Ian Svenonius Week Pt 1 – Nation of Ulysses

Starting at the start, Nation of Ulysses were Svenonius’ first proper band. He sang and played trumpet.  But does ‘band’ even begin to do them justice?  Their record label – Dischord, if you want EVIDENCE of the calibre of industry executive that thought their records worthy of release – said this about them –

“The Nation of Ulysses was a violent separatist political party and terrorist group operating out of Washington, D.C. in the early 1990’s. Though they’ve disappeared into obscurity, they’ve spawned countless milquetoast imitators who’ve tried to appropriate their looks, language, sound and presentation for the sake of career advancement. These cheap imitators can’t comprehend that the Nation of Ulysses derived their awesome power from their unswerving commitment to secession and havoc wreaking, and not to the banal and unimportant pursuit of fame and wealth. The N.O.U. is probably the most important development to beset music since electrification, as they were the first to articulate intent through written manifestos and stage histrionics, refuting rock’n’roll’s traditional policy of posturing rebelliously while aping parent culture values.”

Clearly no exageration there at all.  But it does hint at the truth.  As well as being an imaginative punk band, they set their sights at the stars, recognising the importance of politics, humour, deadly seriousness, at the same time, mythology and self-mythologising.

Energetic, chaotic, but melodic and accessible, they’re the sort of punk band that someone who doesn’t much like punk might love.  Check ’em out if you like Fugazi.  Check ’em out full stop.  Svenonius is a great singer and front-man.

13-Point Programme to Destroy America is as good an album title as you’re likely to find.  Anywhere.  Period.  Released back in 1991.

But where they really set themselves apart is the way they provoked and inspired, both to consume what they were serving up and to create and create well.

I’ve said before that I have no problem with most bands (which is not to say I like most bands or their music).  If you want to play music with your mates then great.  If you want to do it on a stage in front of an audience then more power to you.  You can do it for whatever reason you like, I mean that.  Do it to pay homage to your heroes – perhaps as a covers band or simply a derivative one.  Do it simply for fun or to attract potential sexual partners.  Do it because you have to, or you need to.  Do it mainstream or experimental, or do it somewhere in the middle.  Do it because you want money and fame, do it in the hope that you can supplement the income from the day job a little, or do it with no expectation of covering the petrol costs even. If I can go see your band locally and you rock, then I’m half-way there already.

But if you want my devotion you need to do three things.  You need to be, at least a little bit,  original.  Secondly you need to be a superb band.  That doesn’t necessarily mean musical excellence, but it does rely on a certain level of competence, and it does mean you need to give off an energy and emotion.  Thirdly you need to offer something I can buy into.

Both of the first two things are pretty tricky to pull off, but perhaps easier than you think.  I have probably seen at least half a dozen bands in tiny venues in Guildford – mainly the Star Inn – in the last couple of years that met that criteria with relative ease.  Employed to Serve, Grits, Space Church, Swords of Truth, Faux, Algernon Doll (now WOMPS), New Cowboy Builders off the top of my head.  Apologies to the ones I’ve missed.  Really good bands that deserve a lot of success.

The final element though, is the hardest.  Building up a mythology.  For want of a better expression.  Making me believe 100%, not a shread of doubt, that you are truly special, not simple a damn fine band.  Its especially hard in small venues, in the presence of mates, and in an environment where authenticity is righty treasured, and pretentiousness and pomposity actively disliked.

Authenticity – now there is a MASSIVE tangent I could go off on.  Suffice to say that authenticity is a highly complex thing in the context of pop music (which this all is).  I’ll have to write a bit about authenticity in music.  Pretentiousness and pomposity can be horrible, but done right, with humour and self-awareness, can have their place.

Trying to create a mythology whilst meeting people’s expectations of authenticity, and not being a pretentious wazzock is next to impossible.  Perhaps that N.O.U. are American, and therefore exotic, was part of what gives Brits like me a feeling that they were special.  Perhaps Grits have no chance of getting there in my eyes because I have seen them setting up in the back-room of a fairly small pub.  But TRY, please try!  I want to buy into what you do 100%, not simply love the records and the shows.  I want to know that you believe in the music that you’re making, that you’re political, that you have something to say.  To a large extent what you say doesn’t matter so long as its thought-provoking, interesting and inspiring.

I’m finding it hard to express what I mean, and to be honest mythology and buying into a band hook line and sinker are another subject that I could and should write on.  But suffice to say I love N.O.U.  The fact that they were a great great punk band is a huge part of the reason, but it’s the whole package that sets them miles and miles ahead from mere mortal bands.  Maybe it’s this simple – a very good band becomes a great one when it can give brilliant interviews.

Now F-Off and go listen to Nation of Ulysses.  And read their fanzine and old interviews and shit.  And then buy records, ideally from whaever source gets as much money as possible to the bands.  That’s all I really wanted to say.  Ian Svenonius would be a legend in my eyes if all he’d even done in life was to form N.O.U. and release a few records with them.  But you know what, his first band were merely an introduction, a preface before chapter after chapter of utter genius that would follow.

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