Nick Bollinger discusses the anger and humour of East Midlands punk-rap duo Sleaford Mods.
Not long ago I heard Joan Baez bemoaning the lack of fresh protest songs; ones that reflect today’s world. Here’s a current group that describe the present state of things, and make their own kind of protest - not that I can see Joan Baez covering any of their material in a hurry.
Sleaford Mods are beatmaker/instrumentalist Andrew Fearn and vocalist Jason Williamson. Their name is a geographical pointer; the pair comes from Nottingham, about an hour away from Sleaford, and Williamson delivers his torrent of words not just in an unreconstructed East Midlands accent but in the working class vernacular of the streets he grew up on. He is angry and provocative, aggressive and hilarious, in roughly equal measures.
His reference points are not deliberately obscure, but neither is he too concerned about whether or not a listener in New Zealand is going to grasp the significance of the initials B.H.S. or know what Drayton Manor is. His rants are regional, which is where much of their detail and humour comes from.
Fearn is the one-man band that creates the instrumental beds for Williamson to rage over. Often no more than a lo-tech drum machine and a bassline cribbed from some entirely different context, these can seem primitive. The song they call ‘Drayton Manored’ sounds like a Black Sabbath riff, absurdly accelerated. Or they might take their inspiration from an old R&B track like Cameo’s ‘Word Up’, which ‘Just Like We Do’ strongly resembles, only with any hint of funk Anglicised out of it.
Are they mods? Both in their late forties, Fearn and Williamson might be second-generation mods gone to seed. On stage they appear unshaven and sloppily dressed (though Williamson’s fringe is always stylishly combed.) Gripping the mic, he is a tightly wound ball of tension, while Fearn is the opposite. His beats pre-programmed, his main task seems to be to press play and drink beer.
They might not ride Vespas or dance to ska, but like the original Mods of the 60s, it is their very existence that is their statement, more than any clearly articulated manifesto. They have seen the lot that has been handed to the working class. Until they went pro just a couple of years ago, they were living it. Williamson claims to have worked variously as a security guard and a processor in a chicken plant, and the bleakness and absurdity of their music reflects the drudgery of his professions, not to mention the constant spectre of unemployment.
Williamson has said that he doesn’t see his music as explicitly political, and perhaps it’s not – though he was apparently a paid-up member of the British Labour Party, until his profane tweets got him barred last year. Even so, this latest album seems to have been largely written post-Brexit, and Williamson, for all his identification with working class frustration, leaves no doubt as to his position, comparing contemporary Britain with the British Home Stores chain - B.H.S. – which went into liquidation just before Christmas.
Sleaford Mods are prolific. You’ll find ten albums in their catalogue, though as their first release for the venerable indie Rough Trade, it is this latest one that will be many people’s introduction to them. And it’s a good place to start. It goes by the excellent title English Tapas – a contradiction in terms, apparently sighted by Fearn on a pub chalkboard, coined to describe a dish of chips, pickle, pork pie and half a Scotch egg. That’s Sleaford Mods’ peculiarly English combination of irony, outrage and despair, on a platter.
Songs featured: Messy Anywhere, Carlton Touts, Drayton Manored, Just Like We Do, Dull, Snout, B.H.S., I Feel So Wrong.
English Tapas is available on Rough Trade.