Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Cock Sparrer - Forever

We are older for much longer than we're young. Though identity is forged in a roiling mass of hormones and adolescent passions, whiplash snaps of mood and circle, a stumbling procession of twentysomething mistakes, we spend a far longer period of our life letting those hard convictions and iron poses unspool gradually, shifting slowly and corrupting and tarnishing bit by bit with the implacable accretion of years. Which way these convictions bend, which rude form they calcify into is up for grabs, but those early formative thrusts, that first show, first pill, first shuddering wrack of heartbreak, those fights and triumphs continue to loom larger in the imagination and sense of self.

Bands are similar most of time. When we think of the Buzzcocks we remember first the pristine crop of perfect singles that they cranked out in the half-decade of their original incarnation, rather than their reunion which has been going steady for 28 years now. Wire are sixteen albums deep into a forty-odd year exploration of weird sonic places yet their name is perhaps still most likely to conjure the yelping headrush pogo of 12XU.

Cock Sparrer have, like Wire, been rolling along for coming up on half a century now, first formed as a bunch of teenagers in 1972, and they've long been a band that dealt in more than that rush of youth.

Their greatest album Shock Troops, released in 1983, was already moving past the hopeful bloody throb of some early punk being filled with songs that one could, had the term not already been taken, easily define as in attitude and ethos as 'post-punk': the keen political cynicism of Watch Your Back, Take 'Em All chronicling the casual cruelties of a music industry ride experienced and survived, Where Are They Now? calling to account some of 77's champions (Joe Strummer, Julie Burchill, Tony Parson, Jimmy Pursey) for their failure to stick by the ideals they espoused to their wide-eyed audiences hungry for something different (as of 2017 the answer to that question with regards to its subjects is : dead, cunt, cunt, engaged in an ongoing legal (and possibly philosophical) disputes to which of the two currently touring versions of their old band is the 'real' one). Even Shock Troops most confident declarations, We're Coming Back, England Belongs To Me, are songs of return and reaffirmation, in the face of doubt and fears, they're not mindless new bravery.

It's probably no surprise that Cock Sparrer later penned punk's finest old lad song to date, Because You're Young, a song that bolts the emotions of Yusuf Islam's Father and Son to the a series of crunching ringing chords and that East End bellow, a song of such weaponised paternalistic ruefulness that even its usage in a slick dayglo blockbuster like Guardians of the Galaxy can evoke a tickle of genuine feeling. This is a song that paints the inevitable clashes and missteps of youth with the sharp fondness of distance and time-worn experience. And that was released a full 23 years ago.

And it's now been a decade since their last album, 2007's Here We Stand, similarly full of songs impossible without a long life behind them like Did You Have a Nice Life Without Me?, a long-ago love ruminated upon wryly.

What has a band that's been around that long, been old that long, really got to say anymore? Where are they now?

Well they don't like social media for one thing. And yes that sounds like worst fucking old bloke shit imaginable, but somehow by taking an angle so far ignored by a thousand fuckshit hack thinkpieces, they make it entertaining. Cock Sparrer's take on the issue is that social media is just grassing on yourself, a perspective so far unconsidered and a whole lot more entertaining and plausible than any other I've encountered. The fact that it's also as catchy as anything helps, even if the idea of them referencing Linked In takes a while sink in.

Less explicitly dealing with the internet but still there in its bones, Nothing Like You is the song about the feeling of watching people you grow up with warp and shift rightwards, and in this day and age seems to apply most directly to the feeling of seeing someone you went to school with post an incoherent facebook rant about how great Nigel Farage is. "I  was born in a house like you/On a street like you/In a town like you" it bellows over the driving guitar and the same drumbeat they've been using since John Belushi was alive.

The album is smooth sounding. The riffs are wellworn and comfortable (I've Had Enough particularly recalls tourmates Rancid's Junkie Man), the guitar leads cut through with purpose, the vocals are warmed by decades. Nothing's unpredictable but that's really not the point here. Oi! has long been a cousin of pop-punk and its singalong anthems, leviathan choruses, terrace proud, that undeniable thrill of many voices drawn into one are utilised though in more than just platitudinous statements of unity.

Though of course they can do that if they want, and do it better than almost anyone. The album's bookended by a couple of solidarity anthems, One By One and Us Against the World, that are vague enough to apply to literally anyone but delivered with enough force to bring you along for the ride, get you singing along by halfway through the first chorus. Both recalling We're Coming Back in mode and One By One making explicit reference to their history, echoing Take Em All and namechecking Here We Stand.

Indeed, throughout the album the band's long history trails behind them, but it's used as weight and engine, lending depth and power to the songs that might seem trite in the hands of a band without their standing.

The chunky stomp of Believe displaying that dismissiveness that drove Watch Your Back still in full-force."You gotta try to enjoy life but that's a hard sell/When there's so many bastards in the world." Can't really argue with that. Believe also has a contemporary reference to internet trolls, more evidence of a band living in the present, aware of what's happening around them and not just falling into simple nostalgia.

Their penchant for character pieces like Riot Squad represented in songs like the bitter Family of One, the dismissive Contender which features maybe the best line on the album, "You were a bit of a cunt/But boy did you have some front", possibly the platonic ideal of an Oi! lyric. Even when you're old you still get your back put up by right dickheads.

Gonna Be Alright could be a companion to Because You're Young, here instead of a paternalistic headshaking at some teenage tearaway, it's aimed at the father seeing their daughter move beyond their parental grasp into a life of her own. Like that older song it has a tender sweetness built into it, one that is reinforced by this album's sweeping sincerity. There might be an implication that the person the song is directed at is on their way out and worried about a future they can't control. Punk is so good at screaming itself up in righteous fury at heavy fuckin wounds, massive sweeping blights, like police violence, toxic masculinity, nuclear war, that seeing that anthemic power pinpointed down to one terrifying personal moment of dark truth jars.

Every Step of the Way at first seeming like a similar number to Cockney Rejects' 2012 reactionary banger Your Country Needs You, instead morphing into something more. It's sung from the perspective of some rough-hewn guardian angel, standing beside people at the crucial moments that rise up before them to be fought through, not just war, but prison, cancer. Placing these more quotidian battles in the same lineage as the lionised fresh-faced soldiers of popular history. It's a fair stretch, but the depth of earnestness with which this whole album is delivered dares you to dismiss it as corny. The refusal to wink at itself, despite an obvious self-awareness that this band have long possessed, slowly comes into focus as something that could perhaps be thought of as dignity.

Like on Somebody's Brother, Somebody's Son, eschewing the gangfight bravado for the rawer useless consequence, a haunting breakdown of a life unlived, two families rended by a futile act.

Of course it's not perfect, even more so than Every Step of the Way, I've Had Enough skirts a certain Harry-Brown conservative line though it at least acknowledges the pointlessness of its self-pity. "We thought we were heroes/But it was just another day". Still, it's something of a misstep for a band that's been singing about thing's being kinda shit for 40 years sing about how uniquely bad it is that things are really shit now. I guess we all have days when we're all just fucked off with it.

But it doesn't succumb to such darkness and frustration. The London anthem In My Town finds the band still ready to roll on out and, despite the passage of years, maybe get on a bit of a mad one in a place that made them as "the night has secrets waiting to be found." It's not about a great night that they had many moons ago, it's about the fresh feelings possible, even if the environment that they're in is an intimately familiar one, Which is really what this album is. A certain balm at times but filled with life and loves, pains and pangs. A real life lived in a real tough world, the things that fall by the wayside, the ones that we hold close throughout it all. The things that matter.

Because where are they now? They're right here. How long will they be here? Well, not forever. We know that. But a while yet.