It is a milestone that few bands can hope to reach but this year marks 40 years since Bradford’s New Model Army started their ascent of the slippery pole of rock music
Their grip has never loosened and 17 studio albums, 243 songs – at the last count – and more than 1,000 gigs later, they have cause to celebrate.
It is an incredible success story and, whether the music chimes with you or not, it is impossible to deny they have done as much as anyone to put Yorkshire on the map. Consider them in the same stable as Fred Trueman, Guy Fawkes, Wensleydale cheese and suit cloth and carpets.
And it has all been done without the protective bubble of the mainstream music industry. Defying convention, ignoring advice, barely breaching the official charts and appearing on Top of the Pops just once, New Model Army have blazed their own path. Founder, main song writer and lead singer Justin Sullivan says: “Right from the start, we’ve always had a bite-the-hand-that-feeds-us attitude, which if you want to get on in the world isn’t a great advantage but then it’s us.”
The music of New Model Army has been labelled punk, post-punk, goth, metal, hippy and even folk but remains flexible and rather undefinable.
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It is true that the music is frequently brooding; sometimes tuneful and moving, sometimes gritty and harsh. The songs reflect desolation and disillusionment and are often a call to arms against injustice. The lyrics offer astute observations on life and are sprinkled with references to Yorkshire. There is a certain romance in bleakness and New Model Army are masters at capturing it. The name itself is an anagram of raw melody men which, many would think, says it all.
Justin himself is relatively coy about what has been achieved. How does he feel after 40 years? “I don’t feel anything really,” he says. “But then I’ve always been the sort of person who lives from day to day.” He is actually well known for looking forwards and never back. The past is gone and done, he would say. Even when fire engulfed the band’s studio in 2011, destroying keepsakes, archives and old recordings, Justin shrugged and referred to it as “just stuff”.
The past may not be of interest to Justin but others would say New Model Army’s early days are worth revisiting.
In the beginning, Justin moved to Bradford after a childhood in leafy Buckinghamshire. He went to the university to do peace studies but dropped out, finding the local music scene more enticing. What followed was the chance coming together of four key people, each a huge talent. The first lucky break was when Justin met virtuoso bass player Stuart Morrow from Buttershaw, Bradford. “We were together in fledging outfits,” says Justin. “I could play a few chords but Stuart was amazingly gifted.”
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Justin then met artist Joolz Denby in “a dodgy, cheap nightclub”. She would go on to be the band’s dynamic first manager. Joolz recalls the meeting: “He said the worst thing any girl wants to hear – would I like to come to see his band? Well, I did and afterwards he came up to me and said ‘What did you think?’ I liked the guy but I always say things as I see them, so I said ‘Dreadful!’ But beyond that, I could see he and Stuart were capable of playing really good music.”
The newly named New Model Army played their first official gig in October 1980 at the now long-gone Scamps Disco on Hall Ings in Bradford city centre. “The early gigs were chaotic,” says Joolz, “but you could see the driving energy. When they took to the stage, the whole place stopped.”
As their manager, Joolz steered them forward. Justin says: “Joolz had a vision and is one of those people who makes things happen.” For New Model Army, it certainly did. And they went on to be bolstered in 1982 by drummer, multi-instrumentalist and song writer Robert Heaton.
The band grew in popularity, while continually evolving with over a dozen musicians passing through it down the years. Justin has been the only constant. Always charismatic, assertive and dedicated, but modest and compassionate with it, he has been the group’s master strategist.
Nevertheless there have been rocky patches along the way, ranging from the time in Switzerland when Justin had 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 re-join 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 Robert Heaton and manager Tommy Tee, to the studio fire and the subsequent theft of most of their remaining gear from a car park after a concert.
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It is a surprise they have weathered all that but they have and with a sense of spirit. Today’s band includes Marshall Gill on lead guitar, Ceri Monger on bass, Dean White on keyboards and guitar and Michael Dean on drums.
“The current line-up is my favourite version of the band,” says Justin. “It’s the easiest to work in. Michael has been my key musical partner for a long time now. He has a completely different personality to me, which is what I need. Dean is an incredibly flexible all-round musician and does a huge amount of work behind the scenes, Marshall has brought us a kind of spikey attack and Ceri has brought us an easy fluidity. It’s a perfect balance.”
This year will see the band particularly busy. They are shortly to play dates in Finland, Turkey, Spain and Greece and in July in Berlin they will attempt a performance with a full orchestra, the Sinfonia Leipzig, one night followed by a stripped-down punk set the next. Festival appearances will take place through the summer and there is also talk of a book collaboration between Justin and Joolz, a reinvention of three albums from the noughties and some full-on celebratory shows in the UK in the autumn.
The fans will expect nothing less and, it should be noted, they are almost as important in the story of New Model Army as the musicians themselves. “There has always been a symbiotic relationship between band and fans,” says Joolz. “There is this feeling of family and tribe and the idea that everyone in a venue is equal. The glass collector is as important as Justin. That’s what makes it work.”
It may well have contributed to the band’s longevity. Justin also attributes that to the band’s attitude and lack of interest in money, which he believes has won them respect. “Also, over the years there has been a slow, organic turnover of members. Every few years someone new comes in and it’s like a new band. That’s been very good for us.”
The story is far from over yet and the march onwards continues. The New Model Army of Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell lasted just over 15 years. Justin Sullivan’s version has already far outstripped them and is still going strong. It could be time to put a note in your diary for the 50th anniversary.
A model rock band
The band was formed by singer Justin Sullivan, in Bradford, in 1980.
They are named after Oliver Cromwell’s revolutionary English army.
New Model Army’s debut album, Vengeance, was released in 1984.
Bradford writer and artist Joolz Denby was the band’s first manager.
The band’s line-up currently features Sullivan on vocals and guitar, Marshall Gill on lead guitar, Ceri Monger on bass, Michael Dean on drums and Dean White on keyboards and guitar.
Over the past four decades the band has produced 17 albums and nearly 250 songs.
For more details about the band’s forthcoming gigs go to www.newmodelarmy.org