Louder Than War Interview

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The Ferocious Dog frontman talks about the social and political issues that new album Kleptocracy deals with.

Ferocious Dog released their follow-up to 2021’s The Hope on 17th May and, true to form, it is a rumbustious and raucous orgy of political punch that lifts the veil on the uncomfortable social realities of a damaged and divided Britain. Feel-good tunes with feel angry lyrics, it’s set to go down a storm with the band’s loyal fan-base and well beyond.

I spoke to Ken Bonsall, the ever-present, ever-cheery, and ever so slightly Left Wing in his political outlook front-man, to get the story behind the songs on Kleptocracy.

LTW: So, you’re releasing the follow up to The Hope with Kleptocracy. How was it getting the album together?

Ken: Being a folk punk band and a political band at the same time isn’t easy because a lot of bands of that genre try and imitate Dropkick Murphys, and Flogging Molly, with singing songs about being Irish and getting drunk. Yeah, we’ve still got the Irish side but I’m very political, a socialist, so it’s an odd one to balance for me.

I had four weeks to write 13 songs, but I didn’t in a way, because I knew the subject matter that I wanted to write about. I don’t write for a long time; I’ll just write when it’s time to do the album. When the band have got the tunes ready, I’ll start writing and I’ll write for that tune, and then one for that one and so on. They’re just bits of music that we’ve jammed and then I say, right, that’s the album there, Kleptocracy. A lot of times you’re trying to make people aware of things, social issues or important events, and with Ferocious Dog we’re often looking back into history, so you’ve got to know what you’re writing about. 

Kleptocracy is an attention-grabbing title, why did you choose to call it that?

Ken: Like a lot of people, I had never heard of the word kleptocracy; there’s autocracies and democracies, but what we have now in Britain is a kleptocracy. I saw it on a t-shirt and I thought, “wow, that’s exactly what we have got with this government”. They are granting money to friends and stealing taxpayer’s money and then just laughing it off. And now they’re not even trying to hide it, it’s blatant but people don’t seem to know about it, or maybe they don’t care. We were singing and clapping for the NHS during COVID and they were just slicing billions off for each other, for their friends and family. Their friends make another company, there’s money to be awarded for services, so they carve millions off and don’t actually provide any benefit.

All they’re doing is looking after themselves, and it’s now so blatant that I thought I’ve got to sing about it – we’re living in a kleptocracy and they are just robbing us working class people and getting away with it. A kleptocracy is defined as a state with corrupt political leaders who misappropriate the wealth of the people and take it for themselves at the expense of the population.

I always try and write a song where you’re not actually pointing the finger and saying “you’re wrong”; I just try and point out what they’re doing and people can make up their own minds. I’m not saying they are wrong in what they are doing, it’s their way of life, that’s why most of them are so rich. So, by writing Kleptocracy, I’m just pointing out what they are doing, taking all the money and looking after the 1% club, and letting people decide for themselves if they agree with it.

Is it neo-Thatcherism in your view, or a stage beyond even that?

Ken: Thatcher privatised the NHS – the only thing that’s not private is that badge that says NHS, and they’ll always keep that badge as it gives them cover for what’s really happening. It’s not national, they’re all private companies. They wrote it as a strategy way back then to privatise the NHS without us knowing, and they have done it.

We saw Tories wearing these badges saying National Health Service and clapping during COVID and it’s just rubbish, but what can you do? There is no stopping them because the political culture has shifted so far to the right that all this is seen as almost normal.  

You’ve written about the SUS laws that were so hated in the’80s.

Ken: Well, it’s all come full circle hasn’t it, they’re doing it all again and they’ve got the rights to do it. I witnessed it with my own eyes in the Miner’s Strike in 1984, when it was illegal but the police still got away with it. Nobody stopped them because Thatcher had said “I want you to do this”. The police went to training camps in Northern Ireland and they came back over to the mainland to absolutely smash the working classes.

The poem, Sonny’s Lettah by Linton Kwesi Johnson, which you’ve said inspired the song, is a great piece of work but not easy reading or listening

Ken: It’s an amazing piece of work, very hard-hitting. Listening to that, you get a real insight into the SUS Laws, as good a depiction of being black in Brixton in the 1970s and early ‘80s as you will get. I’ve just seen a drama on the BBC, This Town set in the Midlands around that time, and that just shows you the police brutality. There was a picket line, and a striker who was black got arrested – he wasn’t doing anything wrong, just on the picket line. They took him in, but before they let him go they gave him a good beating in the cells.  That’s why I wrote SUS Laws, because it was a wicked law that saw innocent black guys being beaten in the cells and nobody could hear their screams. The police would just say “oh, he fell over” or “he attacked one of our officers” and they got away with it. But, to return to your question, yes the poem by Linton Johnson is very moving and very effective in what it sets out to do.

The album Kleptocracy suggests that you see more parallels with those times in Britain today.

Ken: If you look at the level of discrimination in the ’60s and ’70s towards immigrants who had come over to do the jobs no one here wanted to, I definitely feel it is the case, yes. We had the Windrush people coming to work on the trains and buses. The Irish had done the railways, and a hundred years later the motorways, and practically built modern Britain, but they faced hotels and pubs with signs saying “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish”. They had come to do the jobs we didn’t want to and faced massive discrimination. So, they can’t win either way, these people, and now it’s gone full circle. The people who are coming over to take up unwanted jobs, like in the Care sector, or in kitchens, are being criticised by the very people who are bringing them in to do it.

It seems that the targeting of minorities, race and social class, is a default political strategy by the current Government?

Ken: Yeah, racist overtones are becoming more and more common in the language of some politicians. There’s also a trend where they demonise people such as the homeless. These people are rock bottom, you know, no matter how they got there, there is no lower they can fall, and yet they are demonised. They try and clear them out of the city centres because they don’t want them to be so visible, but these people are in crisis and hiding the problem – calling it a “lifestyle choice” is not really helping.

We always do the Ferocious Food Drops wherever we play on every tour and I always say I hate having to do it. You know what? The eighth biggest economy in the world, and we’ve got a crisis on our streets. It’s everywhere you look now. Many of these people are vulnerable – they have no choice in current society. They don’t aspire to living in tents in city centres, who would? And if it’s not bad enough for them living on the streets, they’re demonised by politicians and very often picked on or attacked by gangs. These are often people with severe mental health issues, and I just find it shocking that the situation exists. People say they’re proud to live in Britain and I’m thinking there’s nothing to be proud of in this country at the moment.

It’s all going back to “Victorian Values”, that pet phrase of Thatcher. So many years of Tory rule and this is what we’ve got. The establishment are so far in charge now, and when you’ve got billionaires running the country, they don’t know anything about real people. They don’t care about you, why would they? They’re not interested in somebody who’s leaving school and trying to make his own way, struggling to buy his first flat or house because he’s on zero hour contracting. You cannot expect a billionaire to understand that or care about it.

People are never going to get out of that poverty cycle. Kids are born into child poverty, that’s all they’ve ever known; they will struggle in school, they will struggle to access health services and they may end up homeless. I can’t listen to billionaires saying they understand that and their plan is working.

I’m working class and brought up in a village. We didn’t have anything when we were growing up, but we had food and we had love. So, luckily. I’ve never had to live on streets, but I’ve worked with people on the streets and I helped them as much as I could. I’ve always said there’s two types of people; people who care and people who don’t and that simply means there’s nice people who will go out of their way to help people, rather than demonise them. Those are the people we should be proud of in this country.

This brings me to the song on the new album, a beautiful duet called A Place We Call Home. That’s inspired by this subject isn’t it?

Ken: It’s with Lizzey Joy Ross, my vocal coach – she has an amazing voice and I just thought it would be good. to get her on the next album doing a duet with us. So, Sam, our wonderful multi-instrumentalist, came up with the guitar riff that had this great feel about it. Then I wrote the lyrics and what I wanted to convey was, where’s the best place or the worst place you can be for two lovers? But one thing that shines through, no matter how hard things are, is that you still got love and nothing can break that that bond.

I’ve never been homeless like I said, but I did the song about the worst place to live and that’s on the streets when you’ve got nothing. It’s about two people being evicted, the impact of austerity, they’ve lost everything and ended up being on the streets. But the one thing that shines through is their undying love for each other. They’ll get through it together and they’ll still have that same love no matter where they live.. I’m trying to turn a terrible situation into a positive, it’s that kind of song.

Merthyr Rising, also on the new album is a song that means a lot to you?

Ken: Playing Merthyr Rising Festival is a massive honour for me. In a square in the middle of Merthyr. To me, that was the same as playing the Toll Puddle Festival and the Left Field Stage at Glastonbury. That’s exactly where Ferocious Dog, as a Left-leaning band should be playing, I wrote the song which is on the kleptocracy album and I’ve even put some Welsh in there.  I’ve got a friend who lives in Mold and she speaks fluent Welsh so she helped me with the phrases and how to pronounce them properly.

Blood Soaked Shores has a real contrast between the vibe and the actual lyrics? 

Ken: It’s one of those songs I always envisaged being played in a pub on Paddies Day, with people jumping on the bar, chucking shorts down their neck and passing out with a big grin on their face. A real goodtime tune, but what we’re actually singing about is the hard, cruel reality of war. It’s a blatant anti-war song called Blood Soaked Shores, but it’s not about some faraway place, It’s about England. We’ve got blood on our hands throughout history but we make these people into heroes, like Nelson and Cromwell. The number of atrocities committed in the name of Britain must be phenomenal but, if you can get people to dance along to such lyrics set to a good tune, then that’s a masterpiece.

I didn’t know the story of Iron Mike Malloy until I heard the song, but it’s quite a tale, and all true?

Ken: It’s brilliant. isn’t it? And yes, all a true story. Mike Malloy was a homeless Irish guy in New York in the early Twentieth Century and this gang of crooks kept trying to kill him, and some of the ways they went about it are unbelievable. Basically, they knew he was an alcoholic so took out life insurance policies on him and then set about trying to kill him, but the next day he would be back at the bar despite what they did, so he got this reputation of being invincible. Johnny Edwards our old accordion player worked on it with me but we never got it finished but it’s such a great story, I felt I had to share it.

I mention that the song Iron Mike Malloy puts me in mind of the great, but sadly now late, Shane MacGowan and instantly it is easy to see what that means to the Ferocious front man. However, the comparison stands for me, Ferocious Dog, and their rabid band of Hell Hounds are keeping the spirit of The Pogues well and truly alive. Good time, infectious music is the velvet glove, concealing the iron fist of lyrics that spare nothing in their description of the realities of poverty and corruption.

Is Britain 2024 a Kleptocracy? Everyone must decide for themselves but Ferocious Dog have made a blistering contribution to the debate with their latest album.

All words by Dave JenningsMore from Dave can be found at his Louder Than War Author Archive. He is also on Twitter