There’s a pattern that emerges throughout JD Taylor’s ‘Island Story: Journeys Through Unfamiliar Britain’, a cycling tour come realist meditation on the dereliction of Britain’s modern landscape and the marginalization that inhibits those within it. From its pluralistic city centres to the drearier recesses of its suburbs, towns, villages and rural areas, Taylor finds scant prospects for the young, voids left by deindustrialisation yet to be filled, bewilderment at the state of the nation and little hope for remedy and alternative possibility. He records this, not only through open conversation with the people he meets, but through his perceptive documentation of the drab landscapes he negotiates. Such territories are often uniform and indistinguishable. The ubiquity of pound shops, takeaways, retail parks, chain pubs and little else. They’re the non-places we know and disregard yet live in day to day, those which form the backdrop of ordinary life in contemporary Britain, an unassuming but dispiriting environment in which to stagnate and accept what we’re given, roll over, be grateful and expire. Explicit in Taylor’s deliberations is a critique of this situation, of the social and political context that led us here. His consideration of these circumstances and bemusement at their enduring indelibility, characterised by nuanced, diplomatic contemplation and not the usual righteous, myopic condemnation allows for a rare insight into how and why we are where we are. Though the picture Taylor presents is often discouraging, he finds friends, families and individuals who work, live and thrive despite the difficulty. Delineated too is a history of dissent that runs counter to the consensus that resistance is impossible and Little England’s apathy and compliance the only way. Lives and histories that present resilience and defiance against the odds.
Bad Breeding are a band that acknowledge the same realities, of growing up and going nowhere in this debilitating stranglehold. Yet in the same way that Taylor’s inquisitive eye offers a potential route out of these problems through preliminary understanding, Bad Breeding offer a way to relieve them through an industrial anarcho-punk suffused with indignant venom and cathartic havoc. Themes of decay, alienation and self-loathing pervade the scathing lyricism and early hardcore-esque barks of frontman Christopher Dodd and the vehement blasts that erupt around him have all the militant exhilaration of first wave punk, without the trappings of dogma and staid formulas. Instead the band are equivalent to a living, breathing, predatory rage, one that possesses a keener sense of intelligence and experimentation than the imitative, nostalgic or misdirected. All these qualities result in a sound which, at times, is as viciously degraded as the Brainbombs, as conscious and interrogatory as Crass and as vital and grave as early antecedents like Crisis and The Mob. They’re the band you imagine could have turned up in Laura Oldfield Ford’s situationist zine memoir ‘Savage Messiah’, a group of relegated individuals responding to adversity with a fierce, idealistic snarl.
The relevance of the band’s identity to Taylor and Ford’s work only becomes more pronounced once our conversation begins, as we discuss their origins. The band hail from Stevenage, a commuter-belt town that shares many of the typical disadvantages of the areas that are traversed and scrutinized in ‘Island Story’ and ‘Savage Messiah’: encroachment of private investment, dissipation of state support, a drought of opportunity, a mundane erasure of possible futures. There’s the same signs of a troubling subjugation here. But the details, as always, are different…
The majority of the band - Christopher Dodd (vocals), Charlie Rose (bass) and Ashlea Bennett (drums) - met at secondary school and played football against each other for different Sunday league teams whilst a recent addition, Jose (guitar), connected with them through friends and through shared political interests. A combination of free music lessons, courtesy of GCSE music at a state school – a rare, permissive allowance that has since been scrapped – and the pluck derived from self-taught experiments gave them the competence necessary to play together, whilst other influences contributed to their eventual maturation, including the record collection of Dodd’s father:
‘[He had] lots of bits on Crass Records, Clay and Spiderleg, but also some amazing Scottish stuff: Josef K, The Fire Engines and a lot of Postcard bands too. At first I was just into all the artwork and then when I started really giving them a listen it opened up a lot of things for me.’
Despite the liberating potential offered by these encounters it wasn’t until much later, when Dodd started writing lyrics, that Bad Breeding arose as a fully-fledged project.
The foundations of the band’s existence rest, not only on growing up together, a few influential records and the decision to start setting pen to paper, but, as Dodd attests, the impulse to redress how working-class communities like their own are commonly (mis)portrayed:
‘I think Bad Breeding was initially born out of a frustration at the way communities like Stevenage are represented, both artistically and through wider cultural mediums - in the press, in literature and on television. The main driver was trying to challenge some of those preconceptions and stereotypes that surround being from a supposedly “working-class” town.’
The challenge the band invoke is rooted in a grounded understanding of where they come from and it’s telling that, rather than reciting personal recollections ad nauseam, [Christopher] Dodd prefers to outlay a local history, one that comes as an ideal introduction for those unfamiliar with their home territory:
‘Stevenage is the kind of place that has suffered from the contemporary pursuit of a neoliberal agenda. The town is home to a large proportion of low-income communities, but is increasingly becoming a place for private investment to earn a bit of coin. Since its inception after the Second World War, Stevenage has always had an intrinsic relationship with the state - especially when considering its role as one of the first New Towns. However, during the 20 odd years I’ve spent here the state has had to retreat from people’s lives to such an extent that a lot of people struggle.’
After delineating some of the history of home Dodd traces his own upbringing but is keen not to overstate the difficulties of his own situation as compared with others:
‘[My experience growing up in Stevenage was] pretty standard really although it’s certainly a place of hardship for a lot of people. Our parents worked in either construction or admin while we were growing up.’ These formative years have equipped the band with an attitude rooted in perspective, practicality and a vigilance where the social and the political are concerned: ‘Stevenage fills you with a decent understanding of pragmatism and I’d say that probably manifests in what we do. I’d argue that living here certainly makes a number of political and societal issues more acutely visible and that obviously contributes to much of the lyrical material in the songs.’
Although it’s natural to expect a hometown to hold some significance for any artistic endeavour it’s still refreshing to hear a place which is often consigned to the margins given such consideration. Sometimes the pretence of artists apparently living out an endlessly fulfilling creative life in London or Berlin gets tedious, an exaggerated ideal that doesn’t chime with the current realities of many, especially those who live in towns like Stevenage. Contrary to such posturing, the experience of growing up in a peripheral place is a central tenet of the band’s identity, not a fact to escape from or deny. And this experience isn’t thought of lightly. There’s a sense that Dodd and the band are invested in an interrogation of the circumstances that define this experience.
Further demonstrating the extent of Dodd’s ruminations on the subject, he continues with his thoughts on state intervention in the town (or the lack thereof) identifying an apparatus that does little to alleviate everyday fallout. Before long he also singles out an infrastructure (primarily the railway network) that - due to an influx of middle class commuters and extortionate prices - precludes young people from being able to afford to pursue careers or experience art and culture beyond the limited resources of the local. The consequences are significant: ‘It leads to this lasting feeling of isolation… of disenfranchisement. In some ways it’s social exclusion hiding in plain sight.’
Although Stevenage is a place with its own histories, complexities and problems Dodd is cogent about what has contributed to the disillusionment of many of its inhabitants, and points out that the reasons are endemic, not only to Stevenage but to the new towns movement as a whole, a project that was supposed to offer a better, more communal way of life than what was perceived as the congestion, claustrophobia and harsh conditions of London’s inner-city areas:
‘Obviously when you look at the social makeup of the town you have some idea of where the frustrations come from. Stevenage was originally created as a mechanism for progressive social planning, but what you experience now could not be further from that idea. It’s sort of the same as what you’d experience in a number of New Towns across the UK: vulnerable people being cut adrift at the hands of a ruling few that show nothing but contempt for the people they are meant to represent. I’m not solely talking about those suffering at the mercy of welfare cuts either, but also people pulling 40-hour weeks and still struggling to feed their families or find an affordable place to live.’
Many might dismiss this as contextual information that can be sidelined once the music starts but with Bad Breeding this would be a denial of their prevailing ideas and engagements. After all, this was a band that circulated a political pamphlet entitled ‘An End To Silence’ with the release of their latest record ‘Divide’, a powerful polemic on the rise of the right, the manipulations that assured their ascent and the importance of challenging their attempts to attain power. Although there are many artists understandably keen to declare political consciousness in the current climate, the rigour with which they do so can, at times, be tame and unconvincing. If nothing else this pamphlet denoted conviction and the way the author - Jake Farrell the band’s friend and collaborator - reflects on the missive now suggests that the band’s collective resolve hasn’t waned in the wake of recent events:
‘Clearly the recent General Election result was a tonic to some of the anger and alienation that drove the essay. It was a timely reminder that for many people out there the basic principle of a more just society isn't the radical impossibility it's portrayed to be in the right-wing press - it's welcome and something that people are hungry for. The overall argument rather than emotion behind the piece still stands really, perhaps more than ever, that we need to make our voices heard in forceful and creative ways and wrest back the vision of what the country and the world can be from the insipid, morally-bankrupt bigots that are still, like it or not, running things. We have made a start on changing the conversation and that ultimately makes it even more important that we continue to work hard and don't let this tide of energy for change recede. That would perhaps be the most bitter outcome, to have had a taste of something new but to never bring its promise to fruition. Farage, the toxic ideology of austerity and the right-wing press have been wounded - but we need to continue to be relentless in our opposition.’
Conveying a sense of solidarity with these sentiments Dodd expands upon the nature of these ideologies and the strategies that can ensure an effective opposition against them:
‘Yeah, I’d agree with what Jake has said. I think much of what was discussed in that essay has become more pertinent too when considering how prominent the failures of austerity have proven in recent months. The result obviously shows some desire for change, but what I think has been most important in the wake of the election has been the increasing exposure of how damaging a Conservative government allied with a heinous right-wing press can be. The environment nurtured over the past eight years has been toxic, not only for those in denigrated communities, but also for people consistently battered by government measures that have sought to punish those hit hardest by difficult economic conditions. Personally I think there have always been more effective ways to offset the impact of public expenditure and reduce the so-called ‘deficit’. I don’t believe austerity has ever really been about pragmatic economics. It’s been about punishment. It’s an unjustifiable con enacted to target the vulnerable.’
Far from the usual complacency of retweeting Guardian pieces and crying foul on Twitter, Dodd perceives that there are more useful, direct means of action that can help provoke conversation and ultimately fuel change:
‘For the most part I feel like these failures have been brought into public conversation a lot more following the election campaigns. To me that can only be a positive thing. It’s all well and good left-leaning columnists decrying social cleansing, but what’s really needed is that feeling of injustice to be recognised at a wider, more publicly-discussed level and the election results have alluded to that potentially beginning to take a slightly more noticeable form.’
All of this points to a realistic apprehension of the social and political structures that, to varying extents, dictate both their everyday and creative lives. As for the record itself, it's dominated by the urge to denounce, from the humiliation and exploitation of the vulnerable on ‘Whip Hand’ to the ‘misogynist tendencies’ highlighted on ‘Entrenched’. The latter was inspired by experiences working construction jobs, specifically the ‘toxic masculine agendas’ Dodd has periodically came across. Although there’s a clear sense of contentious urgency throughout the record ‘Divide’ is not an attempt to confer a superiority of opinion, of a belief that they hold all the answers. Instead, in form and content, it’s an attempt to parallel the precariousness felt during and beyond the Brexit campaigns, as well as to channel the consequences of other important issues:
‘Compared with the first record, the on-going theatre, distortion and political misdirection that surrounded the respective Brexit campaigns arguably gave us more of a structured narrative to shape the record around, but it does touch on a number of other things too. One defining element of that time for me was the sheer scale of confusion and claustrophobia that clouded those conversations and debates in the media. We made a particular attempt to mirror that uncertainty when we came to make the record.’
‘Divide’ then, is a record that is often directed at certain culprits. Though Dodd’s words do not seem the product of a mind that aims to scapegoat, to castigate in the vein of a contemptible tabloid. Instead it’s a lyricism that propagates a form of veracious candour that confronts difficult and enraging miseries. The fury found in ‘Anamnesis’ for one demonstrates the unremitting intensity of Dodd’s perspective, evoking, in some ways, John Lydon’s spoken word diatribe on Public Image Ltd’s ‘Religion’: ‘There’s no sanctuary in a priest hole/so drink in that stench of abject failure/…the end in an isolation tank/50 years of catholic service/Exchanged for shitting in a bag/How’s that for deliverance?’. As an indication of the fucked-off exasperation that often characterises Dodd’s lyrics, it’s a powerful example that encompasses the band’s disposition, though the defining mode of Dodd’s words aren’t solely driven by indignation. There’s a depth and range at work that might not be immediately obvious on first listen:
‘That song was exploring the relationship between personal investment in religion at times of terminal illness. It’s a very personal song, probably the most personal one I’ve written in the band. I think with Anamnesis I wanted to tread a line between being personal and relatable so there is definitely that blend of ambiguity in there. Some lines have a pretty clear meaning, while the others are debatable. There are times for me when I feel the need to be blatant, potentially even knuckle-dragging at times, but that’s dependent on what I’m trying to portray. Sometimes you need to cut through the shit and other times it makes more sense to lean towards the wordier route.’
Seeing as how there’s a lot of shit to wade through these days, in the overload and outrage of online media and in regressive politics especially, the compulsion to cut through it all is a pursuit that’s worth acknowledgement. Yet there are different ways of arriving at this aim that Dodd utilizes. Alongside a vacillation between forthright discontentment and more oblique means of arrival, Dodd has made room for experimentation, even if his process is sometimes gradual, unstructured and predcated by self-critical revision:
‘I write as much as I can, but most of it goes in the bin. When it comes to writing for songs, I usually work off a bass and drum structure and arrange the patterns around them. It’s a lot of staring at walls, chewing a pen lid and that kind of shite. It takes a long time to commit but once it’s down I tend to leave it without too much adjustment. That feels like the truest way for me. If it doesn’t make you squirm too much the morning after you’ve written it, it’s usually fine. It’s also subjective in terms of what you’re trying to do in the song I guess. Most of my lyrics are straight up bits of frustration and resentment, but some things – like ‘Leaving’ on Divide – allowed me to play about with the cut-up technique and more interesting pieces of arrangement.’
Though there’s a desire to channel gritty current realities above all else – those fragments of ‘frustration and resentment’- in this Dodd aims to avoid the conceit of claiming to be a mouthpiece for others: ‘I try not to put people off by too many delusions of artistic grandeur, this band isn’t about that - it has more to do with showing what can be done with a bit of effort and belief, as opposed to some supposed inherent ability. If I can make somebody question or think then I feel like I’m contributing. I’m no political authority on anything, I’m just reacting to the world I see developing around me.’
The way Dodd discusses lyrics, implicitly broadening the discussion to punk ethics, brings the conversation inevitably to the subculture that many would associate them with. Punk in 2017 is often reduced to a tedious, anachronistic narrative. A stagnant cadaver blunted and abused by tired retrospection and the same well-worn critical appraisals. This year saw Joseph Corré (son of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm Mclaren) engage in the infamous burning of punk memorabilia, a gesture of protest about renewable energy (or something, fuck knows) that also aimed to redress the contemporary co-optation of punk. It merely ended up as a display of flagrant narcissism and hypocrisy. Dodd is equally critical:
‘Yeah I don’t have time for any of that really. To me it just smacks of someone trying to develop a narrative to meet their own agenda. I think the concept of ‘punk’ that he was aiming to attack is the same tired stereotype that has already been culturally and financially appropriated in so many different ways that it has just become another form of consumerism. When it happened I remember reading that it came in protest to ‘punk’ selling you an “illusion of an alternative choice”. I don’t think it does at all.’
Despite this, he tempers such criticism with an encouraging reflection on the communitarian roots of punk and what those particular ideals can still do, even at a point when punk is often wheeled out as a treasured artefact, a dead cultural heritage. DIY and punk ideals, when not reduced to convenient soundbites, precious recollections and moronic realisations, can still offer other possibilities:
‘If you dig deep enough there are a number of communities globally that provide an alternative, that develop safe spaces, that progress important conversations. None of that is an illusion. Just because those conversations are not positioned as part of our standardised, monochrome culture it doesn’t mean that they don’t happen. If it really was worth £5m it’s a bit of a shame it was all burned in a city where four in ten children reportedly live in poverty too, but that’s private ownership for you I suppose…’
This brings us to the current counteraction of artists, spaces and labels that, like Bad Breeding, are aiming to push punk forward, or at the very least remaining faithful to its principles in a new era. Australian exiles DIÄT, the unhinged Glasgow-based project Anxiety, labels like Iron Lung, Static Shock and their own champions La Vida Es Un Mus Discos as well as South London venue DIY Space For London all seem to represent punk in a different way to the divested archetypes. Although Bad Breeding operate on the outskirts of any central ‘scene’, they’re aware of the significance of what these ventures embody:
‘Those you’ve mentioned do some really important things to help a lot of great artists release records, put on shows and help continue important conversations that don’t always get the chance to be developed elsewhere. Given our position in Stevenage, we’ve often been on the periphery of some of those communities but try to contribute where we can. The kind of networks you’re talking about are vital for a lot of people. Not only in that they provide a platform for the marginalised to discuss pertinent issues, but they also lead to potentially safer environments for those conversations to take place in. I think that’s pretty important looking ahead given the current state of building ownership, licensing and profit-driven purchasing of space in a lot of cities.’
These are the networks and environments that the band favour on tour and their schedule of live dates suggests a restless desire to connect with acolytes and the initiated, but they also betray an intent to convince the unfamiliar. A couple of years ago they supported Royal Blood, not an association that many would expect, yet the experience nevertheless brought them into contact with a different type and scale of audience:
‘Deciding to do that tour is kind of necessary when it comes to understanding our mindset. Playing those shows had nothing to do with the idea of positioning or aspiration, it was more about getting the chance to present an alternative to what was being served up. Why would you say no to the chance to play in front of a few thousand people and have the opportunity to challenge some of the perceived notions of what making art is about? At least we arguably made some people think, whether it be positively or negatively, for a couple of minutes. That’s more than I would have done shifting cement bags back home.’
Presenting alternatives to dismal mediocrities, cutting through the contrivances of media and politics, representing working class origins and disseminating the grievances of the excluded seem to be the foundational motivations for Bad Breeding as a project, yet there's no delusions of grandeur, wrongheaded righteousness or a sense of supposed victimhood. Frankly it’s what happens when a few friends live in a provincial town, work jobs that are a means to an end, are pissed off by the state of things and want to create their way out of frustration.
There are indications that the way in this frustration is enacted is becoming increasingly receptive to exploratory ideas. On ‘D ivide’ they worked with Ben Greenberg of Uniform and drew ever closer to enlivening their sound with unexpected incorporations:
‘It was really useful to work with him when it came to thinking about tones and textures, but also when considering the arrangements. We spoke about wanting to bring some of the industry from our respective workplaces to sit beneath the songs and that’s where Ben really pushed the recording, not only in terms of the textures but also in allowing us to think about sound in totally different ways - looking beyond the confines of standard instruments and more at the practical things around us: space, materials and the everyday things you can capture on an iPhone.’
With these kinds of practices involved the future looks auspicious. Yet there’s no illusions as to what more touring and recording will bring. Bad Breeding are still grounded in an unpretentious attitude that betrays not only relatable origins – the familiarly deprived, entropic territories negotiated in JD Taylor and Laura Oldfield Ford’s cited works – but a purpose to incite something, anything, if only in the temporary ferocity of a dynamic, indurated punk music.
Tension is unavoidable even amongst themselves as they look ahead, with morbid humour, to a period of live dates tolerating each other in close quarters. As a shade of self-deprecation it also stands as an apt analysis of what we’re all doing right now, behind screens, in the pub and in the street:
‘Arguing a lot I guess. Harbouring resentment for each other, you know, standard human practices.’
Photography courtesy of Katie Rose, Olof Ringmar and Owen Calvert.