The song Hate Won’t Win was in direct response to the killing of the MP Jo Cox in 2016. The news broke on that Thursday just after she was murdered so horribly. I was in the garden on a sunny day, and I was just overwhelmed with grief. I’d never heard of her, but reading about her life and work made think ‘this is what a politician should be’.
I realised there are actually people trying to work for the best for the rest of us. I’d had – and still have, largely – the impression that ‘politicians’ are basically in it for themselves; David Crosby's views are particularly vehement about this! Once elected, it seems their main intention is to remain in power. Jo wasn’t cut from that cloth.
As for how the song came about, the creative process is always hard to explain, but very soon after learning the news, I picked up a guitar and somehow connected a tune and some words. I particularly wanted it to sound very graphic and brutal, like a news item: ‘He shoots her once, he shoots her twice, then he puts one more in her face’.
The whole first verse and the wordless chorus bit – which I felt was necessary to express the grief – probably took no more than a few minutes. I recorded the demo straight into my phone as I wrote it.
As I was writing it – and I must say, this instant reaction has never happened to me before – the immediacy evoked Neil Young’s Ohio, which he did as a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young track. Crosby's reaction was to book a studio and record the song as soon as possible. It seemed essential to do a 21st-century equivalent somehow, not that I or Robin (Bennett) or Danny (Wilson) are anywhere near the level of influence, popularity or success that CSNY had then.
I sent the demo to Robin and Danny right away, although Bennett Wilson Poole were not yet a band at that stage. By coincidence, we’d already booked a recording session at my place on the Saturday. In that process, the wordless chorus must have been inspired by the similar coda in Ohio, though it's not a direct lift – more a memory prompt to those who might know that song and make the connection that something horrific is happening right in front of all these eyes buried in smart phones.
I’m a huge fan of CSN and CSNY. They carried that torch of ’60s optimism for the human race into the early ’70s, despite Altamont and the signs that it was only going to be a brief flicker in the face of rabid commercialism and 'politics as usual’ from the military/industrial complex who actually run the world, as Frank Zappa said.
I don’t recall how Kent State was reported in the national and international media at the time, but experience has taught that there were probably multiple ‘spins’ on the event depending on where a publication was on the political spectrum. So it didn’t matter: we were getting the raw news – or at least, spun from our viewpoint as hopeful humans in the face of ‘Tin soldiers and Nixon’ – from CSNY.
The raw, personal and brutal quality of Ohio’s lyric – especially ‘What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground’ – is probably the song’s most powerful aspect. Something unconsciously made me want those qualities for Hate Won't Win. By the way, the title comes from a wonderful quote by Jo, which leapt out to me when I started writing.
Also, the immediacy of Young’s reaction to seeing the photos of the dead students can’t be underestimated. I’ve always believed the truth is so much more vivid and real when it comes unfiltered by too much introspection and analysis.
Robin and Danny were blown away by Hate Won’t Win. Robin has stood as a Green Party councillor locally and as MP for Henley – Boris Johnson’s former manor – and done very respectably. They showed up on the Saturday for our first time together and we quickly finished the other verses together.
While they were getting lunch from the local supermarket, I put down the basic track, and we finished the whole song with live vocals – a verse each – and all together in the choruses that afternoon. I put the bass and drums on, and Robin and Danny played lead guitars live to the track in one take.
On the Sunday, I mixed it and we put an uncredited lyric video on YouTube on the following Tuesday, just before what would have been Jo’s birthday.
BWP now include Find The Cost Of Freedom, the b-side of Ohio, at the end of every performance of Hate Won’t Win. I must admit I’ve teared up every time we’ve done it live. I couldn’t finish my introduction to the song in Marlborough – you’re very emotionally involved onstage.
Incidentally, we’ve taken off the 'Song for Jo Cox' subtitle that was originally in brackets after Hate Won’t Win. In my live introduction to the song I explain that it’s becoming well-known that it’s about Jo, and as the world has become an even darker place since she was murdered, with incomprehensible political shifts and homicidal and genocidal events, it seems Hate Won't Win has to be applied universally… as she originally meant it. All three of us decided this. It’s also a longer and different version to the original we posted.
It’s the first political song I've written, although in the ’70s in Starry Eyed And Laughing we often did For What It’s Worth, and there’s a live version on our archival release To Try For the Sun. But another song I wrote for the BWP album, Lifeboat (Take A Picture Of Yourself), is probably also political. There are a couple more obtusely that way coming up on the new Starry Eyed And Laughing album currently being recorded.
On solo gigs I invariably play The Times They Are A-Changin’ and – obviously! – Chimes Of Freedom. However, I seem to be drawn to the less strident songs. I love Phil Ochs, but I'm not sure I’d ever do some of his more direct ones, though I have a feeling that may have to change in the coming times. We’re all going to have to get closer to the front line in the face of the evil that’s rising globally.
Tony Poole was in conversation with Phil Shaw