Monday, 4 April 2016

Old Wives' Tales: Nostalgia, Landscape and Mackem Punk Rock

It’s a few days before Christmas, 2015. I’m stood at the bar in Independent, Sunderland, ordering cans of Red Stripe for myself and Matt, one of my best mates. We’re about to watch The Lake Poets, aka Martin Longstaff, Sunderland-born singer-songwriter and purveyor of, in my opinion, some of the best music to come out of the North-East in ages.

Martin is about our age (late twenties), and many of his songs are, I think it’s fair to say, bleak. I’ve seen him live a few times, and he doesn’t hide away from the starkness of his material. Listening to his album – which you should purchase immediately – is testament to this: it’s full of wistful tales of former industry, failed romance and even child abuse. The type of stuff my Dad likes to refer to as ‘hanging music’.

Not all of it is pessimistic, though, and it is on his song, ‘Shipyards’, that I think Longstaff is most adept at balancing nostalgia with rationality, showing that a string of genealogy is necessarily fraught with tensions good and bad.

Before this post begins to sound like a review of that gig or album, I would like to introduce another ‘Shipyards’ song. The melodic punk band from Sunderland, Leatherface, released The Last in 1994. On it, the song ‘Shipyards’ opens thus:

            ‘And throw the fishermen lines
            Close the shipyards and mines
            Leaving the water, we still have the old wives’ tales
            About the old days, deep lonely water, the old days.’

When, in that crowded upstairs room in Independent a few days before Christmas last year, The Lake Poets strummed the opening chords to ‘Shipyards’, I instantly felt myself welling up. Before he’d even reached the refrain, I was gone, properly sobbing into a can of mass-produced lager and a Kleenex that some kind woman had offered me. “’ere you gan, pet. I’m going to sound like your Mam, but it’s probably best you make that one your last”, she said, gesticulating to the (aptly-coloured) red and white ‘Jamaican’ beer in my hand.

The Lake Poets’s ‘Shipyards’ opens like this:

            ‘On the river where they used to build the boats
            By the harbour wall, the place you loved the most
I can see you there alone, but oh, you know, I’ll be there.’

An elegy for Longstaff’s grandfather, the song reaches its refrain, ‘And if you could see me now/I hope that I’m making you proud’, linking present back to past. It is a song rooted on Wearside, a place that once built more ships than anywhere on earth, and which we still think of as the archetypal Northern ex-industrial town blighted by Thatcher, ignored by Blair and probably not even identifiable on a map by most of the current cabinet.

Both songs’ structures are classical in their efforts to tug at the heartstrings. Unlike much of the raw, energetic, razor-wire punk that Leatherface are famed for, their ‘Shipyards’ is a piano ballad whose keys are perfectly poised against that oft-quoted quality of Frankie Stubbs’s vocals: his rough, barroom poetry. Longstaff, in contrast, goes for the jugular with an appeal to sentimentality: all acoustic guitars, falsetto range in the right places, with that haunting refrain, ‘Proud, pro-ow-oww-d’.

Pride is a good place to start from when thinking about these songs, and it necessarily invokes the heavy industry that Sunderland and the wider North-East region used to be famed for. But it can’t just be these songs’ sentimentality or nostalgia – their expert evocation of a more golden era and time of plenty – that can make a grown man break down in tears upon listening to them. In the case of the Independent gig, the multiple pints consumed before even arriving at the venue, coupled with the general mushiness of the festive season, was at least part of the reason why I was so emotional, but The Lake Poets are comprised of a singer and ensemble of musicians between their mid twenties and mid thirties. None of them built a ship or worked down a mine, and neither did I. It’s true that Frankie Stubbs, Dickie Hammond and the other members of Leatherface were starting out as a band at the height of Thatcherism, and that they likely knew many people who did work in those industries, but I still find myself puzzled as to why, listening to them twenty or so years after they were written, in an era that, in many ways, is vastly different to the one they sing about, I feel very connected to the period they stem from and the response to it their music evokes.


My PhD research takes as its starting point a belief that I belong to the abstract concept of the North-East of England because it is a palimpsest: an ever-changing manuscript of layers, on to which many things have been written and re-written. One of the things that I have found incredibly difficult to explain (possibly because there are singers out there who have already done a cracking job of it) is how I can possibly feel connected to the former industrialism of the North-East, and even why I should.

In essence, we are speaking of vestigial nostalgia: a kind of hauntology in which, the more we know about what life was like before, the harder it becomes to reconcile that with what exists, or doesn’t exist, now. Sunderland was clearly always a tough place to live, with not only the harshness that comes with working on a river at the mouth of the North Sea, or deep underground in a pit, but the disease and filth of the slums in the east-end, where workers were crammed in to service those industries. No, it should not be glamorised, and it is risky to romanticise the ‘brighter’ side of working-class life: the camaraderie and the community, the jobs for life, the sense of work being a thing that produced things and was servicing a national good. All of those things came at a price, as history has shown.


When I was sixteen, seventeen and eighteen, getting the bus to and from sixth form in Ashbrooke, Sunderland, I would sit with massive headphones clamped around my ears listening to mp3 records of American punk bands. There’d be the occasional British band on there – mainly ska-punk stuff from the excellent Household Names Records roster: Capdown, Lightyear, Captain Everything etc. – but in the main it was the big Southern California and East Coast American sounds: NOFX, Strung Out, Rise Against and a load of other bands on labels like Fat Wreck Chords and Epitaph.

The musical zeitgeist of 2004-2006 favoured nu-wave indie, or whatever moniker the (at the time still just-legitimate, not free, glorified Topshop advert)NME shoehorned it into. Radio One was full of bands like Arctic Monkeys, Razorlight and Franz Ferdinand, none of whom appealed to me, and in the North-East, I wasn’t queuing up to watch The Futureheads or Maxïmo Park in the way that many of the lads at college were, but instead trying to pass for being of legal drinking age to enter clubs in Newcastle to go crazy to the likes of Flogging Molly, or watch homespun hardcore punks The Mercury League do warm-up sets to fifteen people in the shit little room above Pure bar.

Then I left the North-East and moved nearly two hundred miles away to Chester, to study English and Creative Writing. I gradually replaced the punk bands with new indie bands and other, less intense rock acts, until I was spending less time at gigs and more time reading poetry anthologies. It was only much later, applying for my PhD really, that I realised that the North-East, just as it had produced some fine poets, had also produced some music I could relate to.

Despite hating them first time around, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get into The Futureheads later. Seeing them in 2012, when they were touting their a’capella album, Rant, at their own Split Festival, I remember a tent of around 2,000 pissed people in Ashbrooke cricket club singing along to the folk song, ‘The Old Dun Cow’:

            ‘Somebody shouted MacIntyre! – MACINTYRE! –
            And we all got blue-blind paralytic drunk
            When the Old Dun Cow caught fire.’

I also remember lots of pies, Maxim ale, a Richard Dawson set, a(nother) Lake Poets set, more Maxim ale, one or two Field Music songs, and leaving for the pub when it transpired that headliners Public Image Limited were little more than a front for John Lydon’s ego. It was all very stereotypically Northern, and of course, I loved it.


Leatherface came recently. Very recently, in fact, after one of those serendipitous Twitter conversations the medium orchestrates so well, with the writer and publisher of Influx Press, Gary Budden. I was peripherally aware of the death of guitarist, Dickie Hammond, last year, and I do remember that Hot Water Music, whose singer, Chuck Ragan, I have seen live, once did a split with them, but they were never ‘on my radar’, as it were. Which is a massive shame. Ten-twelve years ago, as I was sat on the 35 bus to Sunderland, crossing the river Wear, I was unaware that a band from its shores had written not only incredible, melodic punk songs with intricate guitar patterns and soaring, throaty, world-wise vocals, but that many of those melodic punk songs were about this place.

Bands can pass you by, appearing in your life long after the hype has faded, or even years after they’ve split. Leatherface are one of those bands. This is not the punk rock music I spent my late teens and part of my early twenties fawning over. Sure, many of the signatures are there – the blast beats, the guitars that sound like, well, you know what punk is, the general sense of it all being balanced, in the best possible way, on a knife-edge – that was all there, but the lyrics. Jesus, the lyrics. Take this, from ‘Dead Industrial Atmosphere’:

            ‘The air ’round here is dead industrial and so austere
            The air ’round here smells of religion and Vaux’s beer.’

Now, I’m a massive fan of synaesthesia in poems – that act of mashing the senses – but wow, that’s pushing it to the outer limit of what’s acceptable. Those familiar with the geography of Sunderland will know that, to this day, the former Vaux Brewery site, derelict since 1999 (yes, derelict since the last millennium) is still, basically, a big ugly field of nothing on the south bank of the Wear. Apparently work will start this summer (only 17 years late) to transform the site with a new office block, shops and housing. I don’t want to get into the complexities of how Tesco bought the site back in 2002, and how it was then objected by Sunderland Council and brought back into public ownership. The fact that nothing has happened for such a long time says all it needs to, I think.

You could make a pretty compelling case for the plight of Sunderland and how little has changed from that 1999 split Leatherface and Hot Water Music put out to now. The old brewery is still an overgrown deconstruction site, its gaping mass, or lack of, symbolising for many the place where once there was a heart, beating with industry, sustaining generations of families.

Sunderland is still the only town in Britain where I’ve been threatened with serious violence. I was 17, waiting outside Ku Club on the High Street (think Slipknot, Brown Ale and the occasional nod to civility with drug raids) when I was approached for “a light” (that chestnut) and, not producing the goods, threatened with the trusty “blade”.  There are so many other anecdotes, digressions and largely accurate socio-economic statements I could make to summarise the Sunderland I have known and how it can be a dreary, depressing place, but equally there are so many examples I could give – most of them involving football or music – to show that it is a lively, forward-thinking city still brought together by a deeply-seated sense of community.

Even if that community either works in call centres five miles south-west of the city, at Doxford Park, or commutes to Newcastle or Durham, it still feels like a close-knit place acutely knowledgeable and deeply respectful of its heritage and natural landscapes. Most visitors to the North-East flock to the beaches at Tynemouth on a day trip to Newcastle, or further north to the (equally stunning) beaches of Northumberland for longer stays, but few make it to the gorgeous foreshores of Seaburn and Roker, which, true, is a shame, but it does have the effect of keeping them somewhat secret and special.

I love much of the contemporary music of the city. Obviously, I have fawned over The Lake Poets somewhat substantially already, and I’ve retrospectively enjoyed most of the Field Music catalogue (and am looking forward to seeing them at the Sage in Gateshead in October), and I can’t wait to hear Barry Hyde’s new solo album, Malody. I’m also looking forward, as co-editor of the forthcoming seventh issue of Butcher’s Dog, to publishing two poems based on Sunderland, a region whose literature, like its landscapes, all too often plays second fiddle to its more glamorous cousin, Newcastle.

At risk of this post becoming a Sunderland love-in, I should state that I am not a Mackem. My connection to the city began, and continues, with football, but apart from two years at St. Aidan’s sixth form, I have little authentic connection to it, despite being born a few miles away in South Shields. But nor am I a Geordie, really. If you want to use labels, I’m a Sand-dancer, and South Tyneside is arguably even more neglected, culturally, economically and politically, than Sunderland is (it pisses me off that the South Tyneside coast is easily the most beautiful and diverse in the county, yet it rarely gets a look in beyond Great North Run day – although then again, maybe I like it being ‘mine’?)

Derelict Vaux Brewery site, Stadium of Light visible in background

All of this, of course, connotes ideas of ownership, civic pride and responsibility and cultural and artistic representation. Why am I simultaneously annoyed that most of my friends at sixth form didn’t listen to American punk bands, but glad that I found my own scene? Why do I covet the music of Leatherface, decades after their first albums were released? Again, I think it’s like stumbling on something that few people know about, so it must still be genuine and authentic, not tainted by the charts or commercialised and played at half time at the Stadium of Light. (See a previous post for more of those qualms from when I saw Bruce Springsteen play here). And the most pertinent questions of all, trying to link this back to my own practice as a writer and researcher, revolve around how I subsume all of these sounds, sights and sentiments and continue to write my own material with original and valid claims to a regional identity and representation.

Leatherface have gone. The shipyards and mines they sing about have gone. So, what would a punk rock from Sunderland, or the North-East, in 2016 look like? How would it fuse with – should it fuse with? – poetry? My immediate answer is to direct you to the pop-punk band, Martha, from Durham. Their political character, which stems from a working-class solidarity with the Durham coalfields, is tinged with the ennui of the late-twenties/early-thirties person growing up in the sensory overload of free market capitalism that we might call the Noughties (and beyond).

Above all, for the sake of my research project, yes, but also for the sake of my sanity, I wonder whether the rootedness that I allude to earlier is as much a thing now as it was, and if not, why not? Music like that produced by Leatherface and The Lake Poets is fraught with nostalgia, which can be helpful, but it also needs to look forward (as Longstaff does). How do I pay fair dues to the past, realising that it will stay there, and move forward? And if I can’t, will I be like the Vaux site – a gap still unfilled in a decade?

‘Shipyards’ (Leatherface) contains the following lines:

‘They own the water, the whole company.
They own, they own this country, the whole fucking thing.’

I think this is the point in the song when Stubbs’s frustration really begins to show. The song, having opened with a wistful look back to riverside scenes, tells us that we still have ‘the old wives’ tales’, but by the time we reach the denouement, even they no longer seem secure. There is a sense, I think, that if a private firm can own and sell back water to the people, that a threshold has been crossed. Remember, this was written and recorded in the early nineties. Much privatisation, atomisation and isolation has occurred since then. Yet still, as a man in his late twenties who has enjoyed many of the privileges of the free market – who has gone to university on the back of state-loaned money, very much part of an agreeable agenda for education to be a tool for a person to realise their potential – I agree with Stubbs: water should not be owned, the whole country should not be owned by a marginal elite. But one look at the news (you know which stories I’m referring to: steel and tax havens) tells you that this is the case, that the people in Sunderland, and Teesside, and Port Talbot, did lose, and will lose out again.

Quite outside of poetry and music, where it is arguable, wearing a pessimist’s hat, that nothing really happens, the world around us continues to feel atomised, species continue to be eradicated, refugees continue to flee just as terrorists continue their campaign of destruction, and the North continues to be shafted by the South, to the point where I seriously worry now, in a way that I don’t think I did in 2010, what it will be like in places such as Sunderland come the next general election.

We live in a society that values ‘official’ accounts of events; that valorises logic, rationale and accountability; and is anywhere from sceptical to hostile towards what we might broadly label a ‘folk tradition’. The writer Gary Budden has said that “at an essential level, punk in its many forms is a form of folk music; a way of recording a history and aspects of culture that may well be invisible or otherwise forgotten.” The reason Leatherface and The Lake Poets – bands at nearly opposing ends of the scale, musically – appeal, I think, is that their lyrics fall under the broad church of folk-punk: music that isn’t afraid of where it has come from, who it is for, and what it intends to say about the status quo.

And so, as I always do, I turn back to music and literature. Claiming belonging to a place, a region, feels in a way very knee-jerky, ignorant or self-centred. But for now it feels like the only good place to start from. I don’t own this place, but I belong to it, and that still means something. That still means an awful lot. My folk-punk tradition is alive and well in the singers and poets who have come from this region, this little part of England, and it is alive in those that sing and write here now. I’m part of that, and, to paraphrase Marty, I feel proud.

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