Aspects of London in the noughties are a little cringe in hindsight. The emo hair, the fluorescent clothes, etcetera. But in time it will be remembered as a golden era for youth culture and British music.
The garage revival of the Libertines dovetailed into the post punk years of Klaxons, Bloc Party, The Kills and Hot Chip.
This is back when London was fun. When you could afford to live in Zone 2. When you could drink on the Tube legally and without anyone taking any notice of you. When Ken Livingstone was mayor and no one had heard of one Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.
Scenes come in waves, each decade having one or two notable movements. But the decade now drawing to a close has been a particularly barren one for British bands, underground music being dominated instead by electronic and grime artists.
The XX and Skepta are great, but London and bands is like LA and beaches: it’s just not worth living there without them.
Enter this desert landscape Fat White Family with no water or useful supplies but enough drugs, booze and attitude to make you forget about the heat for a while.
Who Are Fat White Family?
Formed at the dawn of the decade in Peckham, the epicentre of the then nascent south London music scene, the core of the group is Lias Saoudi (vocals), his brother Nathan (keyboard), Saul Adamczewski (guitar, vocals) and guitarist Adam J. Harmer. The rest of the lineup has been fluid, like Mark E. Smith’s band The Fall, a connection to which I will presently return.
Adamczewski was known on the London music scene as a member of indie group The Metros before Fat White’s emergence. The Saoudi brothers had a group of their own, performing under the uninspired moniker The Saudis until meeting Adamczewski in a London squat. The three of them bonded over radical politics, Liveleak beheading videos, fascist iconography, Class A drugs and music, presumably.
To date the group have released three EPs. Champagne Holocaust, released in 2013, was the first. The band gained notoriety during this period thanks to the drugs and Saoudi’s penchant for smothering shit on himself onstage. This might sound tired and cliché, but the band's origins gives them an authenticity which allows them to get away with things which if attempted by others would seem gimmicky and contrived.
The first album is raw, confrontational and seems as though it were stitched together in a hole somewhere. In other words it is just how you would expect a debut album to be from a band making music because they have nothing better to do. Champagne Holocaust holds up a spotlight or a revolver depending on the subject matter, from conspiracy theories (Who Shot Lee Oswald?) to consumerism (Bomb Disneyland) and sex (Is It Raining in Your Mouth?).
The highlight of the album is Touch the Leather, a droning track with an arpeggiating keyboard, sinister guitar notes and deep, abrasive vocals. The video features Lias in the foreground at their old headquarters, the Queens Head in Brixton while Saul rolls from one side of the frame to another on a skateboard naked from the waste down performing squats (the video was consored on YouTube and a new version uploaded to obscure his privates).
The other standout track on the album is Garden of the Numb, a hate-filled, misanthropic manifesto.
I see you on the corner with your friends I can only hope it won't be long for them You sycophantic weasel-minded whores You would sell your mother's cunt to open doors You're the irrepressible reason for my shame You make all god's colours look exactly the same
But I'm fulfilled Because eventually time will kill The very space you occupy Right there at the top of the hill In this cold inbred excuse for a world
- Garden of the Numb (Champagne Holocaust), Fat White Family.
These lyrics were apparently directed towards the band's former drummer who would later rejoin the group. Just imagine the venom they reserve for their enemies.
Songs for Our Mothers, released in 2015, is even more provocative and political than their first record. Tracks include Lebensraum, Goodbye Goebbles and We Must Learn to Rise. It is also the band’s druggiest; Saul’s heroin problems led him to rehab before it was released, a fact which is reflected in the album's mood.
The best track is Hits Hits Hits, the beat redolent of Bowie and Iggy Pop’s 1976 track Nightclubbing.
The album has its roots in the low-fi end of the punk spectrum, artists such Berlin-era Iggy and the Velvet Underground. Both as writers and performers, Fat White Family build upon and draw from their precursors, as I’ve argued artists should if they want to create something good rather than something which is merely new.
The most recent album, Serfs Up! signals the band’s maturation on one hand and a total change of direction on the other. It is more pop, more polished and more melodic than the first two records. But the confrontation, the aggression and the refusal to conform or apologise remain.
The below lyrics from the lead single Feet caused some controversy among more ahh polite publications than this one:
I hope your children wash up bloated on my shore / Caucasian sashimi in a sand nigger storm.
Lias and Nathan’s father was an Algerian immigrant, a fact about which the brothers were taunted during their childhood years in Scotland, the north of England and Belfast where they lived during the Troubles.
One would think a person has the right to invoke the words and labels that have had the profoundest effect on their lives and worldview in their art. Pitchfork took another view. They implied the statements were racist, an allegation for which Lias took them to task:
To have an organisation like that try and brand me as a racist, having been pilloried, abused and bullied with that phrase my whole life? This absurd PC bullshit … It’s bad enough to be a victim of being called this stuff in the first place, but to have it levelled at me twice? I will use that phrase at my fucking leisure.
- Lias Saoudi quoted in the Guardian.
The album was made in Sheffield, a precondition their label imposed for continuing financial support. Despite attaining cult status, releasing two reasonably well received albums and winning friends like Lady Gaga and Sean Lennon, the band had still by this time failed to make any money.
Adamczewski, usually the principal songwriter, was also absent for most of the album’s creation, leaving the Saoudi brothers and new member and saxophonist Alex White to fill the compositional void. With the help of a lot of ketamine, the three of them rose to the task, producing a far more danceable and upbeat record than the previous two.
Aside from Feet, Tastes Good With Money is the standout track.
I finally caught the band in Paris about two months ago up the road from where I live at the Elysée Montmartre, after several abortive attempts to see them in London. Despite the size of the venue (it holds 1400 people) and the best efforts of the inanimate Parisian crowd who turn up to gigs for reasons which are not clear to me, the show had energy and an element of danger.
I was stationed around 20 metres from the stage and yet made bodily contact with Lias no fewer than three times, on one occasion hugging him while he belted out I Am Mark E. Smith (apologies to anyone in the crowd who heard my voice over Lias’s much more practised notes.)
Aside from the immovable dullards, the crowd was an interesting mix, from young wannabes dressed in khaki shirts and flare corduroys to older industry people and a caffeine-eyed businessman who spent the whole gig licking his much younger girlfriend’s face between bouts of crowd surfing, his tie and jacket somehow remaining intact all the while.
The band had an exacting, intent air—the air of a group with little left to prove—the right balance between off the wall energy and disciplined musicianship.
Fat White Family is the best British group to emerge in the last ten years. A group at the peak of their powers and, based on the current trajectory, perhaps the last of their kind.
The band performs the way they, and all good artists, create and perform: from the gut. To externalise the Ugly Spirit. No fear. No apologies. Fat White Family, saviours of British guitar music. Long may they continue.