(Brace Yourself Records)
There was a kind of ongoing snarky criticism of Gang of Four when they appeared in the late 1970s, and who were art students in Leeds, which was that their singing accents weren’t ‘authentically’ working class. Despite the fact that lead singer Jon King is from a fairly humble background in Kent he didn’t have the genuine Cockney rasp of the London punk bands but, nevertheless, felt the need, along with guitarist/vocalist Andy Gill, to pepper his voice with working class ‘hints’. Possibly this was because, like many people from the south east of England, their accents were neither definite nor of a place. Not posh but almost classless. Which made it harder to sing as if through lived experience.
Lots of people used to do it, back then. That famous Cockney, Ian Dury was actually from Essex and, no doubt, exaggerated his accent for extra street points. Lead singer of Italia 90, Les Miserable, is from Brighton, a place that, in the estates on the outskirts, can seem like a broken extension of Croydon but, at its centre, is a mixture of arty, progressive types, students, and retired music hall actresses. Accents from Brighton can be confusing. Very southern. Not necessarily an indication of poverty.
How important is it that Italia 90 are from genuinely poor backgrounds? To me, not important at all. But, to them, it’s probably important to be seen as being ‘real’. Possibly because that’s the background to their post-punk style. Smart, working class lads, though, tend not to sound, authentically working class, because they lose contact with those they grew up with and start hanging around with people who know how to pronounce hegemony. So, why the accent? The singing accent, that is? You might as well ask, why does Ed Sheeran sing in a kind of mid-Atlantic, posh American accent when he’s from Suffolk. So, what’s the answer?
Here’s Les Miserable being interviewed in Glasgow by a Scot who seems to have tempered his accent in order for the soft southerner to understand him (it happens). Note Les’s switch between London, ‘estuary’ and received pronunciation. It must be a nightmare when it comes to singing, to decide on a voice. My guess is that Les has created a character (unless he has one of the more interesting Sussex surnames) and that character emphasises the old fashioned working class accent in order to make a point.
What’s the point? A clue is in that other class flag, dress. In the interview in Glasgow Les is dressed as an old fashioned, late 1960s skinhead, similar to the look Slade reluctantly adopted for their first hit single. It’s a great look, signifying a political outlook that subverts the original skins’ misogynistic and racist world view (some will try to say that the first skinheads weren’t racist because they liked Ska and Rocksteady and stole some of their style from Jamaican ‘rude boys’. I say, ask any older immigrants from the Indian sub-continent how they felt seeing a gang of skins approach them in the 1970s.) The clothes are a message (they always are) and, in this case, the message is, we know our pop history.
He seems like a gentle fellow, Les does. A music fan. And his band are probably a nice bunch of mates who all happen to like a certain kind of music. Hold them up against Yard Act another recent, post-punk band and, of course, the accents go to war. Who’s real? Yard Act’s James Smith is an actor and ex music teacher. Can you hear all of that in his voice? It seems unnecessary to have to examine this aspect but, somehow, to me, it’s crucial. It’s the point.
Post-punk wasn’t a genre until the 21st century, really. It used to be a way of describing a bunch of bands who quite often sounded very different from each other and sometimes it was an indication of lack of success. U2 and Simple Minds were post-punk then they were rock. Admittedly they changed their sound. So did The Human League, ABC and Joy Division/New Order. A Certain Ratio, Cabaret Voltaire, Gang of Four weren’t so successful and it tends to be the latter sound that defines post-punk as a genre: angular bass, driving rhythms, an interest in collage, fragmented, cut-up lyrics and a vague, left wing political stance.
The other, non-successful, classic post-punk comparator, The Fall’s political stance was to the point in the utmost. It was about the authenticity, the irreproachable representation of a smart working class sensibility that, because it undermined itself, was all the more frantic. Hence the accent(s).
It obviously doesn’t matter any more than Tracey Thorne singing with her Americanised croon. Not everyone can rock their own accent and make it work like, say Tricky can. But, to me, the suspicion, the fact that I’m just not sure about who he really is, gets in the way when I listen to Les Miserable who, on paper, should be right up my street.
The ‘nice’ thing about post-punk is that it’s likely that both Italia 90 and Yard Act will be super aware of all this and occasionally in minor agonies, as they should be, about just how ‘real’ they are. That, to me, is a saving grace and a true definer of what makes post-punk worthwhile.
Main Image by Jake Ollet