Taking the stage: Meet MP4, Parliament's first and only ever rock band
MP4 (Photography by Louise Haywood-Schiefer)
MP4, Parliament’s very own rock band, is celebrating 20 years in the business this year. From working with famous producers, to contending with fall-outs, to seeing deputy prime ministers move and groove, the former and present MPs in the band speak to Sophie Church about their journey so far. Photography by Louise Haywood-Schiefer
The members of MP4 – Parliament’s first and only ever band – come drifting into Westminster Hall one by one.
First up: Kevin Brennan, Labour MP for Cardiff West, guitar in one hand, jet-black sunglasses in the other. Then Pete Wishart, Scottish National Party MP for Perth and North Perthshire, followed by Ian Cawsey, former Labour MP for Brigg and Goole. Finally, Conservative MP for East Yorkshire, Greg Knight, twirling drumsticks absent mindedly.
Greeting each other with slouchy, cheerful hellos, they each take the stand for portrait photographs, flitting easily from one pose to another. Watching them so at ease with each other in the group shots, it is easy to forget they met as Members of Parliament, representing three opposing parties and three different countries.
“When you’ve got beauty on that sort of level, the photographer’s work is very easy,” says Brennan, now all four band members are gathered onto benches. “When I was in music, you had to look as miserable and moody as possible just like these folks here,” says Wishart, “and in politics of course, you’ve got to look happy and smiling and –”
“– Pete’s never done that!” laughs Brennan.
The band have good reason to be cheerful, with this year marking 20 years since their genesis. To celebrate, they are performing a one-off gig in Speaker’s House in November. But with only 100 spaces available, it’s a hot ticket, says Brennan: “It depends on who you know…”
Rewind to 2003, and Wishart and Cawsey – in bands themselves before being elected – were scouting for bandmates in Westminster.
“I knew Pete was a keyboard player,” explains Cawsey, “and I can do bass and some vocals. But I said to Pete, you’ll never find a drummer, because they are a much rarer breed.”
As the pair pondered their predicament in the Members’ Lobby, Knight passed by and heard the conversation. “[Ian said]: ‘we’re going to form a band, but there’s no drummer in Parliament’, and I said: ‘you’ve just found one’.”
So it was meant to be?
“Well, no, it wasn’t true!” laughs Brennan.
When Brennan heard about MP3 – the band’s working title – he asked to join, and MP4 was born.
The band first played together on hallowed ground: when they visited producer Sir Robin Millar’s studio to hear about the music industry’s various troubles, and ended up playing the Beatles’ Can’t Buy Me Love. To their surprise, Millar advised them to keep going.
“I think we even surprised ourselves,” Wishart says. “We all felt we couldn’t play either, but I think we were able to tell very early on that the four of us got on really well together and complemented each other and I think that’s been the experience of the band. It’s hard to think that this could have existed in any sort of shape or form without the four of us.”
It’s hard to think that this could have existed in any sort of shape or form without the four of us
However, the reception in Westminster was frosty. Back then, playing music – other than the odd trumpet for the Queen’s speech, says Cawsey – was not permitted in Parliament.
“I think they just thought it would probably bring down the entire constitution and the country,” Brennan says. “It was regarded as something that was a bit dangerous, a bit loud and noisy and disruptive and would interrupt proceedings.”
However, Wishart and Cawsey succeeded in putting together an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Music around 2001, which Brennan now chairs. “I remember putting down an Early Day Motion saying music should belong at the centre of our Parliament; it’s part of our culture and so on,” says Brennan. “There was nowhere in the House you were allowed to play, and we actually… broke that barrier because we were MPs and said: ‘we want to play’.”
Having cracked Parliament’s musical ceiling, the band settled into a rhythm: with each member contributing to songwriting and Cawsey as frontman.
Was there a democratic vote for Cawsey’s election?
“We had big fights,” he admits.
“He beat us all,” says Wishart.
“He’s bigger than me!” chimes in Brennan.
“[Ian] claims he’s funnier but we’re yet to see that,” adds Wishart.
Despite the taunting, Brennan says Cawsey is the “kind of guy who never becomes a superstar but he’s… absolutely the heart and soul of the band.”
To such an extent, that when Cawsey fell ill with cancer in 1998, Brennan wrote a song for him. “Can I tell this story, Ian?” he checks, before revealing how he wrote Rock ‘n’ Roll Heaven, a tale imagining that Cawsey had passed away.
“What I actually thought was,” says Brennan, “if it became played at a lot of funerals, I might get a lot of royalties from the songs. Then I subsequently discovered that funerals are exempt, so they don’t have to pay royalties. So it was a complete waste of time writing the song.”
Jokes aside, the band have helped to raise over £1m for charities such as Macmillan Cancer Support and Shelter through album sales and gigs; and they speak proudly, but self-effacingly, of the gold disc awarded to them by the music industry for their efforts. Particularly memorable was the charity single recorded for the Jo Cox Foundation in 2016 – a cover of the Rolling Stones’s hit You Can’t Always Get What You Want – where the band were joined by artists KT Tunstall, David Gray, Ricky Wilson and Steve Harley for the recording, along with members of the Parliamentary Choir.
Despite raising so much money for charity, Brennan says the band often worried about perceptions; would the public think they were distracted from their parliamentary roles?
But a trip with a London cabby proved otherwise. “We were once going to do a rehearsal and we were chatting in the back of this black cab…and as we got to the other end the driver said: ‘So let me get this straight, you’re all MPs are you?’” Bracing themselves, they hesitantly said yes, and confirmed they would be performing for charity. The cab driver then refused to take the fare. “We thought, if a black cab driver wouldn’t take the fare then we must be doing something worthwhile,” says Brennan.
Back in Parliament, MP4 were amassing a firm fanbase. “[Former commons speaker] John Bercow was a huge champion of the band,” says Wishart, “and genuinely liked what we did.” So much so, Cawsey says, that he would play their album in his car when he drove to Westminster: “He knew the album better than I did!”
MP4 have also played at every party’s conference – and have become a surefire way of drawing a crowd. Brennan recalls a Labour Party conference around 2000, where “the home secretary turned up, half the cabinet turned up…and they were all rocking out.”
The band pitch in excitedly: “John Prescott was dancing when he was deputy prime minister”, “Peter Mandelson introduced us at The Mirror party”, “Yvette [Cooper] and Ed [Balls] were at the Albert Hall”.
However there was an occasion when MP4’s energy – described by Brennan as “sex, drugs and rock and roll, but without the sex and drugs”– proved unwelcome. When the band performed a gig in the Terrace Marquee, they overran, prompting a Lord, who Knight would rather not name, to enter and tell them to stop playing. “He started berating Greg whilst he was playing the drums,” says Brennan, “and Greg without missing a beat told him where to go. It was actually very impressive; telling one of his… Tory lordships to get down his own end of the building and that it was none of his business.”
I think they just thought it would probably bring down the entire constitution and the country
While the band don’t tend to rehearse much these days, they tinker and fine-tune their sets from Knight’s thick-walled parliamentary office when necessary. However a wedding they recently played at – again, they are tight-lipped as to whose it was – saw them hire a rehearsal space for the occasion.
Has politics ever got in the way of this professionalism?
Yes, in short. “It was… at St John’s theatre in Smith Square,” says Cawsey, “and we were waiting to go on… and Pete was reading the Standard. And… there was an article about Tony Blair who was going to be interviewed by the police over Cash-for-Honours. So Pete was saying, ‘oh, Angus MacNeil [the-then SNP MP who triggered the cash for peerages criminal inquiry], they all made fun of him and look at it now, it’s all serious.’ And Kev said, ‘Well, do you not understand that it just pulls the whole profession down?’”
Things escalated, to the point that Knight and Cawsey were poised, ready to intervene. Luckily, the doof doof doof of a microphone being hit – three hits of the bench from Cawsey – called the warring MPs to stage, bandmates once more.
“For three lefties, we’ve never had a go at Greg much at all,” Wishart reflects.
“Well he’s learned a lot from being in a band,” replies Brennan brightly. “He’s learned how to make a cup of tea… he got on a bus once and said ‘42 Berkeley Square please’.”
“He got on the tube and asked for the trolley,” adds Cawsey, “and the first class compartment!” laughs Brennan.
However, when Cawsey lost his seat in the 2010 election, Brennan says the band suffered an “existential crisis”: forced to decide whether or not to continue as MP4, or to kick out their frontman. “Finally we worked out that – as Ian pointed out to us – the band The Police, none of them were actually members of a police force. And so having one ex-MP in a band called MP4 was acceptable. And so in the end that was the argument that won the day.”
“I think that was backed up by the fact that I own the PA!” laughs Cawsey.
While Cawsey now works outside Westminster, Brennan and Wishart have been able to raise awareness about threats facing the music industry in their roles as chair and co-chair of the Music APPG.
“Artificial intelligence (AI) presents itself as a real… threat,” says Wishart. “What we’re actually seeing is music being ingested to create this AI simulation without any due regard to the originator.”
Now, the government is looking at a code of conduct for AI producers to follow, Brennan says. However, he says “it’s going very badly, because the AI companies just don’t want to do it, they just want to be able to have the wild west out there.” He adds: “Imagine a dystopian future, an AI created MP4 – no one wants to see that!”
So, if an AI generated parliamentary rock band is out of the question, what do the next few years look like for MP4?
“Greg has announced that he’s standing down from Parliament at the next election, so I think we are considering where things go at the moment,” says Brennan. “But we’re not prepared to make any announcements at this point as to what the future of the band may hold.”
Still, the band offer some suggestions: “We may become MP2+2,” says Knight.
“Or they could put Greg and myself into the House of Lords?” suggests Cawsey.
“Yes, there’s the answer,” says Brennan, firmly.
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