Saturday, 4 October 2014

Hard Skin - On The Balls & Why Do Birds Suddenly Appear?

"Oi! Oi! Oi! Oi! Oi! Oi! Think about Oi! Oi! Oi!" - The Crested, Think About Oi
"STOP THINKING! START DRINKING!" - Hard Skin, First Day Angry Song

Like the Formby Channel, Hard Skin are a band that could only have emerged from this sceptred isle. And when I say sceptred, I mean shithole, grey bitter dank sarcastic nimby fading delusional shit-fucking hole-isle. Some real John King spirit imbues these songs, that mixture of soaring terrace community, the kicks and knocks of poverty, a familiarity with violence, a tense heartworn tearing underneath, a faded rug at your nan's with the colour scuffed out of it but the pattern still peeking through, the warmth in the brokenness.

Sure America has OIL! with their pumped up ridiculous violence, cliches stacked high and smashed down, Crucified Hammerskins, Proud of my Pride, Pulling on the Boots, but Hard Skin are cut through with sharper, more poignant silliness, beyond their bluntfuck singalongs, like Beer and Fags's loutish drunken joy in the face of the grim march of history on Hard Nuts and Hard Cunts, drawing on Cock Sparrer's England Belongs to Me, and its investment in the smaller twists of home, Cock Sparrer sang of England looking not at verdant fields and glory, but 'the dirty water in its rivers', the little grotty shit that you hold deep in your heart as signifiers of a private belonging, stake a claim to what you have, no matter how insignificant or crap it is.

Still Fighting Thatcher they roared twenty odd years ago, and she lies six feet deep but her stabbing hate lives on. Council Estate deals, with surprisingly affectingly, with the lasting brutality of her legacy on ordinary people. Dark fucking times when even your comedy Oi! bands are painting bleak landscapes of the grueling slog of austerity. A pained tale steeped psycho-geography, the malign concrete, infecting its residents with a certain hard heart. No jokes just a desperate cry. "EVERYONE DIES! BUT NOT EVERYONE LIVES! I'M SOMEBODY! I'VE GOT SOMETHING TO GIVE!" Real shit right there.

On The Kids Are Innocent that nebulous notion of 'the kids' invoked in that Upstarts, Blitz, Sham, way, they're the kids that you meet, they don't care and if they're united then they'll never be divided. A warm cuff-about-the-ear for scamps and tearaways, embracing the young as just weird fuckabouts, like they are, like we were, it's an idea that fights back against the real youthhate of mid-market tabloids, terror scattered across newspaper pages, feverish whispers of 'feral' and 'inherent criminality' burning with that eugenic tang. The Kids Are Innocent, the homeless are treated with the same warmth on You Still Here? and it's dismissive toss-off of PCSOs, as angry at the fact that it's not a real cop doing the bothering as it is at the fact that a cop's bothering them, and a lot of this album, is anti-nihilistic, a vaguely charming vision of Britain full of salt-of-the-earth cunts stumbling through interesting times, punches and police harassment.

Hard Skin bounce between modes. There's the storming self-mythologising of Another Terrace Anthem, boasting of "Bit of Sparrer, Rejects and Sham/I'm taking it back to where it began!" and cracking apart with purposefully lame jokes. There's the triumphal violence of rougher-uppers The Man Who Ran the Town with skins as avenging angels, puttin in a loan shark's head, and We're Gonna Do Them Cunts, rolling on that terse economy of threat, "I'm gonna do you" carrying more power than any super-specific murderous hyperbole. A take on I, Ludicrous's Preposterous Tales in That's Bollocks, Mate and its pissed-off pissed fuck-off of a mouth-running pub bore. The lonely swaying whisper of The Gipsy Hill, a wander round South London, a litany of a neighbourhood's comforting peculiarities. It all sits together in a cordial crash of streetlights and dogshit, belligerent barroom stompers, sidestreet serenade, flitting between cock-o'-the-walk swagger and softer more morose musings, but all invested with the slap of the pavement, the roots of meandering alleyways, the shortcuts and graffiti of a living city.

And even better, beyond the instant classic of On The Balls, is Why Do Birds Suddenly Appear?, the same album, the same songs, but coming from a murderer's row of female vocalists, real punk sneer, relishing that snap of melody and power. The notion of guilty pleasures has been well wrung out to dry as a bullshit concept born of insecurity and snobbery, but if there was one thing I'd classify as that, it's the sheer amount of generic female-fronted streetpunk I can consume without tiring, no-one should have listened to The N.Y. Rel-X as much as I have. And this is far from that, Hard Skin's melodic chops, their songwriting skills, their ability to appropriate those bits of Sparrer, Rejects and Sham with total aplomb, make this play like a whole album of Action Pact's London Bouncers, something like Atlanta's Man's Ruin with better tunes, a beefed-up sweary Gymslips, from Joanna Newsom's (yeah that Joanna Newsom) cackle on the jubilant The Man Who Ran the Town, to Miki Berenyi's ire on You Still Here?, the runaway sting of Liela Moss's Police Car (Chasing You), 2013's second best song about a police car, Debbie Smith's bellow on the innuendo of Sausage Man, it's even better than On the Balls, feeling more chaotic (the cadence of the vocals, which were probably more hastily recorded than On The Balls occasionally slips and clatters up against the forward power of the songs) and more vital, rougher. While both albums are fucking great, I'm picking this one if given the choice every time.

Like Who Killed Spikey Jacket?, like Who's a Punk?, like Fuck You! Get Pumped!, it's a joke than runs deeper, hides truths in the smile behind its mugging and gurning, stiob vs slobs, the communal catharsis of screaming "TWO CHORDS! TWO FINGERS!" or "YOU STILL 'ERE? WE TOLD YOU WHERE TO GO!" is strong no matter how silly it is. I've seen Hard Skin live maybe half a dozen times over the past two years (one of the joys of seeing them in London is the chance that one of the vocalists from Why Do Birds... might pop up and sing a song) and every time I've felt better afterwards, running out into a city of council estates, police cars, two bob cunts; fulfilled, feeling deeper and more cognizant, feeling unbreakable, heartstrong and in possession of some hardy urban truths, at one with the bullshit. "SING LOUD! SING PROUD! LET'S GET AT 'EM! THIS IS ANOTHER TERRACE ANTHEM!"

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