One night, after a particularly heavy pub session, we all piled back to a friend’s flat for more beer and music. In his inebriated state, a music blogger friend of mine insisted we listen to a new record called Divide and Exit by East Midlands group Sleaford Mods. He characterized them as hip-hop, not a genre of music I know particularly well, but Sleaford Mods’ combination of grinding mod guitars and anger filled lyrics captivated me instantly. This was the soundtrack to the age of government austerity. This was how people felt when punk first exploded onto the music scene in the mid 1970s. I wanted to recreate the scene from 24 Hour Party People, when after first seeing the Sex Pistols play, Tony Wilson (played by Steve Coogan) claims that all the music that had come before this was dead. I wanted to jump to my feet and rip down Oasis, Stereophonics and Arctic Monkeys posters. That was the soundtrack of the prosperous, optimistic New Labour era. Sleaford Mods is the soundtrack of NHS privatization, benefit sanctions and Etonian rule. I was instantly a fan.
Sleaford Mods are breathing some much-needed fresh air into popular music. They are different, crude and rude, but also shine a light onto the lives of ordinary people reminiscent of the work of L. S. Lowry. In an age when popular culture is dominated by Dragon’s Den and Benefits Street, Sleaford Mods show that we can aspire to more than the hollow worship of capitalism. They have been compared to the Sex Pistols and to the Specials, but I think it is a disservice to give them retro comparisons. We have too many throwbacks right now. Sleaford Mods are an original outfit, a product of 21st century Britain.
Mainstream popular culture often ignores the problems and challenges faced by ordinary people in a time of high unemployment, high cost of living, stagnant wages and benefit cuts. There is a growing middle class dominance of media and culture. Oasis and The Stone Roses came from Manchester council estates. Now we have the privately educated Frank Turner and Mumford and Sons. Sleaford Mods reflect ordinary people and everyday situations. Now, they are taking this a step further with a documentary called Invisible Britain, which looks at the places and people the middle class cultural hegemony overlooks. Invisible Britain puts the deindustrialisation, rising poverty and unemployment of places like Scunthorpe into a wider political and cultural context. It also documents the group’s tour of British towns overlooked by popular bands and the mainstream media. From decaying arts centers to boarded-up houses, this is a portrait of Britain as it is for most people, a million miles away from the pop-up shops or leafy suburbs of middle class life.
Invisible Britain articulates the social and economic problems of contemporary Britain very well. We are showed how our economic system is set up for the benefit of the few, that many lose out and that some people are thrown completely onto the scrap heap. Issues of social class are discussed overtly, which is refreshing. Our current political discourse is lacking a discussion of social class. This is partly because if we discuss social class, it would involve acknowledging that we are going backwards, that inequality is growing and that we becoming a more economically divided society. As barriers related to other forms of social exclusion come down, barriers between the social classes are rising. This is one of the few films that put inequality and the class divide front and centre.
Not only are working class people ignored by newspapers, TV shows , music and other popular culture mediums but working class people’s expressions of anger are being ignored. Sleaford Mods are loud and angry. Their music demands attention, they cannot be ignored and thus they are showing middle class Britain what they want to overlook: the growing class divide, the rising poverty, the growing sense of alienation and anger.
Most of the people who are interviewed for Invisible Britain are middle class. The film is stronger for focusing on Sleaford Mods’ fans, rather than lining up music journalists, but it does show that Sleaford Mods have a very middle class following. This is music by, and about, working class people but it is connecting with a liberal middle class audience. It is certainly good that middle class people have exposure to the working class other than Benefits Street - that is what the Tory government would prefer. The middle class presides over a popular culture industry that spreads ignorance other people, especially people outside the South East or the middle class. This is what allows the Tories to cut benefits, close Sure Start centres and axe preventive healthcare. This is what allows inequality to grow and for class divides to become more entrenched.
Invisible Britain shows the expressions of anger by the marginalised. The film talks to relatives of Mark Wood, who starved to death after being found fit to work by Atos and thus losing most of his benefits. The film also focuses on the campaign against joint enterprise convictions, which are disproportionately high in the black and Asian community. The film also shows the futility of the alternatives to the current government, a strong feeling of political disenfranchisement comes from the interviewees. The fans interviewed say that voting changes nothing and that Labour are as bad as the Tories. Invisible Britain shows the growing sense of alienation with politics that many people feel.
Some hope is are offered, Invisible Britain talks to local artist co-operatives, grass roots campaigners, food bank volunteers and trade union activists. However there is no wider political ideology mentioned that could bring about change. Sleaford Mods are expressly not a political band and the film shows an interesting distinction between the social commentary of the music of Sleaford Mods and other overtly political artists.
Britain needs a political solution to the problems shown in Invisible Britain. We need a consensus to tackle the problems of growing inequality, class divisions, middle class domination of popular culture and racist laws. One step towards a political solution would be distribute Invisible Britain as far and wide as possible. Many people should watch this film is to see what life is like outside their middle class metropolitan centrist bubble. Then maybe the shouts of anger will not be ignored.