How Bradford’s New Model Army are celebrating 40th anniversary with a gig like no other

New Model Army have a unique gig planned this weekend to mark their 40th anniversary.New Model Army have a unique gig planned this weekend to mark their 40th anniversary.
New Model Army have a unique gig planned this weekend to mark their 40th anniversary.
New Model Army celebrate their 40th anniversary this weekend with a gig like no other. Sebastian Oake talks to frontman and founder Justin Sullivan.

On Saturday one of the most respected bands to have come out of Yorkshire will put on a one-off performance to mark a very special anniversary. It will be four decades – 40 years and one day, to be precise – since New Model Army’s very first gig in their hometown of Bradford.

In normal times, you would expect the band’s fans to flock together for such an occasion. The musicians would make a traditional rock ’n’ roll-style entrance, scrambling across a darkened stage shrouded in clouds of dry ice. It would be part of a huge, shared celebration. The audience would be a sea of surging people, ebbing and flowing as one in response to the uncontainable pressures generated up front in the mosh pit. It would, in other words, be just as a rock gig should be.

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There will be none of that this time, though. At this New Model Army gig there will be no one there at all, bar the band, sound crew and camera operators. This concert will necessarily be a virtual one, streamed live across the world via the Internet to many thousands of fans watching from their living rooms. Any attempt at recreating the mosh pit at home could end up being costly.

The band were formed in 1980.The band were formed in 1980.
The band were formed in 1980.

But will the band not find it unusual or even difficult to play to a silent, unseen audience? Frontman and founding member Justin Sullivan says: “I don’t know – we’ve never done it before. It certainly won’t be the same as playing to a gig full of people but I actually like the idea of playing to people in America at the same time as people in, say, Poland.

“The hardest thing is to know what to play. We’ll do around 30 songs, probably a couple from each album. Whatever we play, we’re going to miss out someone’s favourite. After all, we’ve got 240 songs to choose from, so we’ll have to leave out 210.”

New Model Army’s songs famously resist categorisation but take in influences of rock, punk, folk, gothic and probably another dozen musical genres. Justin’s lyrics are thoughtful and provocative, frequently dark and brooding, seeking out injustice while telling stories of ordinary lives in a moving way.

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The band’s career has been an incredible journey but has generally followed twisting underground channels with little support or accolade from the music industry or media and certainly no claim or desire to be part of pop tinseltown. They were on Top of the Pops just once, giving a raw-edged performance that reflected their trademark fearless and uncompromising attitude.

They have played thousands of gigs over the years.They have played thousands of gigs over the years.
They have played thousands of gigs over the years.

There have been numerous rocky patches along the way since then, ranging from the time in Switzerland when Justin received an electric shock on stage and spent three minutes technically dead, to frequent band fall-outs – “I left the band so many times, only to rejoin the next morning” – to being refused visas to visit America because the authorities there considered them to be “of no artistic merit”, to the sudden deaths of Justin’s right-hand man Robert Heaton and their manager Tommy Tee, to a studio fire that destroyed much of their equipment, to the subsequent theft of most of their remaining gear from a car park. It is a surprise they have weathered it all but they have and with resilience.

The anniversary gig will feature Justin on guitar and vocals, Marshall Gill on lead guitar, Ceri Monger on bass, Dean White on keyboards and Michael Dean on drums.

It will be a full-on affair using multiple cameras and streamed in high quality. Artwork, graphics and a chatroom in the interval will be part of the show. “We want to do it as ambitiously as we can,” says Justin.

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It is certainly set to be a different world entirely from that night 40 years ago when Justin, bassist Stuart Morrow and drummer Phil Tompkins took to the stage at Scamps Disco on Charles Street in Bradford (a street now largely buried under the new Broadway shopping centre) to play their first show. They had only just thought of a name for the band.

Two nights later they played their second gig at the Champagne a GoGo venue, universally known by the rather less complimentary name of Slaggers. Justin’s artistic collaborator Joolz Denby remembers the place well. “It was a stinky hole in the cellars of a house up near the university. Your feet stuck audibly to the floor.”

At the time, Bradford was in the midst of the punk rock explosion. “There was a very vibrant scene,” says Justin. “Punk came to be seen as just loud guitars and shouting but it was far more than that. It was a cultural revolution and about freedom of expression. Music was played with spirit with the message ‘We’re doing this, we don’t care, you can like it or lump it’.”

Around Bradford, bands of all shapes and sizes were springing up. Justin though remembers a Keighley outfit called The Shakes who actually wrote one of New Model Army’s best known songs, 51st State. “The Shakes were a sister band to us, really. We used to play together a lot. They were wonderful.”

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There were plenty of venues at the time but it was the now long-gone Royal Standard pub on Manningham that was at the musical cutting edge. “All the up-coming bands played there,” says Justin. “It was where Hell’s Angels, or rather Satan’s Slaves as they were in Bradford, met punk rockers. One gig I remember there was by The Ruts. It changed my life and became a template for New Model Army.

“But as a band we didn’t have any long-term ambitions back then. We just thought we would play a couple of gigs and that would be that. The idea that music could become a career was anathematic to any punk group.”

Many Bradford bands, and indeed many Bradford venues, have come and gone but New Model Army show no sign of faltering. Coronavirus may have confined them to barracks for the moment but it has also been a chance to rearm and consider tactics for the future. Justin has written his second solo album and another New Model Army album seems highly likely.

“The band members haven’t even seen each other since before lockdown,” says Justin. “It’s very difficult to plan for next year. All this year’s gigs have been put off until 2021 but no one really knows what will happen then either.

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“Actually two very important things have come out of the current situation. First, it’s a reminder that we’re not alone on the planet and that we do share it with other things, including viruses. We’re not masters of all things. Second, the focus on key workers has brought respect for people doing the vital everyday jobs that keep us all going, the people who operate the check-outs at the supermarket, mop hospital floors, collect rubbish – people who are usually disregarded and belittled.”

New Model Army play a worldwide streamed concert at 8pm on Saturday October 24. Tickets at £10 are available at

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