Graded on a Curve: New Model Army, Thunder and Consolation

You’ve got to love New Model Army. They were once introduced on Brit TV program The Tube as “the ugliest band in rock and roll,” their lead singer went by the name Slade the Leveller for years to avoid losing his unemployment benefits, and the United States refused them entry to the country on the grounds that their music was “of no artistic merit.” I love that last part. Oh, and the angry young leftists of New Model Army—they snatched their name from Thomas Fairfax’s English Revolution militia of the mid-1600s—were forced to abandon playing the song “Vengeance” on The Tube, due to its friendly lines, “I believe in justice/I believe in vengeance/I believe in getting the bastards.”

The band has switched genres the way some people switch their bedroom lights on and off, but one thing has remained the same—New Model Army are angry punters with a knack for controversy, as is demonstrated by the fact that 1993’s Love of Hopeless Causes came complete with directions on how to construct a nuclear device. 1991’s Thunder and Consolation is considered their high point—even Justin Sullivan, aka Slade the Leveller, has modestly called it “brilliant”—although I consider 1990’s The Ghost of Cain excellent as well, what with its great songs “The 51st State” and “Poison Street.”

I generally believe that rock and politics make unfortunate bedfellows, but I like New Model Army because as the album title Love of Hopeless Causes indicates, they know that in life there are winners and losers, and they understand what class they belong to. Which is not to say they’re taking their loser status lying down; they’re not. But unlike those wankers in the Clash, who were either totally naïve or incredibly cynical, New Model Army seem to have no illusions that their music can change the world.

Instead they rage on in the face of futility, knowing it’s a sucker’s game. And they’re not falling for any of that “the meek shall inherit the earth” bullshit either, as they sing in folk/post-punk “The Ballad of Bodmin Pill”: “How we all dance with this fire ’cause it’s all that we know/And as the spotlight turns toward us, we all try our best to show/We are lost we are freaks, we are crippled, we are weak/We are the heirs, we are the true heirs, to all the world.” Sullivan is not implying that their inheritance will be one of plenty; No, theirs will always be an inheritance of suffering, and injustice, and powerlessness in the face of the haves, who have always ruled the world and always will.

And speaking of inheritances, the punchy and drum-heavy “Inheritance” is nothing less than an indictment of one’s parents, and a fatalistic take on genetic determinism. To a funky beat, Sullivan cries to his parents, “So do I thank you? Do I curse you?/These tracks stretch out before me/The ones you left behind/What I want and what I feel—it’s yours, yours, not mine.” Another inheritance Sullivan foresees is the apocalypse, which he sings about with scathing irony in “I Love the World.” Sullivan sees the end coming and has nothing to say but, “I know somehow I will survive—this fury just to stay alive/So drunk with sickness, weak with pain, I can walk the hills one last time/Scarred and smiling, dying slow, I’ll scream to no one left at all/I told you so, I told you so, I told you so… /Oh God I love the world.” As Dylan Thomas once said, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

“Stupid Questions” is a savage raver, with Sullivan snarling, “Don’t ask any more stupid questions/You already know the answers to,” before following that up with the great lines, “Well you can kill with the best of them but your smile remains so sweet/When someone comes to eat me alive, I like to see their teeth.” It’s no crime to be innocent, he says, but the girl he’s singing to isn’t, so she can spare him the questions about why it’s “such a cruel, cruel world.” Meanwhile, the furious “225” is a long list of depredations (chemical plants turning the sky green at night, jet fighters roaring over your mountain getaway, buried uranium deposits “for our children to inherit”) before singing resignedly, “And though this is all done for our benefit/I swear we never asked for any of this.” And as for liberty, it “just means the freedom to exploit/Any weaknesses that you can find.”

As for the slowly gathering cataclysm that is “Archway Towers,” I love its noisy spirit and Sullivan’s bleak declaration that it’s “open season on the weak and the feeble/Their meager ambitions, their impotent fury,” just as I do his cool diagnosis of how the other half lives: “The conference hall rises to the standing ovation/The people in blue ties rise from the podium/Crazy with power, blinded by vision/The mass-chosen leaders for a brutalized nation.” And people ask me why I don’t vote. As for “Family Life,” Sullivan addresses an unknown casualty of an unspoken crime, and to the backing of a folk rhythm asks, “How did they do this to you?” and “Why did they do this to you?” before coldly declaring, “Well if I could have my way/I would line them up against a wall/Do unto them as they have done to you/Who was it that did this?/Who was it that did this to you?”

“Family” is a scourge of a tune aimed directly at the dissolution of the traditional family; “water is thicker than blood,” sings Sullivan, and once again he sides with the losers, the muttering old people and the gutter punks and the like, and has them all sing, “Give me some place that I can go/Where I don’t have to justify myself/Swimming out alone against the tide/Looking for family looking for tribe.” He doesn’t, it goes without saying, sound particularly optimistic. “Green and Grey” opens to the sound of rain and thunder, followed by a very folksy acoustic guitar before it opens up into a lovely if depressing folk pop song addressed to a lad who escaped the “valleys of green and grey.” Meanwhile things have gone to shit; “We spent hours,” sings Sullivan, “last week with Billy boy, bleeding, yeah queuing in Casualty/Staring at the posters we used to laugh at/Never Never Land, palm trees by the sea.” And the chorus spells out the attrition, as lads flee the country for somewhere else: “And tomorrow brings another train/Another young brave steals away/But you’re the one I remember/From these valleys of green and the grey.”

As for “Vagabonds,” it opens to the sound of a plaintive and classical-leaning violin played by Ed Alleyne-Johnson, before the band kicks in full gear, with a savage guitar and a great beat, while Sullivan sings “Nighttime City Beat the radio is calling/The lost and lonely in vain/Out here we are running for the Wide open spaces/The road smell after the rain.” Meanwhile that violin goes wild, the guitarist follows suit, and this is folk-rock at its finest, what with the martial drumming and Sullivan singing, “We are old, we are young/We are in this together/Vagabonds and children (are)/Prisoners forever.” It’s a song about the childhood romance of freedom, freedom to wander, and if Sullivan is too cynical to believe, he hangs on to the tattered ideal still.

New Model Army have made a career out of futility, throwing themselves against a wall that they know full well will never crumble, at least as a result of their doing. That they have kept going is a true testament to Samuel Beckett’s famous dictum, “Fail. Fail again. Fail better.” Nor would they, I think, have any disagreement with Thomas Bernhard’s statement that, “After all, there is nothing but failure.” The world is as it has always been and will always be, and the best you can do is howl in vain at the injustice of it all. That New Model Army have turned their impotent howls into great music will have to be enough. Because returning to Beckett again, there will always be “more pricks than kicks.” So fuck it. It will make no difference, but there’s still something to be said for putting the boot in.


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