What better way to celebrate the remaining 16 dates of the Sleaford Mods tour than with a review of their Key Markets album written for a newspaper in the United Arab Emirates? All references to beer were removed from the published version.
Someone said at work yesterday that Sleaford Mods would probably write a song about “Pig-gate”. I would suggest that “Rupert Trousers” on this record actually sees it coming.
I’m a fan of Sleaford Mods, and I think they’re a great live band. Below this is a review I wrote for Uncut last year (with a pic of their great guestlist wristband). Apparently, though, my even-tempered preview of an earlier tour didn’t completely pass muster with the band’s fans (click on images to enlarge).
In the technical sense, one cannot speak of Sleaford Mods – a duo from the east Midlands of England, comprising vocalist Jason Williamson and beat-maker Andrew Fearn – as having “greatest hits”. Their records do not sell in great numbers, and they don’t get played on mainstream radio. However, if a greatest hit is the song which is truly representative of what a band does, then for Sleaford Mods, one of their greatest hits is a song called “Jobseeker”.
As with much of their work, it derives from an unenvied side of British culture. Supermarkets, court appearances and bad coffee all make their appearance in the band’s output. In the case of “Jobseeker”, we join Williamson as he attempts to “sign on” – ie, arrange to receive his unemployment benefit allowance. Williamson’s delivery is occasionally compared to hip-hop, but it is the inverse of that genre’s aspirational lyrical ease. A key line here is: “Can of Strongbow I’m a mess/Desperately clutching a leaflet on depression/Suplied to me by the NHS.” Strongbow is a brand of cider; the NHS, the British National Health Service. The band do not work in an glamorous milieu.
They are a ruggedly authentic proposition, and their songs – a mixture of semi-autobiographical revenge fantasy; street-level reportage and increasingly, on this record, a bitter complaint against the economic status quo – are born out of their own experiences at the sharp end. Williamson (after many years attempting to break into music) began Sleaford Mods as a solo project. He recounts his eureka moment as a song called “Teacher Held On Porn Charges”, a local newspaper headline which encapsulated perfectly his wretched circumstances at the time: going to the local shop in his pyjamas to buy beer on special offer, with money put into his bank account by his mother.
His time since then has been spent incrementally growing Sleaford Mods. The arrival of Andrew Fearn developed a trademark sound, grimy basslines and basic drumbeats of varying tempos, over which Williamson could air his grievances. For all their experiences of unemployment, the band work particularly hard: repeatedly playing long tours all over the country. Only after several years of this did Williamson gave up his day job (ironically enough, as a Benefits adviser in Nottingham), a few months ago.
Sleaford Mods have begun to catch on. They have been written about by academics, comedians and political columnists, as if their work demands recognition in a wider context outside music. Certainly, Key Markets, the band’s third conventionally-released album (there were previously several low-circulation CD-Rs and singles) makes no concessions to appeal to a more mainstream music market. Fearn’s beats are still aggressive, as is Williamson’s outlook (and language). On the album, the singer harangues enemies local and international, named and not, real and imagined in terms which cannot be printed here. Though the band are in their mid-40s, they show no intention of slackening, mellowing or compromising.
At the Glastonbury Festival this year, with their show broadcast to a large TV audience, the band began their set with a song from this new album called “Silly Me”, in which Williamson ranted about a former acquaintance from Birmingham: “Bragging on about your music moves/You run a crap club in Brum/You lose/I won…” Another song from the new album called “In Quiet Streets” explicitly sets out the band’s agenda, with an amusing non-sequitur reference to a mainstream television comedy duo of the 1980s: “We don’t want radio play,” Williamson announces. “We’re not Cannon & Ball…” An expletive has been deleted here.
Obviously, such a release makes no concessions. As such, Key Markets offers an equivalent experience in British high street culture as one of those opportunities to learn a foreign language by “immersion”, in which you converse only in the new language. The title itself is a pun: “Key Markets”, as a person of Sleaford Mods’ age would know, was the name of a UK supermarket chain of the 1970s and early 1980s. Serving the requirements of “key markets”, of course, is also what a more commercially-minded group would be strategically aiming for with their anticipated new album.
Instead the record rejoices in its hardline presentation. This year Williamson has made more commercial appearances – guesting on a track on the new album by the Prodigy, for example – but this is not an album which will suddenly find a new, casual audience. Rather, it is a vibrant contemporary document, occasionally morbid, sometimes nostalgic (one song laments the demise of the suburban garden), a vivid snapshot of contemporary language and attitudes. “I’ve got a latte on,” Williamson says at one point, in a way that would have completely been unintelligible 15 years ago. “I’m easy…”
Though not young, Sleaford Mods are fired with a zealot’s energy, and (i)Key Markets(i) offers a profusion of ideas and information. Over the album’s 40 minute duration you will hear reference made to: Ebay, tablet devices, e-ticketing, needlessly strong “guest ales”, soundchecks, and the character Snake Plissken, the hero of Escape From New York. There are several sideswipes at Boris Johnson, the Mayor Of London and jabs at Kate Bush, Arctic Monkeys, and the fact that one of Blur makes artisanal cheese while another sought to stand as a parliamentary candidate. As the album proceeds, evidence subtly mounts against capitalism and privilege.
The culmination of this is in a song called “Rupert Trousers”, which might benefit from some preparatory notes. The British cartoon character Rupert the Bear wears tweed check trousers – and outlandish trousers are perceived by the band as being a feature of “country dress” favoured by the wealthy. Over an eerie and slyly groovy beat, the song then casts an impressionistic eye over scenes of entitlement: “full houses/woolly jumpers/flags from the boat lake/Rupert trousers…” Amid their grievance, the band devise their own kind of beauty.
The band’s alarmingly rugged appearance and strong language might possibly give the false impression that Sleaford Mods are yobs who have somehow intimidated their way into prominence. This is a song, and an album, to revise that opinion and to offer a more valuable lesson. Don’t be fooled by appearances of any kind – you don’t have to dig too deeply to discover that there’s something much deeper going on under the surface.
London 100 Club, October 23rd
Once a venue for jazzers, the 100 Club is now more associated with rawer expressions of musical freedom. Since the punk festival held here in 1976 it’s become a statement venue, rich in heritage for those who would wish to claim by association some of punk’s revolutionary energy. To suggest, in fact, that (i)something is happening here(i).
Tonight’s Sleaford Mods show, while incredibly good, suggests nothing of the kind. The place isn’t rammed with scenesters. It’s not sold out. Nor is the company especially desirable: the band top a bill of power electronics bands, both heckled throughout by a woman screaming “wankers!” at them. It’s not an especially aspirational scene.
Which all suits this Nottingham duo nicely. Without doubt the year’s unlikeliest breakout band, the 40something ‘Mods have received critical acclaim, essentially, for their sheer negativity. Their music, a combination of primitive beats (supplied by Andrew Fearn) and ranted raps (delivered by Jason Williamson) essentially presents the view from the high street.
It’s not transformative, and it doesn’t “make the ordinary extraordinary”. In songs like “Jobseeker” and “Routine Dean” it simply presents the interior monologues of characters frustrated by bureaucracy, and of self-loathing fuelled by consumerism. Live, the momentum generated by the parade of short, aggressive songs is impressive. The crowd all have their favourite moments of bitter empathy, to which they scream along.
Williamson, meanwhile, a muscular performer , works up a proper head of steam. His arm movements, beyond the gesticulations of the hip-hop MC assume an intensity quite their own. Throughout, he runs his hands through his hair – part OCD, part expression of inner rage.
What’s strange, though, is that far from being toxic, the atmosphere here is magnificent. True enough, compared to the support bands, Sleaford Mods sound like Genesis, but the energy – apart from during “Tiswas” where someone appears to throw something – is hugely positive. Andrew Fearn, whose role on stage is simply to nod along to the music and drink cans of Stella, seems key to this. He radiates a genuinely good vibe, to the point where some admittedly quite drunk person climbs on stage to give him a hug. No-one, it should be noted, goes near Jason Williamson.
Which may be a shame – although a faintly intimidating figure, this is not just some bloke shouting abuse. Instead, Williamson’s songs are passionate and forensic, defining his position by railing against its opposite. “The Wage Don’t Fit” attacks an employer’s short-termist mentality with passing swipes at “That speed freak from The Kills/Jamie/Banal! Banal!”.
Tonight, “My Jampandy”(chorus: “The man is a wanker!”) probably does the job best. Here, over an thunderous beat, he talks about his disdain for lad culture (“That Ian McCullough terrace bit”), and getting “a latte in the French-style café” when out in the park, with his daughter in a pushchair.
To be able to express that in a noisy room helps outline the Sleaford Mods genius. It’s not magical, but it makes compelling music from the details of how lives are really lived – which has got to be good news for everyone who lives one.