A good move to gritty narrator of inner-city deprivation
Not since the golden years of Stock, Aitken and Waterman have we lived through a time when pop music has served such a shallow functional role – from ‘I Gotta Feeling’ pop that’s made to uplift, to ‘Someone Like You’ pop that’s made to reminisce, to the all-consuming Guetta Lolpop Mafia and their quest to make us dance. People who keep bleating that there’s no anti-Establishment sentiment in the charts any more forget that being political largely prevents you from being pop. There’s plenty of social commentary in music, but when was the last time you heard Killer Mike in the Live Lounge? We mention all this because Plan B is, or was, a pop star. His last album ‘The Defamation of Strickland Banks’ was a soulful, if slightly hammy, concept album, which made Ben Drew a commercial success. Trendy dads were his main source of income. He was sponsored by a pear cider. Above all, it was easy on the ears. ‘Ill Manors’ is anything but.
Drew’s third album is the accompaniment to his film of the same name. Both tell the story of a group of young people living next to the billion-pound Olympic village in almost indescribable depravity. Beginning with the riotous title track, you’re welcomed to a nightmare of crack dealers, prostitutes and sex-trafficked teens. “[i]You’re in for a harrowing ride[/i]”, Plan B warns, backed by the nervy strings of Saint-Saëns’ ‘Carnival Of The Animals’ on ‘The Narrator’. But nothing prepares you for ‘The Runaway’, which tells the story of Katya, an Eastern European woman who, having escaped her pimp and heroin addiction, is unable to speak English or get a job, so returns to prostitution to feed her baby. “[i]Getting fucked in the field from behind while you breastfeed your child just so it don’t cry is unpleasant[/i]”, asserts Drew. He’s not wrong. Occasionally it’s almost pointlessly bleak, like musical torture porn, and includes regular bursts of dialogue from the film, which feel like a step too far. Cherry-picking horror stories from an imagined underclass is what Drew accuses the [i]Daily Mail[/i] of doing. At times he is no better.
But take the album as a whole and you get what he’s getting at. The songs, which move back and forward across generations, tell the same story. Whether it’s Michelle in ‘Deepest Shame’, who was abused as a child and is now prostituting for spare change; or Jake in ‘Playing With Fire’, a little kid tricked into a life of crime; or Chris in ‘Drug Dealer’, forced to hang out with an ex-NF supporter while his heroin-addled mother fucks her dealer, these are all the same people. Misfortune spreads like an epidemic; they are all victims of their environment, “[i]enslaved in their circumstances[/i]”. But whose fault is that? For the most part, Plan B ignores that question, claiming to be only “the narrator” of the story. But there are three moments when he turns his focus from the gutter to the machinery of state. The aforementioned ‘Ill Manors’ is strangely unifying in its threats to Middle England and David Cameron. ‘Lost My Way’ uses a pained gospel chorus to blame the “corporate machine” for replacing religion in a culture of greed. ‘Live Once’ is as close as ‘Ill Manors’ comes to a positive message: you shouldn’t “[i]be afraid to follow your dreams[/i]”, he reckons. These songs contain the record’s protest element as well as its exemplary musicality: heartbreaking soul choruses, classical samples and ’80s rocksteady rhythms.
But the question remains: where would you listen to ‘Ill Manors’? Not in the club, or the bath, and certainly not if you’ve got any first-hand experience of this misery. Plan B’s response is that it doesn’t matter, because pop can do more than provide fodder for beer adverts. Placing himself in a lineage that stretches from Crass to Public Enemy, he makes the case that music should force you to think. But unlike those counter-culture groups, he does so by risking his career. You can’t judge this record on singalongs, only on the impact it has and Drew’s mettle. At times it’s brutal, tactless and uncomfortable, but that’s the price you pay for smashing up the hit factory.