Review: The Shend. 2021. Rub Me Out: All My Songs and a Load of Other Stuff.

“THERE WAS A kind of ‘gang’ sense of belonging,” recalls The Shend about his formative punk experiences in the late 1970s’ Worcestershire, “even though you could have fitted all the punks in Redditch into one Ford Transit and still have had room for a knackered fridge freezer.”

But that sense of being an ‘outsider’ has one that has rarely troubled The Shend in the decades since a life-changing experience at an early Stranglers gig set him off on a new and different path. He’s an artist, lyricist, musician and crooner who’s never considered jettisoning the creatively interesting in pursuit of the inanely popular. 

One of the constants in that creative timeline has been The Shend’s return time and again to the position as the frontman of The Cravats; a role that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else having the wherewithal to take on. The Cravats themselves occupy a singular position in the Reuleaux triangle at the centre of the Venn Diagram of anarcho-punk, post-punk and jazz-punk. And the redoubtable persona of The Shend is indivisible from that it-could-only-be-The-Cravats identity.

An artist, lyricist, musician and crooner who’s never considered jettisoning the creatively interesting in pursuit of the inanely popular

The Shend’s new book Rub Me Out, which is published next month, provides a personal guided tour through the history of the band and its various offshoots told through the lens of Shend’s talents as a lyricist. As you might expect, the whole enterprise is as absurdly entertaining as it is entertainingly absurd. 

The Shend presents a series of song lyrics in chronological order, and presents memories, reminiscences and recollections about each in turn. He revisits the thought processes and the influences drawn from politics, culture and everyday life which shaped his lyrical craft at the moment, and unpacks the ideas he sought to encapsulate in the song. This makes for a fascinating tour through the band’s back catalogue and contemporary releases that provides compelling evidence (were, for some inexplicable reason, you were not already convinced) of The Shend’s distinctive eye as a social observer; able to tease out out the ridiculous and absurd in the everyday, and skewer the grotesque distortions of the human condition engineered beneath the veneers of privilege, wealth and power.  

Rarely of a ‘sloganeering’ temperament,  The Shend’s lyrics are more often possessed of a sardonics, subversive  quality that has always complemented the more direct political rabble rousing of other anarchist artists in the firmament. The Shend concedes that, back in the day, he and his cohort of Redditch punk insurgents “never really felt like foot soldiers in this exciting new anarchist tomorrow, smashing the system as we marched toward revolution”.

The Shend’s honest insight into the experience of ‘growing up punk’ in a small town far from any shiny metropolis that will resonate with many readers

But what shines through so clearly in these lyrics is the ‘art of revolutionary art’ can involve wit, whimsy, seditionary satire, absurdism and mocking mischief-making. And it should scarcely be necessary to point out that, guided by The Shend’s perceptive lyrical hand, The Cravats can deliver cutting political critiques with the best of them. Anyone who does not feel chills down the spine every time they hear Rub Me Out or There Is No God should seek urgent medical advice. 

The biographical elements of the book give an honest insight into the experience of ‘growing up punk’ in a small town far from any shiny metropolis that will resonate with many readers. “Like many places outside the main cities, there were no Vivienne Westwood bondage trousers or Kings Road punk clobber here,” The Shend recalls, “just cobbled-together, charity-shop tat with bits nailed on for effect.” This was exactly how so many of us rolled in those halcyon days of yore, much to ‘peacock punk’ disdain. (“What? Can’t you even afford proper bondage trousers from Boy?” “Er, no. My sole income is from my paper-round…”).

The biographical sketches of each of the bands in The Shend’s musical continuum (The Cravats, 1977-86; The Very Things, 1983-86; The Babymen, 1986; Grimetime, 1993, The Cravats, 2009-, Anzahlung, 2020-) are brief. But while they’re short on the wordcount front, they very effectively delineate the evolving (and the cyclical) creative preoccupations of The Shend and his musical co-conspirators. This tale of deeply-felt Dadaist dedication is lit up by a great selection of photos, posters and ephemera from the archives. The design instincts that have accompanied The Cravats musical output have produced joyous things over the years, and it’s right and proper to have at least some of them celebrated here alongside the wonderful wordsmithery.  

Joining The Shend on his musical foraging are contributors, collaborators and commentators who add their own memories

The Shend is a self-deprecating narrator throughout Rub Me Out, continually talking down his talents as an author and apologising to the reader for getting distracted by (always entertaining) side stories. But such personable informality more than suits the material.  Joining The Shend on his musical foraging are contributors, collaborators and commentators who add their own memories to proceedings. 

Henry Rollins’ introduction heralds the opportunity the book provides to “take a cerebral rollercoaster ride along rails bent to the will of someone who truly thinks differently.” Mick Mercer made good on a self-signed commitment to provide commentary on each and every one of the releases covered, and offers some unexpected (and occasionally caustic) insights along the way. Small Wonder’s Pete Stennett recalls working on Cravats’ releases on his label until the point they “buggered off to Corpus Christi with our blessing”; while Peter Jones of Paranoid Visions makes the case for that entry in the Cravats’ lexicon which delivered “the greatest song of all time” (you’ll have to buy the book to find out).

The Shend evidently asked Penny Rimbaud to focus on “the specifics” of his memories, but was unsuccessful in the attempt. The Shend does provide a fascinating account of the experience of recording at Southern Studios and the sense of relief and of joy at hearing the final mix of Rub Me Out: “From the opening police radio that they’d recorded in the studio to the thunderous drums to my vocals sounding reminiscent of a real singer, we just sat there in awe,” he says. “Penny had given it space and lashings of atmosphere. I think we played it nine or 10 times in a row.” Many other folks whose lives have been enriched by close contact with The Cravats also feature in these pages.

This tale of deeply-felt Dadaist dedication is lit up by a great selection of photos, posters and ephemera from the archives.

In the latter sections of the book, it’s great to see a strong focus on events and releases since The Cravats resumed operational activities. This has been a new era in the band’s life and it’s fitting to see contributors reflect on the quality of albums Dustbin of Sound and Hoorahland as works of extraordinary high standard. Those that recognise the value in the inspiration that fuels The Cravats (and their alternate incarnations) will want to get their hands on one of the limited-run copies of Rub Me Out (with the first edition selling out in days; pre-orders are still being taken on the second print run).

The Shend is an accommodating fellow, but there’s one thing that he’s adamant about: he’s not a poet. “Let’s get something straight from the off,” he insists in the Introduction. “All of these were written to go along with a piece of music so they’re songs – and unless I get invited to read selected works from this tome at some literary festival in the future (somewhat unlikely) then they’ll always be songs.” Right. Got it. Good thing that they’re such bloody good songs, then, huh?

Copies of the second printing of Rub Me Out are available for advance order – while stocks last!

The Shend. 2021. Rub Me Out. ISBN 978-0-9955475-3-7.