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A Couple of Kunst (?!) in a Bunch of Kunst – A Sleaford Mods Doc

March 19, 2017

Sleaford Mods

Sleaford Mods

COPENHAGEN – Rather than trying to look hip, cool and with it, I will admit here that before I stepped into the world premiere of Christine Franz’s film at the Empire Bio at the CPH:DOX festival last night I had no idea who the Sleaford Mods were. Then, as the film began, I quickly concluded that they were just a couple of kunst. As the film rolled on, the couple of kunst reminded me less of Derek and Clive, and more and more of the reason Britain voted for Brexit. And more and more, I grew to feel sympathetic and warm to the two stars of Bunch of Kunst, coming out feeling finally that I may not – as Iggy Pop says toward the end of the film – understand much of what they are saying (thanks to that strong British accent) but I can understand the reason they exist. And though I always thought the Brexit vote was an illness, I can now understand a little better through this film the nature of that illness.

Having said that, I don’t think the word Brexit was mentioned a single time in the film. And in a talk in the cinema at CPH:DOX after the film, Franz said she specifically did not want to make an overt political statement in the film. It turns out there has already been another documentary about the Sleaford Mods, called Sleaford Mods: Invisible Britain, and that one was very political. So no doubt Franz wanted to avoid what had already been done.

So who the fowk are the Sleaford Mods anyway??? Well, a couple of guys who had musical ambitions, one of whom played in several bands without success, the other of whom was a DJ doing his own thing. They met one night at a show, and the guy who speaks the rap and writes the lyrics, Jason Williamson, got together with the man who does the DJ thing, Andrew Fearn, and they began to do some shows in bars, raging against the machine that is working class life in middle England. At their home in Nottingham, they decided to set up a little studio and record some albums.
Bunch of Kunst Sleaford Mods trailer

This was in the late 2000s, and they stuck things out in bars for years, through failed album after failed album. Eventually, the chicken-factory worker – Williamson – (well, seems that job lasted six weeks) and the unemployed man, Fearn, met up with a guy who had a solid job, driving a bus for 14 years, and he became a fan and had a vision. These two modern day punk rappers, he thought, could get their act together and do something relevant and cool.

To draw the story short, they ended up doing bigger and bigger venues, finally playing in Glastonbury, and then, as the film shows, ultimately signed a record deal with the legendary Rough Trade label. (There is a shot at one moment that shows the first Rough Trade album, Métal Urbain, a French punk band of perhaps equally unlikely people in the 1970s, famous for a song called “Creve Salope,” (“Die Bitch” among others.) And, as I mentioned, the Sleaford Mods also ended up garnering the attention of Iggy Pop and many others.
Sleaford Mods video

The film was shot over two crucial years, from 2014 to 2016, and takes us from their lives in the pub performances to Glastonbury to the signing at Rough Trade.

What made these performers a success is clear: The nasty, angry, bad, expletive-full lyrics that speak the anger of the English working class in a language and emotion that they understand. “They speak for me,” says one of the gig-goers, a man who also appears to be in his 40s, like the two members of the “band.” But the language is so strongly couched in English argot that it is, as I said, nearly incomprehensible to an outsider – and that is also one of the main factors that makes it popular to its tribe.

And yet this deep-rooted cultural whatever did not stop the duo from gaining at first a slightly greater following in Germany before they developed one in England! (Which partly answers for the German director – although Franz also pointed out that she had attended Birmingham University, and so was steeped in a little bit of this culture herself.) We are also taken on a trip to see the German fans celebrate and react to the Sleaford Mods, and to sing along with their lyrics – which was as surprising to the Sleaford Mods as it was to anyone.

They are now about to embark on a visit to perform in the United States, and it will be interesting to see how they are received. While my first impressions were entirely softened by my “getting to know” these guys through the film, I still have to add that had I seen them in an open mic somewhere, anywhere, around the world, even in middle England, I am sure that I would have still had the impression that they were just a couple of kunst. Had I seen them in front of one of their raging audiences in England, on the other hand, I might have wondered what world I had stepped into … just the way I did when I saw my first ever performance by a punk band, the Viletones, in Toronto in early 1977. In fact, the ambience was very, very similar…and as I write these words, I realize it was exactly 40 years ago that I had that strange experience of seeing the Viletones in the Colonial Underground, and wrote about it the moment I returned home, as I did last night this post….

So if you want an experience like seeing the first punk bands in the 1970s, take a look at this film.

Another Story of Elective Affinities, or Métal Urbain Revisited, and the Toronto Punks of 1977

August 21, 2010

I said yesterday that I would make the rounds of the bars and clubs re-opening after the summer break. I will not go into the details of where I went, in fact, but I did find a lively scene going on, and the night was hot and with clear skies and this helped make it sublime.

I will focus on the place where I ended up spending most of the evening, though, and it was not re-opening – it had not closed. And in fact, it was hosting a special evening of pop music from the year 1983 as presented by the acting DJ Caroline Harleaux, a journalist at the magazine called Voxpop, which focuses on the youth scene, particularly musical, in France.

This was at a bar called Le Motel. I arrived around 10:30 PM or so after making the rounds of the other nearby clubs, and I sat and had a beer and transcribed a song I was writing into my iPhone from the original paper on which I had begun to write it. (It is called borderline, song-in-progress written and played and sung by brad spurgeon today.)

I listened to the music, trying to figure out who was whom and had they really recorded that in 1983??? And then I got up and went to the bar for a re-fill and there I saw a guy I had met at the beginning of the year, and had never really had a good talk with. But he is friends with my ex-girlfriend and I decided it would be good to talk, finally. This was the vastly interesting Eric Débris, who was the lead singer and the guy who played the machines, as he called the synth and rhythm boxes at one of the original French punk bands, called Métal Urbain, which was founded in 1976. (“The first band ever to mix drum machines and synths with guitars back in 1976, Metal Urbain have influenced bands worldwide, generating the whole synth-punk movement in France,” it says on the band’s myspace.)

Eric and I were born in the same year, but at opposite ends of it, with him being born first. That still makes us contemporaries. And as it turns out, my talk with Eric would end up showing us both that we had far more common interests than we might have expected, but more importantly, it was a sort of snapshot of a phenomenon that I have written about here before, and that Eric pointed out frequently happens in life….

Here’s how I might define that: It turned out that there was a web of common interests and people that stretched across decades, areas of interest and into other worlds…. For instance, Eric is a huge fan of Formula One auto racing, which is, of course, my specialty as a journalist. But as we spoke, he said that he had noticed at my ex-girlfriend’s place a copy of my book about Colin Wilson, and he said that Wilson was one of his favorite writers, as he had read and loved when he was living in London in the 1980s, books like The Occult, Beyond the Occult, and the book about Carl Jung. And of course I had just been writing a chapter about The Occult over the last two weeks.

But then the conversation continued and he mentioned Norman Spinrad, the science fiction writer. I told him that I knew Spinrad too – who incidentally, has been fighting cancer recently – and then I said, “Spinrad also played in a band for a while.” To this Eric said, “Yes, I know. I am also friends with Maurice Dantec, who played in that band, and with Richard Pinhas, also in the band.”

To which I replied that I had met Dantec on several occasions and written stories about him, as certainly the first in the English language to do so extensively in the mid-1990s. I knew that Dantec had played in a punk band before he became a writer, but what I did not know was that he had modeled the band on Métal Urbain, Eric’s band, using a beat box. At one point, said Eric, they were the only two French punk bands doing that, in the late 70s.

So I will return to Métal Urbain, to mention that it was indeed one of the first and best French punk bands, but it never really broke out in France, being more accepted elsewhere than here – a typical situation in France, and one that I just read about yesterday in Rock & Folk magazine in a roundtable discussion in the summer issue of the French rock scene. Métal Urbain, in fact, was mentioned in that article.

Another tie-in here was that I mentioned to Eric that in 1977 when I was living in Toronto in the middle of the punk scene – before moving to England in the middle of the punk scene – I had seen one of the first and most famous of the concerts by a band called The Viletones. I mentioned the names of a few other bands from the time, including Teenage Head, and Eric mentioned The Diodes, and he said they continue to play around the world and that he is an old friend of one the band members.

What I did not tell Eric is that at this time, when I was 19 years old, I had begun some of my first disciplined efforts at prose writing – although I was myself trying to make it in show business, including in music – and it turns out that what I consider to be my first ever complete non-fiction or, really, piece of journalism, was a story I wrote about seeing the Viletones. It was never published, and I wrote it the very night I saw the band, upon returning to my rooming house. I never tried to publish it, in fact, as I considered it just an entry in my “Nothing Book,” a kind of diary with hard covers in which I began my first efforts at writing. I was heavily influenced by the prefaces to his plays of George Bernard Shaw, and in some ways I think I tried to imitate that. In any case, I have decided to transcribe my story of The Viletones at the Colonial Underground and put it on this blog in my stories area. For I have not found any other such photographic looks at the Viletones in Toronto in 1977, although I recently saw an old television documentary on the scene. You will see in my story that although I was only 19, and the lead singer of the group, whose name was “Nazi Dog,” was only a year more than me maximum, (IE, same age as Eric), I was far, far from being a punk myself.

Eric’s band was really in some ways the equivalent of this same movement, but in France, and musically and conceptually, Métal Urbain was more advanced than The Viletones. These days Eric has no longer been singing “Crève Salope,” (Die Whore), but he has some musical projects in mind. Instead, Débris is focusing on photography, and has recently launched a line of Eric Débris merchandize with his photos on them.

Below is a photo of an Eric Débris skateboard with a photo of the model “Poison” on it – it’s part of his merchandize line.

An Eric Débris merchandize skateboard adorned by his photo of "Poison"

But the point of this story was also really how a universe of common interests and affinities often surrounds people and they eventually link up for such reasons – as an example, Eric mentioned that one of his favorite writers turned out to be a fan of Métal Urbain – and it can be as far wide as from punk music to Formula One auto racing, or the writings of Colin Wilson or Maurice Dantec. But somehow it all fits together – I’m sure everyone reading this has their own examples of such Elective Affinities.

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