Show them where you’re from: a trip round Darkstar’s Foam Island

Show them where you’re from: a trip round Darkstar’s Foam Island

When future historians come to make sense of our peculiarly disappointed moment (and good luck to them), some will no doubt wonder where the anger was. Every decade of the 20th century had its Marx-quoting middle classes and placard-bearers hailing the imminent end of capitalism. But recent political events have outstripped the imaginations of even the most jaded pessimists. In five years’ time there may be no effective welfare system or health and social care service to speak of. Austerity is re-elected, the prime minister inserts his penis into a dead pig and retains credibility, and the leader of the opposition is called a terrorist sympathiser for opposing another ill-thought out military disaster. Strange times.

There is a prevailing sense of paralysis and defeat all across ex-industrial Britain. And this particularly effects the young, who have not known anything else. So, what is their story?

Darkstar have set out to capture something of it in their third album, Foam Island (Warp records). Washed-out, woozy and subtly groovy, it’s electronica that pulses, bleeps and sighs over twelve tracks. There is a consistency of rhythm that connotes animation and motion, a light-touch percussion of peaceful getting-by over bleeding-heart dramatics. Most interesting of all, sampled into many of the songs are the voices of young people from Huddersfield, who the Darkstar duo interviewed over the summer of 2015, around the time of the general election. James Young and Aiden Whalley present here their findings, the hopes and desires of young people in one small town, as they endure and find spaces of pleasure and communal belonging.


Let’s start with “Stoke the Fire”, one of the strongest tracks on the album. It’s the album’s challenge to its subjects, beginning with a deceptively simple hooky beat and a scene-setting statement that says what it sees (‘Live in a wasteland, but hope for a palace’), one that taps into the underlying feeling of sarky resilience and dreams postponed round ‘ere. Textures cohere and take form over a building pulse. Low-key evocations match them, ‘take the challenge’, ‘the time to try has come’, ‘the hold of fate has swung’. It seeks out a truth written in the ordinary experiences and feelings written out of the mainstream media’s island story. ‘Stoke the fire, so young’ repeats the chorus. Something in that dormant energy, alive but self-contained, needing the oxygen of something to make itself known. ‘Show them where you’re from’. A mantra-like chorus follows, ‘speak or hold your tongue’, speak up, speak out, or let it pass, give up, give in, pass the baton, pass the mic.

Voice is often confused for authenticity: the voice of the young, the voice of the disenfranchised, etc. One shouldn’t forget who selects what voices, how they were edited down, or what questions they were asked. Darkstar approached young people around Huddersfield train station. Their frank approaches to strangers invited amusement and scepticism, and at times they were confused for undercover police. But it worked.

The ambitions of the album are best realised on “A Different Kind of Struggle”. They asked strangers about their lives, a question more complex than it sounds, and through building trust, established this. Darkstar’s voices, all young, a mixture of male and female, speak brightly of what they live for and their values. ‘Loyalty, kindness and honesty, just basic things’ gives the first track its title and focus, as a young woman’s voice repeats and is looped, Steve Reich-alike, as another man talks of the inter-connectedness of friends, and another young woman, of being able to feel herself. ‘I’m not a materialist person… it’s not a full thing’ says another in “Through the Motions”, bringing light to a lilting if often detached, affectless sound. ‘I’ve not experienced that much of the world’, says Javan, ‘and it’s because of that, I feel content here’. Friends, family, glimmers of hope between the ‘arrears’, ‘compromises… concrete structures’ composted into the story.

Community is a recurring motif, even a preoccupation, as Young and Whalley explore their own estrangement from a particularly Northern community. Though from Winsome, Cheshire and nearby Wakefield, respectively, Darkstar have spent the last few years in exile, working and recording in London. Both North (2010) and News from Nowhere (2013) tried in different ways to capture a sense of Northernness, a rare and possibly non-existent quality, associated with abandonment and anger. The production of the latter even involved living fifteen months in Slawaite, a village a few miles south-west of Huddersfield, in order to tap into this subterranean juice. But missing were voices, people’s actual experiences. So the summer they spent smoking and drinking with a crowd of young people, ‘like a holiday’ says Whalley, welcomed in.

One gets a sense of that intimacy in the album. ‘Ruskin Grove, we call it the Gaza’, says Daryl, tongue firmly in cheek, at the end of “Inherent in the Fibre”. We’re on a post-war housing estate in nearby Deighton, a strip where Daryl likes to sit back and watch the world. The police put a surveillance camera up, but it was quickly taken down by concerned locals. Laughter, easy times. ‘Enjoying the sun, drinking some brandy with you’.

The result is a rich series of documentary portraits that deserves praise for resisting the obvious clichés about Northern grimness or authenticity. In its focus on feeling, it does sometimes miss out the landscape necessary to contextualise these young people. The physical landscape of mass suburban housing estates and retail parks, the billboards and broken roads, is not here. The mental landscape, of underpaid, overworked inertia, being stuck in a place, or the ambient anxiety of social care responsibilities for disabled parents and friends as statutory services disappear, is only partly alluded to. ‘It sounds a bit bad, but I try to stay out of it’, says a young woman on “A Different Kind of Struggle”. Her words give this island its impermanent structure. ‘If I do start thinking about it I get worried. I’m in my own little bubble’.

Sleaford Mods are another group that’ll make the Austerity Britain mixtape of the future. Whilst Foam Island was being produced, two documentary film-makers followed the band on a tour of a number of small towns around Britain, filming shows and interviewing fans. The resulting documentary by Nathan Hannawin and Paul Sng, Invisible Britain, shares a common aim with Darkstar, using music as a form of documentary and expression of communities in Britain left behind, silenced or out of sight.

Interspersed between footage of Jason Williamson caustically and wonderfully berating jumped-up individuals in jobcentres, quiet streets or on Question Time, various protest causes set out their stall, from JENGBA (Joint Enterprise) to Unite the Union. Their earnestness is often out-of-kilter with the singer’s own scepticism about political change. What’s most interesting is his own meta-commentary on Sleaford Mods’ political significance to its fans. Like the young people on Foam Island, he’s capable and confident in expressing his own individual anger. But asked to give a political position he becomes awkward, resistant of the pressure to take the mantle of poet laureate for the disaffected working class. Whilst austerity and toffs in Westminster are the problem, the solution’s not clear. At one point he blames human nature for the political malaise.

Though two decades older than most residents of Foam Island, he taps into a similar current of contemporary anger, a more desperate one, ‘it’s a different kind of struggle now’, as an older woman describes, lending another track its title. One wracked with a kind of insular feeling, of being under attack. Though the inhabitants of Foam Island describe their small town as island-like, detached yet self-contained, easily overlooked from outside but with its own rich inner life, their comments seem better purposed to describing the inhabitants themselves. Under immense social pressure (‘like all councils round here, we’ll soon have less money to run local services’, goes a Kirklees council voiceover in the track “Cuts”, £83million cuts so far made, £69 million of ‘savings’ to go), the inner life of the mind remains intact, webbed in friendships and fantasies. ‘Ya distance yerself to concentrate on yer own journey’ says one girl on “Go Natural”. Such a resilient yet blinkered persistence in fantasies of individual survival and success, necessary as they are, are what Lauren Berlant calls ‘cruel optimism’. It makes for broken hearts.

This refusal to hold a consistent and positive political idea is often lauded. John Harris in the Guardian praised Foam Island for not sounding like protest music, and heralds its representation of ‘deep political disengagement’. His social journalism, a beacon of light in a sea of chinless mediocrity, is at times hamstrung by an unexplained contempt for ideas. It’s as if they’re some kind of rabbit-shit wholefood, foisted onto the dinner-plates of ordinary decent folk by a minority of highly-strung lefties, with their iPads, haircuts and intersectionality (cue tittering). This is not the case. There is something patronising and self-defeating in this attitude, one that at times strays into Jason Williamson’s talk. A hostility to being so pretentious as to have an idea and want to do something with it. ‘Jumped-up’ and ‘being pretentious’ are other ways of rendering having ‘ideas above your station’. In taking up the mic or the pen to simply narrate the futility of intellectual and political change, the effect is not unlike that of a sermon by the medieval clergy: passion, catharsis, emptiness, empty hope.

Darkstar were invited to perform last week at the Barbican on a bill with Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods, and others, as part of a series of events on social (im)mobility in the arts. The event was commendable in its political focus. Subjugation by Oxbridge toffs and private school bores has now been extended to music and the arts, and the only media channel now presenting working class lives is Channel 5’s regular slew of benefits misery entertainment. But many invited speakers on social class were either regular talking heads or leading academics, or involved in PR agencies. There was still the problem of the working class not speaking, of the term ‘class’ not even being said. Ordinary people were still out of shot.

This comes at a time when depictions of class are unclear. The traditional bastions of the organised Left have fallen short on description: radicals talk of the ‘multitude’ or ‘the 99%’ or, after the late Laclau, ‘the People’ (in a non-nationalist, empty signifier way, obviously), or ‘the count of the uncounted’. Yes, there are some valid theoretical reasons for this. But it’s effectively consistent with the popular narrative that class doesn’t exist, that the working class disappeared sometime in the 1990s. ‘We’re all middle class now’ – think on that famous line by Lord Prezza of Two Jags. It doesn’t matter that John Prescott never actually came out with it. Around 1996, the dawn of the Blair project, it was essentially true, it indicated a changing structure of feeling. You didn’t know any of them, and it didn’t apply to your friends, but probably everyone now was middle class, and if they weren’t, something was wrong with them – they weren’t working enough, were scrounging on benefits, not paying their way.

In this new world order, class is now something to be ashamed of, a sign of failure. It also explains why political movements that can speak the language of pride, fairness and community, whilst giving vent to its frustrations, are succeeding. The Left isn’t getting it, I hear talk of ‘rainy fascism island’. When I travelled around the island interviewing people, collecting their voices, it blew my mind how much courage, intellectual boldness, dreaming and disappointment I found. Island Story is intended as a barometer of this changing structure of feeling, one that makes the contemporary experience of working class like nothing else in history. That shame, that buried anger, there is nothing comparable in the 1980s or before. Young people are being brought up in it, breathing the air, taking on its shape and norms. And we don’t yet know what the effects of that will be.

Mike Savage and other sociologists have recently attempted to update our notions of class. In Social Class in the 21st Century (Penguin, 2015), they expand what class means, accounting for social, economic and cultural factors. Drawing on a UK survey of around 161,000 people, they offer seven new categories: the elite, established middle class, technical middle class, new affluent workers, traditional working class, emergent service workers, and the precariat. Yet the methodology is weak, as Danny Dorling has noted: these 161,000 people were a self-selecting sample found through a BBC online survey in 2011, which systematically over-estimated its own social status (a smaller representative survey of around 1000 was appended). Its dependence on cultural and social factors mean that, even if you’re a zero-hours care-home worker, having friends who are teachers or listening to classical music could catapult you into the middle classes. The categories themselves are weak: what retail or catering assistant or postal worker is a ‘new affluent worker’? Would you put carpenters in the lowest rung ‘precariat’, and NHS midwives in the ‘established middle class’? Most categories can be refolded back into working, middle and upper, whilst accounting for internal variables of age. But its most interesting contribution is its own inaccuracy. Who wants to be working class? Who even knows what it means?

Over the course of Foam Island there are frequent evocations of fate. ‘The hold of fate has swung’ repeats over “Stoke the Fire”. In “Go Natural” fate is said to be ‘in disguise’, the pre-determination of events unclear to us but not the gods. Later in “Pin Secure” we’re encouraged to challenge what appears as fate, self-fulfilling prophecy, with ‘you call it fate’ – perhaps it is not. Then in “Foam Island” ‘his fate is scarred’, it burdens one who believes it so. There is no better word to sum up everything at stake now than fate: the bitter acceptance of what must come, like it did in the 1980s or the 1930s. Or to fight back, kick against the pricks, bring war against the gods, not out of hope for success, but because it’s the necessary and right thing to do. It all comes down to fate, or fatalism, however you see it. The naturalisation and normalisation of defeat is one of the most powerful functions of ideology.

‘In a positive way now, it’s about how our country’s run’, says a young guy on “A Different Kind of Struggle”. Seeing a way out of fate involves imagination. The idea of Foam Island came accidentally, when Darkstar watched a documentary about the Sex Pistols’ Xmas gigs in Huddersfield in 1977. They did a benefit show for the children of striking firemen. Entrance was free and the kids were given presents (all Sex Pistols merch, granted). Johnny Rotten stuck his face in a big cake and the children jumped on top of him. Now middle-aged, those kids there were electrified by it, by that show of support and the energy they brought. They recall it vividly. It indicated another possibility.

There is a value in documentary work like this: it brings to light how people feel, shows us that others feel as we do, that our grievances are common, and the cause clear. They are more limited in imagining what could happen. A voice can only relay the present spectrum of imaginary possibility, what political strategists call the ‘Overton window’. What lies next is imagining what might be possible. For that we have glimmers and stories, half-shots of memory, detached voices. Johnny Rotten in a Huddersfield nightclub narrating ‘Anarchy in the UK’ to pogoing teenagers; a member of King Mob dressed up as Santa, giving out ‘free’ toys to children in Selfridge’s; Tony Benn drawing up plans to democratise the running of the UK’s mostly publicly-owned industries; all moments, moments of something, like that revelatory vision of ‘one tone, clarity’ that ends Foam Island on “Days Burn Blue”.

That’s what makes Foam Island an interesting and worthwhile project. For all the problems of voice, they didn’t wheel out journalists, established artists and youth workers to speak for the young; instead, they asked them themselves. The resulting picture is richer for it, and the album combines occasional dabbles in melancholia (“Foam Island”) or political commentary (“Cuts”) with some light-hearted, upbeat grooves (“Go Natural”, “Inherent in the Fibre”). Whilst they might have gone further, and longer, integrating their young collaborators into the music itself, perhaps collectively writing lyrics to one or two tracks, it is a very good album.