Witness Litmus Manacles Marxman Blake

I stand here stand clear truth be my witness
How many Hitlers before you see the litmus
Test I won’t rest, slave who won’t behave

Okay who’s up for some hardcore militant Marxist hip-hop? I certainly was, coincidentally 22 years ago today, when I bought Marxman Ship Ahoy on 12″.  I had read about this Anglo-Irish hip-hop crew making this record fusing beats and traditional Irish instrumentation, with Sinead O’Connor* on guest vocals and thought it sounded interesting.  It is, it was.

Marxman Ship Ahoy 03

Of course way back in the early 90’s we already knew exactly what Irish hip-hop sounded like courtesy of House of Pain, umm, who were American of course, and used Irish accents to gild their thuggish beats**; okay so maybe we didn’t know Jack shit about it.  Unsurprisingly Marxman were an infinitely subtler proposition and Ship Ahoy a bit more agile poetically and politically than ‘if your girl steps up, I’m slapping the ‘ho’^.   Musically Ship Ahoy is excellent, the band roped in the Pogues’ James McNally and a banjo player called Tommy McManamon and they lay down a great folk rhythm before the main beats come rollicking in underneath.  It’s one of those things that simply shouldn’t work, but does so brilliantly that you wonder why it never happened before.  It has clearly been really well produced by the group and Adam Fuest.

Marxman Ship Ahoy 02
Great meeting of minds: A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, just out of shot.

Lyrically Marxman, true to their socialist ways, pull off the neat trick of relating the African slave trade to the colonisation of Ireland to modern wage slavery. I really love tracks that pull off that whole ‘White Man in Hammersmith Palais’ trick of covering such a lot of conceptual ground so quickly that it leaves you floundering like a {Insert your own suitable simile: I’m too tired}.  The delivery by Phase, Hollis and Oisin (I think) is equally excellent, forceful but not shouty, driving home every syllable.  This slots so well into the same time continuum that gave us the whole Bristol trip-hop scene, although I was years off stumbling across that for myself when I bought this one.

I've never made a Lego Karl Marx before.
I’ve never made a Lego Karl Marx before.

There are some great rhymes on Ship Ahoy and I am particularly fond of the old witness / Litmus one above.  This is also the only hip-hop track I have that drops a reference to, 1537 fave, William Blake and for that I will love them unreservedly forever.  Marxman take his concept of ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ from the poem London, his ruminations on economic drudgery and servitude in the 18th Century metropolis that bears its name^^.  Love it.

Gone are the days now the ships cease to sail
I don’t think so what does a wage entail
Nine of five slavery, or a twenty-four seven
Most slaves tricked by the promise of a heaven
Controlled by the sound of a whip that goes crack
Mind – forged manacles make sure there’s no slack
Think you’re not a slave, ’cause no whip marks your back
Now a bureaucrat wields the nine tails of the cat

Throughout it all Sinead adds a plaintive refrain, hitting us between the eyes with the sadness of it all.

Marxman Ship Ahoy 04

On the 12″ we also get an acoustic mix, which is interesting for a minute, or two but not a patch on the original; a full instrumental version – perfect for your next militant Marxist hip-hop karaoke and the Spartan mix, this either refers to its’ stripped back nature, or the mix was left out on the mountainside overnight to either die a milksop, or live a warrior.  Actually I quite like the latter mix, it gets more out of SOC’s vocals as they sound even more emotional in their untreated state.

Marxman Ship Ahoy 05

I never bought the subsequent LP, no money when it was released, but I did buy their next single All About Eve, which was possibly an even better track.  I never heard anything about Marxman after that, which is a shame except that we have a couple of great aural nuggets to remember them by.

Sadly this 12″ didn’t quite manage to smash capitalism completely, which means I can retain the dream of one day selling it to a wealthy person for lots of money, which is sort of revolutionary in my book!

Marxman Ship Ahoy 07
Where did I put my copy of Wage-Labour and Capital?

473 Down.

*who most people seemed to regard as Satan’s concubine at that stage – I wasn’t much for her music but, as a raging coward myself, I always admired her courage.

**not that I’m dissing ‘Jump Around’, to which I have made an enormous fool of myself on dance floors too numerous to mention.

^a line I’ve always despised; see Marxman’s next single, the thunderous anti-domestic violence anthem All About Eve.

^^Because everyone should know it:


I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear
How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls
But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse

20 thoughts on “Witness Litmus Manacles Marxman Blake

  1. I love this. I wants to hear it.

    Gotta be careful, though. My more recent brushes with Marxism have involved sprawling on the living room floor, blitzed on tequila, calling out ol’ Karl.

    1. Thank you, that’s kind. I’m a Blake obsessive, as is Mrs 1537 – i bought her a beautiful illustrated copy of Songs of Innocence & Experience right before we got married. Everyone should have one.

  2. Haha I’m so embarrassed for you. I got into hardcore militant Marxist hip-hop exactly 23 years ago. I was done with it a year later once everyone else started jumping on the bandwagon. I think I was too elitist to bear being part of that crowd once it got big. Now I only listen to Ukip-hop.

    1. Sorry theres a typo, it should read ‘I got into it again …’, the first wave of hardcore militant Marxist hip-hop was the best!

      The very concept of Ukip-hop … Im really worried someone will read this and invent it now.

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