The centrefold of the vinyl of Benefits’ debut album ‘Nails’ comes with a poster of a modern re-imagining of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’. The original painting showed the mangled horror of the devastation of Nazi and Italian Fascist bombs on a small Basque country town. This time, the bombs are British – leaving refugees desperately clawing for asylum, trying to throw their children over the border as a fork-toothed Home Secretary keeps them at bay. It’s this black, white and grey reality that the Teesside noise punks trade in.
Led by Kingsley Hall, formerly of late ‘00s indie upstarts The Chapman Family but now a day job weary soul in the neglected North, Benefits have been gaining a cult following and kudos from the likes of Nirvana‘s ‘In Utero’ producer Steve Albini and Pixies’ Black Francis for their fearless and unpolished aural attacks on a world masking neglect with patriotism. Their message is simple when screamed from the onslaught opener ‘Malboro Hundreds’: “Don’t get fooled again… question everything”.
“Just don’t tell me my fucking rights, just remember my former imperial might,” spits Hall on ‘Empire’ – painting the UK as a nation obsessed with its past while sabotaging its future. Stick that on your Coronation playlist. Ditto for ‘Traitors’, which sets its sights on the grey Brexit “sausage class” and PM Rishi Sunak’s total disregard for anyone with a creative drive: “Fuck your dreams – the new normal does not need entertainment / It needs only work, viable work / Retrain / Stop moaning”. It’s ‘Flag’ though, which lands the most direct uppercut: “Privilege won’t save you. Eton won’t save you. People who speak Latin will not save you.”
Simple as their approach may seem, Benefits are far from one-note. ‘Warhorse’ is close as they get to a ‘pop song’; ‘Shit Britain’ and ‘Mindset’ offer up mesmeric trip-hop. The sparse soundscape of ‘Council Rust’, meanwhile, ends the record with a profoundly tender resolve in the struggle to “never let the bastards win“.
The beauty of ‘Nails’ is in its raw and primal urgency; it had to be made and heard now, like government-approved sewage being pumped into a river. However, there’s a sense that the band are yet to assume their ultimate form – their power is still brewing. Hell, they’ll get their chance.
There’s a famed quote from Factory Records mogul Tony Wilson about how “punk enabled you to say ‘fuck you’, but it couldn’t go any further”, waiting for a band like Joy Division to come along and say “we’re fucked”. Well, here we are, still. Britain ain’t getting any greater.