Darren Bedford takes a look at the increasingly audible working-class voice in British music.
It’s been a long time since the British music scene has been graced with such a plethora of honest artists singing frankly about working-class life, cutting through the glam-bullshit of most American indie rock and certainly through the musically unadventurous monotonous garbage that is most British pop music.
I say “plethora”, but we’re really only talking about a few bands here. It’s good listening nonetheless.
One such band is Staines’ Hard-Fi, whose debut album Stars of CCTV was a smash hit and Mercury Prize nominee in 2005. Comparisons with The Clash abound, and it’s true that there are echoes of Jones, Strummer et al and particularly their album Give ‘Em Enough Rope. But the comparison’s a bit crude — just because both bands are ska-influenced British punk acts whose music has a political edge doesn’t mean that they can be simply equated. Nothing on Stars is as musically interesting or creative as the best of The Clash’s stuff, but at the same time it’s not burdened with the sort of forced experimentalism that dogged albums like Sandinista!
Stars isn’t complex political polemic or even particularly sophisticated. On Cash Machine, lead vocalist Richard Archer laments being broke by singing “there’s a hole in my pocket, my pocket, my pocket…” It’s not exactly Rosa Luxemburg.
But the lack of lyrical pretension is half of this album’s appeal; in a period when so many lyrics mean absolutely fuck all, it’s refreshing to come across a band who mean exactly what they say. Special mention should also go to Feltham is Singing Out, which sounds like a poppy, upbeat rock song from an American band like Everclear, but is actually a grim four minute summary of most of what socialists have to say about the prison system.
Contemporaries like Arctic Monkeys fall into this category too. Trite phrases from middle-class music journalists like “raw street poetry” and “gritty slices of working-class life” are everywhere, mindlessly trotted out by people who wouldn’t know a “gritty slice of working-class life” if they toasted one and ate it with peanut butter. But the descriptions aren’t 100% inaccurate; the songs are consistently spectacularly well-observed and genuinely reflective.
This mini-trend in British music extends well beyond rock, too. British hip-hop is increasingly coming to define itself against its “bling”-obsessed American cousin partially through the frankness with which it talks about council estate living in modern Britain. Check out artists like Skinnyman, The Streets and Kano and see for yourself.
None of these artists have anything approaching what socialists would call “working-class politics.” But if a generation of British kids grow up listening to bands like Hard-Fi and Arctic Monkeys instead of assembly-line, corporate record-label clones who basically tell them that there’s no such thing as society and they can get anywhere as long as they work hard enough, then these bands will have done us a serious service.