with vinyl is it takes so long as most of the pressing plants closed down when it fell out of favour. As a result, the few that are still going find it hard to get spare parts and that, combined with Covid and social distancing rules, means there is a seven-month waiting list from when you put your album in to be pressed before you get it back. So that will be out early next year with a couple of extra tracks on it and a completely acoustic version of The Serpent, The Maiden and The Bear.
The tracks on the album sit together very well and, though varied in style and subject matter, there does seem to be an underlying theme of reflection running through them.
As I get older, I get more reflective and certainly this album and Roll To The Left, my last one, as well as on the last couple of The Man They Couldn’t Hang (TMTCH) albums, I find I’m using events in my life, or people I know, as characters in my songs and basing the story on them.
The Desert Has a Thousand Eyes is actually about a TMTCH tour of Egypt which was a very strange happening. We were invited over by The British Council and didn’t know what to expect. On arrival we were invited to a function which I can only describe as being like the Ferrero Rocher adverts. It was like the Ambassador’s Ball with mostly influential British people, and we wondered what the tour would be like, but when we went to do the gigs it was amazing. We did one in a stadium in Alexandria, and it was full of young Egyptians who were going crazy for the music. Our crew were all Egyptian and they were the most amazing and kindest people you could meet but, to be honest we were hammering it a bit. Cush was going around in the traditional Egyptian robes, much to the consternation of the British Embassy staff, and we were probably acting up a bit. But the song is about the drive from Port Said to Cairo through the desert and the tremendous heat you experience.
What fascinates me is that the Statue of Liberty had originally been designed to be in Port Said welcoming people in. It was meant to be an Egyptian peasant girl holding the torch and designs were made, but eventually it went off to America. I do refer to it in the song. It’s basically a mixture of our time in Egypt combined with some almost mirage-like visions on a journey through the desert.
You have used a poem by Joe Solo, one of our great unsung heroes, as the inspiration for the song Brooklyn Bridge. It’s a song that people are going to find quite affecting isn’t it?
Joe Solo is a songwriter, poet but also a massive fundraiser for charities, particularly the homeless. His day job is a washing machine and fridge repair man and he puts every penny profit he makes into charity. I often read his stories on Facebook about people he meets in his job, and there was a poem he had written called Motorways which was about a gentleman he had met who had Alzheimer’s. He wrote it down pretty much as it happened, and we’ve all known of people who have experienced symptoms such as these so it obviously touched a nerve. It’s very distressing to see an older person getting lost or confused and their mind just slipping away, so I got in touch with Joe and asked would he mind if I wrote a tune for it and I wrote a chorus to put a spin on it too. It came out on the ukulele so well that when I play it live, I use that. The ukulele is an instrument that can sound so happy, but strangely it can also be very melancholic which suits this song really well. It’s very popular when I play it live and it’s one of my favourites on the album.
You’ve been around the music scene for a good while now, as indeed have I as a follower. The title track, The Ghost Of Rock ‘n’ Roll, seems to take us back to another time while referencing the survivors of this period.
Well I started playing live music in 1977 in a Punk band in Southampton and there were still Teddy Boys walking around then, and we would be amazed that they were still wearing that gear. Thinking about it now though, it was only 15-20 years before then that Teddy Boy culture was in full swing. Now, over forty years later, there’s still plenty of people still wearing their punk gear and I still think of it all as fairly new until you really sit down and realise how long it is.
The song sort of uses that theme but I’m also a massive fan of science fiction, particularly the “McCarthy paranoia” era of sci fi films from the ‘60s like Invasion Of The Body snatchers and Plan 9 From Outer Space. I wanted to combine those ideas with a character of a generic rock ‘n’ roller who may or may not be someone I know, wandering around, neither alive nor dead, living this rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. It’s not a deep song, it’s meant to be humorous with a few references people of our age may recognise. I love the rock ‘n’ roll sort of bar-room vibe to it.
The Flower Lady is a Phil Ochs track and you have done an outstanding version that also features Sid Griffin.
I’ve been interested in Phil Ochs for a long time, but it was more of a gradual thing than an instant love. Ochs had a troubled life, he was very anxious about things and had drink problems and he was always overshadowed by people like Bob Dylan, even though Dylan paid tribute to him. I’m currently doing an album of ten or twelve of his songs with John Kettle from Merry Hell, but it’s hard to find songs that are still relevant today. I’m not comfortable doing songs that are from a period I don’t really know like America n the ‘60s and ‘70s. Also, he wasn’t afraid to stand up and say things that were really shocking and upset his peers. He stood up to the “not in my back-yard people” who said they stood for things but didn’t want anyone from the sort of communities they were talking about near them. I was between two for this album that I feel are still relevant, and I went for Flower Lady. I love the idea of disillusioned soldiers coming home from war and arguing with students in a bar with both sides going home convinced they are right and that is still very relevant.
I’m a big Sid Griffin fan and over the years our paths have crossed with TMTCH, and I like his work with The Long Ryders and Coal Porters and knew he was a big Phil Ochs fan. I sent him the song and he was up for it and his voice sounds perfect on it. He also plays guitar and contributes harmonica on The Desert Has A Thousand Eyes so I’m really pleased he’s on there. He’s great to have in the studio too, a real American country gent. I’m delighted with how it has turned out and I was really careful about the track listing order too. You have The Serpent, The Maiden and The Bear to start and then this big sound sort of hits you between the eyes.
The Last Thing on My Mind is Regrets is almost an inversion of the traditional love song.
Yes, it’s an unusual approach as it’s a song about writing a song. I was told a story by our tour bus driver once about the time he drove Dylan on tour. Dylan always had two buses, one for him and one for his band and crew. One morning, the driver was clearing out the waste paper bin, saw some screwed-up pieces of paper and threw them away. Of course, next morning, Dylan came up and asked him where they were. When he told him the driver had thrown them away, Dylan was exasperated and said they were his song lyrics. As a songwriter, I do that often and keep going back to ideas and screwed up notes and that is one of the themes in this song.
It’s about that song writing process but also reflecting on my relationship with my wife when we first met. There’s also a theme in there that you want to get everything down on paper while you can remember it. Sometimes you will have a brilliant idea for a song but you may be riding your bike, for example, so can’t get it down. No matter how hard you try, it’s gone by the time you get to write it down. I like the 1960s-type sound of the song, and it’s the only track on the album where we use harmonies too.
Metropolis, the album closer, is an interesting song based on the movie of the same name.
Yes, I’m a big fan of the film and was asked to play a song in a lovely old cinema in Central London before a screening of a new cut of it a couple of years ago. I love the concept of the film with all the workers living this horrible, subterranean lifestyle while the rich are having these wonderful lives above ground.
I wanted to reflect this in a song, whilst not being too serious about it. I did consider a sort of punk, heavier approach to it but it found its own direction and became this sort of rockabilly or honky-tonk song. I also love the idea of closing the album with it and then the piano coming back on its own afterwards. I was also conscious of the album on vinyl with the lone piano closing Side 2, and the listener picking it up and turning it over for Side 1 again. All the time I play it though, I have the picture of the black and white movie Metropolis in my mind.
Has live work to promote the album been difficult to plan?
Booking gigs is obviously difficult because of the uncertainty. I know of one comedian who had his tour cancelled for a year and had to write a whole new show as none of it was relevant anymore, so at least musicians don’t have that worry.
If all goes well I’m playing Moseley Festival in Birmingham on September 3rd with Bobby Valentino, then on September 27th we’re playing The Green Note in Camden. One of the nice things is that my gigs have sold out really quickly and The Green Note was the same, but it obviously then presents the problem that people can’t get in. I’m delighted to say that it will be live streamed and it should be top quality. I’ve done two albums live at The Green Note and it’s a great set up so, as long as things don’t change with Covid rules, that will be great.
I’m a little reluctant to book gigs due to the possibility of cancellation. People are very patient and they don’t blame the bands, but it is messing people around. My gig at The Water Rats in July had to be changed and I ended up doing a matinee and evening performance, and still couldn’t get all the people in who had bought tickets. I’m still doing my online Sunday sessions which are monthly, and the one this month may be a pre-recorded one of me and Paul (Simmonds) doing some new TMTCH songs. There’s also a TMTCH tour upcoming in the Autumn, so that limits the live dates I can plan so I won’t actually be doing a tour to promote this album.
Obviously, this year has been marred by the tragic death of Cush which many, including myself, are still struggling to come to terms with. It is a very sad backdrop to the album, which you have dedicated to his memory.
To put it in perspective, Cush and myself were friends from the time when we were both living in Shepherd’s Bush, before even we formed TMTCH – well, Cush was a bit more transient at the time but we got on really well and had a lot of laughs.
So, I have known Cush for a very long time but it’s not like family, it’s something else. Having travelled together and played together for so long in a band, you are with each other all the time and see the best and worst of each other. You wake up with raging hangovers and then start the whole process again. There’s friction and then there’s hilarity and you know each other probably better than you know yourself in some ways. But to add to all the friendship and high jinks, we would be singing together on stage and in the studio. Retrospectively, one of the key things about TMTCH was the way our voices worked together, it’s been called “the twin-pronged vocal attack”. If Cush was going to get distracted and forget the lyric to a song, I would know before it happened and pick it up and he was the same with me. It was really weird and the only thing I can compare it to is my dog as he seems to have this sense and will pick up on anything. For example, we were going to give him his flea treatment the other day and he was straight out of the room before we had even discussed it. I think Cush and myself had that by the end, we sort of knew what the other was going to say or do before they did it, especially in the live environment.
In the studio, things were great too but we would fall out about who was going to sing what and how songs should go. It was always amicable and any disagreements would be ironed out later in the pub. During lockdown Cush was living on his own in a cottage in Wales, and just a week before he died we had a Zoom meeting – Cush, Paul Ricky (TMTCH bassist) and myself – to talk about the future of the band. There’s a book about the band coming up and we were planning on recording an acoustic TMTCH album, with some of the well-known songs but also some new tracks. We were also planning to do a live online gig but it was difficult to do that with Cush being so far away and not the best with technology.
So, we were all positive and happy after the meeting and I remember Cush had a big drink in his hand. All four of us were on the screen chatting and joking and it was brilliant, and then within the week I got the call that he had had a heart attack and he was dead. There was just complete disbelief; I went upstairs and told my wife that Cush was dead and even the words coming out of my mouth didn’t seem real. The next day I was in complete shock and spent a lot of time listening to his songs. Also, with it happening during Covid the funeral was very difficult; there was a limit of thirty who could attend. It was in his village in Wales and was just his family and friends from the village and the four of us. We couldn’t have a get together afterwards, it was straight back in the car. However, we did have a send-off for him about three weeks ago, where a lot of old friends got together – that was brilliant and makes it seem a little more real, but there’s still a big hole there where he was.
The band will honour the dates in the Autumn and Winter that we already had booked and then sit back and reflect on how we feel and should we carry on. Without being egotistical, I realise we are an important band in some people’s lives and we mean a lot to them. It enables them to look back to other times in their life and there is also a community around the band where people meet up. We will talk to the audience on tour, like we always do, and gauge their feelings too. It is a huge decision and not one to be taken lightly. There’s been such appreciation for Cush though, I just wish he knew how loved he was. He was a complete one-off, a great performer and totally unpredictable. One of the great things about online communities is people get to share their feelings very quickly and that support, particularly during Covid, was massive for me. The outpouring of comments, from so many areas, including other musicians and people who may not necessarily be within our circle, was wonderful to see.
We released a compilation of his songs through the years with The Men They Couldn’t Hang called Shun Fame, which was a title Cush would always tout for the next TMTCH album. The great thing is that the songs sit together well, almost like it is one album and not a compilation. Maybe that was his plan all along… The songs are written in a unique way which is totally Cush and there is often nothing musically conventional about them. However, I have played a few of them and there is a clear musical logic to the songs once you really get into them and they contain all his trade mark turns of phrase, humour, passion and generosity of spirit. We think that he is still there and his presence will be with us as we move forward in whatever we do.
Shun Fame is available here
Phil ‘Swill’ Odgers is on Facebook and Twitter or see his website or instagram
Tickets for Swill’s stream of his Green Note gig can purchased here
Ghosts of Rock ‘N’ Roll is out now on Vinyl Star Records as CD and DL with vinyl to come in 2022.
All words by Dave Jennings. More from Dave can be found at his Louder Than War Author Archive. He is also on Twitter as @blackfoxwrexham.
Photos by Marvey Mills (Marvellous Gig Photography) and Max Ellis.