IDLES may have won both critical acclaim and popular success with Brutalism and Joy As An Act Of Resistance, but not everyone's a fan. During his Guardian webchat this week, Sleaford Mods' Jason Williamson explained his dislike of the Bristolians. Here are his comments in full:
"I quite liked Brutalism when it came out. It wasn't my kind of music but I liked some of it - it was catchy. And they were nice lads, polite online and stuff. But I thought they were kind of a street band, there were lines like 'Tarquin' that would insinuate that they were knocking the middle classes, but it turns out they're not working class. That offended me, because I then held the belief that they were appropriating, to a certain degree, a working-class voice. Obviously that excelled when the second album came out, and I felt a bit cheated. I also became jaded by this idea that we were a band that was campaigning for social justice, when we're not, we're just talking about what's around us. Music can't solve political problems. And I think their take on it is cliched, patronising, insulting and mediocre. And that's why I have a problem with them. I take music seriously, and I've come from a place where this music has been created. Without that, we wouldn't be here. I went through a lot of pain - I understand IDLES' singer has gone through a lot of pain. But I don't believe their slant on this. I don't like them at all."
I have a lot of time for Williamson, but I think he's well wide of the mark on this one. The fact that he slips into talking about Sleaford Mods being labelled a campaigning band just underscores my feeling that his complaints about IDLES are actually born out of anxieties and frustrations relating to his own act.
At the heart of Williamson's comments is the accusation of class appropriation. To my knowledge, IDLES have never claimed to be the voice of the working class. That label may have been thrust upon them by others, but that's very different. Indeed, this is something that Sleaford Mods have experienced themselves (I'm guilty as charged, I'm afraid to say, as are many of the fans interviewed in Paul Sng's documentary Invisible Britain), and something that Williamson has regularly bemoaned, such as in a 2017 interview with the Guardian's Bernadette McNulty: "Just because I was working nine to five, predominantly unskilled jobs, doesn't mean I was working class. I grew up in a working-class area and it was shit. I just wanted to get out."
Williamson has previously blasted Slaves as "a pile of shit" for (among other things) "trying to play this working-class game", and at another point during the Guardian webchat he declared: "My issue ... is people pretending to be from a different class. Appropriation in other words." It's clearly a subject that vexes and preoccupies him - most probably, I'd suggest, because he's sensitive to accusations of the exact same thing. While I wouldn't go so far as to say as his criticism of IDLES is a case of the pot calling the kettle black, it is rather problematic and revealing coming from someone who now lives in the well-heeled Nottingham suburb of West Bridgford but still talks about making music from the street.
In fairness, Sleaford Mods' success has put him in a difficult position. Starting out, they were lashing out and defining themselves in opposition to everything - how do they react now that they've been widely embraced, including by the middle-class music establishment? If, as he says, they're "just talking about what's around us", they have to mutate into something different simply because what's around them has changed.
It's a tricky predicament, to be sure, and one that Williamson has addressed on new album Eton Alive and spoken openly about - for instance, in an interview with my old Nottingham blog buddy Tim Sorrell for LeftLion and on (I gather) a forthcoming podcast chat with the Quietus' John Doran. Personally, I sympathise and am glad to see he's aware of the conflict - unlike (say) Noel fucking Gallagher. But the attack on IDLES is unjustified.
For what it's worth, I also disagree with his complaint that IDLES are patronising - though Joe Talbot's lyrics can be blunt. Other acts may have been banging on about the same issues (immigration, austerity, toxic masculinity) for some time without attracting the same level of attention, but the points clearly still need to be made, and loudly.
Are IDLES social justice warriors, as Williamson claims? Yes - but in the current climate (indeed, in any climate) that's not a bad thing. "Music can't solve political problems"? True, generally - but that's not to say it can't be a positive force for change. Do IDLES claim to have all of the answers? No, but that doesn't matter - they're asking the right questions. As, in their own less direct way, are Sleaford Mods.