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Nick Sanderson - An Obituary, An Appreciation
The Quietus , June 18th, 2008 17:43

Ian Harrison, journalist and Earl Brutus admirer, pays tribute to the sad passing of Nick Sanderson

“Avoid pubs with flat roofs on council estates,” advised Nick Sanderson one afternoon ten years ago. We were in the New Gog in Canning Town, a drinker he’d discovered on an “urban ramble”, to talk about his group Earl Brutus. “People like us shouldn’t be in bands,” he went on, his eyes glowing a hypnotic red. “But I’ll have any of these young whippersnappers (in bands). They’re totally manacled, because they've got no idea that you can actually do what you want.”

After a life spent doing just that, he lost his fight with cancer on June 8, aged just 47. Born in Sheffield, like many of his age he had his mind opened by Ziggy Stardust era David Bowie. “I saw him on Top Of The Pops,” he recalled years later. “It was fucking sexy, and so wrong.” He started his musical life as a drummer and, over three decades, generated an enviable CV working with a succession of quality, respected bands. He spent 1983 in industrial strangers Clock DVA, where he met his friend and Earl Brutus bandmate Jim Fry. In 1984 he joined the elemental force that was Jeffrey Lee Pierce, and for the next decade would play, on and off, alongside his future wife and bassist Romi Mori with Pierce’s Gun Club. In 1989, with Madchester jerking into life, he joined the fondly-recalled World Of Twist. Their songs The Storm and Sons Of The Stage can still send pulses quickening - Oasis famously used the latter song as intro music. In the ’90s he’d drum with the Jesus and Mary Chain, and in the early 2000’s, with Jim Reid’s Freeheat.

With Earl Brutus, however, Nick Sanderson fronted perhaps the greatest unsung band of all. This glam rock-with-synthesizers group inverted the rock and roll norms " all of the members being into their thirties, one of their t-shirts read, ’Pop Music Is Wasted On The Young’ - but they never lost sight of how potent a force it could be. They came into being with the single Life’s Too Long on Bob Stanley’s Icerink label in 1993, an era of imported American rock and toyed with being called Artex or Mortgage, before an imaginary pub (“a rough sort of place but with a nice carvery on Sunday lunchtimes”) gave them their name. It was at once noble and brutish, as were their legendary concerts. The Earl Brutus show was big on props; think of a spinning garage forecourt sign reading ’Music’ and ’Chips’, flashbombs, a floral wreath spelling the words ’Fuck Off’, Kraftwerk-style neon signs of the band’s names, and a strongman slowly disrobing. Instruments were routinely smashed. Sometimes keyboardist Gordon King simply smoked a cigar. But it was Nick’s intense, livid performances - whether he was swallowing the microphone or wearing a beer crate on his head - that really grabbed attention. Signed to the Deceptive label, they released Your Majesty We Are Here in 1996, the title apparently being a message to Freddie Mercury to not worry about rock, because Earl Brutus had come to save it. The CD booklet contained blank pages. Several singles were released including I’m New and the riotous Navyhead, which, said Fry, concerned “a bloke in the Navy who loves David Bowie. He’s on Union Street in Plymouth, pissed out of his head, thinking of all the best things in life.”

Though a commercial breakthrough was not made, the band signed to Island records to release Tonight You Are The Special One in 1998. They had now been joined by Shin Yu, who’d joined after telling the band “Earl Brutus have entered my mind.” His onstage pronouncements included “Can I have steak and kidney pie, please”, “Japanese man shouting rubbish” and “Nick someone’s drink and cause a fight”, the latter phrase appearing on the extraordinary single The SAS And The Glam That Goes With It, with its chant of “You are your own reaction.”

The single got radio play and comedian Doon MacKichan off Smack The Pony wore their t-shirt (it said Rock and Roll, upside down). This was the moment that something might have happened. It didn’t. In truth there wasn’t much after 1999’s single Larky " suitably the last new Earl Brutus song to be released was England Sandwich, a nightmare cut up using the drums off the Human League’s version of Nightclubbing and the sampled voices of Jake Thackeray, the speaking clock and Richard Burton ranting about his profession in *The Spy Who Came In From The Cold; “They’re just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives.” They did, however, cover Lieutenant Pigeon’s Mouldy Old Dough under the guise of Union Jackson in 2000, and played a handful of one-off gigs, the last being in 2004.

That year he became a train driver - as one who’d stuck the old British Rail sign on his jumper made out of masking tape as stage wear, this was apt.

We’ll never see Earl Brutus again, but later this year their profile will get it’s biggest boost in years. Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller, who could be seen videoing their shows in the 1990s, is working on an exhibition entitled 'All That Is Solid Melts Into Air/ Winston's Children' that will compare Earl Brutus with the Industrial Revolution. In years to come they will without doubt be re-appraised by listeners who’ll recognise the urgent, hilarious confrontation in those big bold sounds and trucker’s beats. Nick was a man’s man with a magnetic personality, who dug Van der Graaf Generator, muttered darkly about attending a “posh school”, liked traveling by rail and owned the East German national anthem on CD. He loved Manchester United, history and birdwatching. He was superb company and the sadness and sense of injustice about his passing will not fade. He leaves his wife Romi and son Syd.