"My world has become an empty place
Of great, wide landscapes and weird painted skies
Strange patterns and islands of light
And people move as shadows never touching at all
I've never been afraid to die, maybe scared to live."
(Apocalypse Dreams, 1996)
British guitarist and songwriter, b. Slough, Buckinghamshire, England 1956-04-08. Frontman of punk-rock band New Model Army from 1980 onwards and member of the folk performance group Red Sky Coven.
Sullivan, known by the moniker Slade the Leveller early in his career with NMA, is one of the most socially aware songwriters of the 1980s and 1990s. His lyrics for New Model Army, more often than not accusing and bitter, reflect the history of the England of his time, world events and urban life in the industrial world. Much of his characteristic rage against injustice is rooted in his Quaker background, though his life and work also show clear pagan influences. Whether he's writing about something on a personal level, or about the world at large, truth, justice and irony figure large in his work.
"We've seen the restless children at the head of the columns
Come to purify the future with the arrogance of youth
Nothing is as cruel as the righteousness of innocents
With automatic weapons and a gospel of the truth."
Sometimes you come upon someone or something that expresses your feelings and ideas better than you could. Justin Sullivan is the one who does that for me. I don't have to agree with everything that he says... actually, I don't. But there are those lines and insights which I may have spent a lifetime seeking by myself.
Sullivan's songwriting style, while simple, is easily recognisable and his lyrics are powerful in the direct, uncompromising way of great lyricists like Phil Ochs or Jello Biafra. I'd make a comparison to Dylan but Dylan, to be honest, was unable to keep it up for twenty-five years like this bloke. Speaking of Dylan, Sullivan's cover of Masters of War is something that needs to be heard to be believed.
"Tell all the people who believe what they read in the press
Tell all the folk who stare from behind suburban walls
The enemy is not some nation far across the sea
The enemy is with us every single breathing day."
(My Country, 1984)
Sullivan has been around. He lives in Bradford with his partner, NMA sleeve designer, author and recording artist Joolz. He's lived in Northern Ireland. He doesn't shy away from confrontation and doesn't bother with cosmetic details like his trademark missing incisor, which he claims to have (not) had since the age of 12. Apparently his brother kicked it out and he got into too many fights for any replacement to last long. The sages of American record companies decided that it made him virtually unmarketable.
His stage presence has the strength of a riptide that makes his presence irresistible and delivers the message like a punch to the kidneys. The fact that he shows no desire for vocal perfection (not being the world's best singer) adds a raw edge to his delivery that makes the songs sound more genuine. On the first occasion on which I met him in person, I found him to be no less intense, though not quite as animated backstage and I think it wasn't just the aftermath of a stage high. I suspect that the wild glint in his eye goes wherever he goes. The second time, many years later, he claimed to have mellowed. Still, he admitted that "it's hard not to be pissed off after three minutes of watching TV." He's still as angry as ever.
"We are lost, we are freaks
We are crippled, we are weak
We are the true heirs to all the world."
(Ballad of Bodmin Pill, 1987)
His politics are unmistakably left-wing. However, although he's an avowed socialist, when all is said and done, his views come across as being more libertarian (In the American sense) and conservative than the in-your-face, left-radical punk-progressive ideals that most songwriters of his genre and generation espouse, and deeply spiritual.
He formed the band he would become known with around the same time that Maggie Thatcher rose to power, and viciously opposed everything she stood for. And look who lasted longer. One of his favourite hobbies is learning the phrase "the only good fascist is a dead fascist" in as many languages as he can. That, and the word for garlic.
In February 2003 Sullivan released his first solo album, Navigating By the Stars. It's not a New Model Army album, though the cast is the same. Written in part during an ocean crossing, it's a startlingly lyrical, beautiful work.
Sullivan is perhaps the last of the great punk poets. One of the finest songwriters ever, if you ask me.