As he heads up to Edinburgh with his latest show – “Check Up. Our NHS at 70”, Mark Thomas shares a specially curated playlist he has compiled for The Big Issue to accompany the show.
He says: “You know that great BB King quote – someone asked him if he listened to any other music apart from Blues. And he said, ‘listen, there are only two types of music: good and bad.’ I love that approach.”
Thomas uses his natural inquisitiveness, his children and the recommendations of friends, he says, to maintain his lifelong exploration of music new and old. His recent discoveries include the new, thriving Peckham jazz scene – “There is a whole load of jazz coming out of South East London. How exciting is that?” – and an Appalachian Blues singer called Roscoe Holcomb, who died more than 35 years ago.
“And I went to see Godspeed You Black Emperor a couple of nights ago at the Barbican with a Canadian dance troupe. They do a piece called Monumental and it is fantastic. Music serves all sorts of different purposes. It can be the backdrop at some point, stuff you enjoy, emote to, relax to, can put you in a certain mood – and after seeing you Godspeed You Black Emperor I felt cleansed.
“I am always interested in new stuff or stuff I don’t know about. It could be opera. Or choral music. I love religious choirs. I like people like San Franciscan Golden Gate Quartet, who are one of the jubilee choirs that emerged at the turn of the last century. Mahalia Jackson I completely love, the queen of gospel.”
For his new show, Thomas spent a month shadowing doctors, nurses and consultants in the NHS. He describes one doctor talking about the detective work involved in her job. “She told me about a person presenting with swollen legs and suspected blood clots, really dangerous,” he says. “What do we do? We chat to them, piece their history together. Ex-intravenous drug user, who used drugs in the late ’80s, got on a programme at the end of the ’90s and got clean and housed, got a job and a relationship.
“Then, in 2010, when the relationship starts to break down, things start to go wrong. They become homeless again, start re-using, become co-dependent with another woman and suddenly there is nothing to help him. No agencies. Nothing there, it has been cut to the bone – what they are looking at is the failure of social care in a bloke’s legs.
“The thing about the NHS is that there is lots to be really fucking pleased and grateful for. There really is,” he says. “One of the people we shadowed asked what I wanted the show to be like and I said I want people to leave feeling awe and anger. They said it chimed with them, but for them it was more awe and frustration.
“There is loads to be really amazed at. And there is loads to be infuriated by. I would spend days with the dementia nurses. What you are witnessing is care, the most tender, beautiful and wonderful thing – and within a political framework of cuts to social care.”
The show is not stand-up. Rather, in the vain of his recent work, Thomas’s performance is, in his words, “part theatre, part journalism, part stand-up and mainly storytelling with a nod and a wink at the fluxus art movement and a kiss to the situationists.”
Mark Thomas on the songs that help him write, perform, wind down and everything in between…
WRITING THE SHOW
Godspeed You Black Emperor – Mladic.
One of my favourite songs to write to. Also, if I am feeling off kilter I love listening to this on the way to a gig.
I love listening to these songs before going on stage. Especially Boris Johnson, From Below and An Angry Song. The Commoners Choir are proper stirring and rebellious. For some reason these songs just get me in the right place to walk on stage.
CTMF (Billy Childish) – Punk Rock Enough For Me.
Likewise this will put me in the space I need to be in to go onstage. “Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five are punk rock enough for me! John Lee Hooker without Santana is punk rock enough for me! Joe Strummer and the 101’er’s is punk rock enough for me! YEAH YEAH!”
Roland Kirk – Doin’ the 68.
For those you not familiar with the monumentally brilliant Kirk, he was the coolest sax player- you may have seen photos of him with 3 saxophones on the go at the same time. His influence extends out to Thurston Moore and Rip Rig and Panic and Neneh Cherry. We play this song in the show. It’s a jaunty little number that sounds familiar until you reach the trapdoors.
END OF THE SHOW
John Coltrane – My Favourite Things.
We play this song at the end of the show. It is magnificent and joyous with a splash of yearning, which is pretty much a perfect mix for me. For some reason it was a song I found myself humming a lot while I did my month long residency shadowing doctors and consultants at Imperial Group hospitals in West London, which forms the basis for the show. I would come out of a hospital having had my head turned by something or someone and while I headed to the tube to get home would invariably find myself humming this tune, so it seems fitting to have it in the show.
AFTER THE SHOW
Dillinger – Funky Punk.
This is always the tell-tale sign I have enjoyed a gig. if this playing loudly on the tour van stereo after a show I have really had a good time. It is perfect nonsense to play loudly, swirling up the left over adrenalin from the gig. I am getting on a bit so it looks a little sad when I join in on the screaming. I know this. Couldn’t give a fuck. Funky Punk is one of the greats. It is wonderful, sloppy act of silly joy.
Hank Mizell- Jungle Rock. Same as above.
Dick Gaughan – Workers’ Song.
There are lots of songs that take me back to Edinburgh. There is an amazing song by Dick Gaughin, recorded in 1980. It is the McCoy. It is called the Workers’ Song and he recorded it at the Edinburgh playhouse. It is a beautiful thing. And I always remember the first time I did anything, I directed a play years before I started performing. When I was at college, my mate wrote a play about two unemployed guys wandering through a copse after signing on, playing the games they used to play as kids. We had a grand total of 30 people a night. I loved it. And we used to play this song as a way to get into it… [sings song]
The song always takes me not just back to a time and a place and a feeling – but lots of times and places and feelings. When we went to perform in New Zealand, we arrived at the arts festival and you get this Maori greeting. The performers stand one side and you have to explain who you are, why you are there, what you hope to achieve and then sing a song. I sang this one. And I also remember singing it with our mates before going to do an action, trying to get into a military base. That song embodies all those things. I supported him once. Well, mates of mine were supporting him and I persuaded them to let me play harmonica with them on one song so I could say I have supported Dick Gaughan!
MARK THOMAS: Check Up. Our NHS At 70 is at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh from August 4. Tickets: https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/mark-thomas-check-up-our-nhs-at-70