Josh Gray On Sleaford Mods' English Tapas
, March 2nd, 2017 11:35
Josh Gray uncovers the message of inclusivity through apathy that lies at the heart of the Nottingham duo’s latest release, and the traits that make them the perfect opposite of punk
Unless you’ve been buried under 15 feet of dirt with a stake driven through your heart for the past 30 years, you might well have heard somewhere that ‘punk is dead’. This is lie. A wretched piece of propaganda propagated by aged skinheads attempting to stave off the looming spectre of irrelevancy by convincing both the wider world (and themselves) that the glory days of their youth actually meant something.
But punk isn’t dead; it never existed in the first place. The further it recedes in the wing mirrors of history the more obvious it becomes that the whole thing was a myth from its inception. What real resemblance did the rabid anti-corporatism of F-Minus bear to the idealistic civil rights advocacy of The Clash? Or Minor Threat’s clean living message bear to the filthy self-immolation of GG Allin and the Murder Junkies? Or the crass opportunism of Malcolm Mclaren's fashion project Sex Pistols bear to the anti-establishment tirade of, well, Crass? With every year that passes the holes in this umbrella term become more and more noticeable.
OK, so this is a little unfair. It would be ridiculous to argue that punk didn’t exist as a genre of music (a loud, back to basics reaction to progressive rock) and as a fashion trend (Torn denim. Got2b glued wax. Identikit badge collages designed to express one’s individuality.) But what the fuck was punk ‘attitude’? The closest I might be able to come to a definition is 'the reactionary subcultures created by marginalised groups within already marginalised communities in response to the stifling cultural mores imposed and enforced by a societal majority,' also known as the origin of nearly every form of music to have emerged during the last century. Well... with maybe one exception.
Though this defunct label of punk might be ridiculously broad, it can never be wide enough to encompass Nottingham's Sleaford Mods. How could it? How can Sleaford Mods be lauded as the mouthpiece of any one downtrodden subculture when they are so adept at being the mouthpiece of downtrodden culture in general? On the duo's latest release, English Tapas, the enviably prolific Jason Williamson once again employs his familiar part-rant, part-rap, part-spoken word delivery with what sounds, to first time listeners, like unchecked rage. But now many of us have had a good half (or, for some smug cunts, a whole) decade to adapt to his highly individual style we can tell it for what it is: not a blistering call to arms but a universal sigh.
In much the same way that chickens are the closest living relatives of the T-Rex, punk's true descendants are the desperate individualists that Williamson lambastes on 'Like We Do'. The post-ironic hipsters who boast of listening to "rustic noise recorded in 1982 in the Black Forest in Germany," the kind who scroll directly to the bottom of articles on the Quietus hoping for an open comments section in which to make their views on the latest developments in Nordic drone known. Apologies reader, Jason Williamson is not keen on you.
This should come as no surprise. Ever since Kate Bush revealed her soft spot for Theresa May earlier this year, we 'alternative' types have been awakened to the self-explanatory truth that our opinions are neither universal nor even commonly held. Like Bush but without the moneyed contentment, Williamson is a self-aware member of the homogeneous blob called 'Society' that punk so despised, not its victim. He too has been "dead in the head (with a) job facing life" ('Messy Anywhere'), a faceless cog of the silent majority. On the same track he beats down the myth that his generation and above share blame for the gig economy and declining pay because they "had jobs and were easily fed." Sleaford Mods are happy poking fun at Snapchat posers ('Snout'), fitness fanatics ('Army Nights') and the ailing elderly who repeatedly vote for a party that is actively attempting to dismantle the NHS ('Dull'), but they never resort to the societal infighting and scapegoating that oligarchic media barons welcome.
There's a strange sense of 'we're all in this together' bubbling just under the language of self-destructive hedonism through which Williamson largely communicates. It's a pragmatic acknowledgement that we live on an island full of fuck-ups, leaning on our addictions in the face of a future that looks like a "flag pissed on in a full-sized bag of quavers" ('Carlton Touts'). He even spares a thought for the metropolitan 'elite' commuting to London in a haze of "cigarettes and trains and plastic and bad brains" on album highlight 'Time Sands', casting their daily cycle of zombified repetition in the same mould as those patterns the low-wage pissheads he usually chronicles. What makes Williamson's damning verdicts so palatable is that he doesn't claim to be preacher or paragon. He's just a man who claims to have recognised the needle in his own arm and is now attempting to call out the rest of us on our hypocrisy.
Many journalists, desperate to return to a past rich with outrageous musical figures and even more outrageous readership figures, try to cast Williamson as the new 'dissident voice of the working class'. But last I checked to become a 'dissident voice of the working class' you had to be a wealthy, ex-city trader, business mogul wanker. Despite the occasional potshots at opportunistic 'Moptop' Boris Johnson and his "Brex-city rollers" and the odd lament for Labour ("Bring back the neo-libs! I'm sorry, I didn't mean to pray for anarchy" is a bittersweet highlight of a couplet), English Tapas is more of a psychological treatise than it is a political one. It's a self-diagnosis of the general public, the societal majority that repeatedly allows itself to be exploited by an elitist minority (rather than the typical vice versa situation prevalent in punk). Williamson is the human conduit for the regrets and self-loathing of the 99% that we need.
What is the use of criticising the vacant, passionless herd? The ones who head to the voting booth with the sole aim of 'stirring things up' or who never leave the house at all? "You can't blame the betrayed" explains Williamson on 'B.H.S', the penultimate track that takes all the bleary-eyed dissatisfaction he's built up over the last ten tracks and sets a match to it. The result is one of the most memorable, exhilarating choruses Sleaford Mods have ever produced; one that invites listeners from all backgrounds to channel their misplaced rage at the "able bodied vultures" of the 1% who seek to divide and conquer society itself.
It's fair to say that every one of these points could have been made about any prior Sleaford Mods record. Besides a gradual loosening of Andrew Fearn's backing tracks, it sounds like the band has largely remained unaltered in either style or substance. This is exactly what makes the duo the most vital act in British music right now: their music will continue to reflect the state of the nation for as long as it keeps defeating and demeaning itself. Why should they evolve when the Big Society remains as static and small-minded as ever? So long as nothing keeps on changing, Sleaford Mods will be there to document it.