[sic] Magazine

Jail Guitar Doors

“Never under-estimate the power of cheap music.”

What Noel Coward meant was ‘pop’ but the phrase could be hi-jacked to cover the provision of guitars in prisons – which is what Billy Bragg’s Jail Guitar Doors scheme is doing. The film we are here to see tells us a bit about the idea but mostly focuses on the idea in action – prisoners using the enforced (and largely deserved) time behind bars for practical and therapeutic purposes, viz learning and using a guitar to express themselves. Of necessity, the film isn’t going to show the prisoners involved as demons but neither does it say they are misunderstood angels. What it does show is that a simple (and relatively cheap) thing like an acoustic guitar can be used to help give an outlet to men (and women though only male prisoners are featured) who have had little use for introspection before. And a lot of people can gain enormously per guitar. The antithesis of Story Of A Gun, the Story Of A Guitar would be a portmanteau of positivity. Not everyone will go on to create via the guitar but it must be an opening of the gates to creative expression. And creativity has to be better than a continued cycle of criminality. You might not think convicted criminals should be given anything ‘fun’ to do but if it’s helpful to society in the long run (and MUCH cheaper than keeping re-offenders in prison) it’s at least worth a try. Something needs to be done to improve the prisoners before they are back on the streets and this may well be very useful tool. As writer/comedian Mark wisely says in the film these men will be out again and living near you whether you like it or not, surely it’s better for them to start the path towards entering society in such a positive and creative way. Hopefully the guitar is a passive weapon towards self-understanding, even venting aggression and anger without violence. That a plank of wood with strings can have this effect is a pretty special thing and after watching the film it seems it just might. The film may be named after a line in I Fought The Law but it has more to do with breaking down obstacles than rocks.


The concert following the film is designed to show off a couple of “graduates” from the scheme as well as featuring some sets from well known supporters and organised to get us through the door. The scheme is named after a Clash b-side, written about Wayne Kramer of MC5 getting jailed for trafficking coke. It is appropriate then that he is now heading a US version of the scheme and was here to play (along with Mick Jones from The Clash). As is almost inevitable with these things it over-ran and as Chris Shiflett from The Foo Fighters starts his acoustic set I’m a long way from Kicking Out The Jams (and a fair distance from the bar). Although undoubtedly a class act I’m not much of a Foo Fighters fan so although Chris seems like a good guy and plays a pleasant set I’m only really excited when he mentions The Shakin’ Pyramids. You really can’t knock someone involved in selling out a couple of Wembley stadiums doing this though (and going in to prisons to play).

Of the two gents who played in the scheme on the bill, first up is Jonny Neesom who has something over and above any good will I may have had remaining from viewing the film. He has a dry style and a killer’s smile (he’s not a killer as far as I know!) and he seems to have a devilish delight in not towing the lyrical line. He describes the song he’s set to play as a bit filthy. It’s called “I Want To fuck Yr Girlfriend” and the title is the least offensive thing about it. Rather like a readers letter in Razzle with beats. His dead pan Shaun Ryder charm (though rather more blessed in looks and coherence) is evident. I genuinely am disappointed he only plays one track before Get Cape, Wear Cape, Fly start their set. As a person Sam Duckworth seems wholly admirable but, again, I can take or leave his music (nice to hear a horn section, mind).


Time is now rather getting on so luckily Billy Bragg is able to get on with his guitar and the minimum of fuss (it was ever so). Although it is possible I simply cannot recall his sets at CND, Anti-Apartheid, or farewell GLC gigs the last time I can say with certainty I saw Billy was supporting Marillion at the old Marquee club in 1982. I remember walking in (bare in mind I worshipped all manner of wibbly muso shit then) hearing him (motoring down the A 13) and walking out again much bemused. I recall saying to the club manager “He’s shit… but Christ he’s got some balls.” Well, clearly I was wrong in the first instance as he now has a cannon of British song writing classics to his name quite apart from his interpretative skills. But I was right on the money on the second half as his refusal to sit on the sidelines and preach has shown time and time again. However tonight it’s a great opportunity to hear some of the best songs of the last, oh God it’s nearly 30, years. Sexuality sounded a trifle earnest on release but it now has a warm charm born of familiarity. Greetings To The New Brunette is superb, Rotting On Remand powerful (and appropriate) and New England is a national anthem of sorts (for sorts like me). He also plays two songs he has found break the ice and hit home in his prison shows – Redemption Song and The Drugs Don’t Work.


His set however is broken up by the other ‘graduate’ Leon Walker getting his 3-song slot (having missed his original cue when he was having a fag outside. He interests me less than Jonny musically as he sounds overly like Jamie T to me (especially on his signature track Annabella) but his personality is barely held by Proud and the crowd are four square behind him (strangely he fits the better looking less fucked Bez mould). A more refreshed Jonny also gets to do 2 further and darker tracks more informed by his intimate association with the justice system.

Once we have all sung along to New England it’s time to get on the legends. Wayne Kramer joins Billy for We Shall Overcome then Mick Jones, Chris Shiflett and a pub band help out on Kick Out The Jams. I’m running for my last train as the Jail Guitar Doors go Bang Bang to end proceedings but such is the strength of the idea, in this case the end is the beginning.

Jail Guitar Doors

Jonny Neesom

Leon Walker