But Idles are undeniably punk (or, more precisely, post-punk) in their droning, industrial clamor and their shout-along choruses. They’re one of a growing new wave of rowdy, strident bands from the UK, the US, and Australia. These bands — among them Fontaines D.C., Shame, Amyl and the Sniffers, and the Chats — are by turns bouncy like the Ramones, disaffected like the Fall, sloppy-lyrical like the Pogues. They’re not a “movement,” not part of a trend. In truth, they might share just one thing in common.
But it’s a big one: a sense of urgency that feels just right for the times.
Idles have earned a sizable following in large part due to the band’s unabashed commitment to self-betterment and solidarity. Their songs take a stand for immigrants and the underclass, and against toxic masculinity. “Fear leads to panic, panic leads to pain/ Pain leads to anger, anger leads to hate,” barks Talbot on “Danny Nedelko,” a high-strung song named for a real-life Ukrainian “blood brother” who is just as much a part of modern England, the singer suggests, as Freddie Mercury or “a Nigerian mother of three.”
“The lyrics are incredibly simplistic, almost to the point of being annoying,” says guitarist Mark Bowen, one of the group’s founding members. “That’s our ethos as a band. How do we, in some cases, literally spell things out?
“People hear we’re an angry, aggressive punk band, and it couldn’t be further from the truth. Some people think it’s cringy that we’re so earnest. It isn’t cool. ‘Love yourself’ — people say that’s a naff thing to say. But it’s the root of all the problems. What’s the opposite of love? Hate. So if you don’t love yourself, you’re going down a path toward hate. Spell it out. Who gives a [damn] if it’s cringy?”
Bowen, who is from Belfast, now makes London his home; the rest of the band still lives in Bristol, where they started. He says the band’s audience has always included older fans who have embraced their music as a reminder of punk’s salad days — the Clash or Black Flag, say, or the D.C. hardcore scene of Fugazi.
Though the original punk of the Sex Pistols was perceived as nihilistic — the present is miserable, the future looks bleak, why bother? — those older fans actually long for the progressive ideals that they found in much of the music, Bowen says.
“The punk movement, or whatever, was about progression, progressive thought. We’re dealing with subjects as they were then — thwarting misogyny, the class divide. Racism, definitely.” It is shameful, he says, “that those things still exist. That’s probably one of the reasons we’re resonating at the minute as a band.
“We’ve almost as a society taken a step back towards those things. If you look at the rise of populism, racist organizations, the outlandish way the right-wing media has just kind of brazenly accepted that they’re racist, nationalist, and they want to perpetuate the divide between people. We’re in another turn where this kind of music is important with people.”
The Lynn-based folk-punk band Tigerman WHOA, who sound like pirates on a picket line, have a new video for their song “Count Me In,” which is about the climate crisis.
“Almost every musician I know has something they’re trying to say that’s bigger than just music,” says guitarist Jon Feinstorm. “A lot of us are really paying attention, and we’re concerned.” He points to the recent resurgence of the Proletariat, the social justice-driven post-punk Boston band from the 1980s.
There’s a reason a band like that was ripe for a comeback, Feinstorm says: “It’s not just anger. There’s a lot of music out there that’s angry, sad, confused, or scared. It’s holding a mirror to the world around us.”
Bowen notes that fellow UK band Life, from Hull, makes the band members’ collective viewpoint explicit just as his own band does.
“They’re blatant in dealing with stuff,” he says. “They’ll introduce a song by saying, ‘This song is about Brexit. [Expletive] Brexit!’ People want an opportunity to shout that.”
Of course, there have been punkish bands with an eye on politics since punk first bubbled up. The Reagan years inspired countless hardcore bands to respond. Latter-day punks protested the Iraq War and supported the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Today, Amy Taylor of Melbourne’s Amyl and the Sniffers howls about the income gap and the dead end of a minimum wage on “Gacked on Anger.” Grian Chatten of Fontaines D.C. (the “D.C” stands for Dublin City) rails against apathy over climate change on “Television Screens.”
For Idles, it’s about giving their fans — and themselves — a space that encourages self-reflection in a time dominated by forces that work against introspection. Their music is designed as a counter to “the oppressive noise that’s going on in the news,” Bowen says.
“You fight fire with fire, as it were. If you create a horrible noise that has a more powerful, positive message, then you’re gonna win. I think that’s what all these bands are doing at the minute.”