“IN A WAY it’s beyond words. I’ve got so much respect for the way he lifted himself above the surroundings, that he was brought up in. He turned me onto something that went beyond cutting the sleeves off my leather jacket and stitching on the latest heavy metal band. He opened me up to the outside world and stopped me being insular. He opened up my heart to people.”
That’s Jim from the 25th Of May talking about his all-time hero Bob Marley. And the funny thing is, one day some kid is going to be saying exactly the same sort of thing about him and his band.
Lenin and McCarthy, the first LP from the group, will change a lot of things for a lot of people. It is the first coherent, heavily politicised critique of the dominant society since Crass. It ranks alongside the work of Public Enemy. It is savage – angry and intransigent. It presents a totality that is absent anywhere else – enraged and playful, critical and wilful, desperate and happy. With its attack of raw rock ‘n’ roll and torrid hard beats, it is a music that burns the air and the ears.
“It’s a common sense thing, really. It’s not contrived at all,” stresses Steve Swindelli, singer, public face and general scouse gobshite with the 25th Of May. Yet it’s a common sense informed by many things! “Working in a factory making coffin handles, the SWP, childhood memories and a genuine thirst for knowledge.”
The mention of the SWP (Socialist Worker’s Party) is a bit worrying. They’re a laughably half-baked gang of losers who want to be the vanguard, the leaders, of the working class. Surely great music is not produced by such orthodoxy sniffers?
“Nah, I’ve only been to a couple of their meetings and brought their paper,” replies Swindelli. “We’re not social workers either. We just relate to the state of unfair play going on and comment on it. It’s like people who are comfortably off – they don’t give a fuck about the unemployed or black kids, but they will give a fuck if those people start breaking into their houses and beating them up.
“Society needs to look at things with a broader perspective not just what’s in the arse pocket prior to the election. You have to take everything into consideration – the quality of life, the equality of other people’s lives, the stage at which humanity is at and whether it can really be seen as a civilised society. There can be no justification for someone having millions in the bank while there are a 100,000 people on the streets.”
If The 25th Of May are not exactly imposing new desires on the old goals of the utopia tendency of socialism, then at least their agenda of welfare, community and mutual support is heartening. Theirs is a critique based on suffering; each track on Lenin and McCarthy takes a specific social issue and analyses it within a framework of comment, qualification and conclusion, vehicled by tough rap and chant. For instance, we have the police, working class complicity with its own downfall, alienation and escapism, sterility of communication exemplified by 0898 culture, propaganda, and so on. What is more, it is a social criticism that recognises the need for great extended ideas without forgetting that the nature of social reality and the means to its transformation are not to be found in a study of power, but in a long clear look at the seemingly trivial gestures. Ya know what I mean?
“Yeah, it’s not a manifesto,” reiterates Swindelli, “every track starts with introspection first. I have to deal with my own everyday self first. For instance, on ‘Answer Back’, it’s, ‘What am I doing…?”
The onus on the ‘I’ is a necessary subjectification of what could simply become an unemotional, unswerving, disciplined commitment to a singularly glum and torturous body of thought. Yet it could easily be taken the wrong way. I can see Swindelli, singer in a band who should be against all hierarchies, lauded as a leader and saviour by people who should know better.
“Well,” says a nonplused Swindelli, “I’m just gonna have to make sure that I’ve got my rap sorted out, won’t I? Make sure that I know what I’m talking about, or keep my mouth shut. A lot of people just jump into things when they’re not informed.
“Public Enemy have got a Minister of Propaganda, so they know what they’re talking about when they enter into any given subject – it’s very difficult to catch them out. For instance, on the last LP they gave you the whole history of the New York Post – how it was set up, how there’s a subtle bias against minority groups, fantastic stuff…”Hey New York Post/Don’t brag or boast…” It’d be nice to do something like that, but I’m gonna try and read up myself.”
Which still leaves the question of a radical rock stereotype to be answered. And answered it will have to be, at one time or another.
“Yeah, but if you maintain the output of work and your tunes are still motivated, that in itself will quiet any criticism. You just do what you believe,” says Swindelli, innocently.
I tell him that people will be talking politics at him non stop 24 hours a day, for the next few years and by the end of that time he won’t know what the fuck he believes anymore.
“Hmmm,” he ponders, “that’s fair enough. There are complications of being involved in an industry that’s geared towards shutting you up. It can give you a lot of money, which always tones down any political rhetoric you might have.”
If The 25th Of May survive the process of “selling out”, which will inevitably come with the hits, or merely the accusations of ‘selling out’, people will always want them to do more, perhaps beyond just the music. Or, does history move along in cultural rather than merely political leaps? Or is it symbolic?
“It’s the ideas that are important,” stresses Swindelli, “in order for society to progress it has to be stimulated by ideas. We’re suffering from the same malediction as people in the States – nobody reads books. Also we’re getting a very one dimensional outlook from the press – a straightforward, well defined political analysis of world events – so it’s important within music to present a different viewpoint. Maybe it will imperceptibly alter consciousness and pose a few questions – people’s emancipation will only come form themselves, their own experience.”
Amongst all the political rhetoric, I ask Swindelli if he knows Raoul Vaneigem’s famous quote – “People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have a corpse in their mouth?” And if he has, does it mean anything to him?
“Yeah, I know it,” he states, “and it does mean something to me because I know what love is. It is compassion and empathy and wanting to do something other than just for your own gain. Something that will make someone else happy.”
Ultimately, I think the 25th Of May are cool. Their music is a rage rather than merely a rave, they do not ignore the outside world and are not entrenched in their own position. However, it must be realised that everything they have talked about, apart from the last two paragraphs, are just a start.
They themselves, within their most important song, ‘Fuck The Right To Vote’, know this. It talks about something beyond consensus politics. And anarchic and anarchistic something that promises more than the transfer of power between one ruling hierarchy and another. Something that doesn’t decide elections but makes them irrelevant. Something that nullifies society’s idea of happiness and its ideology of mere survival and creates autonomy and historical purposefulness against the poverty of commodity for the riches of time, realising the goal of a poetry made by all.
© Richard North, Siren, May 1992