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whatmusic.com presents 'Mailbag Blues', the 1974 original soundtrack to the life of Ronnie Biggs. This is Ronnie's story expressed by some of the great musicians of the day in Brazil, led by his friend and fellow music lover, the American Bass player Bruce Henry. Recorded in Rio de Janeiro 30 years ago, this is the first time this album has ever been released!
  • First ever release!
  • Features Bruce Henry, Jaime Shields and Aureo de Souza
  • Tracks include ‘Conspiracy’, ‘Robbery’ and the evocative ‘New Dawn’
  • Exclusive new liner notes!

from the critics:

"whatever you think of the yellow-bellied bank robber, this is fantastic" TIME OUT

"a raw slab of prime jazz rock" MOJO

"a captivating testament to their musical creativity and Biggs' lust for life... hot and juicy" STRAIGHT NO CHASER

"a fusion of experimental jazz, blues and funk, with echoes of Brazilian styles such as tropicalia and bossa nova... an incredibly creative period for Brazilian music" THE GUARDIAN

"cut by six streetwise jazz-rock freelancers" JAZZWISE

"it's genuinely thrilling" MOJO


"it's aged well and it sounds good" BRUCE HENRI

"is the music any good? Surprisingly... yes" THE TIMES

Check the 30 second clips from the album...

The whatmusic.com interview...

1974, Rio, Brazil. A time of political and musical defiance, rebellion and anarchy, and the meeting place of two friends – American bass player Bruce Henri with Britain’s most notorious fugitive, Ronnie Biggs. ‘Mailbag Blues was written over a couple months’ period’, writes Bruce, ‘with Ronnie at our side telling us his story and us breaking it down into events that we most related to musically. The songs are structured as a soundtrack, each one telling us part of a story and leading on to the next. When we went into the studio to record, we had the whole album pretty well defined, but we left a lot of room for individual improvisation, as was the style in 1974.

‘The recording took place in a very small room, on a four track Ampex Tape Recorder. Everybody played together, and we only used playback on one or two tracks for additional percussion. We were so young and eager back then, and we took ourselves so seriously, that we wouldn’t let Ronnie sing, which is too bad because he had a terrible voice but the Sex Pistols did all right with it didn’t they?

‘I met Ronnie Biggs as Mike Haynes which was the name on his passport. At the time he was doing some carpentry work at my father’s apartment, and was friends with Conti (Count Constantine Benckendorff who is married to my sister), who set up the whole Daily Express thing with Colin McKenzie (read “Odd Man Out” by Ronnie Biggs), so we all knew each other. After that fiasco when Biggs got arrested and then released from jail in Rio (after being “nabbed” by Inspector Slipper, a.k.a. Slip-up), he had this idea to make a film with his story. He wanted to start by doing the soundtrack, his own soundtrack, with some of the musicians he admired. Now he could use his real name and with a new project, he hoped to start a new life, in a new home with what resources (monetary and human) he had at the time. We talked about the album for about a month while we started putting some ideas together, then about two months to write the material, then recording took about a week. So in all it took around three to four months.

‘It was definitely very rebellious music at the time but not in a punk rock way. It was rebellious because nobody was making independent recordings back then, especially with no singer, and we were recording exactly what we wanted for the sake of the music, with no concern whatsoever with the marketing angle, for the simple reason that the marketing was the story itself. This was the soundtrack for a very exciting and unique life story, a great experience, an adventure that many people should feel envious for, people that never got the opportunity or never really had it in them to actually go out and stick one to the system. From my point of view, having always lived under dictatorships, from being brought up under Franco and then moving to Brazil just after the military coup, I was perpetually searching for ways to freely express myself and if possible simultaneously stick a finger at the government or the police (much the same thing in those days), or the political police if you prefer, without being nabbed.

‘We were constantly renting venues to give “underground” concerts and trying to show our “new” music to a public without too much of a choice as far as jazz clubs and such go. I can’t really even think of more than maybe one jazz club at the time, and the “Jazz” they played was something extremely polite and old fashioned, not something that 24-year-old musicians wanted to be playing. Ronnie went to our concerts, as did Mick Taylor, and Jim Capaldi, but we weren’t doing clubs. I used to go out and rent theatres and do my own production. This was more what would have been called “progressive jazz”.

‘To me Ronnie symbolized a rupture from the restraining chains of military dictatorships, politics, police, short hair & suits, and the overpowering right wing. He was a very interesting person to talk to, with a great story, and certainly a wonderful talent for story telling. I think Ronnie and I shared an attitude, in spite of his being some years older, he still had this adolescent restlessness in him, the adrenaline that drove him to do what he did in the first place, and similarly was looking for new forms of expression, a bit more tingle in his life, some glitter, some fun. For this reason, I guess we were the perfect match.’

Bruce Henri


1 London ’63
This track is a hot instrumental soundtrack, symbolizing our notion, in 1974, of what hip, crazy, frenetic, working class London would have sounded like in 1963.

2 Conspiracy
This starts out cool, with the mysterious, cunning atmosphere of a plan starting to take form, and when it does, it’s in the shape of a train. From then on it becomes very racy until the very end.

3 Robbery
Here we envision Ronnie Biggs and his mates waiting by the side of the track in the still of the night, getting prepared to perform the robbery (The ‘Great Train Robbery’, as it became known). With the arrival of the train things get a bit lively and frantic until the whole plan comes off. When we imagine getting off with the loot, the music breaks out into an allusion to West Side Story’s Officer Krupke. In the very end, the repetition of the introductory notes is a message that the mission may not be such a success after all.

4 Mailbag Blues
According to tradition, Her Majesty’s Prison Inmates were kept busy sewing up mailbags; quite an irony when one considers that the money was robbed from a postal train. What better sound track than a blues, the music that symbolizes the dreary life of woe for 9 out of 10 American prisoners in the movies we see…

5 Courtyard Strut
Here we have a handful of prison inmates strolling around the courtyard at break time, trying to look natural and inconspicuous while waiting for the escape ladder to be thrown over the wall. Read the book if you don’t know the details, it was pretty cool and it worked! The song ends at the exact moment when Ronnie lands inside the removal van…

6 Escape
Run for it!! We were so fast when we were young. Fast and furious, a real chase…

7 Matilda’s Waltz
Not much imagination is needed to realize that this is the arrival in Australia, calm and bliss after a hold up, a prison term, and escape by fast car and speedboat. At the end we even have a surfboard.

8 New Dawn
Back in the 70s, Brazil was going through its economic miracle, and trying to export an image. This is what we imagined the typical tourist’s idea of what Rio de Janeiro, Brazil would sound like: Copacabana, Caipirinhas, and everything else that attracted Ronnie so irresistibly to this city.

9 Liberdade
This track was very much inspired by John McLaughlin and his Inner Mounting Flame. A chance to show off our intimacy with alternate time signatures and progressions, using consonance and dissonance to create a feeling of timelessness or living out on the limbo of apparent freedom.

Petition made by RA Biggs, May 1951 (aged 21), HM Prison Lewes

To The Right Honourable His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for the Home Department


I submit this, my petition for your honourable attention.
My request is that I might be sent to a prison, where I can learn the practical of electrical engineering. I understand there are prisons in this country where there are facilities to learn this trade, and having still another fourteen months of my sentence to do, I could take a correspondence course, and obtain a good knowledge theoretically also.
My aim, when I am released, is to seek employment, as a neon-sign and display technician, which requires the fundamental knowledge of three things, electricity, carpentry, and some experience in display or signwriting work. I have already been employed in the latter, and was told by my employer that I showed promise of becoming a good display artist.
While I have been here, I have taken a vocational training course in carpentry, which I passed with record marks of ninety one per cent. I have an excellent working report, and the instructor is thoroughly satisfied with the standard I have reached and maintained throughout. I am also working on a B.I.E.T correspondence course on this subject, which within a few weeks will be completed. My conduct out of the workshop, I fear, has not been of such a faultless nature, which has been chiefly due to my foolish precipitancy.
I am approaching my 22nd birthday, and believe that the root of all my trouble lies within the fact that I have never had a trade to put my hand to. And if I am given this opportunity to so furnish myself, I feel it would bring about my rehabilitation.
It is my hope therefore sir, that you will give my petition your careful examination, so that it may ultimately prove to be to my complete advantage.

R Biggs.


Note from the Governor regarding the above Petition

H.M. Prison
Lewes 15 May, 1951

Re: Petition of Ronald Arthur BIGGS.

This prisoner has admittedly done well at labour.
However, he is at heart unco-operative, and is one of the leaders in a gang of insubordinate prisoners. I am intending to submit his name together with the others for consideration that they be re-classified as Adults. I wish I could with confidence, recommend his transfer on the grounds he states.

S Cooke

Petition made by RA Biggs, 1964 (aged 34), HM Prison Wandsworth

To The Right Honourable Her Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for the Home Department:


As a result of being considered a ‘security risk’, I find myself on the escape list at this prison. While I appreciate the fact that certain precautions must be taken to ensure my remaining in custody, I think it is very unfair that the precautions amount to a denial of certain privileges which are made available to ordinary prisoners. Being denied the privilege of ‘open visits’ is the root of this petition.
What is so important about open visits? I am faced with the problem of watching my children grow up whilst I am in prison. I can expect a twenty minute visit each month to talk with my children, keep their affection and let them see I am still their father. Is this possible in the impersonal atmosphere of a visiting-box? Twenty minutes each month to give my wife encouragement, an endearment and a little happiness. Can this be done under the miserable conditions laid down for closed visits? Am I asking too much?
If I had made any attempt to escape I would not ask to be taken off the escape list. It would be justified. I am not seeking and do not expect favours or better treatment because I am serving an unusually long sentence. I am asking to be treated as an ordinary inmate.


R.A. Biggs


Wednesday, 2 September, 1964

To Marcus Lipton, Labour MP for Brixton

Dear Sir,

I am serving a thirty year sentence and because I am regarded as a ‘security risk’ I am on the ‘special watch’ list. Recently I complained to a visiting magistrate about the conditions and restrictions which apply to ‘special watch’ prisoners in this establishment. My complaints were as follows: ‘Open’ visits are not allowed. Attendance at lectures, concerts and evening classes is not allowed. Working hours are approx. two hours each day, Monday to Friday; and one hours exercise each day makes a weekly total of about seventeen hours out of our cells. The magistrate said he could do nothing to help me and suggested that I should petition the Home Office asking for security to be relaxed. Prior to seeing that magistrate I did send a petition to the Home Office in an effort to be allowed open visits. It was turned down. ‘Open’ visits are allowed at most prisons for all inmates – including ‘special watch’ – to my certain knowledge at Chelmsford, Pentonville, Dartmoor, Parkhurst and Lincoln, all ‘top security’ prisons. Why not Wandsworth?
Concerts and evening classes are not available to SW prisoners because, we are told, of staff shortage. And yet last week when a religious ‘mission’ was conducted in the prison we were invited to attend every night. If staff can cope with our religious ‘night out’, why not our social and educational ones? Furthermore, evening classes were open to SW prisoners several years ago. So much for progress.
Ten hours work each week, making mailbags (that soul-destroying task which is fast disappearing from our prisons), is hopelessly inadequate for young, able-bodied men. This is the first work I have done – except for a short stint on the gardens at Chelmsford! – since I was arrested twelve months ago. Consequently, I am about three stone overweight.
Of course, recent events have brought about further aggravation. Frequent cell changing, fifteen minute intervals between observations throughout the night and a prison officer to sit with me during visits. The latter I fail to understand because if I wanted to pass out any ‘secret’ instructions or messages I know at least a dozen prisoners here who would do it for me!
In an interview with the governor I told him I was anxious to settle down, keep out of trouble and hope to earn maximum remission. And that is what I want to do, but the overall effect of the extra aggravation I am being subjected to is making it very hard for me. I have much patience and equanimity but I am rapidly losing both and, quite frankly, rather than finding it more difficult to escape, I am finding it difficult not to!
I would greatly appreciate any help you can give me in these matters.

Yours faithfully,

R.A. Biggs

P.S. Good luck in the forthcoming Election!


Ronald Arthur Biggs
Prisoner number 002731

Governor Hynd
HMP Belmarsh HMP Belmarsh
Western Way
Thamesmead 14 November, 2001
London SE28 0BE

Dear Governor Hynd,

I, Ronald Arthur Biggs, am making an application to you as the Governor of HMP Belmarsh for an early release on compassionate grounds based on my ill health.
I am sitting in a hospital bed in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Woolwich as I compose this letter, the fourth time in less than six months that I have been admitted to hospital. I feel extremely weak and frail and fear for my well being once I am returned to prison.
I am not criticizing the treatment I have received in the Hospital Wing, but feel it is not sufficient for my medical requirements. My health has steadily deteriorated in the six months since my return, and I fear that I will die shortly if I do not receive the medical treatment I so desperately need.
This is a heart-felt plea for you to support my application and to pass it on to the appropriate authorities. I hope and pray that this will be done and that I will be released into the care of my son Michael for the remaining days of my life.
I certainly don’t feel that anything can be gained from allowing me to die in prison.

Yours truly,

Ronald Arthur Biggs



Musicians (left to right in cover photo):
Guilherme Vaz (piano & synthesizers)
Jaime Shields (acoustic & electric guitars)
Bruce Henri (acoustic & electric basses)
Nivaldo Ornellas (flute, sax & clarinet)
Nacho Mena (percussion)
Aureo de Souza (drums)
Ronald Biggs (inspiration & storyteller)

Produced by Ronald Biggs & Bruce Henri

Art direction & design by Alex Ingr, artwork by Ryan McCarthy
All songs written and composed by Bruce Henri & Jaime Shields based on stories
and elaborations by Ronnie Biggs

Recorded at ‘The Little Studio’, Rua Dias Ferreira, Leblon, Rio de Janeiro, 1974
Mastered by Sergio Murillo at ProMaster, Rio de Janeiro, June 2004
Special thanks to Bruce Henri, Mike & Ronnie Biggs, John Pickston, Veronica & Ingrid, Julie Allison, Jaime Shields, Guilherme Vaz, Nivaldo Ornellas, Nacho Mena, Aureo de Souza, Bill Horne, Alex Ingr & Jack Slipper.

© 2004 Whatmusic.com
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