❉ Ken Shinn pays tribute to “unashamed jesters of British Ska”, celebrated in a new boxed set released today.
The British Ska revival of the very late 1970s lasted through to the mid-1980s before it finally dissipated with one last graceful moonstomp, and it produced many bands that gained loyal and lasting cult followings, but among them all three stood out in particular.
The Specials were the serious face of Ska. Their lyrics were largely serious, dealing with subjects more often found in the kitchen-sink region of British drama, albeit occasionally shot through with mordant, venomous wit. Madness were Ska’s lighter side, their songs and videos reminiscent of some long-lost 1960s Swinging London film, but they touched often on surprisingly bleak subjects, from personal depression and heart attacks to apartheid and USA militarism. The Specials can be summed up with the earnest a capella screeching of Free Nelson Mandela, and Madness with the comedy teenager-nervous-about-buying-condoms-for-the-first-time of House Of Fun. The Specials were the acerbic wits, surprisingly intellectual for all of their vaunted scorn of higher education, Madness were the playful light entertainers, usually humorous but all-too-able to manage a middle of the show serious number. At one end, the satirist. At the other end, the cheeky chappy.
And then, stuck in the middle, were Bad Manners. The unashamed jesters of British Ska.
Like the other two bands, the Manners were a large combo, and like them they all whirled around a central anchor, a figurehead of a lead vocalist. But where Jerry Dammers and Graham ‘Suggs’ McPherson were aesthetic, almost beautiful in appearance – sharp suits and well-defined cheekbones, likely cult heart-throbs – Dougie Trendle, or more accurately his alter ego Buster Bloodvessel, was nobody’s idea of a likely sex symbol. A towering, bald mass of meat and blubber, his enormous tongue not so much used for bad-boy Gene Simmons lasciviousness as for blowing a huge raspberry at all of the overly-serious world, Buster must have known from the start that attempting solemnity looking like that was something of a non-starter.
Also, the band that gravitated around his immense bulk was a mob of shameless magpies. Where the Specials and Madness came out with largely original numbers, throwing in the odd carefully-chosen cover – Monkey Man, It Must Be Love – only occasionally, the Manners gleefully sprinkled their own musical fish and chips with plenty of stolen salt and vinegar. Woolly Bully, the eternal Monster Mash… Even their first chart hit of note, Ne-Ne Na-Na Na-Na Nu-Nu, was a blatant cover, with only the spelling changed slightly to protect the innocent.
That first chart hit, though, was as clear a manifesto as anyone could wish. There was to be nothing deep about the Manners’ oeuvre. Nothing sober, much less sombre. Theirs was the music of the crowded, ecstatic dance-floor. Where other British Ska bands proved capable of all manner of stately, intricate rhythms, the Manners went for the unashamed skinhead moonstomp, only now, even the non-skins could join in. Whenever the Specials or Madness danced, they did so with their own odd, choreographed grace. The Manners weren’t doing with that sort of thing. From beginning to end, their movement and their music were one large, inelegant, yet joyous lolloping gallop. The dance of the happy drunkard.
Because of this, their music can tend to blur into one for those who want more depth from their tunes. Yet this became a specific, paradoxical strength. If you wanted sharp-edged, bitter commentary, you went to the Specials. If you wanted jauntiness leavened with measures of pathos and gloom, you went to Madness. But if all that you wanted was a simple, old-fashioned good night out, then you drank deep from the intoxicating well of Bad Manners.
They didn’t sing about apartheid, or teenage pregnancy, or any of that stuff. Leave that to the cleverer bands. There was a place for it, and they could respect that – it just wasn’t for them. They sang about looking like an idiot on the dance-floor, and just not caring about it. About the simple pleasures of a good, honest drink. Even their single most arguably serious hit, Lorraine, is an ultimately optimistic tale of a lovers’ admittedly alarmingly physical spat, and eventual joyfully lustful reconciliation. And no, despite the ‘I’m gonna kill her’ refrain in the song’s earlier section, it’s not misogynistic. Go back, listen to it again, and you’ll find that Lorraine gives every bit as good as she gets.
And always, their music itself was redolent of fairgrounds, music halls, calliopes. There’s a certain wheezy cheeriness to it, no attempts at precise melodies or refined tunefulness. It’s music as raw, clumsy and unpolished as the lyrics, but its very lack of pretension gives it a certain authenticity that other British Ska bands could sometimes lack. It’s complete musical honesty with a crystal-clear mission statement, that statement being ‘fuck Art – let’s dance’. The downside of that, of course, was that no one was ever going to take them seriously. But, since they didn’t give a fig about that, then why should it matter?
That complete lack of airs and graces is a large part of what makes them seem, at first glance, to make for unlikely candidates for the pantheon of Cult. Putting it bluntly, you can’t see your average shoe-gazer getting a hell of a lot out of Bad Manners (which they could do with the Specials or Madness, if they squinted a bit). The sheer artlessness of Dougie and his pals seems to rule that out entirely. Special Brew? A song about how a fellow loves both his significant other and his beer, so much so that he simplistically equates them? Lip Up Fatty? A song about a lardarse careening about the club floor without a care in the World? A track called The Undersea Adventures Of Ivor The Engine? And you want me to take these idiots seriously?
But again, that’s the whole point of the joke. And it’s your loss if you insist on taking it seriously.
This is what makes Bad Manners worthy of Cult. By their very jocund innocence, they ensure that only some people will rally to their particular flag. In their own odd little way, they do take some time and effort to fully appreciate, their comical capers splitting them off into their own, unique little niche of pop culture. Unlike their British Ska contemporaries, Bad Manners never really changed, never really evolved, musically or thematically. They appeared fully-formed as what they meant to be, and that remained constant. They’re always, from Alpha to Omega, refreshingly direct, uncomplicated, and outright Bacchanalian.
Jerry Dammers and Suggs may have had their showman-like moments, their fondness for dressing up in costumes. But only Buster would dare go on Top Of The Pops dragged-up as the unlikeliest Folies Bergere girl of them all, to stomp and high-kick – well, as high as he could kick – through a high-speed rendition of the Can-Can.
Dammers was the eternal Establishment Club headline act. Suggs was the eternal off-beat comedian with a soul – move him back a couple of decades and it’s easy to see him doing something like The Strange World Of Gurney Slade. But Buster, from first to last, remained the unabashed Pantomime Dame – as lecherous, as graceless, as humorous, as in love with life as such a figure should be.
It’s taken a long time for Bad Manners to reach the point of respectful critical retrospective, but at long last it’s come true. The recent box-set release of the complete Manners albums from 1980 to 1985 by Cherry Red records, via their Pressure Drop division, and stuffed with an admirable array of rare bonus tracks, should stand as a delightful treasure trove for both their long-term fans, and as a welcome entry point for those who – more fool them – dismissed or ignored the band in days gone by.
Entirely fittingly, the packaging itself is decidedly no-nonsense – the five albums, Ska ‘N’ B, Loonee Tunes!, Gosh It’s…, Forging Ahead, and Mental Notes held in simple, individual cardboard sleeves, and the accompanying booklet less a comprehensive history than a tantalising collection of trivial gobbets about the band and their music. No luxurious jewel cases or high-flown pontification from ex-NME critics need apply. And again, for Bad Manners, that is so absolutely right that it’s damn near beautiful. Let the work speak for itself. That’ll do nicely, son.
Cult needn’t always be intellectual, high-flown, and impenetrable without at least a PhD or two to one’s name. Sometimes, it can be as simple as knowing the right night-spots to hit, the right booze to drink, the right people with whom to have a good time. So, listen to the music, shuffle up your feet, and move it to the rhythm of THE FAT-TY BEAT.
❉ Bad Manners: ‘The Albums 1980-85’ (Pressure Drop WPDROPBOX26) released August 24, 2018. RRP £21.99. Click here to order direct from Cherry Red Records.
❉ Ken Shinn is a lifelong fan of all things cult. His 54 years have seen him contribute to works overseen by the likes of TV Cream and the British Horror Films Group, as well as a whole batch of short stories of the fantastic, with his first novel on the way. Whatever the field, he intends to enjoy Cult in all its forms for many years to come.