King Of The Slums
NME, 4th February 1989.
Manchester, inventor of all essential music, has now thrown up KING OF THE SLUMS who STUART MACONIE proclaims rightful rulers of pop's no man's lane between Kylie and Napalm Death. Long live the Kings? Royal family: AJ BARRATT.
"I gave a lovebite to a scrubber in the half-light / Pushed a squeaky pram over to her mam's"
King Of The Slums, 'Leery Bleeder'
Manchester, someone once said, has so much to answer for. One of the wild Northwest's twin warring capitals, it has burned its way into this nation's addled pop consciousness with a mixture of chip fat and Chesters Mild.
Inventor, so the myth goes, of everything from jangly pop to acid house, it is alternatively scorned and lionised by its residents and romanticised out of all recognition by those who have left never to return.
King Of The Slums, the hardest, scariest, hugest thing to come this way in yonks, live there. And when I tell Charlie Keigher (singer, songwriter, slum-poet extraordinaire) that this formidable noise could be geographically placed to the nearest mile he gives me a gobful.
"Oh, that shit really gets up my nose. This born in the North, bred in the North crap. I have no particular affection for Manchester or the North, it just happens to be where I live. I'd rather live here than London but so what? I'm not one of those dickheads who would walk round with a banner saying 'Manchester's ace and everywhere else stinks.'"
This is King Of The Slums and they are England's finest hopes.
"I am a mere Mancunian of no fixed ability / I bear a striking resemblance to / you wouldn't know him from Adam".
King Of The Slums, 'England's Leading Light'
My first experience of the slum life came with the release of the band's 1987 Playhard debut EP 'England's Finest Hopes'. On first listen I couldn't believe what I'd heard. So I sat through it again, and by the end I was babbling to anyone who would listen, throwing words like 'genius' and 'essential' around with the zeal of the converted.
It is an astonishing record. You either run for cover or cling on for dear life. There are no points of reference, no landmarks or glib comparisons.
Its two most striking features are provided by the group's nucleus, Charlie and Sarah. Sarah's violin, sombre and agonised, existing in the space where haunting, modal melodies splinter and fragment into acrid distortion; and Charlie's voice and lyrics, a laconic Northern drawl soaked in irony and bile. (This may sound like a concerted effort to get into 'Pseud's Corner', but I defy you to do any better.) In fact I defy Charlie and Sarah to do any better. Charlie has a go.
"It can't be summed up with some neat phrase. People try and they always get it wrong. It's unique. It's... massive!"
Sarah: "People go on about 'that bloody violin'. They're missing the point. What I play is quite melodious underneath all the distortion. They just aren't listening hard enough."
This raises a moot point. There may be more self-consciously extreme bands than KOTS, a legion of no-hopers with their heads wilfully stuck up the back passage of art school experimentation, but the slum babies remain a million light years left-field of what most of us call pop. Again Charlie disagrees.
"I don't think we are that far removed from pop. We're becoming more accessible all the time. In our early days we were far more extreme. I think 'Bombs Away On Harpurhey' is reasonably poppy. It has a tune, it has a hook and that's more the way my writing's going."
"Oh if only I'd known / I could have been a qualified plumber by now / With me own little van."
'Bombs Away On Harpurhey'
The aforesaid 'Bombs Away...' is King Of The Slums' new single, from the forthcoming EP 'Vicious British Boyfriend'. Charlie is right to call it KOTS' most approachable work to date but it still leaves The House Of Love sounding like Kylie Minogue. A barnstorming splash of electric black humour, bleakly, boisterously mocking of council estate life and Thatcher's economic miracle. Go on, grit your teeth, lie back and think of England. You might just enjoy yourself.
"Basically it's a song about the economy and the daft belief that things are getting better. Some people are doing well out of it but they are far from representative. Plus there's a personal element to it.
"It's about me and a girl thinking the good life is to be found outside Harpurhey and wanting to leave and blow the place up. And then leaving and finding the good life isn't elsewhere either."
Though 'Bombs Away' may be reasonably user-friendly in construction and echoing with the sound of gallows laughter, it remains true to what I see as the spirit of The Slums: desperate, cynical and coldly knowing. They might put a smile on your face but it would be of the Donald Pleasance not the Terry Wogan variety.
Reviewing 'England's Finest Hopes' a year ago I said, 'These songs will ruin your day. . . and you will love it'. With characteristic insight I seem to have grasped the wrong end of the stick.
"It's another misconception people seem to have. We are not bleak, we are not miserable. We have just chosen to be individual. We're joyous, uplifting. I don't see us as depressing. To me people like Kylie are depressing."
Sarah: "Absolutely. I find the fact that people go and buy those records very worrying and depressing."
Wacky Mancunian funsters? I think not. But I take their point. The pop life is full of cartoon characters, be they Jason Donovan or Napalm Death. By choosing to say something different and say it loud, KOTS are bound to get the mantle of sour-faced eggheads. Take it from me, they aren't. But after all that Perrier and Nutra-Sweet I suppose a drop of the hard stuff is hard to take. Does Charlie despair of the state of pop?
"Not at all. I don't think about it very much. But it does seem to me that there are far too many bloody Australians making records at the moment."
"My God, I'll end up breeding whippets."
'The Pennine Spitter'
"Danny Kelly did a phone interview with us. I was pretty drunk and saying stupid things but one thing sticks in my mind. He said he really liked the record but when he played it in the NME office people were hiding underneath their desks!"
King Of The Slums invest that old cliche about either loving or loathing with new meaning. No one can remain ambivalent about them. Once the initial jarring strangeness has worn off you too will whistle the merry tunes.
Most people probably won't penetrate the initial sense of shocked dislocation but that's neither here nor there. King Of The Slums seem destined to inspire either partisan loyalty or baffled hostility.
Charlie: "We get fan letters. A guy in Leeds wrote to us and wants to do a college dissertation on my lyrics, which is very flattering. I wanted to find out what kind of person was into us so I asked a Manchester record shop who was buying the stuff and it seems to be a fair cross-section of people. Sarah has been mobbed in Norwich."
"Yeah, we played there and considering the kind of stuff we do I thought no bugger's gonna turn up but they did and we went down really well. The promoter said it was the best gig he'd ever put on."
But presumably you've had equally intense hostile reactions?
"We've never actually been booed off the stage but we have been paid up after a couple of songs in this disco club where we should never have played. Once we played a college disco where the students had basically come to boogie down and kiss each other. They objected to us pretty strongly."
"Lead me to safety, venerate me utterly. . . / and come and live in a little house behind the gasworks with me."
'Venerate Me Utterly'
Time then to leave King Of The Slums to their flask of cold coffee, their three-bar fire and tiny rehearsal room. Gary and Adam (the newest recruits) remained silent but friendly to the end, preferring to share fags and be the butt of jokes about being Bon Jovi fans and moonlighting by drumming in Star Trek pantomimes. I left.
Appropriately enough Deansgate was grey and sodden. With 'Vicious British Boyfriend' churning through the Walkman it all made sense. It would be futile to tip them for stardom but criminal to do anything else. They deserve your dosh more than anyone I can think of, except perhaps me. Venerate them utterly. Starting now.
NME, 4th February 1989.
King of the Slums
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