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20 December 2017

Billy Bragg on Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance: “He scours the edgelands of British pop culture”

From the Long Players series: writers on their most cherished albums.

By Billy Bragg

After I left school in 1974, my social life consisted of playing rock’n’roll in various back rooms with my mates. We scoured the classified ads in the back pages of Melody Maker, looking for studios. An ad for a place called Bearshanks Lodge, a converted farmhouse in Northamptonshire, offered a week’s residential recording for a reasonable £150. We got in touch. The handwriting on the letter we got back looked very similar to that on the sleeve of Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance. Lane was a former member of the Faces, the band that provided much of the material for our sessions. He’d quit when Rod Stewart’s solo pretensions began to overwhelm the integrity of the group.

The handwriting belonged to Jackie O’Lochlainn Mackay. It was her photograph of Ronnie Lane that adorned the front cover. The grainy, sepia-toned image is as earthy as a day spent walking the fields behind a one-horse plough. Lane stares into the camera, with a mischievous look that tells you he doesn’t take himself seriously. It was his instinct for seeing through the glittery charade of pop that led him to part company with the Faces and relocate to a farm in the Welsh Marches.

Jackie’s husband, Ruan O’Lochlainn, was a member of the Slim Chance band, playing saxophone, piano and Hammond organ on the album. The photo within the gatefold sleeve shows him standing with the band against what looks like an old barn wall. Lane’s long sideburns, drape coat and scarf give him the look of the dodgy outsider in a Hardy novel who ultimately wins the day by pulling the squire from the mill pond. With mandolin, violin, accordion and Dobro guitar to the fore, this band, under Lane’s direction, created something seldom heard in British pop.

Taking his cues from his postwar childhood, Lane drew on cowboy songs, pub singalongs and music hall ballads as well as the likes of Chuck Berry, Fats Waller and the Mills Brothers. Throwing in half a dozen self-penned numbers, he built on a sound glimpsed on “Lazy Sunday” and “Itchycoo Park” to create an English country music that was neither traditional nor pastoral. The cover of Lane’s first album had featured a picture of a rag-and-bone man on his horse and cart, and Ronnie lived up to that image, scouring the edgelands of British pop culture, carting off material that nobody wanted any more, utilising it to forge something new and beautiful.

Staying with Ruan and Jackie was like walking into the sleeve of one of our favourite records. They welcomed us in and their enthusiasm for our music gave us all a boost in confidence. Every time I hear Ruan’s plaintive piano opening to “Give Me a Penny”, I find myself once again walking across the fields towards Bearshanks Lodge. 

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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special