‘The intellectual working class scares a lot of people’: the unlikely rise of post-punks Yard Act

Their music has a political edge. Asked how he would describe the United Kingdom in 2022 for a prospective American audience, Smith says that the country “is confused and clinging onto a past that never existed. And it’s split… in a way that can’t be separated with a straight line because of the way we’re all divided. It’s trapped with an archaic and entitled government that has a lot of control and which interferes with people’s lives a lot more than they want to be interfered with.”

“But,” he continues, “there’s hope in the youth and the culture. You just have to know where to find the good bits, basically.” 

For James Smith, the good bits equate to a list of influences that include Ian Dury, Elvis Costello, Jarvis Cocker, Alex Turner and John Cooper Clarke. In terms of the bad bits, he recalls an event at a library in Sheffield at which the now Poet Laureate Simon Armitage quarrelled with the critic Paul Morley about the difference between pop lyrics and poetry. The hour-long encounter was, he says, “one of the most boring things I’d ever seen”. Not just that, but it was meaningless too. Only last week a friend sent him a text remarking on the similarities between Armitage’s 2003 composition, Poem, and the lyric to the Yard Act song Tall Poppies. 

His words are something to behold. Clocking in at a blockbusting 3,748 words, The Overload’s lyric sheet offers piercing vignettes on themes of community, national identity, class consciousness, fading collective glories and the state of the nation.  “Make no mistake, we are living out our last days in the land of the blind, where the one-eyed man was king until he lost his f____ mind,” Smith sings on Land Of The Blind. In the second verse of Dead Horse, he asks, “Are you seriously trying to tell me that our culture will be fine, when all that’s left is knob-heads Morris dancing to Sham 69?”

“A lot of people think that I write exclusively about the working class,” says the singer. “And I’m, like, ‘No, no, that’s not true at all.” Inevitably, though, the spectre of social standing permeates the group’s central nervous system. Ryan Needham was born in a village in Derbyshire at which his family, who worked on the railways, bought their council house at the height of Margaret Thatcher’s “right to buy” scheme. Over in the north west, James Smith was raised on a council estate in Lymm, near Warrington. His father worked night shifts at a local supermarket. His mother was a childminder. When the pair separated, money “got really tight”. All the same, his dad liked to refer to the Smiths’ standing as being “upper working class”. 

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