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Third album by New Model Army (EMI, 09/1986)

Slade the Leveller* (vocals, guitars)
Robb Heaton (drums)
Jason "Moose" Harris (bass)
Mark Feltham (guest, harmonica on tracks 5 and 9)
*This is the last album on which Justin Sullivan is listed as "Slade the Leveller." in the line-up

  1. The Hunt (Sullivan/Heaton)
  2. Lights Go Out (Sullivan/Heaton)
  3. 51st State (Cartwright/New Model Army)
  4. All Of This (Sullivan/Heaton)
  5. Poison Street (Sullivan/Heaton)
  6. Western Dream (Sullivan/Heaton)
  7. Love Songs (Sullivan/Heaton)
  8. Heroes (Sullivan)
  9. Ballad (Sullivan)
  10. Master Race (Sullivan)

Produced by Glyn Johns

The Album

New Model Army had just made it fairly "big" after their surprise signing to major label EMI in 1985. No Rest for the Wicked was a pretty good album and one of the last to fly the banner of socio-political punk-rock music in the spirit of bands like Crass or The Fall. Having gotten away with releasing such material under a major label in 1985, way past its heyday, there was a bit of a post-success crisis that saw Stuart Morrow leave the band to be replaced by then 17-year old Moose, who later went on to become a member of The Damned.

What does a band in this situation do? It changes sound and direction. Or does it? The Ghost of Cain, the band's third album, turned out to be every bit as powerful and effective in delivering the message as No Rest was, if not more so. Musically it was even more complete since they had written enough good material so as to have no need for "fillers." I'd say all but one track stand very well in the musical department, and enough was left over to appear a few years later in a pretty good collection of B-sides and rejects. Morrow's absence is noticeable, both in the songwriting department and in the absence of his lead bass; much of the change in sound is due to Sullivan and Heaton working by themselves, and writing more melodic music.

This was the Britain of the mid-1980s. Yuppie culture, Maggie Thatcher, collapsing oil prices, heroin as a fashion drug. In the world, the United States attacking Libya, the Chernobyl and Challenger disasters and maybe a bit of hope in nuclear disarmament. All in all, it pretty much sucked. Sullivan takes a more cosmopolitan approach than before and takes his themes from the world at large as much as he does from what's going on outside his front door. The first person plural figures very prominently in this album's lyrics--Sullivan is not talking about himself, nor does he exclude himself or his audience from the accusations. And he's still paying attention:

Now we've got Bush, Jr.! We're back to where we started! We've got Bush, Blair, who is not that different from fuckin' Thatcher... --J.S., 2001

New Model Army's music cannot be taken out of the context of the times in which it was written. This album reflects Britain and Europe near the end of the Cold War. Dependence on the United States, destruction of the environment, the lives of "little people" getting smaller. On top of some of the best music to emerge from the post-punk movement(s), in The Ghost of Cain NMA came up with a classic album of bitterness, anger, and that ever-present glimmer of hope, without which they may have been just another bunch of punk-ish nihilists.

With the experienced hand of producer of legends (Stones, Who, Eagles) Glyn Johns twiddling the knobs, the sound was of a more clean, classic rock character. Johns also taught them a thing or two about making music. As Sullivan relates:

"I argued a point with him, so Glyn took me by the scruff of the neck, led me around the back of his studio, pointed to all these gold discs he had on the wall and said 'how many of these have you got?'. A very sobering experience".

Despite "regretting every argument they won" with their producer, The Ghost of Cain did alright commercially in the UK and in Germany, though the singles from this album, 51st State and Poison Street, charted only at UK nos. 71 and 64 respectively. I'd say the band also absorbed some of Johns' lessons and applied them to their future work.

The sleeve has a little story of its own. The design is, as usual, by Joolz, who painted it on the back of her leather jacket and draped some other accessories over it. The contentious phrase about stupid bastards and heroin is half-covered. The montage was then photographed by Justin's photographer sister Francesca, these days better known as acclaimed Cairo belly dancer-cum-journalist Yazmina, the English Rose. Of all their cover designs, this one, along with the "eye" image on Strange Brotherhood, is the most memorable.

Track by Track

The album begins with a bang, with a battle hymn that would be the opener for their gigs for the next seven or eight years. More famous in the form of its Sepultura cover, The Hunt is about drug dealers. Not in some abstract "drug dealers are evil" manner but in a threatening "I know where you live" style, more like Heroin. Although this is one of their best and best known songs, it does go overboard on the vigilante theme carried over from Vengeance. Damned if it doesn't sound good though.

...we followed him back to your front door
and we're waiting for you outside
'Cause not everyone here is scared of you

The second track, Lights Go Out charts a depressing journey among broken dreams and ambitions in a bleak industrial world of no escape. A version of this track was their first, failed shot at gaining US airplay. They just aren't cut out for US radio. The picture it paints, though, could have been drawn from any industrial city in the world, be it Detroit, Dortmund or Huddersfield.

History gave us meaning, gave us a place
Gave my father reasons for the lines on his face
But we asked for the money and money they gave
And God, how that made us easy to enslave

51st State is, arguably, the song that's gotten them into the most trouble, and a perennial fan favourite. The 51st state of course, is Thatcher's Britain. One might be inclined to say that this was also Major's Britain, and is Blair's Britain--a vassal state with precious little dignity or will of its own. It's still 1986 though. The questionable glory of the Falklands is fading and there's a yuppie in a BMW at every traffic light. As with the other great fan favourite, The Hunt, this song is catchy and popular but less substantial, playing on stereotypes perhaps a bit more than it should.

This track is one of very few co-written by non-band members. The song is an elaboration upon something written in 1979 by a friend of Sullivan's, Ashley Cartwright, who, as far as I know, was then a member of a never heard 'em band called The Shakes and has no other songwriting credit to his name. Do it once, do it well.

Here in the land of opportunity, watch us revel in our liberty
You can say what you like but it doesn't change anything
Because the corridors of power are an ocean away

All Of This is one of my personal favourites. Based on events of early 1986 in Germany and Libya, it follows a bombing and the world in which it occurs. No judgement, just a description of cause and effect.

The ones who never were given much, never asked much of anything in recall
But there's a black bag in the corner and it doesn't belong to anyone here at all

After that, Poison Street, a romantic dream about breaking out of drug use, is one of the most enchanting songs they've written. This is one of the hopeful songs which, amid depressing pictures of reality, they still manage to write, probably out of some compulsive optimism. This track is where Feltham (formerly known as one of Rory Gallagher's musicians) and his harmonica first figure large in NMA's music.

You gave me life
You gave me light and thunder
Like a blind man sees for the very first time

Next up is Western Dream, a little tale which can pretty much spoil game shows for you for good. Greed, children, greed, and vain materialism. Musically this is the weakest track of the ten and it depends on its lyrics to claim some merit.

All lies, all lies
All schemes, all schemes
Every winner means a loser in the Western Dream

The album coasts along into an acoustic ballad called Love Songs, about nothing more than absence. They would revisit this theme in Green and Grey, the live sing-along favourite from their next album.

...above and beyond the roofs of our city the sunset spreads silent and gold
and we're passing the time not thinking about you
lost in our own little world

And, after a quiet break, they return to the loud denunciation of all that's wrong in the world. A generation gap opens in Heroes, which I see a bit like a sequel to Drag It Down from No Rest. What we want and what the previous generation gives us; what's expected from us and what we want for ourselves.

We don't want to be like you, don't want to live like you
Learned from our own mistakes, thank you

And then there's an eco-ballad, titled simply Ballad, unlike anything they'd released before but quite similar to Love Songs and songs released on future albums. This song has one of the most poignant, sad lyrics Sullivan's written. The harmonica makes a second appearance in this song, soon becoming a regular feature of NMA's more folk-like sound.

...we live pretty well in the wake of the goldrush
Floating in comfort on waves of our apathy
Quietly gnawing away at Her body

The album concludes with an old-fashioned NMA sound in Master Race. The things that make us so much better than the rest of the world, and an admission of the fact that, despise them or not, we follow the pied piper every time he plays his little tune.

...we all learned how to use a fork and a knife
How sometimes we have to wear a suit and tie
And understand these things are what give us the right
To go around the world acting superior

Best of...

If I had to pick a personal favourite from this album, it would probably have to be All Of This, with Poison Street pretty close behind it. The Hunt and 51st State are the best known tracks, and representative of the album's style. They're probably the easiest to find if you want to listen to samples. There's something attractive about each and every song, though, and I regard The Ghost of Cain as a strong and complete work.

Should I buy it?

Maybe. If you like your music sedate, well, this ain't Paul Anka and it ain't Clannad. Hell, it ain't even The Cranberries or Nick Cave. It's neither outright punk-loud nor folk-quiet but has elements of both, so it's really hard to say whether someone would like the music. The lyrics are more black and white: these guys come with a message, and you're probably better off not buying it if you're not receptive to sometimes radical opinion from the 1980s. If you're prepared to work on listening to a demanding album to get into it, and remember what it's like to put your sorry ass on the line for something you believe in, this album might be one for you.

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