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Reviving angry punk with heartfelt empathy

  • British band IDLES takes punk’s ferocity and combined with it full-bodied musical structures
  • Their literate, aggressive lyrics are often a comment on society, life and politics

Joe Talbot performing at Les Eurockéennes de Belfort in 2017. Photo: AFP
Joe Talbot performing at Les Eurockéennes de Belfort in 2017. Photo: AFP

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Some bands slip under the radar so inexplicably that the only thing left to do when you finally discover them is to kick yourself soundly. I discovered the British (Bristol-based) band IDLES three years after they released their first full-length album and a year after their second, gorgeously titled Joy As An Act Of Resistance, came out.

The discovery happened via a recent episode of the stellar All Songs Considered podcast by NPR, on which Joe Talbot, the passionate singer of IDLES, was a guest DJ, talking about his band, his influences, and their music. IDLES could be lazily labelled a punk band. A band that revives the angry, irreverent and stripped-down genre that surfaced in the mid-1970s and has had a lasting influence on rock music since.

But that would be wrong. IDLES take punk’s ferocity and noisiness and combine it with full-bodied musical structures and literate, aggressive lyrics that are often a comment on society, life, and, most importantly, politics. On Danny Nedelko, a track from their second album, a poignant song defending immigration in the UK, they sing: “My blood brother is Malala/A Polish butcher, he’s Mo Farah/He’s made of bones, he’s made of blood/He’s made of flesh, he’s made of love/He’s made of you, he’s made of me/Unity.” Humanity. It is a theme that recurs in IDLES’ loud, angry lyrics, peppered with wit and sarcasm. Lyrics that are articulate and intelligent, snarled over a bouncing, boisterous instrumental soundscape.

Even that wouldn’t be an entirely accurate way of describing IDLES’ music. Because there is also soul. Punk and soul—pardon the poor metaphor—is like white and black: apparently immiscible. Yet African-American soul has had a profound influence on Talbot. On the NPR podcast, he played one of his favourite tracks—Bad Girl by the sadly underrated soul singer from the 1970s, Lee Moses. And on Joy As An Act Of Resistance, there is IDLES’ cover of another soul great, Solomon Burke’s Cry To Me. It’s a singular rendition—a punk tribute to soul—and as moving as the original, deep soul of Burke. I have a playlist now on which the two songs are listed together and the contrast is pure aural beauty.

IDLES, a quintet (besides Talbot, there’s a lead guitarist, a rhythm guitarist, a bassist and a drummer), began by garnering loyal fans in their home town of Bristol before self-releasing a few EPs. In 2016, their first full-length, Brutalism, came out. It got noticed by the music press for its distinctive sound and unconventional lyrics that stood out in the otherwise nearly (and sometimes boringly) homogenous indie scene of the day.

One example from the album is a song titled Stendhal Syndrome, which actually is a psychosomatic reaction that causes dizziness and swooning when one is exposed to a work of beauty. But the IDLES song is ironic; it is an unapologetic attack on the plebeian view of modern art, a comment on those who cannot appreciate it. In one of the verses, Talbot sings: “Did you see that painting what Basquiat done?/Looks like it was drawn by my four year old son/Hot air/Hot air/Forgive me you sound stupid/Here lies the one I love/Forgive me you sound stupid/Here lies the one I love.

As much as I like pioneering punk bands from both sides of the pond, few have songs with lyrics that make you ponder. IDLES do. Empathy and emotion inflect their songs—a rare thing in a rebellious genre such as punk. On Joy As An Act Of Resistance, they sing about inner rage; about personal loss; and, heck, yes, there’s even a song that deconstructs and demolishes conventional notions of masculinity. On Samaritans, they sing: “The mask/Of masculinity/Is a mask/A mask that’s wearing me/The mask, the mask, the mask/I’m a real boy/Boy, and I cry/I like myself/And I want to try/This is why you never see your father cry/This is why you never see your father cry/This is why you never see your father, yeah.”

IDLES love to make frequent references to pop culture icons and familiar names. On Never Fight A Man With A Perm (from their second album), they hurl sarcastic barbs at toxic masculinity and pepper their lyrics with references to “plastic Sinatra”; “a bag of Charlie Sheen” (cocaine); “creatine” (the muscle-building supplement); “a heathen from Eton” (a derisive reference to the posh public school); and so on.

On Joy As An Act Of Resistance, the songs are angry and cathartic but they are witty enough to make you smile, and, occasionally, laugh out loud. Sometimes they can even make you cry. On June, a song that Talbot wrote after his infant died, the mood is of tender sorrow as he laments his loss. It has a chorus, a line that goes “Baby shoes for sale, never worn”, and it is repeated several times. A deeply sad song, rare coming from a hyper-aggressive, angry punk band. That is what makes IDLES stand apart from the crowd.

Though their albums (the two full-lengths) are excellent, their live shows (I have watched several videos) too are great fun. They are raucous; Talbot has an unassuming yet impressive stage presence; they frequently create mosh pits; and the crowd is almost always as boisterous as the band. That punk idiom? IDLES have it.


Five tracks by IDLES to bookend this week

1. ‘Danny Nedelko’ from ‘Joy As An Act Of Resistance’

2. ‘Samaritans’ from ‘Joy As An Act Of Resistance’

3. ‘Stendhal Syndrome’ from ‘Brutalism’

4. ‘Never Fight A Man With A Perm’ from ‘Joy As An Act Of Resistance’

5. ‘June’ from ‘Joy As An Act Of Resistance’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.


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