New Model Army, March 24th, Bottom of the Hill, SF

Justin Sullivan is inspired. He could be singing about the granular quality of his cat’s litter and I can guarantee you’d believe him – and be interested. It only sinks in deeper when the mantras that he belts out with such passion and charm are ever-relevant and achingly familiar to our own lives. And that’s what the art offered forth on this night proved to be: mantras and anthems to the disaffected youth that is no longer as young as it was yesterday. But these songs’ relevance is not diminished, and neither is their passion, given both by the band and back to them by their legion of loyal followers. The Army moniker has more significance than one would think.

I’m a late convert to the music of this band – a New Model of my own, if you will. I had heard them in the early ‘90s and it never clicked. Sure, I gave it a fair listen, noting a Celtic-influence to their powerful strain of hard rock and emotion-strained lyrics, but I never took the time to plug-in, back when a great number of my friends and acquaintances were doing so. And it was really better off that way, because the songs that this band creates are lost to those who don’t take a close, hard look. There are no mildly fond New Model Army fans, and there’s a reason for this.

It has been fourteen years since Sullivan and the complete line-up of the band have toured in America. The CIA took pleasure in revoking the boys’ entry Visas after seeing a blueprint of how to create a tactical nuclear device, which was on the cover art for their 1993 single, ‘Here Comes the War’. Sullivan finally came back to promote his solo project last year, but now the entire band is touring North America, and out from the woodwork came their adoring followers to give them a warm welcome. Warm only begins to describe the feel of the club that night.

More accurately, it was on fire.

Justin2

What makes New Model Army so important is their pure integrity. This is no progressive, artsy rock band. They have no gimmick or style or necessary fashion – they don’t even have a public persona. But when you take a read of their lyrics or feel their energy crashing into you while they give out everything they have during a live set, you instantly fumble around for their colors to wave proudly over your head. Never was the banner so mightily flown than on this night, where a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd quickly erupted into a seething whirlpool of bodies, swirling along to the blistering rhythms of these New Model Anthems.

Take away our idols;
take away our faith;
take away our hatred;
and put us in this vacuum.
Then say, ‘Be yourself, please yourself.
express yourself some more;
It’s your right to do what you like
because we can’t really be bothered with you at all.’

I don’t think that anyone, apart from myself, missed shouting out a single lyric along with the band. There were arms raised in collective support, fists in the air and heads turned toward the ceiling in glory – a legion of disciples standing in front of their messiah as he rained down praise upon them, perhaps encapsulating their lifelong principles and system of ethics within a codified hymn that everyone already knows by heart. And with this repetition and affirmation comes more knowledge, and more power. Some of the older songs had an eerie relevance to the state of the modern world, which speaks volumes about the cycles that human history seems to make. The dear friend who turned me on to this band explained earlier that New Model Army has the most sincere and believable politics imaginable: the relevance of nature over humankind, and of the place over the person. It’s more than that, of course, and the strength of their music also speaks to a more personal core to which we can all relate. They seek to tear down the unbalanced power bases of the world, religious holier-than-thous, and selfish, entitled proletariats. They expose the disturbingly classist British youth, and the alarming xenophobia of the small towns dotted around the world. And they also speak to God, and chide him taking action against our innocent mistakes in the Garden of Eden. And, of course, they are ever-critical of the reaping hand of war.

On a grey morning to the south of here,
two young men in makeshift uniforms peer into the misty light
and figures dart behind the trees
as a snap of rifle rounds echoes out across the fields.
They hardly know their sacred mother tongue but they know their duty:
to defend the flag hanging limp and bloody above the village church
while a thousand miles away, in a warehouse complex down by the river,
young money men play paintball games…
Here comes the war! Here comes the war!
Did you think we were born in peaceful times?

There was an identifiable irony in watching a sweaty pool of angry-faced people slamming each other around to the strained lyrics of ‘I Love the World’, but it also measures out the absolute need of people to get out their infinitely-mounting stresses in a physical way. And in the end, there was nothing but collective happiness – a tornado that beat itself on an immovable wall of Truth. Everyone in the room was agreeing that THIS was the only place to be. There were three generations of people at the show, which displays the staying power of a band who, years ago, stopped releasing albums in America. Though their roots were dipped in the post-punk British movement, NMA’s changing-strain of music is really genreless, and easily accessible to those who wish to take a moment to pay attention. Judging by the crowd, the rewards are well worth it.

Justin1

Justin Sullivan has a certain wild-eyed charisma that just makes you want to stop what you’re doing and listen. Not a single word of his seemed routine, and every sentence was pushed achingly out of his mouth with total conviction and honesty. For any artist with any sort of repeated touring schedule to do this is some impressive feat. And it was more than that; we hung on his words. What struck me most about his presence was his intense stare while singing. It was constant and focused, and there’s no doubt in my mind that every single person there was convinced they were the ones being looked at. One of the friends I was with mentioned afterwards that Sullivan is like a Bono that never sold out. I couldn’t have put it better, and it highlights the incredible pull that our artistic icons have within the attention of the public eye.

In closing, I feel the need to say that I believe this a band to be a completist of, regardless of the catchiness of certain tunes or the difficulty of obtaining some imports. Like The Smiths and Joy Division before them, New Model Army may only be judged after reviewing their entire body of work. They are intricate enough to warrant this, and the picture that arises from such a retrospective can only be enlightening and self-reflective. Throughout three decades of moral and artistic consistency, there are true gems to be found. The most exciting part is that the archaeology keeps on going – they’re still together, and still making music.

They’re still making disciples.

NMALogo

The time I think most clearly – the time I drift away –
is on the bus-ride that meanders up these valleys of green and grey.
I get to think about what might have been and what may yet come true,
and I get to pass a rainy mile thinking of you.
And all the while, all the while, I still hear that call
to the land of gold and poison that beckons to us all.
Nothing changes here very much, I guess you’d say it never will;
the pubs are all full on Friday nights and things get started still.
We spent hours last week with Billy boy, bleeding, yeah queuing in Casualty;
staring at those posters we used to laugh at:
Never Never Land, palm trees by the sea.
Well there was no need for those guys to hurt him so bad
when all they had to do was knock him down,
but no one asks to many questions like that since you left this town.

And tomorrow brings another train,
another young brave steals away.
But you’re the one I remember
from these valleys of green and the grey.

You used to talk about winners and losers all the time – as if that was all there was;
as if we were not of the same blood family, as if we live by different laws.
Do you owe so much less to these rain swept hills than you owe to your good self?
Is it true that the world has always got to be something
that seems to happen somewhere else?
For God’s sake, don’t you realise that I still hear that call?
Do you think you’re so brave just to go running to that which beckons to us all?

And tomorrow brings another train,
another young brave steals away.
But you’re the one I remember
from these valleys of green and the grey.

No, not for one second did you look behind you
as you were walking away.
Never once did you wish any of us well –
those who had chosen to stay.
And if that’s what it takes to make it
in the place that you live today,
then I guess you’ll never read these letters that I send
from the valleys of the green and the grey.

Just a note about this amazing song. While being perhaps the most ubiquitous NMA anthem, it still never fails to bring me shivers and, often, tears. It’s a brilliant and perceptive commentary on the social stigma that is cast on those looking to strike out for something better. Small towns may breed small expectations, but some pocket communities, especially throughout Britain, are decidedly unforgiving on those who abandon them to their fate. Though arguably the real bravery comes in taking the chance at finding something better, Sullivan ingeniously takes the critical position of one of those left behind, pointing the accusing finger at others feasibly stronger than his character in the song. Passive-aggressive chastising and a barrage of pointed questions follow, as if the nature of the beauty of Home is, in and of itself, enough a reason to stay. The real weakness comes from the sedentary being, the one who is too frightened to forge ahead, regardless of the unarguable temptations that continuously call. The underlying comment is clearly the questioning of potential, and the conflict between the perception of place from within and from without, as if pride and principle are sufficient sacrificial altars on which to dedicate a life. Absolutely amazing.

29 Responses to “New Model Army, March 24th, Bottom of the Hill, SF”

  1. marasca Says:
    March 27th, 2005 at 9:01 pm

    Do you have a favorite album? I haven't heard of New Model Army, but based on your rave review I just listened to a couple of samples on iTunes store and liked what I heard. iTunes, weird beast that it is, is clearly missing one or more albums because they don't have Green and Grey.
    Some of the older songs had an eerie relevance to the state of the modern world
    I've found this with other bands too. I remember one night at the gym listening to U2's War (perhaps Sunday Bloody Sunday) while reading the closed captioning on Bush making a speech about the War Against Terra. I mean, Terror. Fuckin' creepy.
    Oh, or there's an Indigo Girls song with the lyric, "The world seems spent and the president has no good idea of who the masses are…" etc. It was written when Bush I was in office. I saw them in concert while Clinton was somewhat newly elected and they said that they hoped this had changed now (to much cheering). And now, of course…

  2. FunkyPlaid Says:
    March 28th, 2005 at 6:45 pm

    I would say that 'Thunder and Consolation' is a great place to start. It's got 'Green and Grey' on it, and plenty more, to boot.
    Funny how the historical record makes what we would think are limited temporal snapshots actually turn into all-encompassing, very relevant maxims or paradigms. It'd be interesting to run a meme about identifying peoples' favorite songs from decades ago and seeing how applicable they are today.

  3. agntprovocateur Says:
    March 27th, 2005 at 10:15 pm

    this is the second time i've missed them due to timing and weeknight scheduling. 🙁
    do you have thursday free? a couple of friends and I are planning to meet up at cafe canvas on lincoln and irving at around 5pm. care to join us? if not, afterwards?

  4. FunkyPlaid Says:
    March 28th, 2005 at 6:46 pm

    Thursday is late-night work, sadly. I would love to spend some time with you soon – I still owe you a B-Day hug!
    I won't be off until after 10:00, so we should plan for next week, if possible. Sound okay?

  5. diotina Says:
    March 28th, 2005 at 3:46 am

    *converted by Green and Grey*

  6. FunkyPlaid Says:
    March 28th, 2005 at 6:47 pm

    Excellent. My work is done here.
    🙂

  7. darkstones Says:
    March 28th, 2005 at 6:02 am

    Yet another beautifully written & perceptive entry Mr Plaid. I saw NMA on their first ever tour, way back on 1983, and I can assure you that not one of the many other times I saw them was any less intense or passionate.
    IIRC, one of their attempts to obtain Visas in the USA was turned down on the grounds that 'the band had no discernible artistic merit'. I often wondered how they would have been received if they'd been allowed in, and if they would have added a more political edge to the grunge scene that was just starting.
    You might like to check out the recordings of Ed Alleyn Johnson too – Ed played the haunting violin on some of the tracks on 'Thunder & Consolation', and also supported on many concert dates. He used to go out busking with his electric violin, a few delay pedals and a small amp. He would layer phrase upon phrase using delays, and create an incredibly complex sound. His 'Purple Electic Violin COncerto' is a masterpiece. I had a rough tape of it that I used to play in a cafe where I worked, and every day at least half a dozen people would ask where they could get it. Eventually, Virgin records phoned up and asked if I would stop playing it, because they were fed up of people coming in and asking for it.
    On a final sad note, you might not know, but Rob Heaton, who co-wrote a lot of the songs (including Green & Grey), died of cancer at the end of last year.

  8. FunkyPlaid Says:
    March 28th, 2005 at 6:50 pm

    Cheers for that, my man.
    I bet you really had fun at that 1983 show! I can only imagine how raw and intense they were back then. I'll absolutely check out Johnson's work, and I thank you for the reference. Sounds wholly intriguing, and quite beautiful.
    I didn't know much of Rob Heaton, but what you say makes sense; they took a moment to dedicate the live set to his memory, if I recall correctly.

  9. darkstones Says:
    March 28th, 2005 at 7:08 pm

    Back in those days, it wasn't unusual to see me topless! The gig was at moray house/holyrood union. Very lively! They played on Channel 4's The Tube round about then – there must be a video of it kicking around somewhere.
    I'm glad they dedicated the show to Rob. I think his wife Robyn was from California, though I vaguely recall it was LA somewhere.

  10. original_aj Says:
    March 28th, 2005 at 10:21 am

    Interesting interpretation of Green and Grey. I can see where you're coming from but I'd always taken it to be saying that it was braver to stay in the small town, risking the dangers of being thought "different" and trying to forge an independant life in restrictive surroundings than it was to leave for the big city where it is easier to be yourself and successful. There are also those who can't leave for various reasons, whose life could be made better if others stayed. I don't think the "speaker" in the song is afraid to leave – I think he wants to make life better where he is.
    Certainly a great song from a great band. They made <lj user="nickys"> partially deaf, you know? Her best friend roadied for them when they were starting out and <lj user="nickys"> spent too much time dancing in front of the speaker stacks!

  11. FunkyPlaid Says:
    March 28th, 2005 at 10:45 am

    I wouldn't dare deign to force any interpretation of a song down someone's throat, so I hesitate to respond too strongly to this. I love that different people can create different stories in the same song, and that's what keeps music personal and fresh.
    Having said this, it's pretty clear to me from the lyrics that it's a double commentary on the conflict between staying and going – that he's taking the persona of the 'stayer' to show the socialized reluctance so rampant in people who feel stuck in a small, insular community, while bolstering his argument with specious criticism about loyalty to place and community, even if there's not much to offer there. He never mentions anything about a big city; in fact, he speaks of remote areas with palm trees printed on travel posters at the local pub. In another, later song from 'The Love of Hopeless Causes' – 'Bad Old World' – there seems to be a lettered response to this first character, written from a remote place that sounds very much like the North of Scotland. This is most certainly the flipside to the communication in 'Green and Grey', and if I may say so, my absolute favorite song by the band.
    I remain firm in thinking that the speaker is very afraid to leave. He shows chinks in his armor by stating that the urge to go permeates everyone at home; the temptation is ever calling, and he's taking a critical view that it takes more bravery to stay than to go, but the description of being abandoned to a fate of 'normality' almost diminishes the main character's argument through his blame and criticism.
    <center>Dear Justin, I know it's been a long time.
    Remember all those nights we spent sitting up talking in your front room
    about leaving this worn out world and starting again far away in a better place?
    Well that's where I am now – but still thinking about you.
    I'm never going back there;
    I'm never going back to the bad old world.
    I was travelling with Laurel way up on the north coast;
    She's got family living up here in a nearby town.
    We found a piece of land that looks out towards
    the North Sea islands across the bay,
    and the sun is shining on the water today as I look out of our front door.
    Are you still scared of the future? Well, that doesn't surprise me.
    You could come up and stay here a while, back off from the killing wheel.
    I used to think it was me who'd somehow sold out
    or given in on some almighty cause,
    but what difference would it make? It feels good to be out here.
    I'm never going back there;
    I'm never going back to the bad old world.</center>

    Regardless, it's a good conversation that we're having, and I'm also pleased that both you and Nicky like the band.

  12. original_aj Says:
    March 28th, 2005 at 2:11 pm

    Yes, very interesting. I like the way it speaks stringly but differently to each of us. I can see what you mean, particularly in combination with "Bad Old World", though to me "You used to talk about winners and losers all the time – as if that was all there was" indicates the absent friend was out for himself rather than the community as a whole. Off to bed, and an early start in the morning, but I'll try and respond more tomorrow evening.
    We saw the band at the Astoria in London in '93. Would definately like to see them again now we're getting out more again as the girls are older. Hopefully they'll be around here again sometime.

  13. FunkyPlaid Says:
    March 28th, 2005 at 6:40 pm

    Yep, I see exactly what you're talking about, and I've had good conversations with others who also see it the way you do. It really shows the multi-layered ability of Sullivan's lyric writing, and the rift between both sides in such a tender situation.

  14. nickys Says:
    April 3rd, 2005 at 5:27 am

    Hi again.
    <lj user=original_aj> suggested that this was an interesting conversation for me to get involved in.
    One thing that really strikes me in your critique of "Green and Grey" that really doesn't work is:
    > as if the nature of the beauty of Home is, in and of itself, enough a reason to stay
    The place they're talking about is Bradford, after all… 🙂
    Bradford in the Eighties was not a place of beauty. It had many other fine qualities: a sense of community, pure Northern grit and determination, and a pretty good race relations policy, for example, but not beauty.
    The title 'Green and Grey' itself has a double meaning which is only really obvious to natives of the area. It is the colour of the moors around Bradford, particularly on a rainy day, but it is also the name of the local bus company. The 'valleys of Green and Grey' are, in particular, calling up memories of a couple of bus routes across the moors – of sitting on the same old local bus, seeing the old familiar scenery passing by your eyes on a rainy day…
    And then throughout the song there is reference to the unappealing nature of the place – the rain, the stupid violence etc.
    I really don't think it's an appeal to return to a better place.
    I'd be more inclined to compare it to "I love the world".
    It seems to me that he's seeing the place whole, with all its faults and still has a bond to it which is more important than the shallow material success offered by the big city.
    I've seen them perform the song in both Bradford and London, and the introduction he did in London began with, "This is a song for those of you who came here from another place… a long time ago…", not in an angry or determined tone, but a surprisingly wistful one.
    It's difficult to describe the sense of homesickness he managed to evoke with that performance.

  15. FunkyPlaid Says:
    April 3rd, 2005 at 5:10 pm

    Thanks for the contextual information on Bradford. The bit about the bus line is quite nifty.
    I agree that it's not an appeal to return to a better place. It's an appeal to be sensitive to the imposed loyalty that small communities foster. About shucking or falling prey to the expectations that others put upon you and the conflict between staying and going. We have a similar situation over here just north of SF, in a community where people continually leave but are forever called back due to comfort and familiarity.
    Whether it's a to better place or not, there's always someone else who will judge one's actions.

  16. nickys Says:
    April 4th, 2005 at 2:18 am

    > It's an appeal to be sensitive to the imposed loyalty that small communities foster.
    Again, I'm not sure that it is.
    As <lj user=original_aj> says, it's about being one of the non-conformists in your home town, rather than going to a place where lack of conformity is rather more accepted.
    There is a strong statement of loyalty to something, but it's not exactly the community, it's the place itself.
    I suppose it's a sense that someone who leaves is trying to change themselves by changing their location. If anything the song is saying that being truly yourself involves having a sense of where you came from, rather than fighting to reject it and escape from it.
    > We have a similar situation over here just north of SF, in a community where people continually leave but are forever called back due to comfort and familiarity.
    There's an element of that, but it's not really comfort that the song is appealing to. There's no sense of 'home' as an idealised thing – no 'mom and apple pie' angle (to use the American phrase).
    Possibly it's appealing to truth or reality? Integrity perhaps?
    A sense that yes, home can be bad, dangerous, ugly… but it remains home. That you are who you are, and part of that is where you came from.
    That when you pretend to be something else, or to be from somewhere else, you are being untrue to yourself as much as to the place.

  17. dsrt_faery Says:
    March 28th, 2005 at 9:49 pm

    so glad that you were finally converted to the NMA family, as we call it. 😉
    And I must mention, that throughtout the whirlpool of us at the show and the raised fists – there was no feeling but that of joy. This is why I love them so much – no other band Ive seen can have a pit full of people beaming and smiling from ear to ear.
    By the way, I have Ed Allyne Johnsons violin concerto if you want to hear it. Its easy to get through their website, but hard to find anywhere else

  18. FunkyPlaid Says:
    March 30th, 2005 at 12:18 am

    I'm really happy that the band is now in my life. It was great to see you going apeshit at the show! I only hope I did them justice to your practiced ear in this brief encapsulation.
    Yes, I'd love to hear that concerto sometime soon…

  19. dsrt_faery Says:
    March 30th, 2005 at 2:02 am

    Its called the "Purple electric violin concerto", and it is pretty beautiful – I was crossing my fingers that hed show up as a surprise to play the show with them…but alas, it was all on the keyboards instead. Apeshit? No, that was the night before – I was relatively calm that night…which should be a treat for you to imagine the previous eve. 😉
    Glad you liked it

  20. podle Says:
    March 29th, 2005 at 4:49 pm

    Just so you know, your terribly articulate and passionate post is the catalyst for yet another voyage to Amoeba. This isn't the first time this has happened, nor do I think it will be the last.
    I've now been to that store a total of four times (a record for a xenophobe like me), going through the bins while holding a crumpled post-it with lists of things you've recommended.
    I hope you're happy.
    I know I am 😉

  21. FunkyPlaid Says:
    March 30th, 2005 at 12:24 am

    That's right – back to the Aisles with ye!
    You're a dear for trusting my careening-out-of-control praise in this case. I have no worries whatsoever, as I'm absolutely sure that if you're not a rabid fan already, you'll be one in no time flat.
    Missing you dearly, and hoping that we can get together soon. The lapse in communication is *entirely* my fault, and responsibility.

  22. podle Says:
    March 31st, 2005 at 9:53 am

    No worries – we each live a crowded existence and I know we'll get together at some point. Better a rainstorm than a drought, eh?
    Which reminds me – if you can, please save the evening of June 11th. There's going to be an event.

  23. FunkyPlaid Says:
    March 31st, 2005 at 10:50 am

    An Event! An Event!
    Now I'm tempted. Does it involve caramel and chocolate?

  24. podle Says:
    March 31st, 2005 at 11:20 am

    Does it involve caramel and chocolate?
    Almost certainly – and (because some of my friends couldn't wait to tell me what the surprise was) absinthe.
    I'm turning 40, you see. So in celebration of not being dead (which I thought I would be by now) and even better, being very much alive – there will be a party. Seeing as you are so dang in demand (you popular creature you) I thought I'd best put in my bid for your time early.

  25. FunkyPlaid Says:
    April 3rd, 2005 at 5:24 pm

    Re: Does it involve caramel and chocolate?
    The only thing that demands me, darling, is work. I'm all yours, and I'll be greatly looking forward to this celebration when it happens.
    I've been reading the updates with Iggy with some concern and boundless empathy; I hope the trouble passes sooner rather than later and you're both able to rest easy very, very soon.
    Xo.

  26. podle Says:
    April 6th, 2005 at 3:41 pm

    Re: Does it involve caramel and chocolate?
    Thank you so much for your good wishes. I go to visit him tonight after work (again) and tomorrow he should be coming home. We should know in the next few days if he's back blessing our lives and making me happier than usual or if he's headed for the big cathouse inna sky.

  27. FunkyPlaid Says:
    March 30th, 2005 at 12:22 am

    Whoa!
    Disclaimer: Despite the frankness of this seemingly incriminating post, under no circumstances does Gamescape North, Co. [TM] condone the usage, trade, or sale of love slaves, either over or under the age of 21, as well as over, under, or on top of the counter, neither in the front or back of the store.
    We have some pretty good facsimiles, but no actual love slaves.
    Just so we're clear on this one.
    🙂

  28. grendelis Says:
    March 30th, 2005 at 6:24 am

    Thanks for enlightening me to the fact that they are still around and playing. I lost sight of NMA soon after Vengence (FYI, It was briefly used in Subway). Are they still wearing clogs?

  29. FunkyPlaid Says:
    March 31st, 2005 at 10:52 am

    Didn't see any clogs, sadly, but that only ups their reputation and cool-factor, if you ask me.
    🙂

Leave a Reply