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Clinic on “Wheeltappers and Shunters”

Broken Nostalgia

Jun 20, 2019 Web Exclusive
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“That’s the main thing, you come away with isn’t it [confusion]. It seems, at least, like every couple of weeks it swings one way or another. You really can’t predict what is going to happen, I still wouldn’t know. It looks like we are going to get Boris Johnson and then, who really knows after that,” Clinic‘s Ade Blackburn is pondering the political void the UK has sunk into lately.

Our conversation comes on the day of European Union elections that shouldn’t have happened, where a limited company (not a political party), with no policies, are the favorites and will have no power to push through what they promise. The Brexit farce continues unabated.

It is in the midst of this madness, that our discussion about Clinic’s first album in seven years Wheeltappers and Shunters occurs. This album could be called a “return to form” but the fact is, since emerging in Liverpool in the ‘90s these psych-oddballs have stood alone, releasing a work of stunning quality every two years between 2000’s debut Internal Wrangler to 2012’s Free Reign.

Ever evolving but always with a distinct personality they combined punk energy, retro hooks, minimal electronics, playfulness, and cryptic messaging that always seemed perfect for today’s turmoil. Clinic seem to belong in this strange time and this is where our conversation focuses.

“I think it’s interesting. I always have a grim fascination with how something like that can come about. It doesn’t need any policies or anything,” states Blackburn on the rise of populist politics, all rhetoric and no answers. “You couldn’t really have envisaged those things being allowed to happen, even just 10 years ago.”

Although, still cloaked in riddles Wheeltappers and Shunters is in many ways the band’s most directly themed album to datea take down of the perception of “Britishness” that has led the nation down a dark path.

The album artwork features an idyllic, classic, British scene but there is a sinister air to the picture. The Great Britain Clinic is evoking is not the nostalgic picture postcard perfection of village green cricket, quaint pubs, and hanky-waving Morris Dancers. This is not Downton Abbey and certainly not Britain the frothing-mouthed Nationalist’s evoke in their tirades of hate.

“That was definitely something we wanted to have to it,” explains Blackburn of the album’s cover art. “It’s almost too perfect and it’s got that something that’s a bit unsettling to it. It doesn’t really prepare you for the music either, it’s an odd combination.”

Clinic is painting a sleazy picture, a tacky image of dirty seaside towns as the center of pleasure, the twisted glamour of the fairground, strange end of the pier merriment and fenced in holiday camps by rainy beaches. The sexist, bigotry of working men’s comedians. This is a Britain of a past no one wants to evoke, but it is there.

The album title is taken from a televisual relic, The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club, a bygone cabaret, with out-of-favor comedian Bernard Manning at the helm and a dowdy, tawdry aesthetic. Blackburn explains why the show fit so well with the imagery of this new album.

“I can remember it being pretty bad. I can, just about, remember seeing clips of it, myself, on the telly and I think it’s part of the tradition we have in the UK are fairly awful cabaret,” he says. “Perhaps I was thinking about the way Britain has changed since I was growing up and it seemed quite fitting to use that as an album title at this moment. It’s like that old cabaret sense of everyone vying for attention but it’s all done in a tawdry sort of way.”

Lost to the mists of time, a forgotten relic, Clinic brought it back to the public’s attention just as another musician was doing the same. Former Oasis songwriter Noel Gallagher used shots from the show on the video for his latest track “Black Star Dancing.” Surely, that can’t just be a coincidence, although Blackburn says it is just one of those weird things.

“It’s not a show you ever hear about. To have it twice in one month was a little bit mind-blowing,” he says.

The show, in all its tacky glory, deeply questions the received wisdom of the “good old days”it’s out of step, out of place, the antithesis of progress. Nostalgia is powerful but it is broken, especially when it comes to music.

“I think the way, that in the past 20 years we’ve started to look back more with these theories of ‘I heart the ‘70s’ and all that stuff,” says Blackburn. “It’s convenient to categorize things in decades, you know, the ‘60s was swinging, the ‘70s was more, sort of, laidback, the ‘80s was either the usual greed or Thatcherism, and the reality is that it probably wasn’t like that. Depending on where you lived in the country, what you were doing.”

“It does skew people’s view of it,” he adds. “If you take the way punk’s presented in a sort of cartoon way. If that’s what you are getting on BBC4, I don’t think people would necessarily question that. They just take that as being what happened, but there’s so many different shades in between.”

Clinic have always existed in these “shades in between,” drawing heavily on the past but feeling futuristic and contemporary all at once. They have always defied categorization.

On Wheeltappers and Shunters the dark subject matter is juxtaposed by upbeat, floor-filling music that borrows from garage rock and classic Motown as much as it does engulfing psych or off-kilter post punk.

“I like contradictions on things,” says Blackburn with a knowing smile. “I wouldn’t start something off with dark lyrics unless there was a strong melody or the rhythm of something was strong. I want to get people’s foot taping to things that are quite dark. I like that contradiction.”

And while the messages are more direct than ever, Clinic’s cryptic lyrical riddles are still present. They have no desire to spell anything out for you.

“It can keep you guessing as well, with certain lines, if you are not quite sure if it’s sarcastic or not. I think there’s more scope for that in upbeat songs. If the lyrics have some depth to them, different sides to them, I always felt you’d be more likely to go back to that record and listen again. I think that’s a true test of an album.”

And in this respect Wheeltappers and Shunters passes the test. “Be Yourself/Year of the Sadist” digs new depths with strange found sounds and spoken word, evoking an old Britain but something unfathomably surreal as well.

Blackburn explains what is going on: “At the end of it, that’s a town crier. It talks about space in it, landing on the moon. That was from an old album called The Sights and Sounds of Britain which had different found sounds like that and recordings of people singing old folk songs. I think the album was from 1971 and I think putting something really British there for a bit of dialogue seemed totally right for it…. It also had a bit of cosmic slant, with the moon stuff on it as well, so it seemed ideal.”

This blending of the cosmic with the historic is almost the perfect analogy for Clinic’s work on this album. The conversation turns to the past, specifically the band’s absence. Seven years is a long gap, especially for a prolific band like Clinic. Where have they been?

“There was no real plan behind it. I think because we had done an album every two years since 2000, maybe naturally we just wanted to ease off on the pace it,” explains Blackburn, relaying the not at all scandalous story of the break.

“We didn’t set out to have a gap when we finished Free Reign, the last album, and we kept playing live as well. Then me and [Jonathan] Hartley did a separate thing under the name Higher Authorities and I think with that it just seemed like the time had gone, flown by. Because as soon as we’d finished with the Higher Authorities stuff we thought, ‘let’s do another band album.’ But by the time we had recorded it a lot of time had gone by.”

Throughout it all, the classic Clinic aesthetic has remained in place. The surgical masks and the medical smocks have never disappeared, having gone from a potential gimmick to be an established part of the band’s fabric. Was it ever a question to get rid of the look?

“By the time we got to the fourth album, Visitations, I think we had thoughts about whether we should change things or vary it with different masks but because it such an integral part of it and with the band name, we went through that and came out the other side. Even if other people don’t see it that way, it’s tradition now.”

He adds: “I think more and more as the time’s gone on that you realize that sort of personality just naturally comes out. What I think is a big part of that is that it’s got this nervous punk energy underneath it even though the instrumentation isn’t punk. That reflects who we are as people. There’s no fat on the songs as well, no needless bits where it goes on forever. Perhaps if we tried to get away from that you couldn’t, it’s just there when you make the music.”

For the UK, this medical aesthetic holds deeper meaning right now, with serious talk of the National Health Service being put on “the market” as part of a trade deal with the Trump administration and a political “party” who wants it gone getting a stronger voice in Europe. Has Clinic ever seen this image as having a political message?

“No, it hasn’t really. I know the NHS has been struggling for years but I think only since the last album it has got in such bad need with the underfunding. So, no I’ve never really thought of it that way but if anyone does look at it that way, it’s great.”

And there it is, I have projected a meaning on to an aspect of the band, something that all great art does for an audience. With Wheeltappers and Shunters, this invitation for projection is amplified. When your feet stop tapping and you head stops bobbing, there is so much for your mind to explore.

Clinic has again proved to be a vital voice, a swirling mass of contradictions, moods, and ideas perfect for this day and age, and in fact, any age.

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