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Virtuoso

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Sleaford Mods – Protest music without promises

An angry band with little hope for the future, Sleaford Mods offer modern-day Britain an alternative to the traditional left-wing protest music, writes Ashley Murphy

Sleaford Mods in France, 2013 (Image: Xi WEG/Wikipedia)

Sleaford Mods are made up of two middle-aged men from the East Midlands, and they work from the strict principle of the division of labour. Andrew Fearn produces the beats, Jason Williamson shouts the words. The first album they released together was called Wank (2012); if this isn’t sounding very glamorous, it’s probably because it isn’t.

However, it’s not like the broadsheets haven’t tried. Described by The Guardian as “the most uncompromising British protest music in years”, Sleaford Mods, with Williamson in particular, have gained a reputation as being the voice of twenty-first century working-class Britain, and it’s not surprising why. With song titles like Jobseeker, Tied up In Nottz, and Just like We Do, Sleaford Mods are reporting from the frontline of austerity Britain. These are stories about rubbish jobs, smoking roll-ups, and the almost constant threat of violence that isn’t just casual, but somehow apathetic.

Then there’s Fearns music, which isn’t really music. Don’t get me wrong, the influences are clear. From the punk and post-punk of the Sex Pistols and The Jam to more contemporary hip-hop and DnB rhythms, Fearn is definitely working within a certain tradition of anti-establishment sound. Yet there are no tunes here – just beats, repetitive and monotone. The perfect soundtrack to the dulled existence described in Williamson’s broad, and wonderfully uncompromising, East Midlands accent. It’s a voice that conveys anger, frustration, extreme levels of boredom,  often simultaneously.

“This isn’t protest music, at least not in a traditional left-wing sense.”

 Now here’s where the broadsheets appear to miss the point, but maybe that’s intentional.  After all, writing about working-class heroes certainly reads better, especially in a sharply divided post-austerity/Brexit landscape. It brings Sleaford Mods in line with the liberal, anti-establishment narrative of newspapers like The Guardian. The reader gets their little fix too.

This makes them feel politically conscious, comfortably outraged at a ‘broken’ political system which only works for the few.  There’s an attitude of being in the ‘know’, of understanding the ‘real’ issues’, and a not so subtle aroma of smug intellectualism. But this is something you won’t find on a Sleaford Mods album.

This isn’t protest music, at least not in a traditional left-wing sense. There are no calls for collective action and zero suggestion that things are going to get any better. What we have instead is an individual expression -perhaps in its purest form. Williamson’s voice speaks (or screams)  for its own sake. In the world recreated by the Sleaford Mods, modern life isn’t just rubbish. It’s complete and utter bollox. But silence still equals death, and if Williamson’s anti-heroic voice is fighting for anything, it’s fighting for itself.

However, it isn’t all doom and gloom. Sleaford Mods are also funny. In fact, they’re often very funny – “You’ve got to be able to sell yourself so I stuck my life eBay – 25 quid mate!”. The comedian Stewart Lee puts it best: “Sleaford Mods are English visionary ranters, seeing the big picture reflected in the toilet bowl.” They create what Lee calls ‘kitchen sink hallucinations’,  a comedic imagery bordering on the sublime and the absurd – “My teeth taste like chalk, I don’t fancy walk, I’ll keep here, I’ll get to sell eventually, put a porno on, shotgun a’loada beer.” At other times, it’s just plain odd – “fucking Gary Barlow and smoking glue. Fucking Gary Barlow and smoking glue. Fucking Gary Barlow and smoking glue.”

“Comedic imagery bordering on the sublime and the absurd”

So, as far as Sleaford Mods are concerned, life might be pretty miserable. We might not be able to do anything about it, but that doesn’t stop us from laughing at it. As great mystics and sages have pointed out, it isn’t the world that changes, it’s our perceptions. This is how the tragic is transformed into the comic, how the desperate becomes absurd, and how we can rise above it all and regain a little bit of power. In the end, this is the only freedom you’ll find on a Sleaford Mods album.  It might only last for a few songs, but it’s a hell of a lot better than nothing.


Ashley Murphy