The term post-punk is applied to such a broad range of music that it is like a bucket into which you can dump almost any rock band from the late 1970s and thereafter. It’s the archetypal lazy classification, with many critics using the tag liberally to pigeonhole bands that originated in the decades after the emergence of the first post-punk outfits.
Those early bands, which emerged in the late 1970s in the UK and US, eschewed punk’s minimalistic rawness and (often) lack of sophistication, going beyond traditional rock to make non-traditional rock music, sometimes experimental and arty too.
So, when a new breed of British bands emerged in the post-Brexit era, the knee-jerk reaction of many critics has been to label them post-punk outfits. This may not be incorrect theoretically but it fails to capture the spirit, ethos, and some common themes that these new bands share. Let’s look at three of them: Squid from Brighton; Dry Cleaning from South London; and Sleaford Mods from Nottingham. All three have new albums out this year; and all three have quite a few things in common that could make them part of a new trend in British contemporary music.
Take Squid. Formed in 2016, the quintet has been releasing singles and an EP of songs that have bewildered most critics, primarily because they seemed unclassifiable. This year, Squid released their first full-length album, Bright Green Field, a set of 11 songs of varying lengths (the longest, Narrator, is eight-and-a-half-minutes long; the shortest is the opener, Resolution Square, clocking at 40 seconds). Narrator is the best showcase for the band’s style, something it has in common with the two other bands covered in this column. And that is the singing style—somewhere between spoken word and singing.
Narrator opens like a Krautrock anthem of the 1970s, somewhere between prog rock and dance music. But then it quickly transforms into a spoken-word style. The lyrics, if you pay attention, are extremely self-obsessed and yet relatable: Losing my flow and my memories are so unnatural/ I am my own narrator/ Losing my flow and my memories are so unnatural/ I am my own narrator. While the musical style keeps changing unsettlingly (that may well be the appeal of the song), it’s the vocal style, you realise, which is the most distinctive thing about it.
Narrator epitomises Squid’s music. There is much shouting, anger and, most of all, excitement on the album. Yet, there is also a sense of grandeur and majesty, rare for a new(ish) young band’s debut album. That’s what raises hopes of greatness from this quintet.
Dry Cleaning are a quartet formed in 2018. And unlike Squid, whose lead vocalist, Olie Judge, is male, Dry Cleaning have a female lead singer, Florence Shaw. They too have their first full-length, New Long Leg, out this year. At first Dry Cleaning’s songs could make you focus almost entirely on the vocals (the spoken-style singing, rather) of Shaw. Her lyrics are pithy and may seem disjointed at times but when you settle in and concentrate, they are engagingly poetic. In the debut album’s Unsmart Lady, she sings: If you like a girl, be nice/ It's not rocket science/ A tanned foot squeezed hopefully into a short boot/ A Kerry Bog Pony/ High fever/ Hair remover/ Hair remover/ High fever/ Hair remover… Shaw’s vocals are layered over tight guitar riffs, deep hook-filled basslines and percussion that bring her lyrics, delivered laconically, alive. Like their compatriots Squid, Dry Cleaning clearly seem to herald a new wave in British rock.
Sleaford Mods are quite a bit older than Squid and Dry Cleaning. Formed in 2007, they actually have 11 studio albums in their catalogue. Also, they are a duo, unlike Squid, a quintet, and Dry Cleaning, a quartet. An angry duo, to be precise. Vocalist Jason Williamson has a distinctive East Midlands accent and while his singing style is similar to the spoken singing of Squid and Dry Cleaning, the lyrics are more overtly political, pro-working class, frequently slamming the establishment and posh classes.
On their latest album, Spare Ribs, the Mods take to task Boris Johnson’s Conservative government for its handling of the covid-19 crisis (We're all so Tory tired, and beaten by minds small, they sing in the opener, The New Brick). In Shortcummings, they refer to Johnson’s ex-adviser, Dominic Cummings, predicting that the scandal about the latter (he travelled to his parents’ farm during the lockdown while he was experiencing covid-19 symptoms) could take the Prime Minister down (He's got short, short, short, short, shortcummings/ He's gonna mess himself so much/ But it's all gonna come down hard).
Squid, Dry Cleaning and Sleaford Mods are just three of many bands at the forefront of the emerging trend in Britain’s rock landscape. There are many more that share their spare lyrics, spoken-word vocal style and sonic experimentalism. Could this be the start of Britrock's post-Brexit new wave?
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.