This Musician’s Life
By Cathi Unsworth.
“I think there are two glamours attached to this life, this musician’s life,” considers Justin Sullivan. “One is to do with sex and cocaine and Learjets – that kind of glamour. And the other is that of the minstrel, heading off for another bar, where he’s only going to play to two people, and he’s lost the woman he loves because he’s fucked everything up…”
Looking back over the body of work his three decades fronting New Model Army have produced, it’s not hard to guess which is the life this singer prefers. Anthology, a two-CD set with a track for each year of their existence, was curated by Justin from all surviving members of NMA’s personal lists of favourites and compiled not chronologically, but more for a sense of mood and themes that ebb and flow throughout their 30-year history.
Inspired into being after witnessing a Ruts show in Bradford that has since passed into legend, the original NMA – Robert Heaton on drums, Stuart Morrow on bass and Justin trading as Slade The Leveller on vocals and guitar – were forged from the seismic social upheaval of the late Seventies/early Eighties, their northern locus lending them a bird’s eye view of the new civil war that Margaret Thatcher would initiate, across the same landscape that Oliver Cromwell’s army once rode.
Anthology opens as did their 1984 debut album Vengeance; the title track a curse on warmongers, drug dealers and corporate business with an incendiary chorus: ‘I believe in justice/I believe in vengeance/I believe in getting the bastards/Getting the bastards now’ that seared in many minds the image of NMA as angry young punks, the spiritual brothers of The Ruts, The Mob and Crass.
“I think that people got the wrong idea, that we were always writing to an agenda,” Justin reflects. “And I don’t think, actually, we did. I think that each song is about ideas and what we ended up doing was writing a whole load of quite contradictory things, just so we could express those ideas. So this idea grew around the band that wasn’t true. There isn’t a party line with NMA. We were supposed to be this Leftist band coming out of Bradford, but the first thing we ever released is ‘Vengeance’, the most politically incorrect song ever written! Then, on that same album is ‘A Liberal Education’ which is actually a complete slag off of just about everything that the Left holds dear. So generally, from day one, we were a bit: ‘What are you against?’’ “What have you got!’
“It might have been Paul Morley who wrote a review of Vengeance that said it was like a bull in an ideological china shop. Which I think is kinda right, really. And even on Vengeance, there’s two or three relationship songs, love songs on there. But,” he concedes, “I suppose we are a difficult kind of band to pin down.”
Partly this is to do with the fact that NMA have never really fitted into any particular musical slot either, but have instead roamed far and wide across the musical landscape, taking in elements of African, Portuguese and Middle Eastern music, as well as the more familiar Celtic influence.
“I think that most rock music is blues based, but my sense of melody is not, so I am always looking for an alternative to that,” Justin considers. “Whether it be folk or Arabesque, which I really like – although, I haven’t studied it. As a guitar player, I never had the patience to sit down and learn properly, I’ve always just snatched little bits and pieces from everywhere. In the end, it’s all about spirit, and you pick that up from wherever you find something moving, whether that’s religion or nature. My template was the first time I saw The Ruts. That’s the template – pass it on.”
Though one thing that does seem to remain constant with NMA is a compulsion to make great, cinematic stories out of their songs, viscerally conjuring the desert with the marimba snakedance of ‘Red Earth’, dark visions of Goya with the Spanish guitar of ‘Someone Like Jesus’ and, of course, the romantic moorland vistas of the north with the stirring fiddle of ‘Vagabonds’. Some surprised reviewers of Anthology have made comparisons with Deus and The Tindersticks to convey the rich textures of sound, mood and lyricism to be discovered here by the uninitiated. But this ability to connect with landscape through music seems to me to be much more reminiscent of Kate Bush than any other guitar-led band.
Justin laughs. “People have this idea of the music that we listen to, and it’s always wrong. I have always got more ideas from Tamla Motown and Kate Bush than from anywhere else. I don’t really like English folk music, it’s too twee, but I grew up with the English countryside and there is something about English traditional music, which Kate Bush has got lots of. It’s sort of Ralph Vaughan Williams, how he romanticised the British landscape, I have a love of that. And so did Robert.”
Here the conversation turns a sadder hue. Robert Heaton, original NMA drummer and writer of many of the band’s best known songs, died suddenly from pancreatic cancer on 4 November 2004. Heaton had been seriously ill before – he left the band in 1998, following surgery for a brain tumour and was replaced by his former drum tech Michael Dean on his own recommendation. But his death at the age of only 43 came as a terrible shock – Robert had always appeared such a big, strong man.
“He looked big and strong and he played big and strong, but actually, he was incredibly sensitive,” says Justin. “The cliché is that drummers are the stupid ones in bands, but actually, drummers are usually very sensitive and very complex. Robert had a great love of this kind of big sweep of romantic melody. Although we came from very different places – he was very much a rock fan, growing up, where as I was into soul – melodically, there was a big connection.
“And this is a thing. There is a tiny little village, right on the back of the Welsh coast, called Borth, a godforsaken collection of boarding houses in the middle of nowhere, that I didn’t discover until much later, was not only where I spent my first family holidays, when I was about five, but that Robert did too. It was a very bleak beauty in that place, or maybe the beauty was the bleakness. But there’s plenty of that in our sound.”
Their partnership lasted from Vengeance through to No Rest For the Wicked (1985), The Ghost of Cain (1986), Thunder and Consolation (1989), Impurity (1990) The Love of Hopeless Causes (1993) and Strange Brotherhood (1998). But Justin looks back at one year as being particularly significant.
“Robert and I had a golden year together, which was 1987, which began with making Hex with Joolz (Denby, Justin’s longtime partner and muse) and ended with Thunder and Consolation, with the ‘White Coats’ EP in the middle of it. And basically, everything that I wrote that he touched turned to gold and everything he wrote that I touched turned to gold. We were never very close as friends, we were too different, but we really had this fantastic creative relationship.
“After that, we wrote Thunder and Consolation, and we knew it was brilliant, but very shortly after that, we started falling out, which went on during the making of that album. His life went in one direction and mine went in another. I got electrocuted and all of that. But, I have been incredibly lucky with the people I’ve met – Joolz and then Robert and all the various other people who have been in the band.”
This turning point, of Justin’s electrocution, came on stage in Porrentry, Switzerland in June 1992. He picked up a stage light to shine at the audience, touched the inside of the casing by mistake and passed out with the light stuck to his hand. Justin was saved by a roadie who kicked the light off him and had his heart restarted by a Swiss Red Cross paramedic, coming around after experiencing the classic ‘white light’ vision and sensation of “perfect peace, unlike anything else I’ve ever known.” Strange Brotherhood’s opener ‘Wonderful Way To Go’, also to be found on Anthology, describes his near-death experience.
There have been four more NMA albums since then, Eight (2000), Carnival (2005), High (2007) and Today is a Good Day (2009), as well as Justin’s 2003 solo album Navigating by the Stars, all released on the band’s own Attack Attack label. Although few in the music press have ever cared to eulogise them, it seems to me that the fact NMA have never been fashionable – despite always being popular – has worked only to their advantage. Like fellow post-punk visionaries Killing Joke, they have been able to continue their work in freedom, unfettered by fads and trends.
“Yes,” says Justin, “we are the free-est band in the world, we’re not prisoners to anything and it’s wonderful. You just do what feels right at the time, and then eventually, when you’ve amassed a huge amount of work, people look at it and learn to trust you. They might take a long time to trust you, because it may seem that a lot of the time, you have been contradicting yourself. I was thinking that basically, the problem is, the older I get, the more I can always see everybody’s point of view.”
Which is partly what makes Sullivan such a brilliant lyricist. He very rarely writes from his own perspective and seems to relish the opportunity to inhabit another person’s psyche, in the way that a novelist does. One of the stand-out songs from Carnival included on Anthology, ‘Carlisle Road’ describes the aftermath of the 2001 race riots in Bradford from the point of view of a riot cop coming home in the early hours, still unable to believe what he has witnessed, standing over his children’s beds and wondering how he will ever be able to protect them from the world.
“Yeah, it’s true, I don’t really write a lot of stuff about myself, I write other people’s stories,” he concurs. “I find it much easier and there’s much more variety. I think that people who write endlessly about themselves are incredibly boring. Whereas, I love the country and folk tradition, where you start a song with the word ‘I’ but you’re not writing about yourself at all, you’re telling somebody else’s story. I do that a lot. Even the things that appear to be very political are, actually, kinda just stories, aren’t they? You’ve got to have the semblance of a story to make a lyric interesting. I have been accused of writing lyrics that are like the weather forecast, and it’s true, they usually have got a bit of weather in them, or time of day, or light, so that immediately, you can see pictures…”
Perhaps the most vivid of all NMA’s aural mood paintings are, in fact, the love songs. Of these there are many and all seem to fuse the emotion of love not just for a particular person, but for the beauty of the planet herself – ‘Living in the Rose’, an expression Justin learned from the fishermen of Brazil; and Anthology’s haunting closer, ‘Marry The Sea’, are two of the best.
“Ah, I am an old romantic though, aren’t I?” says Justin. “And that’s also the pagan part of me. The thing is – when it’s spring, everybody goes out and turns their face to the sun. And if you get a place where you can see an amazing sunset, people just go there and go: ‘Wow!’ We’re all really in awe of nature, aren’t we? We’re all in love with it, really. Everything else is just the fluff they put on top, the stuff we’re being sold.”
The yearning at the heart of ‘Marry The Sea’ links with the emotion of perennial live favourite ‘Vagabonds’, lines that evoke what lies at the core of Sullivan and his music, that account for NMA’s enduring appeal.
‘And watching as a boy alone at the quayside/The ships loading cargo in the night/Their names all calling to faraway places/The years go past, the miles go by/And still this childhood romance will not die…’
“Yeah. I was a restless kid. My mum always said that any time she was going out anywhere, to the shops or wherever, I’d always just get into the car and go. Anywhere. I’ve always been restless. I’m quite glad I’ve got a home to go to in between times, but actually, it’s the travelling I like. I can’t think of any other musician on earth who is better equipped to be a travelling musician than me,” Justin surmises.
“I think the gift my father gave to me was the greatest one of all, this sense that somehow, always, things will work out. I sometimes even take unnecessary risks just to prove it. But I’ve basically been very lucky and mainly very blessed. I still think it’s romantic to eat shit food in a motorway service station in Poland at 4 o’clock in the morning.” The singer laughs. “I do, I’m completely in love with that glamour of rock’n’roll.”
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Cathi Unsworth is the author of three pop-cultural crime fiction novels, The Not Knowing, The Singer, Bad Penny Blues, published by Serpent’s Tail. She lives and works in London.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, January 17th, 2011.