The Journey so far…
New Model Army played their first gig in Bradford on October 23rd 1980. Its founding members were Justin Sullivan, Stuart Morrow and Phil Tompkins. The threesome had already been together for a couple of years in a number of Bradford bands with other musicians and singers but in the Autumn of 1980, they decided to form a stripped-down three-piece, their music drawing on a wide collection of influences and fuelled by their passions for Punk Rock and Northern Soul. Within a few months drummer Phil Tomkins had left to be replaced by Rob Waddington. The band slowly built up a local following and created a unique style based on Justin’s song-writing and Stuart’s virtuosity on lead-bass.
In Summer 1982, whispers about this band reached London and they were invited to perform at a couple of showcases. But in a scene hungry for “the next big thing” (the coming “New Romantics”), NMA’s fearsome music and northern style did not win over the Major Record Companies and they returned to Bradford empty-handed. Rob Waddington left to be replaced by Robert Heaton, who had been working as a drum tech and occasional drummer for the band ‘Hawkwind‘. Undeterred by the indifference of the Music Business, NMA began to perform more and more around the country and frequently featured as opening act on a series of all-day concerts at the London Lyceum which heralded many of the “Post-Punk” bands. Although this meant traveling for several hours to play a twenty-five minute set for no money, the band embraced the opportunity and their reputation as a live act grew. A first small-label independent single “Bittersweet” was released in the summer of 1983, followed by “Great Expectations” on Abstract Records that autumn, both played frequently on late night radio by John Peel. Suddenly the band had a “Following”, people who would travel to every concert around the country to see them.
Early in 1984, the producer of “The Tube”, the most important live music show on TV, had seen NMA in concert and invited them to fill the ‘unknown’ slot on the programme. Having originally asked the band to perform their provocative anti-anthem, “Vengeance”, the TV Company suddenly got cold feet about the song’s lyrics minutes before broadcast and asked the band to change songs. It made no difference. Somehow twenty to thirty followers had managed to get into the TV studio and when NMA began with “Christian Militia” the crowd went wild and an electric atmosphere was transmitted around the country. Suddenly NMA were underground news. Their first mini-album, “Vengeance” knocked “The Smiths” from the top of the Independent Charts and the major record companies, who had rejected them less than two years earlier, were now begging to sign the band.
The autumn of 1984 was a time of political turmoil in Britain. After five years of Mrs Thatcher’s right-wing government, which had already fuelled so much of NMA’s early fury, a final showdown with the National Union of Mineworkers (the strike that had begun in March and had split the country), entered a critical phase and much of Northern England began to resemble a Police State. NMA’s last Independent EP “The Price” also featured “1984” a song written directly about the strike and, with their declared left-wing views, NMA’s concerts became increasingly intense.
At the end of the year, NMA signed a contract of “complete artist control” with EMI (which included EMI giving a donation to a miners fund). The move surprised many people but the band were already looking beyond the confines of Britain and considered the deal to be the right one. In the Spring of 1985 the album “No Rest For The Wicked” and the single “No Rest” both reached the national top 40, but this success and now relative financial security had done little to soften NMA’s confrontational attitude. They appeared on Top Of The Pops wearing T-shirts with a motif reading “Only Stupid Bastards Use Heroin” (a reaction against the fashionable drug of the time).
Then, halfway through the “No Rest” tour, the day after their hometown gig, Stuart Morrow decided to leave the band for personal reasons. Frantic negotiations were made (by a strange unhappy co-incidence, on the very same day as the Bradford City fire disaster killed 56 people at a football match), but to no avail. As a result, Justin and Robert decided to follow up the success of “No Rest” with an acoustic song from the album “Better Than Them” which had not involved Stuart and accompanied it with three specially recorded acoustic tracks, a move of principle which dumbfounded EMI. By the summer, Stuart had been replaced by 17 year-old Jason ‘Moose’ Harris, whose first gig was at a benefit for the families of the fire tragedy, and the “No Rest” tour continued. Thatcher’s victory over the miners, and by extension over all organised opposition, marked a new political reality. This, coupled with the shock of Stuarts’s departure and increasing media hostility, resulted in the band taking an ever more defiant posture, exemplified by a typically fiery performance at the Glastonbury Festival. Then, despite being signed to Capitol Records in North America, all attempts to tour there were prevented when the band were refused visas. Many people, on both sides of the Atlantic, believed that this was for political reasons although this was never possible to prove. Instead, that autumn NMA set out on their first long tour of the European mainland, which unlike many UK acts, they found much to their liking, and later a trip to Japan. The year ended with yet another UK tour in support of a newly recorded EP: “Brave New World”, a savage portrait of the Thatcher’s Britain and “RIP”, an equally furious study of the band’s history thus far.
If 1985 had been a traumatic year, then 1986 saw one of the band’s many resurrections, with the legendary Glyn Johns agreeing to produce their third album. Though relations between band and producer were often difficult, Justin recalls the sessions as “the biggest musical learning curve of my life”. “The Ghost Of Cain” was well received by the critics and audience and many people began to see a band that were capable of developing and changing and adjusting to new realities while still staying true to their own principles; this was a band that were now pursuing their own musical agenda, completely unmoved by the whims of the music industry or the expectations of fans. Outside Britain, their name was slowly becoming known and in December of 1986, they finally made a first short tour of America. 1987 was a year of full bloom. In January, Justin and Robert recorded an album with the poet Joolz Denby. Joolz had been the band’s first manager and has remained as a driving force and responsible for all of the band’s artwork from the beginning to the present day. She had previously made spoken word albums and a series of EPs with Jah Wobble but it was inevitable that she would collaborate with NMA. The album “Hex” was recorded at the very special Sawmills Studio, a unique place in Cornwall, only reachable at high tide by boat. Although the studio is now well known, at that time it was infrequently used and accommodation was in primitive cabins deep in the woods. From this new setting, and freed from the pressures of “being New Model Army”, Justin and Robert were able to explore all kinds of ideas and musical avenues that their experience with Glyn Johns had opened up. Later, they both considered “Hex” to have been one of the creative highlights of their musical partnership, with its strong, romantic soundscapes acting as the perfect accompaniment to Joolz’ poetry.
Much of the writing of “Hex” had been done using samplers and the use of this new tool continued to take the band in unexpected directions. That summer they recorded the “Whitecoats” EP with its ecological lyric and mystical atmosphere. An interest in mysticism and spirituality had been becoming more and more apparent in Justin’s lyrics (though this was no surprise to those who knew of his family’s Quaker roots). The same summer, Red Sky Coven was born out of a group of friends who shared these interests and ideas. It included Justin, Joolz, singer-songwriter and storyteller Rev Hammer and musician Brett Selby. Together, the foursome decided to create a performance based on this friendship, a unique show which continues to tour on an occasional basis.
1987 also saw plenty more NMA concerts, including Reading Festival, a gig with David Bowie in front of the Reichstag in Berlin and a show-stopping performance at the Bizarre Festival at Lorelei in Germany. From time to time, the band added their friend Ricky Warwick as a second guitarist and also enlisted Mark Feltham, the legendary harmonica player who had graced “The Ghost Of Cain” and “Hex” to join them. At the very end of the year and the beginning of 1988, they returned to the Sawmills for two more inspired writing sessions, which laid the foundations for “Thunder and Consolation”.
The following months, though, were far more difficult, while NMA chose a producer, another music legend – Tom Dowd – and set about recording the album. It was a long drawn-out process and relationships between band members became increasingly strained, only really maintained by the knowledge that they were making something truly special. “Thunder and Consolation” was finally released early in 1989, striking a perfect balance between the band’s fascinations with rock, folk and soul music and Justin’s lyrical interest in spirituality, politics and family relationships. The album brought critical praise and new levels of commercial success and the band toured Europe and North America, joined by Ed Alleyne Johnson playing electric violin and keyboards and Chris Mclaughlin on guitar. However, despite the success, relationships at the heart of the band had not really mended and even after Jason Harris left that summer, stresses remained.
By autumn Justin and Robert were back in the Sawmills working towards another album and, in the new year, they were joined by a new bass player, Nelson, previously of a number of East Anglian cult bands, and a new second guitarist, Adrian Portas from Sheffield. The new musicians brought a stronger atmosphere to the touring band while, in the studio, Justin and Robert continued to explore different musical ideas. Partly self-produced, “Impurity” was finally finished and mixed by Pat Collier in the summer of 1990. Still featuring Ed Alleyne Johnson’ violin, the album was more eclectic than “Thunder” and the world-wide tour that followed its release lasted the best part of a year, culminating in a rolling Festival in Germany involving David Bowie, Midnight Oil, The Pixies and NMA.
In mid-1991, “Raw Melody Men”, a live album from the tour, was put together and released. It was to be NMA’s last album for EMI. Unusually, given the history of the music business, the relationship between band and record company had always remained cordial but had now simply grown stale. There were minor dissatisfactions on both sides and, after lengthy negotiations, it was agreed to simply terminate the contract. NMA’s own Management Company also imploded at this time and new management was drawn up. The band was not short of new record company offers and eventually chose Epic, for reasons to do with support in the US.
Although Mrs Thatcher had been ousted by her own Party in 1990 (a memorable night coinciding with NMA’s first gig in Rome), the Conservative monolith that had ruled the country for so long remained in power and, against all expectations, won a further election in 1992. Outside Britain though, much was changed: there was recession and instability and a so-called “New World Order” in the wake of the collapse of Soviet Communism and the 1st Gulf War. Already the band was embarked upon a very dark album, driven equally by personal traumas, including Justin’s near-death electrocution on stage in Switzerland and the changes in the world around them. Produced by Niko Bolas and mixed by Bob Clearmountain, “The Love Of Hopeless Causes” was not what anyone was expecting. Just as folk-rock, pioneered and inspired in part by NMA, became a fashionable and commercial sound, the band made a deliberate move away from it and straight and into guitar-driven rock music.
Replacing Adrian with Dave Blomberg on guitar, they embarked on the album tour and the European section featured their most successful concerts yet. However NMA’s relationship with their new record company quickly deteriorated. Worse still, they found themselves caught in corporate dispute between London and New York, which was in no way related to them. By June, the band found themselves on an exhaustive US tour, in which they had invested much of their own money, with no support of any kind from Epic or any other source. The tour featured many outstanding concerts but it was a bittersweet experience. By the end of the summer, it had been agreed that there should be a year off for everyone to rest and consider the future, while the contract with Epic was quickly terminated.
Justin used 1993-4 to produce other artists (a second collaboration with Joolz entitled “Weird Sister”, Rev Hammer’s “Bishop Of Buffalo” album and also the unusual Berlin combo, The Inchtabokatables), tour with Red Sky Coven and create another way of performing NMA songs – in a duo with new guitarist Dave Blomberg. Together they went back to Justin’s first love – small club touring – and eventually released an album of the live show entitled “Big Guitars in Little Europe”, an album, which has proved enduringly popular. Robert’s main wish was to spend more time at home with his family, which he was now able to do and Nelson formed a new band “Nelson’s Column” which toured England. Ed Alleyne Johnson followed up his first solo album “The Purple Electric Violin Concerto” which had been so successful with a second entitled “Ultraviolet”.
After the year was up, Justin and Robert tentatively began work on a new project and in December 1994, the band (with Dean White on keyboards replacing Ed Alleyne Johnson) reassembled to play a short series of concerts. However, the next two years were lost while Justin and Robert, plagued by ill health and personal-life distractions tried unsuccessfully to pin down hundreds of new musical ideas into an album. It became increasingly obvious to both of them (and everyone else in and around the band) that they were now on very different musical paths. In 1997, Tommy Tee who had been the band’s Tour Manager in the 1980s returned to take control of the band’s drifting affairs. He enlisted producer Simon Dawson to help finish the project and by the autumn “Strange Brotherhood” was completed. Unsurprisingly, it’s an album full to the brim with different and contrasting musical ideas while the lyrics range from the politics of the British Road Protest movement (in which Sullivan had been actively involved during 1996) to the deeply personal and sometimes unusually obscure. During the mixing, it was agreed that Justin and Robert would go their separate ways after the tour.
Then, suddenly Robert was diagnosed as having a brain tumour, and though the operation to remove it was successful, any prospect of touring was impossible. So he suggested that his place be taken by Michael Dean, a young drummer who had been working as his technician since 1993. Having watched Robert for some years, Michael was immediately comfortable with the role of drummer and with all other aspects of the band. The “Strange Brotherhood” tour began in the spring of 1998 and, happy to be back on the road at last, for the first couple of months, the band embarked on an ambitious programme of doing two sets each night, a 50 minute acoustic set followed by a full 90 minute rock. The tour continued on and off through to the end of the year.
By now Justin and Tommy Tee had restructured New Model Army’s set-up to take account of the changes that the Internet was bringing to the whole music industry. This included making sure that the band owned every aspect of their work, and included their own record label (Attack Attack) to be distributed by different companies in different territories. 1999 began with a review of live shows recorded the previous year and their amalgamation into a live double album entitled “New Model Army and Nobody Else”. After this Justin (assisted by Michael) began to write new songs for the next album. This was done quickly and easily for the first time since “Thunder”, with Justin claiming to be “reborn as a song-writer.” To keep up the momentum, it was decided to self-produce and to record the album in the band’s own studio. Again this was done quickly with mostly Justin, Michael and Dean at the controls. (Living 250 and 300 miles from Bradford meant that Nelson and Dave were more occasional contributors for purely geographical reasons). The whole process was very much a reaction to the slow progress of “Strange Brotherhood”, with the album given the simple name “Eight” to go with its whole stripped-down approach. It was released in the Spring of 2000 and was followed by more touring.
On October 23rd 2000, the band celebrated their 20th anniversary by playing another two set marathon at Rock City in Nottingham and then three months later, further special concerts in London and Koln which featured four completely different sets spread over two nights – a 57 song marathon in each city attended by over 7000 people.
One of the legacies of the lost years of the mid 1990s was a lot of unfinished material and next, Justin, Michael and Dean worked to finish and assemble this into accessible form, a double album “Lost Songs” released in 2002. Another ‘unfinished’ project was Justin’s long promised solo album and it was at this moment that he decided to pursue it. Meant to take just a few weeks to record and tour, “Navigating By The Stars” became another marathon. Hooking up with film and TV music producer, Ty Unwin, the first week of working coincided with ‘9/11′. Rather than making a political or angry response to unfolding events, the album’s purpose was to ‘make something beautiful in an increasingly ugly World’. The album came out in 2003 to surprised and favourable reaction. At first touring alone with Dean (including a long awaited return to America), Justin was then joined by Michael playing percussion and the threesome bought a large mobile home and set off across Europe. The live album “Tales of the Road”, released in 2004 captures their unique sound and stripped-down rearrangements of some of NMA’s lesser known songs.
In 2004, an exhibition of all Joolz’ artwork for the band plus collected memorabilia was assembled for a touring exhibition. Entitled ‘One Family, One Tribe’, it went on display in art galleries in Otley, York, Bradford and Hamm in Germany. Meanwhile, the band work began work on a new NMA album, at first focused around Michael’s increasing creativity as a drummer. “Carnival” was recorded with producer Chris Tsangerides and mixed by Nat Chan. It’s lyrical subjects and musical roots were as usual very eclectic but included many people’s favourite NMA track, “Fireworks Night”, Justin’s emotional response to the sudden and unexpected death of Robert that Autumn. “Carnival” was released in September 2005, but when it came to the tour, Dave Blomberg was unable to participate for family reasons and the band found a perfect replacement in Marshall Gill, a versatile blues guitarist from Ashton Under Lyme.
The Carnival Tour marked another dynamic new beginning for the band, with Nelson sometimes playing as a second drummer, Dean sometimes as third guitarist and Michael and Marshall’s energy much in evidence. Such was the sense of momentum and togetherness that for the first time in years, NMA moved quickly on to making another album with major contributions from all members. “High” was written and recorded in five months at the beginning of 2007, produced by old friend (and another production star, Chris Kimsey). Set against Blairite Britain and the continuing ‘War On Terror’ the album was ‘angrier’ than any releases for a while and lyrically very much in tune with current realities.
The “High” tour rolled through 4 continents with the new line up now firmly in tune with itself and Marshall bringing a tougher edge to the band’s sound – even managing to re-arrange the classic violin led anthem “Vagabonds” into a guitar led version. This and 16 other songs were released on a new live album, “Fuck Texas, Sing For Us”, in November 2008 (the title taken from a chant at the band’s New Orleans show that serves as the intro to the album).
The year ended with tours in Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and the customary December run of London, Paris, Amsterdam, and Koln with the band playing a fiery set of recent material. Remarkably, the band’s main 17 song set featured only two pre-2000 songs, as well as brand new material, a sure sign of the band’s forward momentum – and with their ticket sales up everywhere. Then, at Christmas, manager Tommy Tee died suddenly and unexpectedly. This was a major shock to everyone in and around the band, not only because as he ran all aspects of the band’s affairs but also as a major part of the NMA family and history since 1982.
It took a while before the band could refocus but by Spring 2009, they were back in the studio working on their eleventh studio album, “Today Is A Good Day”. Mostly written in the wake of the 2008 Wall Street Collapse (an event celebrated in the white-hot opening title track), it was recorded in the band’s own studio in Bradford with Chris Kimsey once more at the controls. Chris wrote “the NMA ‘family business’ is back in full swing. The boys sound brave & united.” The album was hailed by many as one of their very best and the album tour began with a month in North America and went on for a further six months ending with a triumphant return to Glastonbury and other Festivals in the summer.
In the Autumn of 2010, the band celebrated their 30th Anniversary with the release of boxsets, books, DVDs and a full set of retrospective material and set out on the curious and challenging schedule. Promising to play a minimum of four songs from each of their 13 albums (including the two B-sides compilations) over two nights, they began this marathon in New York and Sao Paulo in September and continued in different cities across four continents every weekend until Christmas. The final weekend in London was recorded and released in full as a five hour live DVD.
After such a hectic year, the following months were always going to be relatively quiet, with just a few shows, rather more of the semi-acoustic Justin and Dean duo concerts and a handful of Festivals while the band began thinking about their next project. Consciously looking for something new after two totally convincing ‘rock band recorded live in a studio’ albums, Justin and Michael began experimental with layered drums and new textures. However, the project was much disrupted. Firstly Nelson decided to finally leave the band for personal family reasons after 22 years of service. This was entirely amicable on both sides and was only revealed some months after everyone in the band knew. Then, days after Nelson’s final gig in Amsterdam, a fire started in the furniture outlet next door to the band’s Bradford base and destroyed their whole studio set-up. No one was injured and the band were even able to salvage some of their touring gear from inside charred flight-cases, but a huge amount of equipment and archive material was destroyed. Rebuilding was quick and within three months the studio was up and running with the band busy working through auditions for a new bassist. After a long process, they chose Ceri Monger, a young multi-instrumentalist from a musical family in Suffolk. Then, misfortune struck again after Ceri’s first gig with the band, with the theft of most of the band’s guitars and other items from a van. Despite this (and with generous help from friends and other bands) the band got through a busy Festival season and finally began work on the long-promised and much-awaited new album.
Promising something ‘very different’ from the last few albums, the band have delivered “Between Dog And Wolf”, a rich, musical, multi-layered work with a strong overall atmosphere. It was mixed in his Los Angeles studio by Joe Barresi, best known for work with Tool, Queens Of The Stoneage, Bad Religion and Soundgarden – another in the long list of A-listers eager to work with NMA. The album was released in September to surprised and glowing reviews and the band’s highest chart positions in twenty years and the accompanying tour, already described as watching ‘a completely reinvented and rejuvenated band’, is set to last for many months. A special 106 page magazine featuring articles about the band past and present accompanied the release, with an attached flexi-disc of the “March In September” single (an echo of the flexi-disc that accompanied their first release 30 years before).
Meanwhile, for the last four years, award-winning BBC/Channel Four director, Matt Reid, has been putting together a documentary film about the group and trying to keep pace with all the events and changes that have happened during the filming process. A cinematic release is planned for 2014.
“New Model Army is a remarkable band – as hungry and focused as ever, with a continually regenerating audience and insatiable creative ambition…”