Ian Stanton: the man, the music and the movement


Ian Stanton was an icon of the Disability Rights movement in the 1980s and 90s, and undoubtedly one of its foremost lyricists, until his untimely death in 1998. But his music and ideas have lasting significance for Disability Arts. Deborah Caulfield reflects on his life and work.

Ian Stanton

Ian Stanton performing in Reading, 1996. Photograph: Deborah Caulfield.

In July 1996, as a novice community development worker, I organised a disability arts cabaret that almost never happened.

The UK Disabled People’s movement was at its peak in the mid 1990s. In the decade before, following the UN International Day Of Disabled People in 1981, disabled people had been setting up their own organisations (DPOS) to campaign for access to education, employment, transport, and all the other things that non-disabled people took for granted.

Established charity and statutory organisations struggled with the concept of self-organisation. This was understandable, given that they suffered from chronic paternalism, a debilitating condition whereby the professionals think and act like they know what’s best for others.

My job was to support local groups and a countywide forum of disabled people. To me this meant bringing disabled people together to share experiences and ideas for developing strategies to challenge exclusion. It was about acquiring new skills for exercising choice and control, for independent living. It was, I thought, about voice and advocacy to achieve autonomy and self-determination.

The project was top-heavy with managers, all endlessly fretting about money. The main funder, social services, didn’t mind what we did with it. The health authority objected to every decision that wasn’t theirs, including the forum’s name.

My line manager said: “They need activities, Deborah, not training. And stop going on about aims and objectives.”

I won the argument and the event went ahead as planned, albeit with a few transport glitches.

The venue was full to capacity, and I’m happy to boast that the all-disabled line-up was pretty impressive. Supported by Genie Cosmas‘s Fish Out of Water, and poet Peter Street, the headline act was Ian Stanton.

The 100 or so guests were mostly disabled and older people who hadn’t encountered the new politics of empowerment. They didn’t necessarily think of themselves as disabled. They knew nothing of the social model of disability, which frames the issues in terms of the wrongs in society that can be fixed, rather than impairments, which can’t.

The event was my contribution to the new disability culture and Ian Stanton was crucial to its success. A star on the UK disability arts circuit and founder member of the Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People (GMCDP), he was an obvious choice for the occasion.

All social and political movements need art and music to spread the message and rally supporters. Songs linger in the minds of marchers and demonstrators as they travel homewards. Songs stick around long after the litter has been picked and the sun has set.

Ian’s natural rebelliousness served him well for his role as champion for equality for all minority groups, and ace exponent of the principles of independent living. A gifted songwriter, his lyrics encapsulated the joy and humour, as well as the anger and determination, that fuelled disabled people’s struggle for civil rights and social inclusion.

His friend and one time manager Lorraine Gradwell told me:

“Ian had a way of getting the message across in a non-threatening, humorous and accessible way, but still quite hard-hitting.”

An example is his ‘Message from Telethon’, a song he co-wrote with Cathy Avison about ITV’s  annual fundraising jamboree, against which large demonstrations were staged by disabled people.

Come and get your money, grateful crips
This year was better than ever before
There’ll be millions of Blackpool trips
Endless segregated fun in store.

It’s a message from Telethon to you
A whole line of them saying
How much they do for you
And it’s said so often it must be true

An important aspect of disability culture is the rejection of second-hand heroes imposed by non-disabled people. The one that haunted Ian Stanton was amputee pilot Douglas Bader. The song ‘I remember Douglas Bader’ sets out the issues with biting wit and clever rhymes.

When I feel life’s getting harder
I remember Douglas Bader
Cos that’s what my doctor said to do.
Said overcome your negative feelings
You will find yourself revealing
Sides of you never even knew.
And I will smile and nod and smile
and I’ll be happy all the while
And you might think that I’m a hero too.
Gonna get a picture of Douglas Bader
Stick it on a dartboard in my yard
Throw darts at it till I can smile anew

A popular and accomplished musician, Ian Stanton toured widely in the UK and abroad, including Northern Ireland, Holland, Germany, and the United States. He played at the Cambridge Folk Festival and the Vancouver Folk Festival in Canada.

In 1992 he performed at the Glastonbury Festival as the Tragic But Brave Company, with Johnny Crescendo and Wanda Barbara. Despite wheelchairs getting stuck in the mud, and taking three hours to get to the loo, their performance went down a storm, receiving an encore from an enthusiastic audience.

Genie Cosmas, owner of Stream Records, was executive producer on Ian’s final CD Rollin’ Thunder, for which she raised £6,000 from George Michael’s Platinum Trust.

Released in 1995, this is a flawlessly produced album with an amazing range of energy and emotion. The 12 tracks are a mix of gentle melodies and hard-hitting lyrics. The songs, not all of which are disability related, are laced with humour, while the dominant theme is one of protest against the status quo and defiant optimism for a more inclusive future. If I had to pick a favourite track it would be ‘Angela’ for its heart-felt lyrics and mighty harmonies.

By all accounts Ian was fun to be with and great to work with. As a person and as an artist he was gregarious, generous and sincere. In his definitive obituary, Tom Shakespeare wrote that Ian was shy, modest and self-effacing. This view was echoed by everyone I spoke to in preparation for this article.

Musician Paul Higham:

“Ian was softly spoken but with an unspoken edge that he wouldn’t take any shit. His songs reinforced that message too. He was a compassionate man who wrote some great songs.”

Lead guitarist Roger Crombie:

“Ian and I were very close pals. We socialised together, got drunk together, played guitars together, everything you could do in rock’n’roll, we did together. I went all over with him, had a fantastic time.”

Singer Netty Brook:

“Ian was a humble, beautiful human being with a gorgeous voice. He was graceful, patient and appreciative.”

When Ian Stanton died in November 1998 he left behind a wife and many friends who still miss him to this day. Fortunately for the world, he left a legacy of wonderful music and memories.

I don’t know what the long-term impact of Ian’s performance was that day in 1996. My abiding memory is twofold: first, the warmth with which he talked to the audience, smiling as he asked about their experiences. And then connecting with them through his songs.

He was effectively saying this: whatever you’re going through, it’s a bit like that for me too. It’s horrible, but if we talk and laugh about it today, perhaps we’ll feel strong enough to challenge it tomorrow.

My thoughts and feelings about Ian Stanton are summed up by activist and musician Dennis Queen:

“Sharing Ian’s music is sharing his love, because music is how activists share our hearts with our community

What appeals is his politics, and that he used his songs to talk about fighting​ back, to share social model ideas, to echo others’ experiences and raise morale. I try to do the same, using music to bring messages of emancipation, pride and hope.”

Channel 4’s Link programme about Ian Stanton is available here:

Share your own memories of Ian in the comments below. We are currently trying to produce a Wikipedia page on Ian, and are looking for references to him in ‘mainstream’ media, if you have any clippings or examples, please share details below.