Luke Haines is an English musician and writer. He has recorded under the name of the Auteurs and Black Box Recorder. His books include the bestselling Bad Vibes – Britpop and My Part in Its Downfall. His latest solo album, Smash The System, is out on Cherry Red Records on October 7, 2016. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter and his website.
What have almost all new bands/musicians in the UK got in common? Hype. Seemingly the only way to launch the “career” of a new artist. The music industry (band manager, publicist, radio plugger, record label) lock into a three-part strategy campaign: get said artist on the radio, on the TV and in the press. If this plan fails, then the band/artist will find themselves playing gigs to empty venues — after all, the band/artist will have no following to speak of, and it’s almost impossible to pick up a following just by playing endless shows in the UK. (And you can forget all that stuff about social media — 4,000 friends on Facebook can often convert to four people and a dog at a gig.) So, hype: one throw of the dice and you’re out. Sleaford Mods (who are neither mods or from Sleaford) have somehow circumnavigated the usual “hype” by playing shows in Europe and slowly picking up a following. They have been spewing out albums on their own small label for a while. Then, at the end of last year, they released the fantastic Austerity Dogs album. People started to notice that something was going on. Something that had apparently happened without their permission. Sleaford Mods have already been in the heritage rock magazines and the Guardian. It won’t be long before the NME breaks out a middle-class boner and hails them as “an authentic howl of working-class rage.” But it’s not quite that simple.
The UK is currently not swinging. A hideous coalition government comprising cowards, convicted felons and thick toffs presides over a dispossessed electorate that can’t afford to pay its heating bills. In the shadows, the English Defence League loiter ’round food banks spooking the peasant hordes with tales of imagined foreign devils. Meanwhile, the UKIP — a bizarre mash-up of provincial golf clubs, shortbread biscuits, and the National Front, has actually become a serious proposition. To top it all, there’s no serious rock action going on at all. Just defeated old bands — artistically moribund — reforming for beans and becoming the sacrificial chickens in their own basket. This is where the Sleaford Mods come in. Just as, say, the Specials’ first album was the grim soundtrack to what David Bowie correctly predicted would become known as “the dreadful ’80s” then Sleaford Mods are the soundtrack to ball-busted Britain. But, again, it’s not quite that simple.
Of course, I didn’t just stumble on Sleaford Mods by accident. I was drawn to them by my super-sharp rock & roll instinct. “The Righteous Nose,” I call it. So the Righteous Nose sniffs out some truly Righteous Noise from the two Righteous Boys; Jason Williamson (words/shouting/belching/speaking in tongues) and Andrew Fearn (noise). This noise is a broken bass guitar that has no other precedent than the Stranglers’ holy J.J. Burnel. Occasional bleats of spastic toy keyboards reminiscent only of Una Baines-period Fall. And the beats. Actually it’s a disservice to say that Fearn provides mere beats. He fires off huge fucking drum riffs. Make no mistake, Jake. These are drum riffs. Then there are the words. But it’s not that simple.
I’m going to play with you and tease you. I want to save talking about the words for later. Let’s talk about art. Wait come back, don’t be a fraidy cat, like Damien H, the Chapmans, Sarah Lucas. You don’t have to pretend to be tough just ‘cos you’re an artist. Sleaford Mods make no bones about it: this is the art of the betting shop priest. The art of the Fall: avant garde brickies. The art of Earl Brutus: thug art. The art of the (early) Happy Mondays: scally art. Like all the aforementioned, Sleaford Mods make Art because they have no choice. They refuse the middlebrow of the (oh so) conventional art scene. They are not “arty.” Watch the videos: “‘Jolly Fucker” with fortysomething Williamson spitting out every thought in his fevered bonce. John the Baptist with a Weller haircut. Sleaford Mods videos are all one shot: of Williamson, the Poundland exorcist, invoking the demons of the scratch card minions — usually standing by a skip, sometimes shouting at an imagined crack dealer or kiddie fiddler. (Fearn mainly loiters around in the videos drinking lager.) This is high art. Deal with it. It’s that simple.
So, the words. The fucking words are all over the Sleafords’ newest, best and most brutal album so far: Divide and Exit. Relentless words. Incontinent. Fucking everywhere — like a madwoman’s shit. Scatological, psychotic, sociopathic, wise, even. The words only stop when Williamson runs out of breath, just in time for Fearn to play a super-dense retardo keyboard solo, or the stupidest riff that anyone has ever come up with. (Riffs that, by most people’s standards, would have been discarded as “useless.”) In Sleaford Mods’ hands even the most pony riff is gold. And the words keep coming: “I ain’t no mouthy baker/The cake ain’t for me/A four-pint punter in the Chinese.” There are drugs everywhere, mainly bleak (“bleak” is a very Sleaford Mods word) — tales of crap gack, crap crack, and crap smack. Everything is bleak in Sleaford Mods’ world, everyone is below the breadline and almost everyone is a cunt. It’s also very funny and surreal. “Findus crispy human finger… 100% cod. Fuck off!” or “The Prime Minister’s face hanging in the fucking clouds, like Gary Oldman’s face in Dracula.” There’s even an excellent ditty about clothes designer Paul Smith (“Smithy”): “Sir Paul, you can find binspiration [sic] in everything/The recyclable black bins of dog shit an angel sings.” From the poetic, to the scatological, to the banal: “I waste time flicking bogeys,” ponders Williamson philosophically. I don’t want the words to ever end.
So what do the Sleaford Mods sound like? What references have you got? John Cooper Clarke has been bandied around, and of course Shaun Ryder. Jason’s stream of sub-conscious psychobabble may even remind you of Mike Leigh’s sociopathic anti-hero Johnny from Naked. Album opener “Air Conditioning” is astonishingly Fall-like, but that’s a red herring. Sleaford Mods sound like nothing else. Nothing like the rest of the desperate professional indie fodder hurling themselves from frying pan to flame. Hoping one day to get an Achilles heel on the Glastonbury career ladder… Sleaford Mods are a band who others will try to imitate. They will fail. Fuck ’em. Best band in the land. It’s that simple.