A rumble on the horizon. Gritted teeth, nuclear fizz and fissured rock. A dab of pill dust from a linty pocket before it hits: the atom split, pool table overturned, pint glass smashed — valley fever breaking with the clouds as the inertia of small town life is well and truly disrupted. Here to bust out of Doledrum, clad in a t-shirt that screams SOCIALISM and armed with drum machine, synth, pedal and icy stare are Working Men’s Club, and their self-titled debut album.
It’s hard to believe that the three fresh-faced music college kids who bounced out of nowhere and onto the 6 Music playlist with the sweet-but-potent, twangy guitar-led ‘Bad Blood’ (Melodic Records) in 2019 are the same band who clattered back there with maddening techno-cowbellpuncher ‘Teeth’ less than half a year later — and that’s because for the most part, they’re not. Having signed to Heavenly and with the hype around them building, underlying tensions came to a boil a mere five days before the band’s all-important first London headline show, and wunderkind frontman Syd Minsky-Sargeant was left high and dry; guitarist Giulia Bonometti had decided to focus on her blossoming solo career, and drummer Jake Bogacki was against the new electronic direction Minsky-Sargeant saw Working Men’s Club taking. (“I guess WMC started off as a bit more guitar-based, tryna copy stuff in our own way, like the Velvets and stuff like that, but I didn’t want it to be that anymore. It became dancier and dancier as I tried to experiment”, he explains.) All that remained of the outfit was Minsky-Sargeant himself, recently recruited bassist Liam Ogburn, and — given the band’s indebtment to wood panelled, community-run venues for an early leg-up — a rather pertinent name. But with staunch determination burning in his belly, Minsky-Sargeant quickly assembled a lineup consisting of himself, Ogburn, and Mairead O'Connor (The Moonlandingz) and Rob Graham (Drenge, Baba Naga) — both of whom he had met at the Sheffield studio of producer Ross Orton (The Fall, M.I.A., Arctic Monkeys) — replaced the live drums with a drum machine, and rush-rehearsed the new setup before going ahead with the show. “If it wasn’t for Sheffield then we probably wouldn’t have played that gig” he says. “I was shitting myself, because I didn’t know what would work or not.” Luckily, something stuck: “After about three gigs with that lineup it was already way better than what we’d had before.” Two original members lighter and three new ones the richer, Working Men’s Club took on a new hard-edge permutation, their shows becoming ever more sweaty, pulsating and rammed to the rafters; their energy raw; their vigour renewed; their interplay as musicians growing ever-more intuitive and elastic. Their eponymous collection of songs is equal parts Calder Valley restlessness and raw Sheffield steel; guitars locking horns with floor-filling beats, synths masquerading as drums and Minsky-Sargeant’s scratchy, electrifying bedroom demos brought to their full potential by Orton’s blade-sharp yet sensitive production.
It was at home in the town of Todmorden in the Calder Valley, West Yorkshire, feeling hemmed in, that 18-year-old Syd Minsky-Sargeant first began assembling these 10 songs. “There’s not much going on, not much stuff to do as a teenager” he says. “It’s quite isolated. And it can get quite depressing being in a town where in the winter it gets light at nine in the morning and dark at four”. It is this sense of cabin fever, of “thinking that you will never escape a small town in the middle of nowhere” on which the album opens, with the boredom-lamenting and rave-reminiscent ‘Valleys’. In a post-punk talk-sing over an old-skool beat, Minsky-Sargeant begins:
Trapped, inside a town, inside my mind
Stuck with no ideas, I’m running out of time
There’s no quick escape, so many mistakes, I’ll play the long game
This winter is a curse
And the valley is my hearse, when will it take me to the grave?
Fortunately for Syd and a thousand other bored-shitless, dark-dwelling teenagers, the Calder Valley boasts a burgeoning grassroots music scene, chiefly centred around The Golden Lion in Todmorden, and the Trades Club in Hebden Bridge — both of which were instrumental in the early life of the band. “Without those venues we probably wouldn’t have been able to get into playing live music”, Minsky-Sargeant reflects. Working Men’s Club’s first ever gig, at The Golden Lion, was self-booked and self-promoted, landlord Waka having allowed the band to use the 100-capacity room above the pub for free. Even before booking himself onto the stage though, Minsky-Sargeant regularly snuck into the venue to watch the internationally renowned DJs, like Justin Robertson and Luke Unabomber, who passed through its doors. This, combined with the discovery of 808 State, his stepdad’s extensive afrobeat record collection, YouTube videos of Jeff Mills making beats on a Roland TR-909, and a chance festival encounter with Soulwax, provided sustenance and inspiration for Working Men’s Club’s developing sound. Though it is songs almost entirely written and sung by Minsky-Sargeant that appear on the record, he is quick to point out the influence of the other members of his band on the record too; that “everyone that’s been involved in this band, from the old lineup to the new lineup, played on the record, contributed and shaped it in some way, through the phases”, wheedling in and around Minsky-Sargeant’s songs, embellishing them with their own bass, guitar, key or backing vocal parts. And without Orton, “it wouldn’t have been half as good a record.” Working with the producer radically changed MinskySargeant’s songwriting practice — “I tried to replicate what he was doing in his studio in my bedroom, and think more about drum sounds and making them more complicated and messing around with synths and stuff like that. It made me think about more components than just a guitar.”
The songs following ‘Valleys’ come fast and relentless — momentum ever increasing, mission well and truly stated as the frenetic, pew-pewing ‘A.A.A.A’ speeds through to nonchalant existential groove ‘John Cooper Clarke’ — centred around the realisation that yes, even the luckiest guy alive, the Bard of Salford himself, will someday die.
Hard holds hands with soft, and rough with smooth. On washily-vocalled, Orange Juicily-guitared ‘White Rooms and People’, there are simultaneously beautifully blooming flowers and ‘people talking shit about you’, and the hazy, ricocheting ‘Outside’, the gentlest track on the album, flips straight into the tough-as-shit, industrially-geared ‘Be My Guest’, which opens the second half of the record with markedly E. Smithian brio. The opening bars of ‘Cook A Coffee’ are momentarily reminiscent of ‘Bad Blood’, but spiral into direct and uncomfortable eye contact in song-form; a lost Joy Division number from an alternate universe, about taking a dump live on the telly. ‘Tomorrow’ glitches and glimmers, whilst outro track ‘Angel’ moves between psychedelic languidity and hardcore thrash, the album playing itself out on a 12-and-a-half-minute noodle.
It is with war, free-fall, and re-birth already behind them that Working Men’s Club emerge, resilient; inspiration from across breadth of eras, genres and tour-mates merely strata in their very own indie-cum-dance-cum-techno niche in the crag.
Diva Harris, February 2020
STAFF COMMENTS says:
It's perhaps unsurprising that a band from the Calder Valley on the edge of the Pennines draws on influences from both sides of the hills. Todmorden’s WMC have done just that, splicing the synth led sounds of 80s Sheffield with doomy Mancunian post punk stylings to create a forward thinking monster of a debut album. The acidic synths and pulsing beat of album opener “Valleys” encapsulate the claustrophobia of growing up in a small town and the smothering intensity is maintained through the industrial clatter of “A.A.A.A.”. With its funk fuelled grooves, nonchalant vocals and bitter sweet chorus, “John Cooper Clarke” could easily be an undiscovered classic from early Factory days. As side one draws to a close, the mood is lifted with the choppy guitar groove of “White Rooms and People”, and on “Outside”, it feels like they’ve escaped the town for sun kissed wide open spaces. Side two reverts to pounding industrial grooves and distorted guitars on “Be My Guest”. “Tomorrow” marries monotone vocals with a super catchy chorus while “Cook a Coffee” takes a cheeky snipe at a certain TV presenter. “Teeth” is aimed squarely at the dancefloor with its relentless synth stabs interwoven with doomy guitar riffs and “Angel” brings the album to a triumphant close: Jangling guitars and crashing cymbals over a driving rhythm that morphs into a sprawling psychedelic wig-out.
They set out to make a dance record that wouldn’t be pigeonholed as a dance record. I think they’ve nailed it.
3 John Cooper Clarke
4 White Rooms And People
6 Be My Guest
8 Cook A Coffee