Flick through a British modern history book, or steer your memory back to the dark, yet innovative days of 1980’s Britain just for a moment. Punk rock had already gatecrashed the music scene and triggered a new surge of expression amongst the country’s emerging musical talent. New Romantic, Synth Pop, Goth Rock, Two-Tone, Dub Reggae and Hip-Hop each took their turn in the UK’s musical spotlight.
On TV, riot-shielded policemen suppressed starving miners and minority malcontents at Maggie Thatcher’s behest, while she misdirected the nation’s gaze towards insurgent ‘Argies’ on a rock thousands of miles away in the South Atlantic.
At home, families starved under a hyper-inflated economy and with one in ten out of work, riots erupted across poverty stricken housing estates in Brixton, Toxteth, Chapeltown, St Paul’s and Handsworth. Meanwhile Irish paramilitaries were hunger-striking and exploding their bombs in Hyde Park, Harrods and eventually in Brighton’s Grand Hotel.
Amidst this social backdrop, visitors to London’s Portobello Road and other street markets interrupted their bargain hunting for a few moments, captivated by a wild-haired, wiry bloke in a checked shirt, singing, tap-dancing and blowing harmonica through a distorted Pig Nose amp.
Cheating has grown to be so much the fashion,
I believe cheating runs the whole nation,
With sharks, slackers,
Two-toned, double-dealing, money-grabbers,
Well they make two look just like three,
With all their jiggery-pokery,
Make a bad thing look good to me,
With their jiggery-pokery.
Cue the Sonny Terry style syncopation of voice and harmonica. This was their street entertainer’s musical signature. A mark that onlookers carried home, ringing in their ears, and branded in their hearts and minds forever. Rory’s McLeod’s talent had depth and vitality. It was fertile, playful and inventive. He’d studied his craft and had a flare for compassionate social comment. He was somehow unforgettable.
Harpin’ By The Sea’s co-producer, Richard Taylor, was one of the lucky few. He still cherishes an unlikely ten minutes spent on a street corner, outside a pub on the Portobello Road, shortly before his friends dragged him away. If Thatcherite Britain was a nightmare and the word nightmare had an antonym, we’d use it to describe the wonder that is Rory McLeod.