A microphone, a laptop (on a table) and two blokes. That’s all there is.
The first bloke, we’ve seen him before, doing his own roadie work – plugging his laptop in. He’s back now, carrying three green bottles of lager – Stella? Grolsch? Probably not craft beer in any event. He’s dressed in “Make Tea, Not War” T-shirt, sweatpants and a baseball cap. He’s as skinny as a rake. A second bloke joins him. He’s a bit broader of beam with a stage pass stuck to his black t-shirt. The first guy hits a key on his laptop and the second one starts prowling the stage. His microphone is held vertically at chest height. It sometimes moves further away but the power doesn’t dim when it does. He sings, sometimes pretty soulfully, he berates, he does some East Midland alternative take on rapping. It definitely sounds like it is from the street. He circles around the microphone stand, sometimes doing a comically exaggerated version of a Mancunian simian walk. He poses, stuck in the lights, sometimes with a camp theatricality that is at odds with the rest of the stage demeanour. There is plenty of spittle, which is generated as he rifles through his lyrical repertoire. He occasionally picks up a bottle of water from the floor, takes a swig, puts the cap back on and slings it back on the floor with force, only to retrieve it moments later for another glug.
Welcome to the wonderful and frightening world of Sleaford Mods.
It is a quite extraordinary evening in 2016. At a time when the Hygge-like bliss of Coldplay still sells big and the nation oohs and aahs over an £8m Christmas advert featuring a bulldog on a trampoline, this event isn’t of this time. It actually feels like we are back in the 1980s in a mostly white working class audience, the type of crowd that would turn out for the Specials, the Clash or Stiff Little Fingers, all of whom have been playing over the PA before and after the gig. There are two fights within a few feet of me. They appear to involve people who are older enough to know better.
Jason Williamson (the singer) and Andrew Fearn (the man behind the music) have been steadily increasing their fanbase through the last few years. Williamson gave up his job as a benefits advisor before their last LP “Key Markets” was released. I must admit to approaching the LP with a degree of trepidation but enjoying it. The anger is balanced with humour, much of it identifiable as stemming from the Midlands. The music has a broader palette than they are given credit for. This isn’t just press to play keyboard noises. It reminds me very much of classic period Fall (around “Bend Sinister”) or “Metal Box” era PIL. Whilst Williamson appears vocally limited initially, when he cuts loose there is real soul there. The control is impressive. He is righteous and angry but he never misses a beat and can absolutely carry a tune. There is a grain and texture to his singing voice which adds real character. With regard to his physical tics and posing, he admits that he dials it up for the audience (“60% me and 40% performance”).
It’s a mesmerising spectacle. The show lasted an hour and that was probably just right. A little Sleaford Mods goes a long way. The material was a mix of their old LPs, their recent EP “TCR” (there’s a reference that dates them – TCR being a seventies alternative to Scalectric) and some new songs.
Williamson’s lyrics capture what the hinterland looks like in Britain in 2016. I live in London and am luckily pretty comfortable. However when I travel back to the Midlands to see my family and my friends, I see a different country. Walk along a High Street in the Black Country and it goes like this – pound shop, tattoo parlour, Greggs bakery, pound shop and repeat. And that’s the shops that are open. Outside of the High Street, it is zero hours contracts and call centre jobs rather than the manufacturing industries that the area was built on before Thatcher’s Conservative government systematically dismantled it in the late seventies without a valid plan B in place.
In a recent Guardian interview, Williamson said:
The thing is, there really is no future for a lot of people out there, so some of them, they fuck it up by getting into drugs or crime, but most people manage to keep it together. They work shit jobs all their life and take the piss out of each other to get by. That’s their lives. That’s their lives. That’s their reality. And it’s that experience I want to articulate and that humour I hold close to myself. Besides, who else is writing and singing about that?
A thought occurred to me as I left the arena, “Career Opportunities” playing in the background. The Sleaford Mods are both in their forties, I would guess. So was a good portion of the audience. Let’s head back to the late seventies and eighties again. Those bands I mentioned above would have been selling out bigger venues than the Roundhouse at an equivalent point in their career and would have been twenty years younger. I can well accept the Mods are musically divisive and not to everyone’s taste. But their peers aren’t playing these type of venues. Lord only knows there is enough to be angry about – austerity, climate change, zero hours contracts to name but three.
So let’s be ‘avin’ you. I’d be delighted to see a bunch of kids addressing their frustrations with the power and anger of the Sleaford Mods to an audience as large as the Roundhouse’s.
Because there is enough to care and be angry about, isn’t there?