I began writing this review several months ago, but now as 2020 draws to a close and with the prospect of some kind of Brexit finally happening in the new year, I realised I’d better hurry up and finish it. For although Wheeltappers and Shunters is named after a short-lived 1970s TV variety show set in a fictional night club (in the traditional Phoenix Nights sense of the term), in reality it is all about Brexit.
The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club, to give its full name, is the perfect cultural relic to dredge up as emblematic of the political shitshow / culture war / clusterfuck that is Brexit. The show aired in the mid 1970s, around the time Britain originally joined the European Union, and was hosted by Bernard Manning – a name now practically synonymous bad taste and obnoxious racist humour. While I would hesitate to wade into debates about the censoring of more recent TV programmes from the historical record, there are some things from the past everyone can agree are best kept there.
But while it is tempting to airbrush out certain outdated cultural artifacts due to the discomfort and offence they now cause (as well as being downright objectionable), there’s a danger that this suppression lulls us into believing such attitudes no longer exist. For many, the Brexit vote prompted the shock realisation that prejudice, nationalism and bigotry are alive and well in Britain. Obviously the Brexit vote was a proxy for myriad concerns, many of them legitimate – not everyone who voted for Brexit is racist. The problem, as Will Self suggested before engaging in staring contest with Mark Francois on BBC Politics, is that everyone who is racist or anti-Semitic probably did vote for Brexit.
In a sense, Brexit acted like some kind of magic mirror – everyone who looked into it saw something different. It was about immigration or fishing quotas or democratic accountability or tax or free trade or blue passports…take your pick. The politicians who sold us the pup said it was about freedom, sovereignty and taking control…concepts whose abstract meanings make them impossible to argue against but highly resistant to defining clearly in real terms. As the interminable debates wore on and contradictions piled on top of contradictions it became clearer and clearer that no one had any plan, no one knew what Brexit meant – we just knew that we believed, and any one who dared voice doubt was tarred as an enemy of the people.
Condensing this atmosphere of zealous fervour, shared delusion and the derangement of everything we once took for granted into a concept album lasting less than half an hour is no mean feat. But it’s exactly what Clinic have managed with Wheeltappers and Shunters. The Liverpudlian psyche-punk four-piece have always been masters of a peculiarly British brand of macabre surrealism, which has never been more suited to current circumstances. And on Wheeltappers and Shunters, Clinic reimagine the political circus of Brexit as an actual circus, populated by freaks, clowns, con-men and conjurors, where nothing is as it seems. https://clinicband.bandcamp.com/album/wheeltappers-and-shunters
The ringing of a firebell (which is actually a sample from the TV show) and hubbub of voices at the beginning of opening track Laughing Cavalier, make you feel like you’ve dropped back in time a few decades and landed in a small village in rural England, somewhere in that ill-defined region politicians like to refer to as the Hinterland. Imagine the scene…
As the sun dips below the horizon, fires are lit and smoke curls from chimneys. Dogs bark and village folk in traditional dress are milling about. Nearby on the green is a marquee. Lead vocalist Ade Blackburn is the circus Ringmaster, beckoning you in with promises of ‘pictures evolving, before your eyes’. There’s a leering smile painted on his face but look in his eyes and you realise the smile is at your expense. Oh well, you think, handing over your shilling – you pay your money you take your chance. Now he’s laughing: ‘Ha ha ha, he he he, ho ho ho, Do as you please’. But now as the queasy bassline goes round and round like a carousel, you’re not so sure: ‘All the love, all aglow, Was it all you had hoped? All the fun of the fair, Are you really all still there?’. Like Alice in Wonderland trying to get some sense out of the Cheshire Cat, you begin to wonder if everyone here is mad – including me.
The titular Laughing Cavalier in this case must be an embodiment of Farage or Johnson: the ultimate snake-oil salesmen, jokers, conjurors. Promising the world on a stick: freedom, control, sovereignty! ‘All the fun of the fair, Lap it up without a care’. But when you look behind the curtain it’s just smoke and mirrors. The Laughing Cavalier is a famous Dutch painting from the early 1600s depicting a military man in full regalia – ‘cavalier’ having its roots in the English Civil War as the term used for supporters of the Royalists. In the case of Johnson and Farage, though they certainly represent the side of establishment (despite all Farage’s phoney protestations to be some kind of rebel outsider), they are cavalier in the other sense: showing frank disregard for the chaos, destruction and conflict wrought by their self-serving behaviour.
Traditionally, Clinic’s lyrics have tended to the abstract and absurd; word collages featuring a cast of curious characters which often blur into indecipherable sound poetry as Ade Blackburn rasps and yelps and moans, like a scouse Thom Yorke. It seems fitting that they should find their muse in Brexit. Anger has made them comprehensible and Wheeltappers contains some of the most distinct Clinic lyrics to date, ironically so as the cast of curious characters that pass for politicians have become more and more indecipherable.
Complex is one of the most unambiguous tracks on the album, illustrating the frustration of the populace as our leaders fail to deliver what they promised, on the grounds that it’s too complex, ‘Still believing? You must be dreaming’. Over a dubby post-punk beat and sauntering bassline, the sense of amused outrage grows, ‘Flags are flying, no sense in trying,’ and in the end we resort to mindless pageantry, ‘So wave your flags and shake your tambourines’.
All this heavy political stuff could imply this is some po-faced, ranty album – and many bands have come unstuck trying to ‘go political’ – but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Clinic are a thoroughly idiosyncratic band and while there’s always been a manic edge to their music, on Wheeltappers they’re seething as well. On Rubber Bullets, you can almost feel the flecks of spit as Ade Blackburn rasps through gritted teeth, ‘The best is yet to come, Of seasons in the sun, The fields are overrun’ – a reference I’m sure to Johnson’s notorious ‘sunlit uplands‘.
But the feelings of anger and betrayal that birthed this album are balanced out by absurdist humour – another enduring feature of Clinic’s sound throughout their 20 year career. That and the fact that they just don’t really sound like any other band. There’s Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd in the eerie surrealism, plus elements of psyche, punk, and krautrock in some of the driving rhythms. And as always, the band sound as if they’ve just raided a flea market of retro synthesisers, organs and all manner of weird and wacky instruments.
Four and half years after the UK voted to cut off its own nose to spite its face, it seems the politicians have finally agreed on where to insert the scalpel and begin the procedure. Who knows what awaits us on the other side? The collective sense of weariness and foreboding as we stand poised at the precipice of the deepest recession in generations stands in stark contrast to the elation felt by 52% of the electorate in June 2016. It seems only fitting to end with some of the final lyrics on Wheeltappers from closing track, New Equations (at the Copacabana), ‘Out on the floor, who’d ask for more?, Count the cost at the Copacabana, Smoke and mirrors at the Copacabana, There’s many ways, through the maze, C’est la vie a la Copacabana’. Let’s hope we find our way out one day.