Grammy Awards nominations: Remembering the best ever prison gigs as Malawi inmates earn nod

With a prison gig in Malawi in the running for a Grammy, we name the best musical inside jobs

Malawian prisons are notorious for their poor hygiene, overcrowding and spread of disease. To highlight the plight of their inmates, Grammy-winning producer Ian Brennan and his wife, photographer and film-maker Marilena Delli, travelled to Zomba Prison in southern Malawi to record songs written and performed by those locked behind its dilapidated walls.

The result of the 2013 sessions is the album I Have No Everything Here by the Zomba Prison Project. Last month it received an unlikely nomination for a Grammy, making the band the first Malawian artists to be in the running for the award. 

The album was written by 16 different songwriters, male and female, imprisoned for crimes ranging from murder to witchcraft, in a prison where one in 20 inmates die each year.

With titles like “I Will Kill No More” and “I See the Whole World Dying of Aids”, the songwriters attempt to show the audience what Malawian life is like both inside and outside the prison.However, the album’s success is not due to its oddity but rather its mournful tone, and choruses designed to lodge in your brain, like those that can be heard on the stand-out tracks “Listen to Me” and “Please Don’t Kill My Child”.

Themes of redemption and sorrow throughout I Have No Everything Here are common in prison performances, so, inspired by the Zomba Prison Project, here are our top 10 prison gigs.

Johnny Cash Folsom Prison, 1968

This gig was recorded at the California jail for the album At Folsom Prison. It began with announcer Hugh Cherry warming the crowd up with the instructions: “If you hear something you like, respond in kind,” and it worked: the crowd plays almost as big a part in the album as Cash himself. Carl Perkins opened the show with “Blue Suede Shoes” before Cash came to the stage to sing what would be the first single from the album, “Folsom Prison Blues”, to the raucous crowd. The 19-song album is focused on covers and traditional songs like “Long Black Veil” with “Jackson” and “Folsom Prison Blues” as the only true Johnny Cash hits in the set. 

“Folsom Prison Blues” received wide airplay on American radio. However, three weeks after the single’s release, Robert Kennedy was assassinated and the line “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” was considered inappropriate by many American radio stations, who refused to play the song. An edited version of the single was later realised without the offending line.

BB King Cook County Jail, 1970 

The 1971 performance by BB King at the Chicago jail was released as an album called Live in Cook County Jail in the same year.

“It’s a lovely day in Chicago,” is the first line we hear on it by the unknown announcer, but this sunny introduction isn’t in keeping with the sombre tone of the performance that follows. 

Despite a haphazard introduction, complete with boos and jeers from the crowd when the announcer acknowledges the presence of the prison director and chief justice of the criminal court, this performance was another in a line of great prison performances by blues legends.

When King came on stage he played a set that featured “The Thrill is Gone” and “Worry”, which broke down to an anti-domestic violence spoken-word piece. 

However, like at all good blues shows, on the album the crowd can be heard hollering in approval, which only adds to the experience. 

John Lee Hooker Soledad State Prison, 1972

The rollicking seven-track long set recorded at the central California prison displays all of John Lee Hooker’s trademark electric blues guitar prowess. Filled with gutsy blues gems, this gig was released as the album Live at Soledad Prison later that year. The album has a relentless string of blues jams but the clear highlight is “I’m Your Crosscut Saw”, during which Hooker calls his father, John Lee Hooker Snr, to the stage to play.

When listening to this album, it doesn’t take long to forget that Hooker is playing in prison instead of a dimly lit Chicago blues club. That is until the recording ends abruptly with the PA announcement: “Yard recall, yard recall.” 

Alabama 3 HM Prison Brixton, 2008

The band responsible for the theme to The Sopranos played a gig at Brixton prison in 2008 to coincide with the 30th anniversary of Rock Against Racism, a movement created by musicians in the 1970s to dissuade young people from engaging in racist behaviour.

The band played a set that included a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues”, with the lyrics changed to, “I’m stuck in Brixton prison”, as well as their version of country singer John Prine’s sombre “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness”. Alabama 3 were invited to play by prison governor Paul McDowell, a former member of the Anti-Nazi League, as part of his efforts to use entertainment “to get some key messages across about racism and diversity”.

Big Mama Thornton Monroe State Prison, Washington, and the Oregon State  Reformatory, 1971

Blues singer-songwriter Big Mama Thornton was most famous for recording “Hound Dog” years before it was sung by the man who would make it world famous – Elvis Presley. In the twilight of her career, Thornton travelled across north-west America to record two live prison shows that would form her 1975 album Jail. 

At the age of 49, Thornton became the first woman to release an album recorded live in an all-male prison. Despite the recording taking place only nine years before her death, Thornton can be heard belting out songs with her trademark vocal command. 

According to the sound engineer, the noise from the well-behaved crowds had to be boosted in the mixing process. Perhaps it is because of this editing that inmates can be heard singing along to “Little Red Rooster” and the redemptive gospel singalong standard “Oh Happy Day”. 

Billy Bragg and Mick Jones HM Prison  Wormwood Scrubs, 2007

Former Clash guitarist Mick Jones joined Billy Bragg on stage in July 2007 to support his campaign Jail Guitar Doors. The project, which gets its name from the 1977 Clash single of the same name, was created by Bragg to provide prisoners with guitars to aid their rehabilitation.

The gig was played to a small group of inmates who were receiving guitars as part of the project and, after Jones handed out the instruments, he played “Should I Stay or Should I Go”, to the amazement of the crowd. Bragg then followed with the Bob Marley political ballad “Redemption Song”. Jail Guitar Doors is still run by Bragg with the support of fund-raiser gigs and private donations. Such is the nature of this cottage industry that Bragg purchases the instruments and personally delivers them to prisoners. 

Mick Jones, of The Clash, delivers guitars to Wormwood Scubs prison as part of Billy Bragg's Jail Guitar Doors programme for prisoners

Metallica San Quentin Prison, 2003

In May 2003, just before the release of the band’s eighth album, St Anger, Metallica played a gig for the inmates of the prison in California.

The set contained most of Metallica’s classics, which got the 500-strong crowd banging their heads appropriately as well-armed prison guards looked on. 

The outdoor gig was part of an exchange with the prison for allowing the band to film the video of their single “St Anger” on prison grounds; the other part of the deal being a donation of $10,000 from the band to the prison’s baseball team, the San Quentin Giants. 

“What better place to kind of connect with people with misspent anger?” said lead singer James Hetfield after the band finished their 10-song set, which began with Hetfield talking to the crowd about finding an outlet for anger in music. 

Mack Vickery Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, 1970

Recorded to the excitable screams of the inmates of the prison Wetumpka, Alabama, the album that followed this live performance brought country songwriter Mack Vickery his first chart success as a singer. 

The set list seems deliberately sympathetic to the audience of female felons with tracks like “A Woman Who Walks on the Wild Side”, and “Life Turned Her That Way”, which features the chorus “don’t blame her, cause life turned her that way.” There are more than a few sexual undertones to Vickery’s performance in Live at Alabama Women’s Prison, but none are more obvious than the album cover, which sees Vickery strutting past a jail cell, guitar slung over his shoulder, with an attractive female inmate making eyes at him from behind the bars.

The Sex Pistols HM Prison Chelmsford, 1976

Six weeks before the Sex Pistols would make headlines for swearing on Bill Grundy’s Today programme, the seminal punk band played a set to inmates at the maximum security prison  in Essex. 

The gig was a typical Pistols performance with inconsistent playing compensated for by attitude and hooky punk tunes. 

The bootleg recording of the 1976 gig was eventually released in 1990 but received a negative response from many Pistols diehards. The problem with the album was the addition of a few obvious post-production overdubs, the worst of which was an unconvincing Johnny Rotten impersonator who appeared between songs to goad the crowd.

Subsequent releases have removed the unwanted extras and restored the integrity of the recording, which is one of the last done by the original line-up before Sid Vicious replaced Glen Matlock on bass. 


Dirty Pretty Things and The Enemy HM Prison Pentonville, 2007

Held in the Pentoville Prison chapel, this gig was played to support the suicide prevention charity Wasted Youth. The charity is aimed at people under 35 because, as Carl Barat, lead singer of the Dirty Pretty Things and The Libertines, said at the show: “Suicide is still the biggest killer of men under 35.” The Enemy appeared first and bashed out their set in 30 minutes, followed by the Dirty Pretty Things, whose own 45-minute set received a standing ovation from the audience in the 180-seat chapel. 

Pentonville was where Barat’s bandmate, Pete Doherty, was held in 2006 and, although Doherty’s band Babyshambles were asked to play the gig, the invitation was later withdrawn. 

The Grammy winners will be announced on 15 February