“And that’s my main fear: that everything has happened; nothing exciting or new is ever going to happen again…the future is just going to be a vast conforming suburb of the soul” – JG Ballard’s arguably prophetic statement emblazoned the screen as the first shot of Nathan Hannawin and Paul Sng’s documentary about the Sleaford Mods – Invisible Britain.
The two followed Sleaford Mods last year as they shunned big city venues in favour of visiting forgotten towns “like Colchester”. They compiled a record of the devoted fans backstage at town halls and arts centres. These were suburbs; and they were also the closed down mining towns, seaside towns bereft of a tourism industry and factory towns full of the disaffected disenfranchised youth. These were venues in Scunthorpe and Stoke, not even Stoke actually, a suburb of Stoke. Their inhabitants were spawned in the post Thatcherite years of falling employment and had been left behind in a mass exodus to the city and they were some of the most passionate people in the country.
I lived for a few years in a town in the north whose only mention on Vice magazine’s gig reviews read: “the crowd in Lancaster smelled like corned beef” – so yes, big gigs were few and far between and I don’t think the meat comparison is fair or related at all. So I can vouch for the sentiment repeated by the directors in the Q&A session after the preview screening of Invisible Britain – no one feels it and shows it like small town lads. In big cities you’re spoiled for choice but in small towns that weekend you’ve been looking forward to for months is total bliss and revelation. What Invisible Britain shows is that Britain’s suburbs and small towns aren’t necessarily the place where invention and modernity comes to die as Ballard may have inadvertently hit upon, but are instead venues for regeneration. Hard hit towns are the epicentre of rage and it is rage that ‘melts the solid’ to paraphrase The Communist Manifesto and goes some way towards ridding the world of stagnant ideals . How fitting then that our musical saviours from the mundane, The Sleaford Mods, are two men in their forties called Jason Williamson and Andrew Fearne from Nottingham.
Much has already been made of the unusual set up of the band, one man shouting at the crowd with a stage presence somewhere between Freddie Mercury and Ian Curtis, and one man basically just drinking and pressing a button at the end of each song. They don’t come wrapped up in a rock star box as one commentator put it, they’re about as far away from Alex Turner and Miles Kane in their red leather trousers as you could imagine.
The Sleaford Mods for me are a prime example of today’s liquid modernity, the fans aren’t members of rigid clans like the mods and rockers of the past, those featured in the interview sections of the film varied in age, class, gender and race. Dr Lisa Mckenzie of the London School of Economics featured in a segment talking about class division, she was recently reported in the press for taking part in the, supposedly violent in places, anti gentrification protest at the Cereal Killer Cafe. Whereas some saw those marches as a rally against the bearded hipster, Williamson says he couldn’t give a fuck how you choose to dress or whether or not you grow a beard because that’s all up to you. This is a fan base that perhaps shows that in the internet age space and time are irrelevant, who you are and what you know isn’t related to your geographical location or your age, but maybe slightly to how big your 3G plan is.
The failings of the major political parties in Britain were investigated and interspersed with clips of the Sleaford Mods verbalising that very dissatisfaction on stage. These were severe problems with the way benefits have been cut to the most vulnerable and the courts have knowingly imprisoned innocent young people deemed to be “guilty by association” of crimes they didn’t commit. It highlighted what many feel is a widening in the gap between the rich and poor, the total disregard for those in the lower echelons of society. The Sleaford Mods say they aren’t political but their fans see them as protest singers, modern day folk musicians heralding change, or at least writing out the slogans for the disaffected: “Jobseeker!/Can of Strongbow, I’m a mess/Desperately clutching onto a leaflet on depression/Supplied to me by the NHS”. Even if that means nothing to you or if that doesn’t change anything for those that it does, I still believe it’s important that it’s being said.
I laud and celebrate the film as a celebration of the small town, when I asked the directors at the end what the main difference was between fans in the city and fans elsewhere, one said they were really pleased to be reminded of the existence of “decent people” and followed that by revealing unsurprisingly that he was a Londoner born and bred. I wanted to ask whether or not the directors themselves would consider moving to Scunthorpe or the outskirts of Stoke having made the film? What I wanted to say was that we need to change the attitudes of the suburbs and the small towns, retain the thinkers and creatives to a place they might just be able to make a positive impact upon, that it’s all very well and good making a documentary to this effect but would you actually live amongst the decent people yourself? But my small town shyness got the better of me.