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3 February 2016

Earl Brutus: the greatest British band of the 1990s?

Less Britpop, more B&Q and the “Barratt class” – Earl Brutus provided a thrillingly chaotic chronicle of Britain in the Nineties.

By Bob Stanley

In 1993, five friends were in a West London pub struggling to think of a name for their band. It was the night before their first gig. They decided it would be easier if they tried instead to either name a greyhound, or a flat-roof pub – fighty on a Saturday night, but does a nice family carvery on a Sunday. They came up with same name for the greyhound and the pub: Earl Brutus.

They don’t fit the mould of the great “lost” band – they weren’t Byrds-influenced, or impoverished innovators who were ripped off, or mired in tragedy – but Earl Brutus were magical; among their fans who cite them as an influence are artists Scott King and Jeremy Deller. Uniquely, they mixed Kraftwerk hooks and a Roxy-influenced look, with seventies bovver boy grunts and terrace chants. A new box set called Closed, with artwork by Scott King, pulls together Earl Brutuss brace of albums (1996s Your Majesty We Are Here, 1998s Tonight You Are The Special One) plus a bunch of singles. Confrontational, antagonistic, intellectual and hilarious, Earl Brutus swam in the slipstream of Britpop, playing key venues like Blow Up and the Leisure Lounge, but were far closer to the art terrorism of the KLF than the Bluetones; they gleefully pointed to a route out of the scene’s conservatism that was sadly never followed.

In terms of everyday Britishness, Britpop was childish: its Olde England reference points were Spangles and Spacehoppers. Earl Brutus were more about B&Q and garage forecourts, landladies in Louth, red-necked men of Pompey; more adult, and essentially more interesting. They were also singing about an England that was recognisable at the time John Major – who pined for a semi-mythical national of cricket and village greens – was prime minister. Song titles included “Midland Red” (was it about Manchester United fans from Coventry, or the livery of a defunct bus company?), “Mondo Rotunda” (presumably a brutalist Birmingham reference) and “Don’t Leave Me Behind Mate”. They sang about the world populated by those who Mike Skinner would later call “Barratt class”, a specific, lower middle class England, the one John Major actually came from. They sang about being “lonely in the Harvester”.

Gordon King, Nick Sanderson and Jim Fry had all previously been members of World Of Twist, a Manchester/Sheffield group which mixed Kings love of northern soul with wiggly synths and elaborate stage sets. Fry was essentially a photographer, pushed up front to become one of Earl Brutus’s singers; he was the member responsible for their conceptual side including the revolving forecourt signs on stage that initially read “music” and “chips”, later changing to “mum” and “dad”, and finally “Tory” and “Labour”. They eventually rusted away to nothing in Jim Frys garden shed, to the chagrin of Jeremy Deller, who asked to exhibit them in Paris.

The pop fandom and stage props (there was also, briefly, a giant funeral wreath that read “fuck off”) were underpinned by two excellent musicians. Nick Sanderson was a phenomenal drummer, a veteran of awkward Eighties acts Clock DVA and Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s Gun Club. Guitarist Rob Marche, who had been in groups as varied as Subway Sect, JoBoxers and Shoom-era club act If?, could play in pretty much any style, and channeled Mick Ronson and occasionally Brian May (as on the stand-out track On Me Not In Me). Sanderson was a magnetic frontman, who loved to call the audience’s bluff. Gigs were chaotic, thrilling, and threatened to descend into violence – Fry later said being in Earl Brutus meant “you could be killed at any time.” When they played Camden Towns Dublin Castle in 1994 and Sanderson urinated on stage mid-set, Radio 1 DJ Steve Lamacq was in the audience. He signed them to his Deceptive label the following week.

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Mid-Nineties pop culture leant heavily on recent British history while pretending the Eighties had never happened: youth, cleanliness, and some kind of Seventies-referencing newness – New Labour, “New Wave of New Wave” – seemed paramount. Earl Brutus, on the other hand, appeared intentionally brown and slightly rusted. Their debut single in 1993 was called “Life’s Too Long”, a glam stomp at half-speed with nihilistic lyric roared out by Jim Fry: “The turntable is spinning, around and around and around… again and again and again.” It seems quaint now that they billed themselves as the oldest new band in the world: they had only just turned 30.

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Their age wouldn’t have mattered a jot if they arrived fully formed in 2016. Simultaneously pin-sharp and chaotic, their heirs are the more aged and musically less interesting Sleaford Mods. You’d swear Kanye’s “Black Skinhead” was a direct tribute if you thought there was any likelihood he’d heard them. Earl Brutus played their last ever show in 2004, a chaotic fund raiser for Ken Livingstone’s mayoral campaign; any chance of a reformation ended when Nick Sanderson died in 2008. The Closed box set is a lasting memorial to him and – if you pushed me – the greatest British band of the Nineties.

The Closed box set (£25) is available from 3 Loop Music