It is very easy to slip into stereotypical descriptions of working class people and particularly those from the north of England. The people who were central to the industrialisation that led to this country becoming the great power it was in the 18th and 19th century. The people who not only made untold sacrifices to make their lives just a little bit better whilst also enriching the mine or mill owner; but then fought and died to make sure their brethren and kin had better lives. Those people who have the traits of hard work, pride, respect all wrapped up with senses of humour, empathy, understanding and history.
An important part of that history is the keeping alive of tradition, of story telling and remembrance. Something folk punk rock outfit, hailing from Wigan, Merry Hell have been at the forefront of in recent years. With their songs that tell stories of their forbearers, respectful of the musical tradition that has been handed down over generations whilst still setting the tales into contemporary settings that have huge impact in the troubled times we find ourselves in now, Merry Hell are without doubt one of the most exciting and important acts in the world of traditional music.
Whilst the albums they’ve released over the years are always exceptional works the band itself comes alive as a live entity; always playing at the height of their powers, always giving total dedication to their performances and their audience. With a work ethic borne from their home towns in and around Wigan, this is a band that deserves success that surely will be delivered on the back of the blood, sweat and tears they all give to be Merry Hell.
It is with great interest that I watched their documentary, now released onto DVD, to get an insight into how they do what they do, as to what drives them and how the dynamic works within the band. A Year In The Life takes us through the 12 months between March 2018 and February 2019, and presents an honest and enlightening insight into this wonderful band. And even though it is a stereotypical view; this DVD does reinforce many of those traits we expect from northern working class folk.
Firstly, what is apparent is that Merry Hell are very much a co-operative, run for the benefit of all with each member being as important, committed and equal as the others. Much of this comes from the brotherhood of the Kettle’s that is both embracing of the other band members whilst being something those other members truly aspire to be part of. The familial nature of the band adds its own dynamic too; from tales of albums being passed down from brother to brother to stories of scrapes and adventures entered into. One particular story told by Bob Kettle of climbing, when slightly inebriated, the mill building in Wigan is a particular delight of the DVD.
Bob also acts, throughout the film, as a guide to the history of Wigan, it’s people and its sights. Wigan is a town, like many in the north west, very much neglected and on it’s downers. However, this doesn’t dampen the spirit, love or pride for the places Merry Hell call home. Whether that be Bob taking us round Wigan or the section, presented by singer Victoria Kettle, about Chester where she now lives and works could easily be used by local tourism to sell the towns they talk so beautifully about.
Indeed love and pride seem to me to be the overriding themes of this film. A love and pride of the music Merry Hell make but also the love and pride that the music inspires in others; whether that be the fan who’ll follow the band near and far or legends of folk music like Mike Harding who are effusive in their praise of the band. There is also a love and pride of whom Merry Hell are, from supporting the Wigan Diggers and socialist choirs to getting the chance to be part of keeping the tradition of folk music alive at festivals such as Folk On The Farm or Costa Del Folk.
Most importantly though is the love and pride they have for people. A love and pride that shines through in the way they give voice to the worker, be they from the 18th century or today. A love and pride that is integral to being an authentic voice of that which they are born. As John Lennon once wrote, ‘a working class hero is something to be.’ And that is what this lovely film proves more than anything else, Merry Hell are hard-working, funny, clever, determined and proud working class heroes. And more power to them and their people.