They’ll Always Fight Fascists, But Napalm Death Is About More Than Politics
Barney Greenway tells a good story about the first time Napalm Death played in South Africa. It was 1991, during the final days of Apartheid, and as part of the band’s trip – done with the blessing of the ANC (African National Congress) – the singer had been invited onto a national radio station for an interview, in which he discussed a lot of what he calls “the ideas” of his group: anti-racism, anti-xenophobia, equality, anti-homophobia. Part of said radio programme included a phone-in segment. It was not liquid radio.
“I felt sorry for the guy doing the manual bleeping!” he laughs now. “There were people phoning in while I was on, threatening me – ‘Oh, you fucking n‑lover, you step outside that studio you’d best fucking watch it.’ It was fucking brutal. At the time I was a bit naïve and laughing like, ‘Fuck off, mate,’ but it could have turned really nasty.”
On other occasions, it did. During early U.S. tours, the band “would have to fight our way out of every other venue,” the result of their message being met with seig heils, and spit from certain parts of the audience, which were in turn met by Barney “getting off to smack someone with a microphone”. This, it should be pointed out, is something the quietly-spoken Brummie hasn’t done for many years, not wishing to add to what he calls “the circle of violence”. So instead, “I just tend to blow them kisses, which drives them completely over the edge.”
“Arguably, sometimes I have been a bit foolish with my responses,” he chuckles, “But you do just think, ‘If nobody stood up and said what they believed against a tide of opposite opinion, you’d never get anywhere.’ You’d just stay quiet for the rest of your life. And I don’t want to do that.”
Today, Barney is at home on the south coast, where he’s spent these lockdown months getting up at 6:30am to go for a bike ride before the world wakes up. Shortly before all this kicked off, the band finally finished work on their new, 16th album, Throes Of Joy In The Jaws Of Defeatism – a record that takes in a delightful buffet of heavy sounds that span the expected grindcore fury, Killing Joke-esque post-punk, Swans-like dirges, arty noise and noisy art, further gilding their name as one of the most forward-thinking and creatively fecund extreme bands on Earth. Still.
He may jokingly refer to his band’s music as “our horrible noise”, but Barney is enthusiastically proud of the album, and how Napalm Death’s creative forward push continues to excite him and stop them getting fatigued. “Everything’s been fantastic,” he beams of the reaction so far. “Where there might be a bit of uncertainty, like with some of the more experimental stuff, people have been really attuned to it.”
Just as important as staying musically relevant and cutting edge for a band now into their fourth decade, it’s vital for Barney that the ever-present message of Napalm Death comes from the now. After 30 years of kicking against the pricks, you need to make sure that the pricks remain modern, relevant and relatable. “You have to understand the complexities of life and apply yourself to that,” he explains. “Sometimes a generic, catch-all thing won’t work, because then when you want to get the idea across, people will be like, ‘You just wrote it like a template.’ It’s not really getting under the skin of this thing. Instead of just saying ‘Ban The Bomb’ – of course, we all agree with that – unless you relate it to what’s going on right now, you will lose people.”
He points to two such topics present on Throes Of Joy…: refugees and LGBTQ+ rights. But, as he says, there are layers within layers, and these specific points are part of a bigger point about the dehumanisation of people who are seen as “other” by those with something to gain through division.
“There are governments in Europe – for example, one in central southern Europe – that have formulated policy and recognise LGBTQ+-free zones,” he frowns. “You’ve only got to look to a place like Chechnya, where right now there are gay people just disappearing completely, from families, from public life, just without a trace. There are very strong signs to suggest that the Chechen government is complicit in the cleansing from the population of LGBTQ+ people. I mean, think of that.”
Herein lies an example of what Barney means when he says you need to be specific. Homophobia has always been an issue, “but when governments start to use it, well, people should be very fucking concerned about that.” It may seem like an obvious, first-day example of Where This Can All Lead, but it’s also a worryingly apt one that Barney brings up to illustrate just how dangerous things can get without people really realising.
“We only have to go back to the 1930s and how that process of reducing people to nothing in the eyes of the rest of the population led to, first of all persecution, second of all social aggravation on the streets, and thirdly to mass murder,” he says. “People say, ‘It couldn’t happen in 2020’ – well, it fucking could, and it probably is. If humanity is worth anything, if being a human being is worth anything, these are things that need to be considered.”
Having been a youth in the ’80s, Barney was one of many who saw this kind stuff on the street, thanks to infamous, now-illegal far-right organisation the National Front. A nasty, horrible, often violent group, they were also often too rich for the blood of many, “a bogeyman”, as Barney puts it. But when comment sections tend to be a race to the bottom to see who can say the most awful things, where seemingly normal people suggest managing the humanitarian issue of asylum seekers crossing the channel by shooting them and letting them drown, Barney muses that it’s actually more pernicious and dangerous now that it’s been semi-normalised.
“You’ve gotta remember this: the National Front was a very intimidating sight for a lot of people,” he says. “But you could say in some respects that it was less ‘dangerous’, because you could see a visible presence of a group of people. A lot of people would say, ‘Look at these fucking nutters,’ because it was above and beyond, with the white power angle, and a lot of people were still horrified by them. But now, you could also argue that it’s leeched into the general population. And you might argue, quite reasonably, that the latter is more dangerous. If this is permeating into the more unseen, general spread of the population, then that’s arguably even worse.”
Talking to Barney is a far less intense experience than his music or the subjects might suggest. He will speak honestly, intelligently and compassionately about whatever issue or topic you put in front of him, without scoring points or talking down to you. But angry as his music can sound, in conversation his vibe is more that of a man simply looking for reason and humanity where these things have often been forgotten; someone who cares about people on a fundamental level. He says he’d happily be friends with someone with far more conservative views than his own (“I think you have to make an effort, and you have to kind of reach out to people and communicate”), and that putting up walls between ourselves is part of the problem. And yeah, he’ll chuckle and roll his eyes at the mention of his appearance on Ed Miliband’s Radio 2 show in 2017, during which he showed Ed how to do ‘the scream’ with comedic results, but he also sees the opportunity there: “We can laugh at ourselves, but there’s a limit – you don’t want to end up as the bloody glorified grindcore Banana Splitz or something,” he says. “But if there is a chance to get some of the ideas across to a different audience, I’ll take it.”
And it’s these ideas, as distinct from politics, that are important to Barney. Because, for him, the most pressing matter is that, using refugees as one example, “First and foremost, these are my fellow human beings. And if the boot was on the other foot, and it was me, I’d wish to be treated in a humane way.” This, he says, is bigger than politics.
“Napalm often gets called a political band, and I’d be stupid if I said otherwise, but I also feel we’re apolitical, and we transcend politics,” he says. “Because unless the ideas that we’re talking about are done in the world, and improve the prospects of everybody in this world, politics is fucking meaningless – it’s just token gestures.”
Barney says he doesn’t have a magic wand, and doesn’t see things suddenly snapping to harmony anytime soon (“The next war won’t be for oil, it’ll be for water”), but he also points out that, “Mate, the world’s always been a shit-show!” We just happen to be living during our own bit of it.
“If you go back 100 years and you were a teenager or young adult from Northern Europe, there’s a fair chance you would have been drafted into some horrendous fucking game of murderous chess over a few fields in France and Belgium, at the whim of generals and people who could comfortably sit in their fucking offices and send thousands of people to their deaths overnight,” he says. “So the world’s always been shitty, in certain places and in certain corners, when you look back at it. Now, at the moment, it’s just another chapter – no better no worse. There’s always something.”
As important as the message is, though, Barney is also immensely proud of Napalm Death as a band. And rightly so. Throes Of Joy… is an album that’s creatively rich and furiously performed, with a hot-coals approach to standing still. It doesn’t just uphold their name as one of the most important and brilliant bands in the UK, but furthers it through innovation and forward thrust. He’s wise enough to know that, at a gig, not everyone’s going to be paying attention to the bits between the blastbeats when he talks (“I say ‘preaching to the converted’ in the loosest sense possible”), but if it’s still bringing people together, then that’s fine: part of the job done.
“If you wanna come in just for the music, that’s absolutely fine,” he says. “If you don’t want the ideas, that’s fine. If you do, that’s fucking fantastic. However you wanna come to it is how you wanna come to it. You must remember this, and I know it’s an odd thing to say, but music’s one of the last bastions of freedom. It’s something that can’t be controlled. It’s accessible to everybody, and everybody can come into it from whatever angle they wish. And long may that continue.”
Napalm Death’s album Throes Of Joy In The Jaws Of Defeatism is out on September 18 via Century Media.
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