Album/Beer Pairing: Night of a Thousand Candles by The Men They Couldn’t Hang

the defiant 2by John Ellis

In my opinion, Night of a Thousand Candles, the 1985 debut of the British folk-punk band The Men They Couldn’t Hang, is one of the greatest albums of all time[1]. Further, if I ever write an article listing the most underrated and the most criminally underappreciated albums[2] of all time, Night of a Thousand Candles will most likely occupy the number one position[3]. In light of that yet to be written article, I considered pairing underrated beers with songs from the album; I decided against it, however. If excellent beers are underrated, it’s probably because of distribution laws. That being said, most beer aficionados are good at keeping abreast and spreading the word about the excellent output from their favorite local breweries. The music industry is different in that regards from the craft beer community. For another thing, Night of a Thousand Candles deserves to be paired with the very best that the beer industry has to offer.

The Men They Couldn’t Hang was formed in 1984 and had their debut playing the famed London alternative music festival, Camden Underground, which also included The Pogues on the bill. Thirty years and fifteen studio albums later, TMTCH are still the masters of combining trad instruments with punk sensibilities. No matter where on the spectrum of roots music, folk-rock, or folk-punk the current crop of roots/folk bands exist, they all owe TMTCH a debt of gratitude. A great place to begin paying homage is with the band’s debut album. And there are very few better ways to enjoy the music of TMTCH than paired with pints of beer and good friends.

Since The Men They Couldn’t Hang is an English band, I’m going to pair the album with English beers. Although, I have a feeling that the band would prefer for their songs to be paired with whisky. Not being the self-described expert of whisky that I am of beer, I apologize to the band and hope that they still allow me to be the self-appointed president of their U.S fan club. As a compromise, how about on top of the beers that are paired with the songs below, I pair the entire album with a whisky? Knowing that at least one of the band members is a fan of Oban as “a half-finished bottle of Oban whisky” was included as one of the prizes in The Bundle, a prize package raffled off to one of the contributors to the band’s 30th anniversary Pledge campaign[4], I encourage the readers, once they’re finished with their beers, to top off the rest of the album with a snifter of Oban 14 year poured neat. Oh, hell, just drink it straight out of the bottle.

Since I’m recommending, besides the beers paired with specific songs, that you enjoy Oban 14 year with the album, I’m only going to pair beers with five tracks.[5] Experiment with your own beer pairings with songs from Night of a Thousand Candles, and please share your favorites in the comment section.

“The Day After”

“The Day After,” the album’s first track, leaves little doubt of The Men They Couldn’t Hang’s mastery of combining traditional folk with a punk ethos. Beyond the marriage of musical styles, TMTCH whimsically marries a love song with a social protest song. Punk brides should walk down the aisle to “The Day After.”

I would love to be able to pair this track with a true English cask ale (termed “real ale” by some), but, alas, I’ve never been to England. My pairing is going to, by necessity, be limited to English beers that find their way onto a boat. Night of a Thousand Candles kicks off with a quintessential folk-punk song; only the quintessential beer of a quintessentially English style will do. Pour yourself a frothy pint of Fuller’s ESB to drink as you kick off The Men They Couldn’t Hang beer and listening experience.

“The Green Fields of France (No Man’s Land)”

Like many people, this anti-war ballad was my introduction to The Men They Couldn’t Hang. Hitting number one on the UK Indie Charts, “The Green Fields of France” is TMTCH’s biggest hit.

There are many covers of this song, but The Men They Couldn’t Hang set the standard, and their version deserves a beer that is considered the style standard by many. While not technically an English beer (or even at all)[6], the Extra Stout from Guinness is the first beer that pops into most people’s mind when the word “stout” is mentioned.

“Ironmasters”

An unapologetic pro-union/pro-worker song, “Ironmasters” builds from a peaceful, pastoral folk song to a balls-to-the-wall battle song steeped in the sweat from the steel-toed boots on the feet of blue-collar punks.

In the 21st Century beer landscape, Porters are often relegated to the position of the Stout’s weaker cousin. That’s not true of the Meantime London Porter. Meantime Brewery understands the working-class heritage of the Porter, and the London based brewery brews a working class beer that will pair great with a pro-union/pro-worker song.

“Walkin’ Talkin’”

The high energy of “Walkin’ Talkin’” hoisting the solitary craving lyrics onto its shoulders creates a whimsical juxtaposition in which the lyrics can roll their exasperated eyes. The song’s protagonist is so fed up with his belly-aching friend that he is rushing as fast as he can to a meadow in which to stroll, “counting flowers/Dodging raindrops by the hill, lazing on the grass” while he sings and talks to himself.

Normally, beer is best enjoyed in the company of friends. On those occasions when the only friend around is incredibly irritating, to the point that solitude has become a necessity, a rich, excellent beer is your best option. Russian Imperial Stouts were gloriously birthed in England, and for that wonderful gift to the world, we Yanks may owe the Brits an apology for that whole Revolution thing. In fact, Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery actually pre-dates the American Revolution by almost twenty years. The Russian Imperial Stout from the North Yorkshire County brewery[7] is as good as can be found on either side of the Atlantic.

“Scarlet Ribbons”

This beautiful, anti-war ballad is the final track on the original release, and it makes a fitting end for The Men They Couldn’t Hang’s debut album, Night of a Thousand Candles.[8] The Irish Pennywhistle of Phil “Swill” Odgers combined with Tom Keane’s Uillean Pipes provides a haunting backdrop to Paul Simmonds’ thoughtful lyrics mourning the dead among the victory celebrations.

If you live in America, the J.W. Lees Vintage Harvest Ale is going to be difficult to find. J.W. Lees only brews their English Barley Wine once a year, and you’re probably going to have to search specialty wine/beer shops to find it. The beer is also not cheap. But if you find some, it will be worth it, especially if you pair the Vintage Harvest Ale with “Scarlett Ribbons.” Like the song, English Barley Wine hides potency in a beautiful sweetness; the J.W. Lees Vintage Harvest Ale boasts a potent 11.5% abv.

I’m a firm believer that the music library of every music lover should contain, at the very least, one album from The Men They Couldn’t Hang. I’m also a firm believer that every beer lover should include several solid British beers in their drinking rotation. If you’re behind on both counts, a Night of a Thousand Candles is a great TMTCH album to start with; and the British beers recommended in this article, minus the one Irish beer, are a great place to start, too.


[1] If you read my article, “The Pop Presidents: Reagan,” you’ll find the album listed as an honorable mention. One of my variables was cultural impact, and, unfortunately, TMTCH and their brilliant debut album are almost absent from the public consciousness. Granted, TMTCH has played a huge role in the shaping of the folk-punk movement and the current folk/roots revival, but very few people know that, and the current popular folk/roots bands rarely, if ever, mention TMTCH. By contrast, R.E.M., among others, openly praised and recognized their debt to Big Star; one of the reasons that the debut album from Big Star was ranked #10 on Nixon’s list.

[2] Using a very broad definition of “criminally,” of course. I mean, I wouldn’t necessarily advocate imprisonment for those who don’t appreciate the album, but I also wouldn’t complain if the courts sentenced those people to a few months stint in the pokey.

[3] The band’s second album, How Green Is the Valley, would probably make the top twenty of that list, at the least.

[4] The result of that Pledge campaign was my favorite album of 2014The Defiant.

[5] The real reason is this article’s word count.

[6] Ireland is part of the British Isles, correct? … I’m sure that I’ve committed some sort of faux pas, and anyone from Ireland reading this is now pissed at me.

[7] Tadcaster, North Yorkshire, for those of you familiar with the county.

[8] Not that I’m complaining about the six extra tracks on the 1987 reissue that I have. More of The Men They Couldn’t Hang is never a bad thing.

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