Sleaford Mods | Billy Nomates
17th Nov 2021
I no longer have an interest in guitars*.
Embarking on their first full-length UK tour since Covid crippled the industry, a visually stunning and musically still muscular Sleaford Mods remain the predominant exponents of less is more…and then some. Ryan Walker was at their Manchester show.
I’ve seen Sleaford Mods a few times, so I’ve had the luxury of experiencing their expansion, of witnessing their trajectory from small slabs of stage to much larger stages first-hand.
Tonight is less about a duo with their mate supporting, it’s a showcase of “Contextopop”. That is: social commentary, bass and drums as the main, instrumental elements, post-whatever as acceptable genre demarcations but nicely, naturally falls under the influence of pop, humble but with a history of something that can justify an inclusion of social comment with a poetic, psychotic edge on class, on culture, on climate change, on the state of mind as symptomatic of the doldrums that surround the self, or the culling of the modern masses without sounding like an insipid, ignominious lout with a Fall bootleg and a Satre’s Age of Reason stuffed into their overcoat pockets.
This is a new pop paradigm. An eviscerating implementation of contextopop as smart and as stylish and as unequivocally now as ever (Bob Vylan, Billy Nomates, Benefits all fit the bill, some do not for reasons more complex than a) you’re not working-class, b) on the dole, c) mentally unwell d)don’t listen to the Fall or Joy Division).
Translucent latex abattoir curtains conceal a simple bank of bright lights that burst into life to encourage punk to turn into an invasion of ravers and rascals, hipsters and happy death men of the city in a frantic, friendly frenzy, where all walks of life congregate and the concrete jungle beyond the doors is one of wire vines and sirens to sedate its public.
Yet, although improved and with more going on, the impact of the show with all the added special effects doesn’t decline. There is an entrancing torrent of visual stimuli intensifying every angle, from which the rawness and realism of the entire thing isn’t detracted; the stampede of the sound system’s booing acoustics, shaking the brain into a bowl of bolts and a small puddle of gooey noodles.
Essentially a manifestation able to be identified as the duo’s professional progression magnifies their ideas and desires to be what they always wanted to become…the rapture of the city still reciprocal of the Mods as they enter and exit and leave a hole in the wake of each intense show.
Sleafords, taking everything by storm and sucking everyone inside the fierce cyclone in a hope to eliminate the ennui from the everyday parade of catwalks on the cobblestones with blues scales under their fingernails and a promotional Fred Perry wreath as the halo that crowns all talentless bastards. Tonight I witnessed the same members, Jason Williamson and Andrew Fearn, take to Student’s Union in Manchester in exactly the same way they always have. The same set-up, the same routine, the same approach to it all.
But so many albums later, including a number one with Spare Ribs released this year, this is all that, but very much a demonstration of the same thing with an upping of the ability to curate a sublime spectacle, a magnificent moment in time to blow a hole in whatever comes before and after. A demonstration of less as more, always punching at the peak of its powers.
23 songs for fuck sake.
A band laughed at during the formative years of their career, and all their devoted fans in this room, just can’t be wrong. The songs themselves, electro-punk expressions of anger and intellect, reflection, resentment and regret, the taxing habits of the modern man, entwined in one entity, one idea of void, one autonomous consequence of the countless, continuum of the broken bonds that builds up this crippling, little.existence, just can’t be wrong.
Set starter Fishcakes swirls and pulsates in all its jaunty, lopsided, leftfield pop characteristics. A warbling Williamson melodically brews an atmosphere of disquiet and calamity, as the equally disturbing yet spellbinding arrangements weave ruminative musical webs around the crowd. A challenging opener, the lads spreading their wings and showing people – as the record itself was more than capable of proving – that there’s more to the Mods than the currently on-trend idiom of think beats.
But this much-needed reshuffling of the traditions, this recharging of the gradually flattening batteries concealed in the base of the spines of every pretty green teenybopper and comic book mod, reveals its true might tonight. Things are still stripped to their minimal charm, exposing the flesh and bones below rock ‘n’ roll that for too long was, has, and still is, a corpse dressed in expensive clothing.
So the laptop is a statement, a symbol.
And little has done so much to burn so much in effigy.
Andrew stands behind it all, below it all, with his laptop. Jason with a bigger ability to move, as though there is a chain around his ankle and the crate he keeps his machine on is a ball. Tokenistic, ironically even, of where they have come from, of what they have seen, a laughing-in-the-face of amplifiers and avalanches of effects pedals at the feet of the fuckwits and their flying Vs, the gorillas and their Gibsons.
Each show a sacrificial burning of what has come before in all its repugnant pretensions and platitudinous lassitude. Each show a greater explosion against modern pop’s imperious, idiotic, trite and benign gift baskets. Each show another protest on the mattress of rock’s abhorrent, royal, exhausted echelon, a smearing of sticky substances and rubbing of them into the deathly features, stretched until grey over a withering span of matter.
From the goosebumps-on-the-back-of-the-groin menace of Middle Men that mercilessly drills and shatters from the speakers and rattles the ribcage to a small tower of unhinged bones to the jagged, acid-on-the-estates attack Spare Ribs, straight to the disorienting, luminous test-tube grooves of Kebab Spider that writhe and wave around the room, every song hits harder than its predecessor. Every song is an intro and a conclusion. A set opener and closer.
It wouldn’t be right if Mork n Mindy wasn’t joined by Billy Nomates. Whose own set as the support is, as it always is, an experience imprinted into the hard disk drives of the mind. An impressive action figure fiercely punching the imposing, external forces that descend from places only she can see but just about everyone can feel.
The song judders from left to right. Nomates (Tor Maries) occupying stage left as Andrew does what Andrew always does (everything and nothing, a fine skill). Along with Nudge It from Spare Ribs, that shouts and snaps and sprays and sways with wonky pianos, warped blobs of electronica and cheeky, gangster-in-the-gutter toughness which also gets an airing tonight, a collab with Amy from Amy Taylor from Amyl and the Sniffers, it is Mork n Mindy – a slowly shimmering, sashaying with a machete blast of hot, hypnogogic tribalism, robot raga and catchy, grime-in-the-pipes keyboard lines, Nokia 3410 melodies, Casio PT-30 experiencing an epileptic seizures and a glitch in the matrix atmospherics – that really grabs everyone’s attention.
Petrol Fumes is a beautifully twisted, acerbically addictive lullaby like a mangled, mechanical Motown track. Tumbling electronic experiments with a demented edge, an athletic animatronic assault from wherever the wild animal is released, all excellently conflated with a fleshly heartbeat and a brain, both popping and snapping, robust and syncopated and each element busying itself the as one bar builds into another with a sense of intense precision and detail that spares no single second to meditate on the moments that came before, no fat to the tracks to be found (the electric Emergency Telephone and the hellish Heels).
Happy Misery and Hippy Elite both sound as solid as the language looks on the screen. Thick crystals of dirt kicked into the eyes of any approaching entities considered too crass to be taken seriously, evil in all they represent as the wallpapers of the modern globe, are stripped and the calloused, cancerous skin of history is exposed as one wanting to build a castle by cutting up enough cardboard…but with a sweet melody to provide a colourful counterpoint, an industrial-punk gestalt from these disconcerting anecdotes about fat white men, about the existential crisis that comes with unpacking pallets of garden gnomes and parting the legs of a ‘Caution Wet Floor’ sign in the aisles of the tired mind (Happy Misery). A bullet of spit or boot between the thighs, toe-capped with titanium and the cranium cracks apart, crumbling like birthday cake in thin, white, napkins (Hippy Elite).
This is a celebration of standing ground, of saying No, of saying ‘Fuck Off, I’m not to be touched, to be fucked with, to be forgotten, to be thrown into the bins of your aberrant, bitter soft porn soap opera, I’m a person, not a project, a piece of property’…with a gorgeous voice lacquering this fabulous, tumultuous undercurrent that can melt steel into puddles of silver with its hot flame harmonies and pounding, punching, gyroscopic bass/beat combo.
Her own track, Supermarket Sweep, features Jason who saunters onto the stage, does his job, then walks off. It’s quick and it’s clutter-free and she will eat anybody that should dare to detract her from the rightful path.
Back to Sleafords, Elocution and Discourse are thunderous to the point the room practically ruptures. The former as a heavy, haunting amalgamation of cantankerous, barbed guitar and odd, exhalations of superficial trumpet keys. The fairground whirlwind replicating the inescapable frames of mind that force themselves into our unprepared ears and, along with the ignition of a particularly monstrous engine enveloping the bass, complacently nests there for eternity. The latter from their 2019 album Eton Alive, a fun, busy, spasmodic brimful of blood and custard, a frantic dance between bass and drum tessellations.
It’s more Soft Cell than Sex Pistols.
Sleaford Mods are a band that are at the top of their game. Williamson, at what appears to be the pinnacle of his abilities as a personality fit for the stage, is a total showman, the hunchback and the Robin Hood, Tolkien’s orc and Terry Hall, the New Left Don Quixote in a world where each day is like living in an episode of loony tunes from 1938. Man replicating the movements of a machine. Chevron of the sweat exhibiting the flesh beneath. A man at war with his newly introduced scheme of circadian rhythms and anti all those endless tannoy anthems. Anthems announced from invisible forces, conditioned as a machine in every flamboyant stepping back and forth, each fluctuating, physical tick and twitch, every choreographed picking up of the microphone stand, putting it back down, spinning on the heels, swerving nervously but commanding everything: a space within his control.
Fearn too, is on form. In his own groove. Wonky oscillations with his arms and head. Happy just hitting play as an act no different from when he’s at home or here before hundreds. Presenting an audience with a live disarming of the toxic mythologies of rock, dismantling its god complex and unveiling its ugly face as one with a career and a qualification but fuck all tunes, fuck all purpose despite the size of their benign, mindless ideals and ingenuous intentions.
So although the show has improved, in style and in size, Fearn still prefers the crate tilted on its side as a perfectly fine stand for his laptop than an actual stand. Why fix what isn’t broken? Why tamper with an operative, well-oiled force of nature when or meddle with the molecular structure of something good when the formula is perfect as it is and incapable of becoming boring?
Interestingly, they cover Don’t Go by Yazoo. Charged with a slimy, fizzy, galvanic spark. A homage to a band who in the 80s actively encouraged notions of what music can be responsible for, and acknowledged there is a conduit to tap into and catalyse cultural change, by removing the baggage of traditional ingredients (multiple members, stringed instruments, drums) in favour of something sudden, something simple, something efficient (the synth-pop duo). This is entryism and absurdism smashing into, and through, the same brick wall.
It ends on a high. It ends how it started. How can it not? Tied Up In Nottz, Jobseeker and Tweet Tweet Tweet.
Maybe it took this much time to shake the scales from my bleeding fingers, the scales from my eager eyes, to deforest the landscape of any unnecessary trees and realise there is more to the story than what the column inches sell us. This gig, this stripping back, this pulling up, of such a backlog of bog-standard chord progressions squashed into the quagmire of another hip indie sponsorship and their corresponding pop boot camps of glam and camerawork is contextopop at its finest.
Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame transferred and supplanted by 36 hours and 15-minute instant coffee and cig breaks behind the dystopian isolation portacabins full of performa-whores, the soundtrack of which is encapsulated within the hour and a half of which I was one of the faces in attendance.
The band have hit a high point for sure. Popular but retaining purpose. Vision with the same components but their operation here, their opponents out there, are still detected. A remarkable show to remember when the posters are framed in museums in 30 years to come.
I no longer have an interest in guitar. Did I ever?
*except Girls In Synthesis
Ryan Walker is a writer from Bolton. His archive for Louder Than War can be found online here.
Photos by Michael Bond.