Bad Language: listening to Sleaford Mods

There’s been a lot of exposure for the band Sleaford Mods recently: interviews in The Guardian and The Quietus. Jason Williamson, the vocalist for the duo, a forty something former benefits advisor, has become the emblem for representations of white working-class male suhomepage_large.3efd9a11bjectivity and experience in contemporary Britian, something that he himself finds uncomfortable. Mark Fisher, author of Capitalist Realism, has it right when he says, in a review of the Sleaford Mods last album Divide and Exit (2014), that it’s the particular local flavour of Williamson’s voice that is key to their project:

lacking any urban glamour, lilting lyricism or rustic romanticism, the East Midlands accent is one of the most unloved in England. It is so rarely herd in popular media that it isn’t recognised enough even to be disdained.

The sound of the Sleaford Mods is deliberately unvarnished, like Williamson’s voice itself. Repetitive beats and guttural punk basslines, forged by Andrew Fearn, form a spare backdrop to Williamson’s vocals, which are at the extreme end of a ranting, rapping, shouting punk ‘singing’. The sometimes ungainly beats occasionally have the feel of The Streets’ Original Pirate Material (2002); Williamson’s delivery is part-rap, part-Mark E. Smith disjunction, part-Tourettic spew of rage against the lives of impoverished austerity Britain. The lyrics are funny, aggressive, a montage of everyday phrases and banter and pub talk, and swearing on a truly heroic scale. It’s certainly not for everyone, but it’s truly bracing, a shot of black, brackish bile.

Fisher reads the Sleaford Mods, and Williamson’s performance in particular, in terms of an abjection theorised by Julia Kristeva in Powers of Horror (1982), whereupon the subject is constructed through the expulsion of tabooed and repugnant matter, excrement, waste fluids, filth. Fisher writes that ‘piss and shit course through Williamson’s rhymes, as if all the – psychic and physical – effluent abjected by Cameron’s England can no longer be contained’. This persuasive thesis seems to implicitly draw upon that of Imogen Tyler in Revolting Subjects (2013): that the formation and representation of class in contemporary Britain is articulated by discourses of abjection, from Vicky Pollard to Benefits Street. For Fisher, Williamson articulates a ‘seething disaffection incubated on the dole or in dead-end jobs’, one that has yet to find a political agency or project to turn it from anger and exasperation to the possibility of change.

What really hooks me about their music is Williamson’s voice, that East Midlands accent. Because it reminds me of the one I’ve lost, or rather worked hard to polish off the edges: South Essex, Estuary English, ex-London overspill. Essex speech is probably more visible than the East Midlands accent, but also probably more subject to derision because of its visibility (hearability), particularly through a show like TOWIE. Essex, or more particularly that bit of Essex from Thurrock, along the Thames, and up the coast to Clacton, has been fertile territory for UKIP, who play upon the very kind of white working-class disaffection articulated by Williamson (who, it must be said, does not hold back from blasting flag-of-St.George-toting white racists, just as much as he does Cameron and the Tories). Williamson’s rants remind me of my own alienation from my Essex roots, the part of my personal history I tend not to promote: born in Billericay (which, through Ian Dury, I sometimes confess to), and grew up until the age of 8 or so in Basildon, the ‘New Town Utopia‘. My paternal grandparents, Nan and Jim, lived in Pitsea, between Basildon and Benfleet, on a council estate which no longer exists – now there is no Curzon Walk, erased like some of my own past, like the glottal stops I’ve tried to excise from my speech.

When I walk around the campus of Lancaster University, bits of it remind me strongly of the spaces of my childhood – paved plazas, spindly trees planted in straight lines, landscaped grassy hillocks, covered walkways, ring roads, concrete underpasses. The architecture of the New Towns and of the new universities of the 1960s have a lot in common, of course, and encode similar utopian or socially progressive ideas: clean habitation for a new civic society, or the promise of mass education and social mobility. For the university as for the new towns, these dreams now seem a long way in the past, spaces privatised or given over to the configurations of the student-as-consumer. With a colleague at Lancaster, Bruce Bennett, I’m currently pursuing a critical/ creative research project to do with the space of the contemporary university campus, but in some ways it has a particularly personal resonance. Uncannily, it brings forth ghostly memories of a half-suppressed childhood.

The kind of masculinity inhabited and performed by Williamson (who clearly draws upon his experiences in presenting various ‘characters’ and discourses, as here in ‘Jobseeker‘), one whose class inflections are complex and difficult, whose regional English location renders it marginal and unheard yet articulate and in a kind of revolt against current ideological formations, means that it requires a nuanced and perhaps different set of analytical strategies than the dominant sociological model derived from Connell, that of the hegemonic and subordinate. The aggressive, even violent masculinity encoded in Williamson’s lyrics is also a wounded one, a marginalised one, one whose attitude to life does not encompass ‘aspiration’ or dreams of mobility or a ‘better life’ but simply surviving, dealing with the ‘liveable shit’ (one of the Sleaford Mods’ song titles). Part of the Border Masculinities project is to think through new strategies and directions in thinking masculinity, in transnational but also local contexts. For me, as someone who lives and works hundreds of miles away from where he grew up, mobility and migration, class and alienation, language and subjectivity are ongoing terms of reference for trying to understand where I’ve come from and where we are.

Brian Baker