Nearly 4,000 miles separate a parking lot on the campus of Kent State University in north-eastern Ohio and the pavement outside the Market Street library at Birstall, West Yorkshire. But these seemingly unconnected settings are linked by two powerful, political pieces of music.
Ohio, rush-released as a single by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in 1970, was Neil Young’s instantaneous reaction to the indiscriminate firing by the Ohio National Guard into a crowd of unarmed students demonstrating against the escalation in America’s war in Vietnam and Cambodia. A 13-second, 67-shot barrage left four dead and nine injured.
Hate Won’t Win, by fine new British band Bennett Wilson Poole, was penned by 12-string Rickenbacker maestro Tony Poole immediately after the 2016 murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox. She was shot with a sawn-off shotgun and stabbed in the face by a neo-Nazi. The song is a ‘21st-century equivalent’ of Ohio, says its writer, proving emulation can be the sincerest form of flattery.
David Crosby reputedly showed Young the cover of Life magazine featuring a photo of 14-year-old runaway Mary Ann Vecchio on the parking lot, crouched over the lifeless body of undergraduate Jeffrey Miller and screaming – a picture that won the Pulitzer Prize for John Paul Filo.
The image prompted Young to conjure what for Poole is Ohio’s most memorable line – with the obvious exception of the accusatory opening ‘Tin soldiers and Nixon coming’. It is a question which flashed through his mind as details of Mrs Cox’s killing emerged. ‘What if you knew her,’ Young sang, ‘and found her dead on the ground?’
Reports from Birstall told how a 77-year-old former mines-rescue worker, Bernard Carter-Kenny, was knifed as he fought to stop the pro-EU, pro-immigration MP’s attacker. Then the paramedics leaned over her, like Mary Ann 46 years earlier, and strove in vain to save her.
Young encapsulated the rage, incomprehension and sadness millions of Americans felt. In 1977 he said: ‘It’s still hard to believe I had to write this song.’ With the hymn-like, a cappella Find The Cost Of Freedom on the flip side – written by Stephen Stills and another spontaneous recording – it reached No14 in the US chart. It also helped change the political landscape.
Tony Poole was then an aspiring musician and Byrds nut from Bedford who went on to co-found Starry Eyed And Laughing (the name came from Bob Dylan’s Chimes Of Freedom). They flourished on the pub rock circuit, Poole standing out for his guitar playing, vocals and a mane of red hair that flew behind him like a superhero’s cape.
A passion for the Byrds and Dylan means he is steeped in the power of the ‘protest’ song. As he watched the horror unfold in Yorkshire and learned of Cox’s stance against racism and her belief that ‘we have more in common than divides us’, he felt compelled, like Young, to pour his feelings into a song.
From the portentous opening guitar chords it is clear this is not going to be a West Coast love song. Poole steps up to the mic to set the grim scene:
She’s walking down the street
Thinking ‘this world could be a better place’
He shoots her once, shoots her twice
Then he puts one more in her face
After each verse come not one but two choruses. The first, in terms we can all understand, echoes an exhortation Jo Cox made during her campaigning.
Hate won’t win
Don’t let it win
Hate won’t win
She said, don’t let it in
This is followed by an Ohio-style wordless refrain. Seldom, down the decades, has a ‘nah, nah nah nanna-nah, nah nannah-nah’ conveyed so much. Then comes spiky, taut guitar Young would have been proud to claim.
Hate Won’t Win unwittingly became an homage to CSNY’s song. Yet for all its dark lyric and subject matter it has a defiantly upbeat vibe, as if reiterating Cox’s message of love, hope and unity and saying that those who espouse it will not be cowed.
A major difference with Ohio is that two years have passed since BWP, as they were to become, put their original version up online. It’s been worth the wait to be able to buy the finished product (and indeed the BWP album, on vinyl to boot).
Those looking for a Byrdsian jangle-fest will find much to enjoy. But for me, paradoxically, Poole’s bleak song shines brightest. Fiery, forthright and with an irresistible hook on the title line, it gives each of the trio a platform for his distinctive vocal style before they meld in rich harmony.
In his memoir Graham Nash says he remains ‘goddam proud’ of Young’s anthem for doomed youth. Tony Poole and his cohorts should feel the same about Hate Won’t Win.