By Chris Jarvis
Bouncing onto the scene in the early 2000s, The Filaments’ fusion of ska and dub with a street punk reminiscent of the second wave of punk in 1982 made them stand out on the burgeoning circuit of the time. More stripped down and raw than contemporaries such as Capdown, The Filaments offered something more primal than the rest of the scene. Their sound has since been replicated and developed by younger acts, Faintest Idea being the most notable.
Despite a seven year hiatus due to vocalist Jon Fawkes’ emigration to the USA in 2005, The Filaments’ 2004 record What’s Next is essential listening for any fan of the British underground punk scene. This album, and the other two Filaments full length releases are crammed full of political and conscious lyrics, taking shots at everything from the police to the BNP to the war on drugs. The Norwich Radical therefore spoke to their frontman about his politics, the relationship it has to his music, and how he sees its role in a wider political context as part of our series – Music That Matters.
Without hesitation, Jon Fawkes describes himself as a “socialist with an internationalist outlook.” A nurse and active trade unionist frustrated by the low level of union activity in his field of work, Fawkes nevertheless remains dedicated to political activism on one level or another. “Unfortunately my chosen profession is synonymous with weak unions. This year did however see the first strikes in the profession in 30 years which I was pleased to be part of on two separate levels. I admire organisations like the RMT and FBU that operate from a more aggressive platform rooted in socialist principle. Otherwise, this year I attended one of the marches against war in Syria and attended a rally for Jeremy Corbyn in the lead up to the Labour Leadership [Election]. I would say my political participation is sporadic at best, and I am certainly always making up the numbers as opposed to functioning on any organisational level.”
Political activism and political views are umbilically linked to music for Fawkes, who like so many others has been inspired by the power of song and its role as a conduit for political and progressive ideas – “It was through music that I developed an interest in politics and social issues in the first place. It was initially Rage Against the Machine and Senser when I was twelve, and then through punk rock in my early teenage years. Music really opened my eyes and ears to a lot of ideas that I wasn’t hearing anywhere else, certainly not in the mainstream media or school.”
Reciprocating the same principles back down to the production of music, the music of The Filaments is inspired by the politics that was first inspired by music: “A political position is often the starting point for me when writing a song. I like the idea of the songs being there to propagate an idea, and I think the best reaction you can have with the audience is when you are putting across a message that they resonate with. We have a song called Bastard Coppers which I wrote as a seventeen year old who had a few run-ins with rude, aggressive police officers. The lyrics are unsurprisingly immature and naïve, but they really resonate with people who get the core message that authority on the street isn’t founded in wisdom or any righteousness, and that the local bobby is not always your friend. It makes for an amazing experience as sometimes you feel like the whole room understands the message and feeds the message and energy straight back to you.”
“Brecht said that art should be a hammer with which to shape reality, as opposed to a mirror that reflects it. I am broadly in agreement with that. The art that interests me has a purpose, a point to make and attempts to engage the audience and bring about a certain way of thinking. A lot of popular music these days feels like part of the fashion industry; singers singing ultimately about nothing at all, and that sort of art for its own sake does bore me.”
it seems like squats and social centres make sense
for what we do, but we are also limiting our
scope from the start as a stylistic choice.
The reverence with which Jon Fawkes holds music is palpable, as is his belief in its ability to make a positive difference in the world, to shape opinions and to work as a tool of political change. But the perception of the shortcomings of music scenes and musical spaces is also striking: “I think radical spaces often accommodate sounds and aesthetics rather than ideas. That is to say, there are plenty of musical acts that offer political messages, but it’s really the way that message is presented that may determine the need for some sort of alternative venue. In the case of punk rock, the music is often awful, the fashion just as bad, and the behaviour around gigs can be what a lot of people would describe as anti-social. People like my mum aren’t going to be into any of that, it’s all too niche. But she might not mind going to a Christie Moore show or listening to some Dick Gaughan in the car. For that reason, it seems like squats and social centres make sense for what we do, but we are also limiting our scope from the start as a stylistic choice.”
Naturally as a result of all this, and the longevity of his time in the scene, I am intrigued to know which bands and musicians working today he believes to be effectively mixing music and politics in the way that The Filaments have done throughout the years. Rather amusingly he responds to my final question as follows: “I’m not in any position to comment on the music scene today! My playlist is dominated by folk from the last 50 years, and I don’t get out to many shows in my free time these days… such is life!”
In 2013 The Filaments reformed, released a strong and eclectic album, Land of Lions before heading out on tour. With more shows in the diary, whatever road they next chose to walk down, it’s likely that they will continue to inspire a new generation of people, politicising them in the process, along with many others on the circuit. This can only be a good thing.
You can read the rest of the Music That Matters series here.