The return of the great working-class rock band
On January 1 1983, the American singer Loudon Wainwright III released the finest song I’ve ever heard about growing up in privileged surroundings. Nestled deep amid the wider splendor of the Fame & Wealth album, the autobiographical Westchester County paints a deft and neutrally unapologetic portrait of the artist as a well-heeled young man. “We were richer than most,” he sings, “I don’t mean to boast, but I swam in a country club pool.”
I say “finest song”, it might be the only song I’ve heard that tackles this topic head on. Seeing as it tolerates just about everything else, I’ve never quite understood popular music’s deep-seated reluctance to indulge autobiographical lyrics from people who come from money. Even the appearance of wealth can be a no-no. In the tumult of punk, Clash co-founder Joe Strummer, the son of a diplomat, was at pains to hide his formative years as a boarder at a common-or-garden public school.
To a greater degree than race, sex or gender, class is popular music’s San Andreas Fault. Within its walls, signs of privilege will be punished with sneers and detractions. Only half in jest, Noel Gallagher once said that his council estate background meant that he was “morally superior” to his great frenemy Damon Albarn from Blur. Critics of Frank Turner used the news that the singer was educated at Eton – on a bursary, it should be said – as a means to discredit every word he had ever written.
“[People] got angry with me because they built an image of me in their head of what they wanted me to be,” he once told me. “And I turned out not to be that. And this is the most depressing thing, because it’s really the definition of prejudice. Rather than adjusting their opinions to fit the facts, instead they get angry at the facts.”
This fear of gentrification is very real. On the hunt for inauthenticity, in 2019 the abrasive class warrior Jason Williamson, from Sleaford Mods, took aim at the Bristolian punk group Idles with the words, “[I] held the belief that they were appropriating, to a certain degree, a working class voice… I don’t believe their slant on this. I don’t like them at all.” Speaking to The Times, Idles frontman Jason Talbot shot back by saying “there’s no authenticity in just being a prick to everyone”.
The notion that rock and pop had been taken over by the moneyed class led the author and presenter Stuart Maconie to observe, in 2015, that the scene “has essentially become as bourgeois as the Boden catalogue”. In Britain, certainly, such fears amounted to an existential crisis that had nothing to do with music itself. Regardless of the quality of their songs, the news that Laura Marling, Lily Allen, Winston Marshall from Mumford & Sons and Charlie Fink from Noah & The Whale (to name just four) were privately educated placed a black mark against their names.
But from Genesis to Radiohead, posh rockers have always been among us. So too has the obsession with class. Really, the people who were worried about the preponderance of well-mannered songs played by well-spoken artists should have held their fire. From punk to grime, in popular music a counter-revolution of kids who wanna rock is never far away. For this reason, in 2021 the scene’s circular eddies and flows have brought to shore a gang of rough-hewn musicians belting out blue-collar music at full crank. Better yet, they’re finding an audience.
This week The Reytons, from Rotherham, will play to more than 4,000 people over two nights in Sheffield. Next summer, Melbourne’s Amyl and the Sniffers are set to open for Green Day and Weezer in stadiums across the country. In the spring, the West Lothian quartet The Snuts entered the UK album chart at No1 with their street-level debut LP W.L. The Sherlocks, from Barnsley, have twice cracked the top 20. This year Sleaford Mods appeared in the top five with an album (Spare Ribs) that sounds like it was recorded in a psychiatric care facility. Benefits, from Middlesbrough, are even more alarming.
Rock’n’roll’s pioneers, of course, were certainly working class. Little Richard was one of 12 children born to a father who combined his duties as a pastor with laying bricks and distilling moonshine. Elvis Presley’s family home was a two-room shotgun shack in Tupelo, Mississippi, built by his dad. In the book Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story, author Rick Bragg describes The Killer’s hometown of Ferriday, Louisiana, as a place where “cotton wasn’t worth the muscle or diesel it took to plow it… and construction jobs dried up, no matter how far a man drove or rode a boxcar to chase the work”.
Music hewn from this kind of hardship is surely the starting point for the movement’s eternal class war. I have a friend in Illinois who has a phrase for this. “No group,” he’s told me at least 50 times, “should ever wash the puke off their shoes. The audience too, ideally.” As a synonym for the dependably difficult-to-define musical working class – and anyway, underpaid and overworked, in 2021 most musicians are working class in a practical sense – I rather like this description. For me it brings to mind the reductive sense of chaos with which the scene regularly replenishes itself.
Asked to describe one of his group’s concerts, Dec Martens, the guitarist with Amyl and the Sniffers, tells me, “When we play, on a good night, there’s chicks with mullets all going crazy. There’s dudes with mullets as well, and then you’ve got your original Seventies and Eighties punks… there’s friends backstage all with mullets. On a good night in Brisbane or Sydney, everyone’s got their improvised mullet because suddenly the weather’s got too hot. There’ll be a bit of blood, too. Someone’ll have a white shirt that’s got blood on it because they cut themselves in the mosh pit.”
Now this is what I’m talking about. With a musical heritage that can be traced back to early days AC/DC and Rose Tattoo, Amyl and the Sniffers’ second album, the pummeling yet poised Comfort To Me, released last week, is one of the year’s best. Dec Martens only began playing guitar after a friend gifted him a broken Stratocaster. “We don’t want to champion the hardship flag,” he says, “but the idea of my parents buying me an instrument was unthinkable.” The group wrote, recorded and released their first EP, Giddy Up, on the very day they formed, in 2016.
If you think that’s raw then strap yourself in for The Chats, a group that make Amyl and the Sniffers sound like Supertramp. With a debut album, High Risk Behaviour, that would once have incited a moral panic, the Queensland trio recently regaled an audience of 2000 people at the Forum, in Kentish Town, with tales of hedonism – “it’s the weekend and I’m getting off my face” – and the (true) story of the time singer Eamon Sandwith had his identity stolen after attempting to buy drugs on the internet. The thieves “even caught [him] on the webcam, at home, having a w__k”.
It may sound like a jape, but there’s much to be said for a redbrick lyric that cuts to the quick. Forty-three years after its release, Paul Weller’s description of a gang of muggers – “they smelled of pubs, and Wormwood Scrubs, and too many right wing meetings” – on The Jam’s Down In The Tube Station At Midnight, remains one of the most evocative images in British music. Across the Irish Sea, on My Perfect Cousin The Undertones attained immortality and universality with the couplet “he thinks I’m a cabbage because I hate University Challenge”.
My own favourite instance of music saying something to me about my life came when Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys described a young woman exiting a concert in a club to take a call from a friend. “’Oh you’ve saved me,’ she screams down the line,” he sings on Fake Tales Of San Francisco, “’the band were f__ing w__k and I’m not having a nice time.” The finest English lyricist of the 21st century, Turner is from the north side of Sheffield. My own hometown is barely 10 miles up the M1. Right down to saying “nice” rather than “good”, this is exactly how people speak in the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire.
If the Arctic Monkeys have an heir apparent, it’s likely to be The Reytons. Like their forebears, the quartet have honed the knack of writing evocative vignettes about fleeting yet resonant moments. On Tears In The Taxi Rank, they sing of a young woman with “panda eyes”, her “heels in hand” and a “broken clutch bag” at her side, attracting wolf whistles from lads waiting for a lift home at the end of a messy night out. The threat of violence permeates the song like a gas leak. I can picture the scenario as if it were happening before me, and maybe you can too. You just don’t get this kind of thing from Coldplay
“We’re a working class band from a working class community,” vocalist Jonny Yerrell tells me. “That’s the thing that we’re most proud of. When we write a song it’s a social commentary about the environment we come from and that we’ve seen growing up. Without us being a working class bunch of lads, that commentary wouldn’t exist. It’s who we are.”
Music, of course, belongs to everyone. It really doesn’t much matter that the theatrically oppressive Another Brick In The Wall (Part Two) was born of Roger Waters’ schooldays at the stuffy Cambridgeshire High School for Boys, or that Suggs wrote the lyrics to Baggy Trousers – about his time at a comprehensive in Swiss Cottage – as a direct response. That both songs were major hits for Pink Floyd and Madness respectively suggests there’s plenty of room for all. People may carp at performers from privileged backgrounds, but if you can cut it on vinyl, and if you can bring it to the stage, then you’re in.
But it ought to be remembered that half a century ago popular music allowed an army of talented people to begin unlocking the puzzle of social mobility. Without it, their voices might have gone unheard. From The Beatles to the Sex Pistols, Slade to Judas Priest, Goldie Lookin Chain to Stormzy and Adele, the stories a society tells about itself have been enriched by their presence. Should rock’n’roll ever lose the contributions from the kinds of people who gave it life in the first place, all that’ll be left is well-spoken young people unwilling to write a worthy successor to Loudon Wainwright III’s Westchester County.
“Whether it be politics or media or music, I think the voices from deprived areas can sometimes get a bit lost,” Jonny Yerrell says. “We don’t seem to fit in where other bands do. There’s a lot of media platforms who overlook us because we don’t look or sound like everybody else. But there’s a lot of people who want to come to our gigs and buy tickets – we’ve sold out tours all across the country – and this is happening because there’s more of us than there is of them. When people from our backgrounds realise that, and start pushing forwards, that’s when we’ll tip it again.”
Comfort To Me by Amyl and the Sniffer is out now. The Reytons’ debut album, Kids Off The Estate, will be released on November 12