Lock up your iPods, Middle England: here come Generation Asbo. Scowling into rock’s Bluewater with their disco-sequinned hoodies pulled over their brows and glowstick ankle tags flashing, Hard-Fi watch the security cameras whirr in their direction and clock the undercover filth taking up pincer formation. They take a moment to pose for the lenses – hey, they’re superstars of the surveillance room after all – then LLLLEEEGGGIIIITTT! Tearing down the aisles of punk heritage, they snatch and grab with well-cased precision: ‘London’s Calling’ into an inside pocket, ‘The Marshall Mathers LP’ into a thigh pouch of their combats, the skankier bits from the first Gorillaz album and The Rapture’s spare cowbells down the front of their pants. Then they burst out of the fire escape and burn off in a stolen Fiesta, stopping only to happy-slap The Dead 60s for trying to start a shit copyist ska revival in the car park. Bare rock-pilfering, bruv!
Except of course, barring one conviction for Bowling Under The Influence, Hard-Fi are no cartoon street thugs, leaping straight off a Dixons staff room wanted poster and into the charts. No Staines So Solid, theirs is a more pertinent and true-to-life social statement than you’ll find in any Daily Mirror ‘Teen Terror’ editorial. Hard-Fi know that all the most important bands – from the Pistols to The Smiths to the Roses and beyond – reflect and feed off the political frustrations of their age; if they didn’t happen to be making brilliant music, there’d still be a Channel 4 film crew making a ‘State Of Our Youth’ documentary about them. And Hard-Fi know that, in 2005’s wilderness of Blairite betrayal, they are the voice of the new ‘Ghost Town’.
See, Hard-Fi represent an until-now-silent sub-strata of youth culture. What The Libertines did for grotty/beautiful East End drug poets, Hard-Fi are doing for the dole-for-life working class, suburban estate Nowhere Kids; the M25 their prison wall, the night-bus route an escape rope that never reaches far enough, their lives plotted out from birth, right down to the nth unwanted ankle-biter, the x number of Jobstart courses, the y months of community service and the z allocation of caravan holidays in Bognor. Their lives are a ceaseless trudge from suspicious career counsellor to discount off-licence to violent nightclub doorman and back again. Screw all your ‘traditional values’ and ‘decent working families’ bullshit, Mr Blair, here’s the news: Hard-Fi are England, and all who fail in her.
Hence, ‘Stars Of CCTV’ is frontman Richard Archer’s howl of defiance against a dead youth. Expanded from its original self-financed mini-album last year, it’s now a satellite town statistic existence torn through in a bleak but dazzling 45-minute fast-forward, and the minutiae are heartbreakingly familiar. Every cash machine is set permanently to ‘insufficient funds’; every pregnancy test to ‘positive’. One old schoolmate is dodging car bombs in Baghdad ( ‘Middle Eastern Holiday’); another’s dodging shower daddies in Feltham Young Offender’s Institute ( ‘Feltham Is Singing Out’). Friday never comes too soon ( ‘Living For The Weekend’) while the rest of the week is spent skint and despondent at a tower block window, watching the planes rise out of Heathrow and dreaming of Anywhere Else (plaintive piano soul ballad ‘Move On Now’).
And all the while the street surveillance cameras zoom in, waiting for you to turn scumbag – they all do. “Every move that I make/Gets recorded to tape/So someone up there/Can keep me safe”, Archer falsettos on the deceptively jaunty title track – think Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Cecilia’ being bundled into a police van covered in kebab vomit and bloody bits of tooth – and suddenly ‘Dry Your Eyes’ seems about as ‘street’ as Derek off Big Brother. ‘Stars Of CCTV’ is more than a mere pop record: it’s the handbook of a mongrel generation that feels discarded, untrusted and invisible to all but the Shopping City security.
But if a flick through the lyric sheet has you reaching for a DVD of Nil By Mouth for light relief, the wonder of ‘Stars…’ is how magnificently alive all this suburban angst sounds. Tarring Hard-Fi with the same ska revival brush as dullards like The Ordinary Boys and The Dead 60s is, it turns out, a bigger injustice than Coldplay being kept off Number One by Crazy Frog.
There is a tirelessly inventive, genre-splicing genius at work here, producing never-before-imagined dark-pop concoctions. The yobbos mob-chanting “Twenty-one years old and out!” on ‘Feltham Is Singing Out’ are given a cinematic yardie sheen by dollops of Dre-style drive-by strings. ‘Cash Machine’ is more Gorillaz ‘Clint Eastwood’ or an overdosing Hot Hot Heat than anything off ‘Sandanista!’ . ‘Hard To Beat’ isn’t currently felching the chart to within an inch of its life because of its spiky way with a new wave guitar, but because of the way said guitars are coiled around Stardust’s spangliest disco glitter beats, like Joe Strummer pulling a Scissor Sister. In fact, the only blatant Specials rip-off here opens the brilliantly bitter kiss-off to an unfaithful ex that is ‘Better Do Better’, and even that explodes into ballsy Bono bluster come the chorus. No, ‘Stars…’ may be a record charged with the joyriding danger and ’80s desolation vibe of The Specials, but it packs a whole bootload of more interesting urban influences and it’s out to ram-raid the Millennium Dome. Witness the mischievous fury they bring to a song about fighting outside clubs ( ‘Unnecessary Trouble’), the Daft Punk-enslaved-by-Muse celebration of ‘Living For The Weekend’ or Hard-Fi’s clarrion call ‘Tied Up Too Tight’ – essentially the snotty urchins from Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick In The Wall’ on an angel-dust riot through Morrissons. These are gigantic tunes, and the fact that they were recorded on a knackered laptop in a disused taxi office for £38.70 only adds to their gritty magnificence.
So, should we run through the charge sheet one more time? Eleven counts of Aggravated Pop Originality and Assault With A Deadly Hook. Several charges of Grievous Cultural Significance and Defining A Generation Without A Licence. Looks like you’re going down for Album Of The Year, sunshines.