‘I’ve read the books of men and women and death / Stood in bars listening to conversations about Jesus Christ, and the refugees, and the Royal Family’.
I’ve been meaning to a write a piece about the band Leatherface for a while now. After getting back from the amazing Spirits of Place up in Liverpool, now seems to be a good time.
I think partly it has come out of discussions with the writer Dan Grace (Unsung Stories published his novella Winter recently, something I was very glad to work on). Through the usual Twitter-chat it turned out we were both fans of a specific strain of (mostly American) punk rock, a sub-genre that includes stuff like Jawbreaker, Hot Water Music and many other throaty-voiced melodic punk bands.
But the band considered to be one of key originators of the sound was the British band from Sunderland, Leatherface. Despite the horror-movie nod of their name, Leatherface are now regarded as one of the very best, most interesting and intelligent punk bands ever to come out of the UK.
Personally, their work is something I return to over and over – and in specific relation to my own writing, and the fields of landscape writing, psychogeography, folk horror, landscape punk and more.
Asides from the music itself, which is intricate, fast-paced and passionate (and, I think, a world away from traditional perceptions of sloppy, scrappy punk music), their lyrics and themes are something really worth investigating – especially if you have an interest in any of the topics I have covered in the earlier landscape punk posts.
Songwriter and lead singer, Frankie Stubbs, strikes me as almost an anomaly in the world of British punk music. Possessed with a whiskey-and-fags rasp reminiscent of Tom Waits, and with a kind of world-weary barroom philosopher stance, Stubbs’ lyrics have always fascinated and always held my attention; I find snippets of them popping into my head all the time, even making their way into numerous pieces of fiction. Even at the age of 17 when I was first listening to this stuff, I could tell this was about something. What it was, I wasn’t quite sure, but the snippets of meaning I started to glean from the songs helped provoke an interest in the all the thing I now write about. I'm grateful that I was lucky enough to see Leatherface play a few times in the early noughties (most memorable is their gig with Hot Water Music at the Highbury Garage in 2000 – a pivotal moment for me).
Capable of complex, melancholic yet strangely uplifting love songs like ‘Springtime’ and ‘Box Jellyfish’, lyrical and thought-provoking state-of-the-nation pieces like ‘Baked Potato' and ‘In the Real World’ and, most relevant here, a clutch of songs dealing directly with the British landscape (and I’m presuming the impact it had on Stubbs himself). Their LP The Last contains a piano-and-drums oddity called ‘Shipyards’, the closest thing I have yet that encapsulates the feelings about landscape and place I myself hold (in song form). It’s a beautiful song, addressing the death of British industry and with a crystal-clear evocation of the ideas that fuel place writing:
Throw the fishermen lines, close the shipyards and mines
Leaving only the water, we still have old wives tales
About the old days, deep lonely waters, the old days
The old days, deep lonely waters, the old days
We climb hills all the time, the riddles in our minds
And this I don't mind, but the hills in our minds
Cannot be measured in miles
Leatherface’s key album, something I consider absolutely essential and approaching Desert Island disc status, is 1991’s Mush. The album is brilliant from start to finish, and ends on an astonishing song, ‘Dead Industrial Atmosphere’ which I think I might make my landscape punk official anthem.
There's dark satanic mills and there's green and pleasant hills
Could be riding through Lancashire with all its
Witchcraft dead industrial air
You can hear a melancholy desert song
And smell George Orwell as a funeral goes on
Hopefully you can see this is pretty different to the usual ‘I hate the government and the police and don’t eat meat’ approach of much UK punk.
I’d really recommend having a listen if you don’t already know their work – if only as an example of how these ideas about place and landscape were always there and being explored by the people who you might not associate with the subject. There is depth here, and anger, beauty and grace.
Extra fun landscape punk bit of ephemera: you can watch Frankie Stubbs’ cameo in Emmerdale as a menacing skinhead accidentally booked to do a gig in the village.