Remember the ‘credit crunch’? That big bad buzzword, plastered across late 00s headlines, feels trite today, a catchphrase for a bygone era of British politics. Now, we’re knee-deep in another easy soundbite – Brexit Britain. See: an isolationist nation state so wrapped up in rising hate crime, plummeting mental health, and zig-zagging economic prospects, that recession seems the least of our worries. Rule Britannia indeed.
Still, it’s 2019, and I’m talking about the credit crunch with Frank Carter – a man who, a decade ago, looked set to become post-recession Britain’s unlikely, uninterested figurehead. Grey Britain, his old band Gallows’ second album, was released ten years ago this week. It grappled with the personal turmoil of a punk band contending with their £1 million major label advance from Warner, and what Frank perceived as the “fucked” state of the country around him. As what I can only call a 'post-apocalyptic concept album' (but trust me, it was good), Grey Britain centered on a world of emboldened racism, xenophobia, knife crime and inescapable mental illness. Reading through that list of themes today, it’s clear the album remains eerily, depressingly relevant.
And so Frank’s feeling reflective. “We never really recovered from that, did we?” he says, remembering the recession of 2008 that, supposedly, came to an official end in 2013. Look outside, though, and Britain looks far from fixed by austerity’s belt-tightening ambitions. “Financially, we never recovered, and then morally and governmentally we’re in fucking bits. We’re in pieces, and no one knows what the fuck is going on. All that’s done is nurtured a widespread hatred, and fear, and grand disillusionment – which is all in that record!” he adds, turning attentions back to Grey Britain. “It was there as a precursor ten fuckin’ years ago.” He sounds exhausted – and not just because he’s just rolled in from a European tour with his main priority now, band Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes. “The xenophobia, and the agoraphobia, and the hatred that I was singing about then, that was my fear. We were writing about a post-apocalyptic future in London. And, unfortunately, now… I’m living in it.”
If you don’t remember how much hype drove the album, it’s worth revisiting that context. Gallows’ furious debut Orchestra Of Wolves first garnered NME cover features (including a top spot in that magazine’s ‘Cool List’ in 2007), Reading & Leeds appearances, and a reputation for delivering juicy, plain-speaking quotes to journalists. As for that million-pound record deal? Korda Marshall, the A&R behind it, laughs the figure off. “It’s showbiz, isn’t it? We encouraged it – it probably made them seem a little more important than they were at the time, but they deserved to be that important. We were looking for things to increase their legendary status. That helped.”
Legendary status was a far cry from anything a group of young hardcore kids from Watford could ever dare dream of. And so they reacted, making a record so nihilistic, unpalatable and inescapably bleak it it made Orchestra Of Wolves look like nothing more than a temper tantrum. Where some might have assumed (and their major label surely hoped) Gallows would lighten up a little, instead they scraped every last scrap of colour off their palette.
For guitarist Laurent ‘Lags’ Bernard, who still plays in Gallows, their moves seem very different, ten years on. “Looking back, I think we were fucking insane,” he says down the phone from Watford’s LP Café record store. “Getting a 33-piece orchestra on the record, and recording at Abbey Road, Air Studios and RAK Studios… all these heritage buildings that had recorded The Beatles, and John Williams. At the time, I feel like I didn’t really appreciate it.”
Grey Britain held a grandiose dedication to experimentation. From samples of the River Thames itself, which segue into the ominous orchestral intro of “The Riverbank”, through to the two-act “The Vulture”, ending with a breakdown performed almost exclusively on strings and church bells, this album tried to fray the edges of both aggressive and classical music. It came accompanied, too, by a half-hour short film, documenting the post-apocalyptic future Frank found himself writing about with increasing disdain, and cover art that was quickly banned under the Obscene Publications Act of 1959.
“For us, it was our way of trying to create something so huge and frightening,” says Lags. “I know a lot of punk and hardcore kids were probably like, ‘Fuck these guys – strings on an album?!’, but we were always kicking against the scene we were from.” Take the album’s eight-minute closer, “Crucifucks”, which skewers everyone from the far-right National Front to “rapists, racists, all fucking scum.” It ends with a five-minute strings instrumental piece that acts as a credit-roll after Frank’s final solo, roared lyrics: “Great Britain is fucking dead / so cut our throats, end our lives / let’s fucking start again.” It was more than Warner knew what to do with. “A lot of people expected us to become one of these bands that sounds like Green Day or whatever,” says Lags, “but we were the opposite – that’s just not in Gallows’ DNA.”
Korda saw the benefits of letting the band’s bleak creative vision roam free, though admits “it might not have been the right thing to do from the commercial point of view”. A few months after Grey Britain’s release, Warner dropped Gallows – a move that, ironically, fed further into that legendary status they were hoping for, and pinned Gallows as a group able to run rings around the major label machine.
Despite their rising stature, and success that most would consider killing for, nihilism was all Gallows knew, Frank admits. “We had space and time and freedom to create. But my mindset was definitely phenomenally bleak, at that point,” he says. “I didn’t know what I was doing; I didn’t know who I was. I felt scared for a lot of it – like someone was gonna pull the rug from underneath me.” Lags shared the sentiment, he says, as did the rest of the band. “We were hammering a message. That was: ’we feel like our country’s fucked, so either stand up and do something about it, or just sit back and rot with everyone else’." In a sense, Grey Britain, while a critical success and top 20 album, acted less as a rallying cry, and more as a picture of things to come. “It’s funny how little has changed from that time,” agrees Lags. “Everything we were talking about in Grey Britain, it’s still going on today. On TV, and in the newspapers, whatever – it still feels like we’re in the midst of making that record.”
Frank agrees that tracks like “Queensberry Rules”, with its depiction of knife crime in London, or “Misery”’s to-the-bone depiction of depression, have lent Grey Britain an added weight across the last decade . “I think, once you’ve had ten years and it still hasn’t changed, then those beautiful melodies, they drift away and don’t seem as real anymore,” theorises Frank. “You can only have so much summer before the winter comes again. The winter’s here, for sure.”
He’s not completely despondent, though. From Slowthai (who he believes is about to release “probably the most important record of his generation” in Nothing Great About Britain), to the Extinction Rebellion protests in London, there are cracks in Frank’s formerly all-encompassing bleak outlook. He’s still got some fire in him, though. “Basically, I think the parliament’s dead to us,” he states. “Removing us from the European Union was self-serving to people who were all 50-plus, and are societally, culturally conditioned into a life of casual racism and fear-mongering, courtesy of the fucking Sun, Daily Mail and all the rest of it. Something has to change.”
Frank left Gallows shortly after Grey Britain’s touring cycle began to wind down, the pressures of their success and his disgust with his country prompting a five-year move to New York. From there, he started the now-defunct Pure Love, before moving onto The Rattlesnakes. Today, Lags and the rest of Gallows are readying a reunion of sorts; they play their first shows in four years, with Frank’s replacement (and Alexisonfire guitarist) Wade MacNeill, at Slam Dunk Festival in late May.
They might never have scaled the arena-filling heights their label hoped for, but on Grey Britain Gallows achieved something culturally resonant. Whether you like the music or not, it's hard not to see the album as a sonic tale of a country in dissolution, released at such a time that it would come to soundtrack further societal collapse. Those five punks from Watford produced a record that remains a prescient document of British culture. “It was a weird fucking time for us,” Frank says, as his voice breaks from a confident boom into something smaller, almost inaudible. “It didn’t make any sense,” he mutters, almost to himself, “…it still doesn’t.”
You can find Tom on Twitter.