1979. A young snot-nosed punk steps up to a microphone, shouts “GO!” and a national treasure is born. The punk is Justin Sullivan, New Model Army the national treasure, and the “GO!” the unleashing of the hounds which heralds “Christian Militia,” the opening track on their classic mini-album Vengeance.
2013, and Vengeance is back (has been since the end of 2012, in fact) and it’s now over four times longer. So it’s… kind of back with three Vengeances. Take that, Bruce Willis! And it’s amazing how fresh it sounds, and how the songs still work today. Those strained, impassioned vocals, those part-moshpit, part-parade ground drums (courtesy of the late Robb Heaton) calling to mind the dancefloor as much as the squat party, and those awesome, looping bass riffs that underpin the whole thing. Even just the eight original tracks are well worth revisiting, but there’s a whole heap of other stuff here to form pyramids and shout “HOI!” to.Always a complex band, New Model Army have never really fitted into the traditional boxes where political dissent, or indeed angry music, usually lives. Taking their cues as much from Blake as from Cromwell, from Northern Soul as much as from punk, they have always had a sound, an intensity and a vision that is all their own. Largely of the left, they saw nothing wrong with patriotism and the importance of tradition, putting them at odds with many of their peers. “A Liberal Education,” for example, is very much not the sort of thing you’d expect from protest music of the day. “Take away our idols, take away our faith, take away our values and leave us here with nothing.” Their mission was always to improve society, not destroy it. The title track is still spine-chillingly vicious, and really does make a case for “bastard” being the BEST SWEAR EVER even after all these years. But it’s the extra stuff that really got me – and there’s tons of it. TONS AND TONS OF IT. Peel Sessions, demos, the Zion Train remix of “Vengeance” (which basically sounds like how you’d expect Zion Train remixing “Vengeance” to sound – quite nice, but fairly inconsequential in the greater scheme of things). In amongst this there are several previously unreleased songs, and these are fascinating. Not least because these are what was thrown away – when you can afford to discard material this good, that’s a sure sign you can have confidence in the stuff you keep. As the old John West adverts used to say, “It’s the fish John West rejects that makes John West fish the best”, or some such bollocks. But it’s true here – it’s hardly surprising their albums are so tight and seamless when they were clearly sitting on a whole pile of release-quality songs and could afford to be choosy. Possibly the weakest, but most interesting, is “Fashion,” a petulant youngster’s (admittedly very eloquent) railing against, well, the vagaries of fashion with an anger only the young can manage and the old can only look at indulgently, but set to a ska-punk backing which is far closer to what many of their peers were about. It’s still great, though. Another track, entitled simply “New Model Army,” tells the story of Cromwell’s New Model Army and makes an interesting companion piece to 2005’s “Rumour And Rapture.” What makes this early stuff (previously released or otherwise) so stunning, though, is that so much of it, written as it was in response to what was happening in the world at the time, is still utterly relevant. Forget the current sabre-rattling over the Falkland Islands, and listen to “Spirit Of The Falklands” with the invasion of Iraq in mind. It’s sadly still “No surprise that young men are heroes, it’s no surprise that young men are strong, it’s no surprise that young men are foolish, we’ve known that all along”. The dead men may not be in the South Atlantic this time, but the sane response is still “Oh God, what a farce”. The natives are still restless, “cooped up on estates with no hope in sight, they need some kind of distraction, and yeah, we can give them that”. There’s even an early example of their later tendency towards folk balladry with “The Dam,” a tale of environmental destruction and multinational exploitation. “Don’t lie to us, don’t lie to us, but all they did was lie” could have been written yesterday. Except then it wouldn’t have even made it onto this re-release. But it’s not all anger and politics – “I Wish”, despite the deceptively gothy nature of its verses, is still one of the most beautiful love songs ever written, and has a simple naivety that only the least cynical could ever manage.
Usually when there’s a bundle like this it’s traditional to say “one for completists only,” but in this case that would be bullshit – it’s obviously a necessity for completists (otherwise they’re pretty shit completists. Completism isn’t what it used to be back in my day, you know), but it’s also a massive must-buy for anyone who likes the band at all, purely for the quality of the stuff you haven’t already heard. Of which there’s still even more than there was of the original release. And if you’ve never heard them (how is that even POSSIBLE???) or are only familiar with their more recent work (which is still incredible, though fuller and more epic, as opposed to the minimalist, near-claustrophobic, though still totally melodic intensity of these early tracks) then this is an essential listen, and should certainly be in the collection of anyone interested in seeing the development of one of the greatest songwriters this country has ever produced, as well as one of its most singular bands.