Following the sad news of the death of the effervescent Men They Couldn’t Hang front man, we pay tribute to Stefan Cush.
Like many I was stunned and saddened by the terrible news of the death of Stefan Cush, irrepressible stalwart of The Men They Couldn’t Hang. A larger than life presence, his passing will leave a huge hole in the lives of his bandmates, the audience and the wider music community.
I could attempt to write an obituary that presents his recorded achievements and bemoans the fact that the The Men They Couldn’t Hang never received the acclaim they deserved. However, the many who loved him know all that and it would omit the one thing that is crucial above all else when discussing Cush and The Men They Couldn’t Hang, and that is the power of emotion. Few bands could grab you by the throat and drag you into a song, a story or an experience like them. I don’t believe there is another band who can have you punching the air with a righteous defiance one minute and wiping tears from your eyes the next. Yes, emotion is all with this band and, as I sit here a few hours after hearing the terrible news, I can only try to share what I see as I look back.
I count myself lucky to have been granted one of the great periods of British music. Like those before me who had the Cavern Club in the early ‘60’s, or The Roxy and the 100 Club in ‘76/77, I had the “Folk-Punk” explosion of 1985-86, spearheaded by The Pogues and The Men They Couldn’t Hang. At a time when the original adrenalin of Punk was fading, these bands led a furious revival of energy in venues across the country as they gigged constantly, inspiring legions of devoted followers.To see The Men They Couldn’t Hang then was an uplifting experience, as it remained when they last played live before Lock Down.
Sitting here in the misery of Lock Down, when the future of live music hangs by a thread, I close my eyes and see a band, and in Cush a man, who represent the joys of the gig experience as well as any. March 1986, three days before I saw The Pogues at Hammersmih Palais on St. Patricks’ Day, I saw The Men They Couldn’t Hang at the International Club in Manchester. It’s the Venus Supermarket now, but whenever I drive past there, I can still see that night. The venue was rammed to the rafters and the band were at the top of their game. With their brilliant debut album, Night of a Thousand Candles, now well established, they were in that delicious time before the second album drops. New material and new ideas were thrown into the set to produce an absolutely barnstorming performance. And that is how I see Cush now, and I suppose I always will; the livewire, “like a case of dynamite”, bouncing all over the stage, leading the heaving mass in front of him through an exultant celebration. Yes, Stefan Cush was Mr Live Performance, the effervescent life and soul of every gig party.
The Men They Couldn’t Hang were the sum of many parts; the genius lyrics of Paul Simmonds, from which you could learn history better than in any book, the frantic drum patterns that defied you to sit still, the irresistible melodies and the perfect blending of vocals between Cush and Phil “Swill” Odgers. Harmonizing or combining to produce that essential “power choir” sound, they were unbeatable and, crucially, each track they took lead is instantly owned by each of them and distinctive. It just always sounds right. Cush’s performance on maybe their best-known song, The Green Fields of France, is a true delight, albeit destined to be a poignant one now. Tender, powerful and evocative, his performance is so good that it never fails to put you in France, at the graveside of Willie McBride and to drag you through the emotions felt there.
Great as it is, it’s not just The Green Fields of France that I will listen to, to remember Cush; the passion of Ironmasters, the perfection of The Colours and the yearning beauty of Scarlett Ribbons will all do it. However, the later albums reveal some true gems such as his paean to the 1970’s Denis Law and Ali McGraw, the best song I have heard about the Iraq invasion, Devil on the Wind and the heart-rending beauty of Turquoise Bracelet Bay. Listen to Cock a Hoop, their most recent and, arguably, finest album and three Cush fronted songs jump out. King Street Serenade, Salutations and, maybe the one I will see as his epitaph, the stunning Pone. A soul-infused gem it captures Cush and The Men They Couldn’t Hang at their finest with a killer tune and biting lyrics of the reality of human suffering.
In the hours since his death was announced, you cannot fail to be struck by the theme of the reactions from those who knew and loved him, and it is how he will be remembered. A big-hearted, effervescent human dynamo; a man of strong convictions who brought joy and inspiration to many.
Salutations Cush, we will miss you terribly but your ideals and inspiration will live on through your music.
With thanks to Marvey Mills, Marvellous Gig Photography, for the photos.
All words by Dave Jennings. More from Dave can be found by checking out his Louder Than War Author Archive. He is also on Twitter as @blackfoxwrexham.