DeFENDER of the Faith
Gareth Longstaff explores the paradigms of class, region, and hope in Sam Fender’s music.
In November 2021 Sam Fender played an awe-inspiring, tenacious, and unswerving set to over 10,000 fans at the Utilita Arena in Newcastle. This was a decisive moment. Not only for his passionate and zealous fans, but perhaps more so for Fender himself who stood almost stunned gazing into the crowd, his demeanour a compound of humility, shock, and disbelief. The evening buzzed with an epoch-making authenticity and the kind of blistering urgency and elation from a crowd that is incredibly rare to witness. The air sizzled with genuine anticipation and amidst the sweat, awe, and joy, the class-based politics of the north-east reverberated and were heightened as Fender’s Geordie lilt articulated what and how his multitude felt. His music seemed to hit them with genuinely affective jolts of pride, optimism, and integrity, his lyrics seizing on the paradoxical sadness and assurance of this region and its people. As well as this the emotional scars of the pandemic could still be felt. This was a gig that Fender should have played in April 2020, but by that point the country was living in lockdown and navigating the neoliberal bombast of self-isolation, new normals, and individual responsibility that Bojo and his cronies imparted through their early evening subterfuge. Fender experienced this too and his self-awareness and the thrill of being able to play his songs to his people was palpable. All night there was a sense of the ‘moment’ as buoyancy and bittersweetness were channelled through Fender and his music. In this resolute performance there were traces of Paul Weller at his very best, sometime between 1978-80 (Think Down in Tube Station at Midnight or indeed any song off All Mod Cons or Setting Sons), and we also saw the accented anger and wit of Nadine Shah, the temperate vulnerability of Jeff Buckley and the assimilation of Bruce Springsteen. (Since the release of his first album, the media branding of Fender as the ‘Geordie Springsteen’ has always been something he has played down. After all, it’s not as if we can lift and shift Springsteen’s Nebraska or Darkness on the Edge of Town to Fender’s NE29 postcode, but in drilling down and exploring Fender’s world we can certainly find traces of the Boss’s. Fender transposes the murky Americana of burnt-out Chevrolets’, lonely motels, and screen doors into an overcast north-east landscape where the council rigmarole, male suicide, and crippling debt are ‘drenched in cheap drink and snide fags’.)
In a little over two years, Fender has sold in the region of 250,000 records, has had two number one albums, and has become the poster boy of both the British music industry and an inter-generational stalwart of fans. His first album, Hypersonic Missiles, is a jostling sketchbook of working-class experience: North Shields, Saturday nights, white privilege, Brexit. Here we witness Fender looking outwards to the communities and experiences that have constructed, annoyed, and exhilarated him. His second album, Seventeen Going Under, is Fender looking inwards, and touches on memories and traumas buried deep in his childhood and teens, toxic masculinities, the veiled corruption and greed of neoliberal society, the sceptres of drink and drugs, and in what might be his most eloquent and heart-rending lyric, the crux of how the state reduces human suffering to a statistic. He writes ‘I see my mother, the DWP sees a number, she cries on the floor encumbered, I’m seventeen going under’. This is the opposite to the singer-songwriter as a self-indulgent or introspective loner. Here is a man who aches to tell the story of his life and does so through the indices of survival, resilience, affirmation, and hope. He agitates and rejects the romanticised and trite for something far more forceful and sincere and self-referential. Look beyond his albums and there is a further embarrassment of riches. Howdon Aldi Death Queue, Poundland Kardashians and Spice produce a kind of lyrical texture that seizes upon the paradoxes of working-class pride and ignorance in a way that is genuinely persuasive, disconcerting and subversive. The eloquence and insight that Fender packs into one line might take years of PhD research or novel writing to perfect yet his stories are not told with an intellectual superiority but an insider’s integrity and bewilderment at how things turned out this way. This fire in Fender’s belly is also textured with an affecting and heart-wrenching poignancy. For instance, in his song Spit of You he writes about not being able to talk to his own dad (the chorus relaying the fact that ‘I can talk to anyone, I can’t talk to you’), while in Dead Boys and The Dying Light he creates a requiem for the young men in towns like North Shields who have succumb to suicidal despair. This is the key to understanding the significance of how and why Fender is perhaps not only the greatest singer-songwriter of his generation but also (and it’s a big claim to make) the best to come out of the north-east. Born in North Shields in 1994 he came into a world where the aftermath of Thatcherism and the bolstering of neoliberalism were starkly felt. This period signalled the dissemination of heavy industries such as shipbuilding and the communities connected to it - and the ghosts of this recent past are everywhere in his work. Here the ordinary working-class individual bears the brunt of those ideological systems of power that have damaged and constrained them. In this way Fender is part of a working-class cultural heritage that is unique to this region and the more I listen to him the more I make connections to the likes of Bobby Thompson, The Animals, Auf Wiedersehen Pet, and viz. Fender is also the kind of representative our region really needs - he writes and sings authentically. His narratives are familiar but never hackneyed and he seizes upon so many of the styles, habits, and idiosyncrasies that have created a common and proud regional culture. Yet he never seeks to make it twee, nostalgic or cliched. He extols and eulogises what is wonderful and what is shit - whether he references himself (see the genius of a line such as ‘canny chanter but he looks sad’), North Shields, the region more generally, masculinity, hedonism, debt, self-doubt, exploitation, anger - he has the kind of lyrical and musical insight that gives you goosebumps. After all, there are no other number 1 singer-songwriters that can sing ‘Don’t wanna hear about Brexit, those old cunts fucked up our exit’ or ‘they gave you bulimia those marketing masterminds’. Just as Jimmy Forsyth’s astonishing photographs of life in Scotswood in the 1950s captured the pain and hope of a lost community, Fender’s lyricism and the narratives contoured around his North Shields of the 2020s do the same. This is undeniably an era and region of extremes and Fender attests to the ways in which austerity and precarity exist alongside conspicuous wealth and self-obsession. Here the dominant media construction of the region as it is presented through the prism of a pouting, untalented, and self-obsessed Instafamous / Geordie Shore generation is cut away so that a far more truthful and sardonic view of what Fender sees (and what many of us also see) emerges. He is the versifier and wordsmith of what it feels like to be on the inside of this region. These times feel uncanny, off-balance, uncertain but out of the darkness there is some light - a bard of genuinely honest, exhilarating, and expectant zeal. At the core of him there are no cliches - just a desire to present something truthful, authentic, and hopeful - and a bit like Fender himself that’s a rare thing.