Industrial music, solidarity, political struggle – this timely reissue of the landmark collaboration has it all
Whether or not it feels like it, this album is an historical artefact from another century. For those too young to remember the 1984-85 miners’ strike in the UK, it will perhaps stand as a curiously arresting corollary to some of the things they learnt at school. For others, it will represent something far more significant and re-open neural pathways to long-suppressed memories of a tragically barbarous time.
It was a period when phrases like “police brutality” and “state control” were common parlance, but they were neutralised by a government who dismissed them as the alarmist propaganda of a Soviet-allied enemy within; a notion perpetuated by a right-wing media that seemed mobilised as if the nation was at war. Which, of course, it was – with itself and its old paradigms in a battle of the great British divide.
In 1985, amid this portentous Orwellian backdrop of civil unrest and social and economic paranoia, Test Dept recorded ‘Shoulder To Shoulder’ with the South Wales Striking Miners Choir, led by Keith Bufton. All the profits from the album and from a number of awareness-raising live performances throughout the UK went to support the strike.
On the surface, the collaboration appears as incongruous as any. But these seemingly disparate entities had plenty in common given Test Dept’s formative years as London dockers, inhabitants of a declining industrial landscape soundtracked by the heavy drum and clatter of metal on metal; a sound reiterated in their uncompromising percussive compositions. Let’s not forget that industrial music was big at the time too (see Germany’s Einstürzende Neubauten and Aussies SPK) and owed much to experimental forebears like krautrock mavericks Faust, whose explorations with found objects and materials – cement mixers, riveters, scrap metal and the like – predated the scene by more than a decade.
As Test Dept’s Angus Farquhar put it in a diary entry reproduced in the stunning new book ‘Total State Machine’ (PC-Press): “There is an untold power in mixing together two musics of such seemingly diverse backgrounds”. And so Welsh male voice standards like ‘Myfanwy’ and ‘Stouthearted Men’ are juxtaposed against intense, turbulent bursts of Test Dept in full flow, and on one track, ‘Comrades’, they perform together to thrilling effect. The choir’s contributions are heartbreakingly poignant, perhaps carrying even more pathos with the passage of time, such is the almost overwhelming force of humanity in their songs.
Then there are the spoken word passages, including a recording of a stirring public speech by Kent Miners’ Union figurehead Alan Sutcliffe: “Now they’ve come for the miners! Now they’ve come for the NUM! Now they’ve come for the trade union movement! You’ve got to get off your arse to help us!”. This emotionally charged oration thrillingly segues into a blistering aural barrage of Test Dept at their most percussively furious, encapsulating everything that makes ‘Shoulder To Shoulder’ so great – and that in turn makes it so much more than any straightforward nostalgic hit of agitprop.
The fact that some of the most challengingly intense passages belonging to Test Dept come over like a baton charge to the eardrums is really quite appropriate. They convey righteous anger; an aural confrontation with complacency and selfish indifference. After all, the only thing these stout-hearted men wanted to do was work. But we all know how the endgame played out for them.