Saturday, February 16, 2019

Class warfare

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.


swisslet said...

Reading this had me scurrying back to the full transcript of my interview. It's interesting as he never claims to be working class or to deny that his life has changed massively, but at the same time, there is an air of class in what he says. Here's a snippet.


I was reading the declaration you made when you announced Eton Alive: “Here we are once again in the middle of another elitist plan being digested slowly as we wait to be turned into faeces once more….” I know you get asked this all the time, but how do you feel about Brexit?
[laughs] Like anybody else in this country. In Europe they can’t understand it. I’ve been over in Berlin doing press for two days and they just don’t get it. They don’t really get the idea of class and of the aristocracy. In Germany, although there is an elitist class, it’s a republic so they don’t get it. In France, they’re quite similar to us. Everyone feels so sad about it, and it is quite a sad thing regardless of the plus points, and there are some intelligent points. Jeremy Corbyn believes in it and I don’t exactly know his reasons and couldn’t relay them to you now, but he’s obviously got his reasons and he’s not a stupid man…. But at the same time, it’s not right, it’s not right at the minute. With everything in the package that it was produced in, the jacket it put on when it introduced itself to the masses. It’s just not acceptable. Nationalist, patriotism. Once again the working classes were conned and fed a load of dogshit. The idea of enlightenment, class consciousness thing. It’s not happened. It’s just pretty bad.

How have you seen it impact the people around you?
It’s created a massive divide. I was reading an article the other day about how the leave/remain divide will surpass Brexit and the psychology of it will be ingrained into other things. You had the divide and rule thing with immigration, with benefit scroungers, and now you have it with this. From an elitist point of view it’s quite genius. They’ve never had it so good. It’s fantastic, it must be fantastic to be motivated by making money, paying no tax, getting away with it, which is what most of them are probably doing, without trying to sound na├»ve. It’s fucking horrible isn’t it?

Since the beginning, your lyrics have focused on the lives of working people, working dead-end jobs at the bottom of the pile. Do you ever feel that you saw some of this coming? The way people feel, the dissatisfaction?
Yeah, as soon as the coalition got in, I knew that was it. You just felt it. You felt this darkness came over, this mist. I remember seeing George Osbourne’s face at this dinner when they first got in. He had this tuxedo on and it was this dinner for supporters of the conservative party, potential contributors. His face said it all: right, we’re going to do a better job this time. We’re going to finish off what she started and it’s going to be worse. You could see it in his face and it was fucking horrible. Sorry to swear. I knew then, and without being politically aware, which I’m still not really, you’ve just got to be an idiot not to see what these people represent and what their policies will mean.

A lot has changed since you first started out: you’re more settled (married, kids, West Bridgford, Ken Clarke is your MP now). Is it harder to summon up the focus and the anger?
No, no. It just comes in different ways. Part of it is not repeating yourself, as I don’t want to do that. I’m not going to try and make out I’m the person I was 5 years ago. Physically and psychologically things change. It’s still there, it just comes out in different ways. It’s not so much a challenge, it’s more interesting to find out where it’s going to go next.


swisslet said...


The thing that struck me most from watching the film (2017s Bunch of Kunst) was that you particularly look drained when you come of stage. You sit there trying to gather yourself. I read that you stopped drinking. How do you bring yourself back? How do you decompress after that burst of intensity?
I have a cup of coffee, loads of fruit, nicotine tablets. Another coffee, more fruit, another nicotine tablet and then I’ll get back to the hotel and get to sleep about two, three o’clock. I’m loving it. I love life. It’s great now: I’m sober, I’m happy… I’m alright I’m obsessed with the band and trying to keep it looking good, it’s a competitive thing to be in, especially after five years. We’re no longer a buzz band, but we’ve managed to maintain a reputation of being interesting, an integrity. Contemporary. I’m in a great position."
He came across as really genuine and I liked him, but at the same time, he is touching on the same sorts of things he's criticising others for, isn't he? He's also allowing a perception of himself as a bit of a class warrior, at least by implication (I also love that the man who sang about waking up with shit on his sock is apologising for his swearing!)

I also implied he was Morrissey to Andrew's Johnny Marr (that old anecdote about Marr slaving away on a beautiful tune, only for it to come back as "some girls are bigger than others")... but he missed it or chose to ignore it and told me a bit about how he used to hate Morrissey when he was growing up instead of some more insight into how the Sleaford Mods dynamic works. Ah well. I'm learning the trade, innit.
(what a guy to get for your first interview. He was charming, but I was a bit worried he might be terrifying!)

Ben said...

Cheers Tim - interesting stuff. As I say, I like the fact that he's sensitive to the issues and clearly thinks a lot about his own position - which is why I suspect that lashing out at IDLES is him releasing a bit of pent-up frustration at how he and Sleaford Mods are perceived/criticised.

I imagine I'd be rather nervous of meeting him too...