Punk With Personality: Idles at Rough Trade NYC
As if to counter the growing spread of extreme-right ideology throughout the western world, punk rock, that forty-year old, often political genre, appears to be advancing with similar force. With sharp-tongued bands like Protomartyr, Priests, Sleaford Mods, and Downtown Boys attracting enthusiastic audiences on both sides of the Atlantic with their differing approaches to social critique, punk hasn’t sounded this compelling since the 1980s. Enter Idles, a raucous, swashbuckling, hard hitting five-piece from Bristol, UK.
Active since 2012, the band started slowly, releasing only a few singles and an EP before finally delivering their first full album in 2017, the aptly titled Brutalism—released on the band’s own Bailey Records. In late March I caught the final show of their first North American tour, at Rough Trade NYC in Williamsburg. The tour coincided with their recent signing to the Brooklyn/London based Partisan Records, who will release their sophomore album.
Playing the late set to a sold-out crowd, the band took the stage just before midnight and proceeded to march through much of the album, mixing in some older material and a few promising new songs. Their sound is rooted in standard punk, post-punk, and thrash, and rarely diverges from fast, loud, and hard. The group is tight, focused, and intense, but what distinguishes Idles from the growing crowd of neo-punk bands is personality, which they have in spades. While punk can often be pummeling and violent—and there was certainly a great deal of violent slam dancing in front of the stage throughout—Idles bring a playful flamboyance to the idiom, which is surprising.
The band is fronted by lead singer Joe Talbot, who is heavily tattooed, wears a mustache, and on this night was dressed in casual whites, looking somewhat like a sailor just off the docks. He arrived onstage ahead of the group and spent a few minutes alone, pacing back and forth with purpose, like a boxer preparing for a bout. His vocal style is mostly a kind of shouting and chanting, which suits the tone of his lyrics that explore narcissism, toxic masculinity, and UK politics, among other charged topics, all of which he addresses with a sharp dose of sarcasm. In between songs he spoke to the audience in a very polite and relaxed tone, that of a well-spoken Englishman, telling stories and expressing his appreciation for the enthusiasm of the crowd, even at one point describing the tour as the best experience of his life. Joining him on either side were guitarists Mark Bowen and Lee Kiernan, who together create a largely undifferentiated Dionysian swarm of buzzing and distorted broadband noise. Each were on a very long leash of guitar cable, and both wandered widely throughout the set, on and off the stage. Of the two, Bowen makes the bigger impression. Dressed in only a pair of athletic boxers and sporting a thick mustache, he spent most of the set dancing and prancing all over the stage and often into the crowd, coming off as something of a cross between Iggy Pop, a drunken pirate, and a member of Village People. Reigning it all in were the heavy lifters; a highly competent rhythm section consisting of Adam Devonshire on bass and Jon Beavis on drums.
Vigorous from start to finish, their set lasted roughly an hour and wisely spread their best songs throughout, including the opener “Heel/Heal,” the incendiary “Mother,” and, arguably their top hit, “Well Done,” during which Talbot’s mic went out—whereupon the band discovered, much to their surprise, that the audience already knew the lyrics. For a band with no previous commercial exposure in the US, I too found this surprising. At around 1 a.m. Idles first North American tour concluded with Talbot exclaiming “we don’t do encores, because we’re not dicks!”
For this middle-aged, semi-retired punk, it has been a surprise, albeit a welcome one, that political punk music is on the rise. It’s clear that anger is a powerful form of energy, however it isn’t always an energy for good, as we’ve so clearly and painfully witnessed over the past year and a half. While it’s encouraging to see the strong response to the latest wave of angry, political punk and post-punk bands, it’s also a bit unsettling when considered in the context of our increasingly angry mainstream discourse. When the leader of the free world has a salty streak as bitter as that of the punks, you have to wonder who is being served by anger. As for Idles, I have no doubt their heart is in the right place, and it will be interesting to follow the next chapter in the their story. They’ll be back in September, make a note of it.
Dan Joseph is a New York-based composer, performer, curator, and writer. His Twitter handle is @dcomposer.