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Everything But The Gig: The Fat White Family, The Future Of Rock & Gaza
John Doran , August 1st, 2014 05:40

The conversation that takes place around rock & roll is often so engrossing that there's barely enough space or time to discuss the actual music, as John Doran found out after attending The Fat Whites' Slide In For Palestine gig in Brixton last week. All pictures Lou Smith

All photographs are courtesy of Comrade Lou Smith. See more of his Fat White photography here

I don't know if it's the lot of everyone who hit adolescence during the Cold War, but personally, I can get extremely agitated about international politics. Perhaps it was talk of the savagery of both World Wars at mealtimes. Parental neighbours blown apart in the Blitz discussed over Fray Bentos steak and kidney pies; or gangrenous limbs, trench warfare and shellshock the subject of conversation while tucking into Goblin burgers in gravy and boiled potatoes; not to mention the sinking of the Belgrano and Spam fritters. More than likely it has something to do with watching Threads as a sensitive 13-year-old. (Or was it watching the first Gulf War on low grade LSD on a black and white portable as a desensitised 20-year-old, perhaps?) Whatever the root cause, I now find it more and more necessary to go on 'news blackout' for days at a time. To read no newspapers and websites detailing planes being shot down; to watch no news bulletins regarding ISIS and FGM; to avoid all journalism where the angle just as much as the actual news contained is likely to cause unbearable anguish; to avoid all the trigger nouns Syria, Ukraine, Israel, Gaza Strip, Palestine, the Caliphate and North Korea. To avoid the unavoidable trigger nouns America and the United Kingdom.

And while 'necessary' is a subjective concept, I would argue that my stress levels warrant preventative measures given that my beard fell out last year. Now, I'm aware that I wrote something for the redoubtable listings microzine London In Stereo last November, in which I may have given a different impression:

There are lies, damned lies and the men with beards that tell them... Guns don't kill people; people with beards kill people… You can tell the angels in Heaven that you never saw evil so singularly personified as you did in the eyes of the man with the fashion beard who killed you… At this point the three people reading this who know who I am will be going, "Wait a second you throbbing hypocrite! You've got the world's biggest beard! You hazardously dressed twat!" Not any more, sucker. I took a razor to myself just a month ago and hacked away at the face furniture until now my face is as smooth and as bare as the top of William Hague's head. Only my face is slightly less evil. There was a time when I thought having a beard was awesome. 'Who has a beard?', I thought to myself. Victorian bridge builders. Gentlemen mountaineers. Astronauts when the mission goes wrong. Bass players in death metal bands. Men who bed down al fresco behind hedges on A road roundabouts. The mavericks, the free thinkers, the imbibers and those unencumbered by a domicile or money. I wore my beard, long, ragged and proud, and bus drivers, feeling pity for me, let me travel for free. So what went wrong? Fashion, my quivering friend; that's what went wrong. It has been unavoidable for about a year now to venture outside my flat without seeing some Captain shitbeard, looking like an Edwardian naval town rent boy on a skateboard, zipping between a farmer's market and a poetry slam, with a Nicaraguan low-sodium mocchatino to go. Do you think I can afford to be mistaken for one of these gibbering fussy men? Not on your nelly. So call this a protest shave. My face stays clean until the idiots move on to some other ridiculous trend. Death to false beards. Praise the lord and pass the Gillette Mach Three. For truly 'tis the best a man can get.

So I apologise now in public for besmirching the good name of their publication with my lies. What actually happened was this: I noticed my beard was falling out and went to see my doctor who said it was stress related alopecia. I asked, "What should I do?" To which he chortled: "Shave twice a day and hope it doesn't spread north of your eyebrows… Oh, and try not to be so stressed out." Not for me the romantic streak of white appearing in the hair overnight to make me look like Dave Vanian of The Damned. Instead a number of small gaps appearing in my facial hair, widening until they became a vividly detailed scale map of the Galapagos - which is, coincidentally, somewhere that I'd like to go and live until things calm down a bit.

Now, at first on a news blackout week, international affairs can appear ten times worse when viewed through the shattered prism of fuckwittery that is social media. If one thing has been made abundantly clear this week, it is the fact that it would clearly be wrong to claim that only the Western mainstream media has an agenda that it refuses to see beyond. But if you can steer your way through the minefield of memes, xenophobia, disingenuous arguing and tin-hatted madness, social media actually still seems to be more useful than the mainstream press in some crucial respects. I guess, for all of its multiple faults, social media isn't designed to terrify passive viewers and readers into inaction.

Say, for example, you take the current disastrous events in Gaza. Even if you happen to believe that media coverage is even-handed (and I would strongly suggest that it currently isn't, bar one or two notable examples), what purpose does subjecting yourself to hourly updates of this misery by proxy actually achieve?

And sure enough, while scrolling through Facebook a week ago, there were more than a few vicious clowns, invoking Godwin's Law on one side of the fence and making every effort to dehumanise Palestinian suffering on the other. But above and beyond that there were many suggestions for sending aid to various charities, including to Save The Children and Medecin Sans Frontiers, which keep politics out of their work as much as is possible. There were also details of marches such as the one from the Israeli Embassy in London to Westminster on Saturday, and decent suggestions for pestering MPs. But the thing that grabbed my eye first was notice of Slide In For Gaza, a Palestinian solidarity fundraiser version of Fat White Family's regular night at bountiful and rambunctious public house, The Queen's Head in Brixton.

Now, it would seem to me that to raise money to help the civilian population of the Gaza Strip is a no-brainer. Despite extreme lefitist hyperbole from some quarters, what is happening there is not genocide; this relatively small area is not the modern equivalent to the Warsaw Ghetto, but then again, why should it need to be? What is happening there is still utterly terrible, in spite of these Nazi comparisons being completely off-point and off-colour. Why on Earth aren't we helping these civilian folk who are doing nothing more provocative than sitting around at home listening to pop music on the radio, tucking into lunch, doing homework, playing games of football outdoors; these folk getting maimed and killed by heavy bombardment aimed directly at them? (While we're on the subject, I'd be all for raising aid for injured Israeli civilians as well - except the few that there are will be covered handsomely by the $3 bn pouring in annually from the US, and one check of the international media shows that they're not lacking in solidarity from the rich and powerful.) What is happening to folk on the street in the Gaza Strip is unconscionable and anyone with a heart who can help, should do. Seems clear cut to me.

The first person I see on arriving at the pub is my friend Samir Eskanda who is DJing at the event, and in a rather gauche manner I say to him, "Gaza, that's your neck of the woods isn't it?" to which he replies: "Not exactly. I'm a Palestinian citizen of Israel, with one British parent. I was born in Jerusalem and I've lived in London since childhood. In a greater sense, perhaps I'm part of the diaspora, because it was Israel's deeply discriminatory treatment of its Palestinian citizens that caused my flight to the UK, where my parents believed I would have more freedom. They were entirely right of course, Israel has more than 50 laws which discriminate against Palestinians within Israel, who comprise around a fifth of the population, in all areas of life including welfare, access to land and housing, their rights to political participation, education, everything. Even the United States, who protect Israel diplomatically and supply the regime with 'military aid' worth $3 billion a year – fighter jets, Apache helicopters, tanks, guns, shells and bullets, being used to massacre Palestinians in Gaza as we speak - even the US state department describes the "institutional and societal discrimination" that Israel practices against its non-Jewish citizens."

(Now you may be wondering why my chat in the pub with a friend has hyperlinks, but if ever there was a subject where people should be allowed to explain their point of view clearly and methodically in public, it's this one, so I suggested we restage our conversation the next day via email for the sake of clarity and accuracy.)

He continued: "Israel has conducted a brutal military occupation for 47 years in the West Bank and Gaza. In the West Bank millions of Palestinians live separated from nearby villages and towns by the illegal wall, which is twice the height of the Berlin Wall, hundreds of miles of concrete intersecting the land. The thousands of settlers who live there illegally, under the protection of the same army that controls the Palestinians so tightly, were encouraged to do so by the Israeli government in the form of tax relief and other benefits, again in contravention of international law, which says you can't transfer your people into a territory you've occupied. Plenty of the settlers are purely there for fundamentalist religious reasons, zealots who regularly attack Palestinians in armed assaults, vandalise their property, uproot their olive trees and generally intimidate them, as I say, all under the watchful eye of the Israeli army and government.

"What's going on in Gaza, the West Bank, within Israel and in the diaspora beyond Israel/Palestine are all the direct result of the Nakba (catastrophe), when Zionist militias ethnically cleansed the country of Palestinians in order to create a Jewish-majority state in 1948. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled their homes under direct threat of violence or through fear of it. Lots of them ended up in Gaza, where they've lived for generations in a state of uncertainty, indignity and occupation, and most recently under the cruel and inhumane siege. Other refugees from the Nakba are still in camps in neighbouring countries, denied the universal right of return by Israel, which grants that right exclusively to Jews. As a citizen of Israel I am the descendant of the minority who survived the ethnic cleansing and remained within Israel, and as citizens we are permitted to travel to and from the country, unlike Palestinians elsewhere, but as I mentioned, my relatives who live there are discriminated against in every thinkable way.

"Taken together, this systematic and ongoing repression, segregation, violence and terror is a new form of apartheid. Lots of well-known South African anti-apartheid activists have described it as exactly that. You can understand as well how fragmented Palestinian society is, spread as it is across territories in which Israel treats them differently and prevents each community from access to others and to the outside world. Palestinian unity is bad news for Israel, which is why activists believe Netanyahu started this most recent offensive against the people of Gaza and their elected government, because of the unity deal agreed between the factions of Hamas and Fatah a few months ago. Ironically the demonstrations in the West Bank last week, where at least 10,000 Palestinians marched in solidarity with Gaza, the biggest protests for years, and the solidarity marches and rallies across the world have shown that Palestinians and our supporters are more united than ever."

I tell him about my feelings of paralysis when watching the TV news and reading the papers; about how much negative feeling, nihilism and inaction it seems to inspire in me.

He says: "I'm not surprised that people feel paralysed, when the media and the government appear to come down so heavily on Israel's side. The BBC's appallingly biased coverage has come under serious criticism recently, for a supposedly trusted and impartial news source they have a major case to answer for their reporting, which is characterised by a total lack of context (the decades-long occupation, the siege and other breaches of international law of which Israel is guilty are rarely discussed) and punctuated by a constant deferring to Israeli military sources for their 'facts'. You hear very few Palestinian voices in the news, and as such the truth has been lost. But there are far more stronger sources for news and commentary online than there were five to ten years ago, like Electronic Intifada and Mondoweiss for example.

"But there's actually so much that everyone can be doing. The easiest and first thing to do is observe the 2005 Palestinian civil society call for the boycott of Israel. So that means don't buy Israeli goods for starters, which you'll see in high street shops and supermarkets everywhere. BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) is a tactic that huge number of supporters of Palestinian rights have employed in recent years, and it's having a real impact. Beyond that, and importantly, you can take action by attending a mass demonstration, which are happening at least twice a week in London at the moment, for example. You can write to your MP and demand Britain stops arming Israel, seeing as tens of millions of pounds' worth of arms are sold by the UK to Israel every year. This country has also purchased billions of pounds' worth of military technology and weaponry from Israel, which is disgustingly marketed as 'field-tested' and therefore sold at higher prices than weapons that haven't already been used to slaughter Palestinian families in schoolyards, hospitals and on the beach. You can write to the BBC, to newspapers and other outlets about their coverage and make your feelings known to those around you. Basically just use the voice that you have to stand in solidarity with Palestinians."

You're no stranger to being in bands - what is the problem with post millennial rock bands being political?

He continues: "I think it comes down to a fairly widespread cynicism about the potential for change, even amongst politically literate and right-thinking people, and while that's something which is hardly exclusive to bands, I think that journalists and audiences still expect musicians to ask the difficult questions of society. But maybe there's a simple answer: it's not fucking cool anymore. The stadium charity fundraiser gigs effectively destroyed that notion for a whole generation. A band like Crass represented the polar opposite of the self-congratulatory wankery of those events."

Is rock & roll ultimately an utterly conservative genre now? Are bands like Fat White Family merely an aberration - a glitch in the matrix - or is there chance for this middle-aged genre to redeem itself politically and socially?

He concludes: "Kudos to Fat White Family for their outspoken political nature but they're far from an aberration, there are lots of groups who have strong political content in their music, like a huge part of the DIY punk scene, there's a ton of feminist bands for example, and queer bands. And there are groups who'll make political statements in public, or they'll simply, and pertinently for this conversation, observe the boycott of Israel by refusing to play there (including lots of really well-known groups that you've covered – they don't always shout about it but there are artists who I know who are constantly turning down lucrative show offers in Israel), not buying Israeli produce and putting pressure on their governments to sanction Israel, and their corporations to divest, in the model of the South African anti-apartheid movement. But you have a point, the revolutionary spirit of rock & roll feels a little battered, but I believe it's still there, and who knows? Maybe now is the moment it'll start to come back around."

I mull this stuff over. Sure there are tons of feminist/queer bands about, but by declaring yourself as such, are you effectively ghettoising yourself? No fault of the bands of course - more the fault of the horrendously anodyne and conservative times we live in. Even at the height of the incredibly backwards looking and conservative Britpop, there were still features on Queercore and Riot Grrl in the Melody Maker and NME... So there is still an active underground - and more power to their elbows - but what about the mainstream? Where are the groups who have 'something to lose' nailing their colours to the mast? Not just the Gaza mast but any right-minded, anti-establishment fucking mast at all? Previous generations had Rock Against Racism, Red Wedge, bands as big as the Sex Pistols playing benefits for miners, (by today's standards) unimaginably big crowds turning out to see Killing Joke and The Pop Group play for CND in Trafalgar Square… I could go on, but you know what I'm talking about. You've seen the BBC Four documentary. The idea of anything even remotely comparable happening in 2014 is so alien as to be slightly mind-bending. The mere fact that there is a mainstream, cover-worthy, NME-sanctioned rock band playing a gig that runs in total opposition to almost everything we are told by politicians and media alike is enough to make one slightly giddy. Of course, this says more about how far wrong rock has gone over the last 15 or 16 years than how revolutionary Fat White Family are - but let's not use that as a stick to beat them with. Instead let's peer at the real culprits.

It's less than half a year since NME ran its R U Onside? cover - featuring Alex Turner, pointing at U, the reader, in a Lord Kitchener manner, beseeching U to help save rock & roll. A cover he earned by dropping a microphone on the floor after making an acceptance speech at the BRIT Awards - apparently the only act of rebellion on offer when you're on TV, flanked by MasterCard ads. The Arctic Monkeys: what an egregious bunch of cock juggling thunder cunts.

What a joke. What a terrible fucking joke.

As if being in one of the most insipid indie bands ever to be considered front page material wasn't enough, they had to remodel themselves on Alvin Stardust fronting Father Ted's The Three Ages Of Elvis. Tax avoiding, Shakin' Stevens, My Coo-Ca-Choo, Paul Shane, shit-heeled little prannies. And after the Arctics, things take a decided turn for the worse. Kasabian, a band to whom you wouldn't entrust the care of your goat, let alone the vanguard of your cultural youth. How about Alt-J - a lachrymal shrug in human form. Then there's Twin Atlantic, like the colour light brown converted to music. The 1975. Jake Bugg? Sweet Mother Mary, pass me the helium shroud.

A 17-year-old firebrand called Angus with a wild mane of hair, a load of Fall badges and red nail varnish comes over to say hello. He's travelled down on his own from some godforsaken market town or other to watch the Fat Whites for the first time. He wants to know what I think of The Magic Band. What my favourite Fall tracks are. What my favourite Guided By Voices album is. He talks excitedly about how, when he was 'young' he liked Nirvana, but how they introduced him to the Butthole Surfers and the Vaselines and that he'd sooner listen to them now.

"Some people say that the Fat Whites have taken what other people have done before, but I think those people should just fuck off. Isn't that what rock & roll has always done?" he says.

I nod: "There aren't any truly original rock bands that come from out of nowhere, and there haven't been any for ages. I think intensity, honesty, passion, shock & awe, killer riffs, gnarly tunes, weird sex appeal and great shoes are more important in 2014 to be honest."

It's the width of their appeal that appeals to me as well. This is genuinely one of the most gender balanced, racially mixed rock gigs I've been to; with a lot of indie rock having essentially been a male, middle class white boorish hobby for some time now.

My fourth can of Monster is kicking in and I warm to my theme. "You know what the key to the Fat Whites is? Saul's missing front tooth. If I was the editor of VICE, Q, Mojo or NME I'd have a cover that looked completely black with a sort of white and pink border but when you looked closely at it you'd realise it was just a real close up photo of the gap in Saul's teeth. The gap symbolises unwritten history. That's the key to them. Or one of the keys at least. It's something that puts my mind at rest, that assures me I can trust them."

"What if he went to the dentists?" asks Angus.

"Well, that's a difficult question, and one I've given a lot of thought to. I wouldn't like it, but I think given sufficient talking therapy, medication and time I'd adjust eventually. But I wouldn't like it at first. What if it was like Samson's haircut? What if it sapped their power? You never know with these things…"

The age of refinement in music is tightening and exaggerating the bell curve graph of bands, in the same way that cleverer kids, emphasis on results and easier exams is affecting the spread of GCSE results. Everything's bunched together. So a bad rock band might be very similar to a good rock band in a lot of respects. It sounds facile but the whole of rock history is there online, to listen to, to pore over, to watch, to hoover up in one summer. All the guitar tabs, all the albums and all the videos. Take garage rock bands for example; is there really that much difference between a great garage rock band and a mediocre one at the moment? You need to find other ways of judging this shit.

"Do you think they're the best rock band in the world?" asks Angus.

"The best young rock band in the world? Yes I do. Genuinely." I say.

"What makes them the best?"

"The tunes. The riffs. How they look. Not their shoes, actually - they need better shoes. Some of them need to actually wear shoes. The other guitarist looks like he'd kill you. Lias was born to be a rock star. They all were, I think. They don't give a fuck what you think about them, but they do give a fuck, if you take my meaning. They're really odd because they're actually getting somewhere by not really following a career path. There are few things in life as important as not caring what other people think of you and they genuinely don't - as far as I can tell."

I like the fact that Fat Whites are doing this gig. I hope there are a lot more bands out there taking notes. I hope you can't move for people raising money for Gaza soon. That said, I hope this doesn't become 'a thing', codified with slogans, op ed pieces and T-shirts. It should be natural for bands to be able to express their political and social nature without them being punished for it or consigned to being a six month fad. It's already hard enough for most bands to cover their costs without them having to worry about expressing non-musical aspects to their character. But I feel it will, temporarily, become 'a thing'. You can bet your bottom dollar that, as you read this, there is a an editor somewhere or other plotting a new scene of politicised bands and desperately trying to come up with a name for it. The New Rock Revolution Of Revolutionary Rock. Agit Prog. Issue Core. Campaign Step. The Protest That Celebrates Itself. Psych Of It. Something terrible like that.

I might be paranoid, but I can also imagine a conversation going on at some record labels about Saul's missing tooth. Some bunch of indie herberts having to get with the programme at the behest of their A&R guy. "Sorry Jeremy, the ear has to go. Just think of that headline slot at the Dublin Castle… The New Ugly Beautiful Movement… it's all over the NME… Pass me that Stanley knife, Sebastian. Bite down on this beer mat Jeremy! ARE U ONSIDE?! THIS IS HURTING ME MORE THAN IT'S HURTING YOU JEREMY!"

The pub's starting to get rammed now. The support bands are all great, and we'll be covering some of them on tQ in the future I daresay. The gig is amazing. It's like being in a lava lamp full of serotonin and adrenaline that's being shaken violently by a hot-handed giant. The floor of the pub is literally bowing up and down. There are people in their underwear dancing on the bar. Crowd surfers. Drinks flying everywhere. The landlord is stood behind the bar laughing his head off. At one point I see wild-haired Angus on stage singing the words to 'Wild American Prairie' into Saul's mic. There is hot liquid pouring off the ceiling onto my head.

By the end of the gig, it's clear I wouldn't have been any less wet if I'd have jumped in the Thames. It's not that I can't remember the last time I've seen a pub gig go off this much, I don't think I've ever seen a pub gig get this hectic, full stop.

I talk to most of the band about the evening but what keyboard player Nathan says hits me due to its clarity: "I don't read the papers every day but I know enough about what's going on there. My dad's from Algeria, and these people in Gaza? They're just like my dad and his family and his mates. They just don't deserve it."

As I'm waiting for a throng of drenched, blissed out revellers, high on endorphins (mainly), to spill out onto Stockwell Road like a bank of fog, I catch up with wild-haired Angus.

Did you enjoy that?

He looks at me like I'm an idiot: "Of course I did, it was fucking awesome…"

I start telling him about how I get the same feeling from watching them live as I did from watching groups like the Pixies, the Butthole Surfers and Loop in the 1980s, but he cuts me off, clearly in no mood to be listening to someone his dad's age getting all four Yorkshiremen on him. "They could be the biggest band in the world couldn't they?"

It's not inconceivable. Or it could all end tomorrow. Anything could happen - that's really the most exciting thing about it. It's a type of musical future which can only be achieved now, by people not putting career and money before art. And that's the only hope 'true' rock & roll has, if it has any kind of future left at all.