“Great music! It’s got a beat and you can dance to it…”
Popes of Chillitown describe themselves as ska-punk-dubsters incorporating hip hop and drum & bass influences. When I saw the promotional description, I was in the middle of doing a review for The Dub Righters, who are also from London, use a similar description and even came to my attention via the same Wall of Sound PR company. “Well England’s a tiny lil’ place,” said the mental American settler colonist that’s attached itself to back of my neck like a more insidiously designed facehugger and is slowly worming its way in, “how much variety can you expect there to be?” Putting the two releases alongside one another however illustrates why people (certainly not me and certainly a dwindling number) are still able to make money by using words to try and cleverly describe shit. If the ska punk scene in the UK is remotely like it was in the early-mid-2000s the bands will probably appeal to two different crowds with a minority of crossover. Popes of Chillitown certainly seem to be fans of that era, making what I’d describe as a golden age Household Names Records sound.
It’s about that Retromania time where those of us involved can look back at the period fondly with enough distance to analyse it, however fairly. The upcoming Lightyear-led documentary, This Music Doesn’t Belong To You, has got me pretty excited. I’d complain about such nostalgia being a bad thing, except that, to be honest, as I’ve alluded to before, pretty much all music is more stuck these days than it has been in the history of recordings. It’s just exponentially harder to be original, and I can’t blame any musician who wants to go back to try and figure out where a potential progressive turn was overlooked. Other first impressions of note: the title Work Hard, Play Hard, See You In The Graveyard segues with the final witticisms of my previous review, Epic Beard Men, so they get credit for accidental slick continuity (the two also share an odd affection for putting engulfing tentacles in their artwork). Next is the bands’ inclusion in the “good music, terrible fucking name” club, under the leadership of The Front Bottoms.
Let’s get specific. Aesthetically I’d say this reminds me most of Cardiff’s Adequate 7. That might partially be because they’re a large group of skinny, handsome boys saying intelligent things, but I think it’s good musically too. Take the track Prang, an opener that is Top Upfront rather than a Front Bottom. It seems to be about selling out/”buying in” slowly as you get older, feeling that once youthful idealism get chipped away but also non-regretfully reshaped. Apparently prang is London slang meaning crash, i.e. “I know we’re all heading for that adult crash.” The video has a low budget charm and I love the stuttering bridge. Like most of the other 4-minute-average songs here Prang changes direction constantly within its boundaries. In my opinion, the best ska music either works closely with punk, with a thick rhythm section and experimentation, or is all in on one of the original ska waves; not floundering in-between, drowning in non-complementary horns. You have all those members, so they may as well be doing different things. Some, like No Manners in Ireland showcase the good solid riffs of a Mouthwash or Capdown. Lego Prisoners begins as a shimmering dub cut, before flowing into a series of rowdy punked bottlenecks. The interlude Graveyard is a groovy bassline riding Beastie Boys muck about, or Fugazi meets that I Don’t Smoke tune making fun of Jim Davidson twonks. (See my Dub Righters review for thoughts on the “Jamaican accents in English ska” issue; for some unencouraging reason this is the sole track the band haven’t released lyrics for.)
I was concerned — reasonably, I think – that the title of this album might be a laddish celebration of “living for the weekend but blindly reveling in it with no further thought as to whether that might be physically or spiritually deadening.” It is not, and my enjoyment of Work Hard… went up quite a lot once I gave it a closer analysis. You’ll find the title being repeated during the fast-paced outro of The Last Elephant, where vocalist Matt Conner notes that if you’re doing little but working and consuming you can hardly expect the world to get better, not least on the environmental front. When faced with the challenges of war, ecocide, accompanying famine and the destruction of the social(ist) fabric, finding Inner Peace is a tough nut. Especially when our own salvations and escapes put us at odds with the needs of others: “Figuring out my problems on my own at the expense of the rest of the world / I want freedom but only for me cos the problems of humanity are getting far too much for me.” You slowly realise how depressing the cover image of the figure bathed in monitor light is, that place where we increasingly spend both our work and play time (I can’t say I’m typing this in a park surrounded by birds).
Elsewhere, we are as likely to end up broken as as our electronics are to end up in Ghana dumping sites. Work hard, play hard, see you in the e-graveyard. Get Off/Get On and Vexed seem to be about addiction, and the guilt of knowing that your problems affect the ones around you. No man is an island, and if you think you are, you’re an “ignorant immigrant” claiming ”this land” was ever yours alone. These lines are pretty funny given the presumably misheard title of the track they come from (No Manners In Ireland). Extra points for the Gaelic line “póg mo thóin” (kiss my arse). Upside Down might be a reference to various 17th century protest songs that were popularised by Billy Bragg and Chumbawamba, about putting all the bastards at the bottom of the heap for a change. The Popes’ is about political sterility and the ensuing stalemate on progress. “If it happens in Syria it’s not very serious / but when it happens nearer everybody gets delirious.” Speaking of which — and of fresh outrages — fuck the Israeli military and their violent maintenance of the Gaza open air prison. Your scum certification is as certain as that of a suicide bomber in a Manchester music arena.
Album highlight Lego Prisoners asks if we aren’t living in lockups of our own building, in a laudable attack on the convenience industry. It’s as if to contemplate the collapse of the conditions that sustain life, then look around at the interlocked plastic and metal shite of our so-called economy and ask, “this is what we do it for?” At least I don’t have to go to a real place and interact with another person, because that would be so terrible. I can use all that time instead on Amazon Video, scrolling through a dogshit of a user interface looking for something to fill the fucking void.
It will quite possibly horrify POC to see their art presented full colour in my dour salad dressing. What we have here is an example of depth hidden deep beneath a dancing beat. It’s telling that the record opens with the “great beat and you can dance to it” quote, a line popularised by teens on the music programme American Bandstand. The kids were reviewing popular songs and suggesting that there was little further immersed within them, which is kind of how WHPHSYITG (ugh, that looks as bad as Popes of Chillitown) appears to be until you scratch the surface. This approach is a double edged sword. I can’t decide if it’s subversive genius, a marketing misstep or (more than likely) the natural punk ‘n’ mix of the serious with the humorous. Hopefully you’ll get some people skanking that will consider these issues a bit more deeply through their enjoyment of the band. And political acts that are a mediocre listen have limited appeal. Maybe I’m not giving kids enough credit and finding it too easy to remember the gurning mugs on checkerboard posters, rather than the conversations we had as message boards posters.
As quality as this all sounds on a good pair of hopefully-not-e-dump-bound headphones, this music is best suited for a gig in a small venue, or a club. Prang would have killed it back at Bomb Ibiza. Admittedly, this observation doesn’t do much for me in my current location, where most residents think a club is just an implement for dispersing homeless people so you can build a gourmet biscuit restaurant. But I can enjoy using my imagination, a muscle that the narratives within these bangers spurs very well. And dance in my living room when I’m supposed to be working myself into the dirt.
You can hear Work Hard, Play Hard, See You In The Graveyard at bandcamp or on the player below. You can watch the Popes of Chillitown at various UK festivals and dates from late May through August (see their website).
This seems an appropriate place to raise a glass to super producer/remixer Tim G, who passed away earlier this month. I didn’t know Tim personally, but he played a big part in the sound of many 2000s Northern ska bands such as Sonic Boom Six, Random Hand and Stand Out Riot. He also played guitar in Harijan. Rest in Peace.