A couple of months ago, Sleaford Mods front man Jason Williamson announced he was no longer allowed to vote in the UK Labor leadership election, after he called Dan Jarvis, one of the candidates for Parliament, a “posing cunt” in a public post. Williamson sings about the condition of the working classes and social inequality in England. He joined Labor to support Jeremy Corbyn. He remained involved in politics from the stage and not from any party. This is why I chose to write from a political perspective about the Sleaford Mods’ latest album, Key Markets.
The recipe is simple: Williamson brings the lyrics, Andrew Fearn the music. Genre-wise they’re hard to pigeon-hole, mixing electro, hip-hop and punk, prompting a critic to dub the whole thing “pugilistic post-punk style bass” (Mark Fischer, The Wire). The band self-identify rather ironically as “mods.” Outside of embracing their working-class condition, there are few things in their style and aesthetics connecting them with the subculture which was causing outrage in late 1960s England. These postmodern mods are more likely influenced by punk stalwarts such as John Cooper Clarke and Mark Smith, and tackle current issues, just like The Streets and Half Man Half Biscuit do. Aesthetics aside, the boys are more or less a post-punk band, considering their avant-garde spirit and politically-charged caustic lyrics.
The lyrics are laced with the ambiguity of a beatnik talking to a neighborhood lad; Jason cusses heavily and it’s hard to make out how privileged his position actually is. His stream-of-consciousness type lyrics require listening multiple times, first because of his Midlands slang and accent, and second because he switches abruptly between tropes.
Key Markets is, nonetheless, consistent and can be summed up by the infamous “No future” cried by Johnny Rotten at the end of the 1970s, as if anticipating Margaret Thatcher. This time, the pessimism of the Sleaford Mods is linked to the recession, austerity measures and the decline of the British working class. ”Is it right to analyze in a general sense the capital machine/ Its working and what they mean?” (Face to faces) is one of the keys to understanding the Mods: capitalism must be questioned! On the other hand, their criticism is not of the cultural-intellectual sort, with elitist performances or quotes from Deleuze, but more of the Oi! Punk sort, Williamson being a man of the people, an “average blue-collar” in a world where the call center is the new factory, as he himself describes it.
The album abounds in stylistic ironies. For instance, “Live tonight” begins with a football chant, reminding us of Quadrophenia, a sort of voice of the streets which Jason not-so-humbly appropriates: ”still some out there who believe in the lie of work till you die, of Sundays apple pie, death waits for every man!”
When he’s not a nihilist or pissed off, Jason is ironic: ”dead will fall, no one’s bothered/ You’re trapped, me too/ Alienation, no one’s bothered” (No one’s bothered).” “Bronx in a six” is the first song of the album which hits you like a three-minute long angry shout. Those targeted are the middle-class nouveau riche: ”Just like you with ya Maharishi shoulder bag/ Walking the strip like you fucking own the path/ You wonder why you got no mates?/ You pretend to be proud of ya own culture/ Whilst simultaneously not giving two fucks about ya own culture/ What culture? Fuck culture”. Like a manifesto yelled into a loudspeaker, he condemns the betrayal of the working-class cause for ”clean white tiles, a view to the garden, a room with a poo”, meaning commodification and pseudo-emancipation through consumption. The reference to “defending your culture” is probably an attack on the nationalist-conservative views on immigration and globalization.
Another recurring theme is the position of inferiority adopted by the working classes. Although some lyrics are inspired or paraphrased from Marx, Jason is more fatalistic and has come to terms with the fate of the underclass: ”Silent dreams are a blag on time/ They get away with the worst crimes/ You fall fast in a void of pain/ Only to remember that you still remain” (Silly me). The vampirism of the middle class emulates the masculinity and dress codes of past subcultures and is given an earful in Cunt Make It Up: ”Wannabes never change/, it’s the wannabe show/ And you always wanna be the same, posy shit/ And leather jacket, motorbikes from the 50’s/ You live in Carlton, you twat”.
Sleaford Mods take on capitalism as a whole: ”New build, new bricks/ New methods, old tricks”, comparing life in such a world with a theft of daily life: ”This daylight robbery is now so fucking hateful/ It’s accepted by the vast majority/ In chains years from now”. The lyric ”Passive articles on political debate/ Its implications are fucking meaningless, mate” talks about the television hoax which legitimizes the upper classes, whose “debates” do not influence and do not give any meaning to the everyday life of the downtrodden. According to Jason, capital is everywhere; it hits us and forces us into delirium: ”He’s still with us/ In our arses, in our food, in our brains and in our death/ In our failure to grab hold of what fucking little we have left/ We have lost the sight and in the loss of sight/ We have lost our fucking minds, alright/”.
In In Quiet Streets, the chorus “That’s the angle” honestly captures the all-too-quiet streets of the lower classes, of ”nowhere money in nowhere land”. Jason uses an awesome metaphor when talking about how the labor force is sold. He compares the workday of a worker with selling dreams and selling our souls by putting them in a nursery: ”We put our souls in nursery for the day/ Pick ‘em up after work, take ‘em home/ Try ‘n get ‘em in bed tucked up before 10 o’clock”. Eventually, we are ”the wooden horses on wooden race courses at fairs”, trapped like hamsters, on the one hand, and on the other, support for the world of the “carnival, the spectacle” of those who can afford the merry-go-round and ride us.
Williamson is not a fan of “the perfect song”, of the aesthetics of the hit single, when it comes to writing lyrics. This is why Key Markets might sound a bit rough, improvised, and occasionally absurd. Fearne’s beat is austere and lacking any tap-dancing around, sending the listener straight to the lyric: ”Good, I fuckin’ laugh like fuck at ya wannabe labels, shoots on location/ Cut blokes in stables ra, ra, ra” (Bronx in a six). The lyric is also a statement of what music shouldn’t be, Jason’s criticism of the commodification of art being evident. “Radio edit, oh it’s so nice” is also a hint at the lack of relevant topics in media distribution, at the embourgeoisement and political neutralization of pop culture. Breaking free from the positivism and catchy spirit of brit-pop is not just a stylistic choice, but also a personal one: ”Spitting out fine cheese made by the tool from Blur/ Even the drummers a fucking MP, fuck off you cunt, sir/ Die trying whilst the others just live lying/ Rife all polish, no strife” (Rupert Trousers).
One of the few critical points which can be made is that the album is charged with testosterone and it’s a bit pedantic. It tackles the issues of the crisis from the perspective of the metropolis, from Nottingham and London, but nothing about the crisis at the periphery.
But Key Markets is definitely worth a listen. And it doesn’t matter if you do it as a retreat or because you feel like sticking it to the Man. Key Markets is a rare commodity in today’s music industry and it’s a manifesto for breaking the chains. Let’s give it a listen because there’s not much sunshine forecasted, either in the metropolis or the colonies.