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Take Me To Your Leader
25 songs written and delivered by Derek STRAHAN (b.1935)
1. Take me to your leader
2. Age of the artificial man
3. Take time off for your children
4. Cain
5. Goiní home
6. Itís all happened before
7. Domino rag
8. The puritan
9. Toad
10. Road statistic
11. Chain reaction
12. Mary Jane
13. The ballad of joking Jesus
14. Mountain and rain
15. Cross to the other side
16. Soldiers
17. Hear, hear
18. Mr. Smith
19. Instant speed
20. Transport strike blues
21. Here today gone tomorrow
22. To the virgins to make much of time
23. Keep Britain beautiful
24. Smiling portraits
25. Caroline
Derek Strahan: voice, guitar, harmonica, keyboard for virtual bass and additional virtual instrumentation.
Recorded 1960 Ė 1974; digital remastering: 2001

Listening to this disc of mostly satirical songs from the early sixties to the early seventies, I was left wondering how Derek Strahan (born Malaysia, educated in Australia and England) seemed to have passed me by at the time. As well as the tunes and the wit, there is some powerful stuff here and the intervening thirty/forty plus years has not blunted its impact. Not for me anyway, but then, being of that era, I suppose Iím ready-tuned.

My first reaction was to recall the songs of Tom Lehrer, the American maths lecturer who started to become famous (or notorious) in the 1950s. He and Strahan were part of a singer/writer/composer/performer tradition that coincided with the post-war satirical movement. Whereas Lehrer accompanied himself ably on the piano, Strahan uses guitar and usually additional forces with occasional harmonica interpolations à la Bob Dylan. Their songs are mostly of verse/refrain structure. Both employ the technique of writing jolly little tunes to act as vehicles for their blackest humour, the irony of which adds to the bite of the satire.

In style and content Strahan is more eclectic than Lehrer, betraying influences that range from Noel Coward to sixties pop. He adjusts his delivery according to content, by, for example, assuming suitable accents such as Irish for "The Ballad of Joking Jesus" with its James Joyce text. Pompous English is assumed for his three 1960 satires on contemporary Britain. Brit-bashing was a popular Aussie pastime then and these songs do sound a trifle dated. Otherwise there is little that is not relevant to the present. A few things are a giveaway to the past, such as the use of the word "gay" to mean "jolly", and a younger generation may not pick up the political allusion in the Domino Rag. This song is a penetrating comment on what was the then high-profile domino theory which declared that if one "free" country just outside communist borders fell to Marxism, then the next one would tumble followed by others like a row of collapsing dominos. The theory, which generated much paranoia, dominated American foreign policy, led to the Vietnam war and persuaded many Australians that if Vietnam went down, Malaysia and Indonesia would soon follow. The lumbering jauntiness of the musicís refrain, "Weíre all doing the domino rag", exudes a general mocking while the text goes so far as to give Johnson, Agnew and Nixon specific mention. This was courageous satire in 1970. Tom Lehrer would probably never have got away with this sort of thing in the States.

Overall I found this a hugely entertaining disc. The sound is fresh thanks to some clever digital remastering that adds some special effects (wittily demonstrated in the opening Take me to your leader) as well as extra melodic and percussion forces. It is unremittingly tuneful and funny but when it ventures into serious black satire it does, within the genre, border on timeless genius.

The song that moved me most, and chilled me most, was Itís All Happened Before. It begins deceptively:

If you had a little boy
What would be his favourite toy -
A working model Ė oh how nice Ė
An anti- personnel device.
If you had a little son,
Would you teach him to hold a gun,
And when he grew bigger
Would you teach him to pull the trigger.

The refrain gathers more meaning after each biting verse:
Itís all happened before,
Itís all happened before
And it mustnít happen any more,
But itís still happening now
Yes, it still is happening now
And weíve got to stop it somehow, somehowÖ

-the last line sung not with feeble optimism but with a sense of pragmatic impotence.

Hereís part of a later verse:
Children play at tit for tat
And we tell them off for that;
When grown-ups play that kind of game
It doesnít turn out quite the same.

A choir is gradually added over the last refrain, sounding increasingly and ironically celestial

I was listening to this at a time when major powers have taken to the gun as a problem-solver of first resort. Opposing groups continue with relentless tit-for-tat killing as if that would solve anything. Against this backdrop I thought the 34 year old song a most telling, concise elaboration of the philosopher Hegelís observation, made in 1837:

What experience and history teach us, however, is this, that peoples and governments have never learned anything from history.

John Leeman

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