The Northern Boys
I’m at a family party. Granddad’s 80th, cousin’s first communion, a wake — any one of the occasions that requires an aunty to buy a new flowy top with sequins round the collar; or for someone much younger to fake-tan themselves to shit, artificial melanin congealing in the cracks between their fingers, they smell like rust and coconuts and it’s disorienting. I’m at a family party but I’m in the bathroom. Drank too much on too little. I didn’t get to the buffet quick enough when the creepy DJ announced it was open, and then one of the uncles, the one who likes people to watch him splash cash on whatever the newest Android phone is, has put five hundred quid behind the bar. It’s gone midnight. We’re not in a city, just outside of one. One of those places between other places. Social club, old carpet, low ceilings, daytime light, nicotine-sepia room. I think this is where war veterans hang out together during the week, but they might just be old men. I don’t know. The stomach belted to me is full of cheeky vimtos which I wouldn’t have been able to afford without Android uncle. I wouldn’t have eaten some tuna plait anyway. I am in and out of here every ten minutes to piss constantly like I am a key part of the water cycle. White paint lacquer chipping off the door and then there’s me just absolutely pissing as fast as I can because I want to get back to the party before I miss anything. The 80th, the communion, the wake, or was it a wedding anniversary? On the way out, I accidentally look at myself in the mirror and wish I hadn’t. It’s like making eye contact with a dog while it’s shitting, or getting deja vu in the Matrix. Like, okay, it’s my face and I look great, I think, but I also really don’t. I look lonely and plastered, I realise, now that I have lingered at the view. I think I can see actual mortality on my face. Index of where the happiest place to live is, the healthiest. Not here. I think of the government. I don’t really know what that is yet but I know I don’t like the sound of it. Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary. I glare. All the adults are getting older, the kids aren’t babies anymore, and I’m allowed to drink now. It was Nan that got me onto the port. Tastes like a raisin-flavoured cordial that’s past its best before date, something I should fucking hate. And maybe I do? The bleach smell in the bathroom is a hazard. I want to get back to the party but I can see my eyes, and I can see all the way through the black holes, and I am ill because of it. I want to get back to the party but I stop to look at myself and think a horrible thought: I don’t know if life is going to get much better than this, and this isn’t even that good. Where does that thought go? I have to leave. I want to make eye contact with someone else, not myself — with second cousins and the various supporting cast members that my family have picked up over the years. Abdul and Simon and Carol. I can hear the edges of songs even with the bathroom door locked, and I want to go back out there. Because I just reckon that if we shout the lyrics loud enough, in unison, and if we hold hands or have our arms around each other, then we won’t be thinking about age or religion or death or any of it, we’ll just be singing the song. We already know the lyrics. I’m going back out. I don’t want to miss Party Time by The Northern Boys. I want to get all the words right. I’ve gone to enough parties. I’ve had enough practice. But when I get to the laminated dance floor and I start rapping straight into Carol’s face, I feel as if I’m still alone in the bathroom mirror, and then I vomit on Carol’s new sequins.
Over the past 7 months, a trio of old white English men, also known as The Northern Boys, have released three raps on YouTube. I, for one, can’t stop thinking about them. ‘Call me the neighbour’s name when you fuck me / you ain’t gotta kiss me, you ain’t gotta hug me / Shit, I mean really, just do something, please just touch me.’ These rabid, sad raps are delivered by two ex-teachers, Norman Pain and Patrick Karneigh Junior. The pair always perform alongside their mate Kev, a dishevelled man in an oversized suit, who can’t keep up with the lyrics so he’s not allowed a mic the same way you give kids an unplugged controller to make them feel included. The videos for the three songs Party Time, Nobody Likes Me and Give It To Me, bring us to a park, a bowling green and a social club in Sutton Coldfield in the West Midlands — the final location being where I find myself spiritually, horrifically transported to every time I hear them frothing at the mouth over the familiar instrumentals of Estelle’s American Boy and Calvin Harris’s Acceptable in the 80s (songs I probably last heard at these kinds of family parties).
‘I’m like ‘Hello?’ I’m like ‘Hi’ / Do you want a back rub? Do you wanna die? / Do you wanna catch up? Do you wanna cry? / Do you wanna slice of the painful pie?’ The Northern Boys make comedy songs but they’re bruised black and blue; lyrics often more worrying than funny; whiplash as coping mechanism, like going on an old rollercoaster because it looks like it’s about to fall apart so it’s going to be more fun. They rap about drugs, shagging, anxiety, dying, ex-wives, the LGBT+ community, and just generally about going mental. And I know this isn’t music people would expect me to enjoy — my favourite bands are probably Wolf Alice and Low Roar — and this text is hard to get right because I’m not sure enjoyment is the word I want to use (and I’m less sure I want to undermine my appreciation of the band by implying I don’t whole-heartedly enjoy them). I just think there’s something more interesting going on than that. It might be fulfilment or recognition. No, reassurance? This is inexplicable old man drill with dark and vulgar writing; it’s an intense-looking bald man in cargo shorts pulled in with a bright red belt, gyrating in the middle of the day, and sounding like someone has two hands around his throat when he gravels out the lines, ‘I’m not alone, the voice in my head / Tells me I’m handsome and great in bed / When you got chocolate, who needs sex? / I can just wank to a text instead.’ And yet, even though on paper I shouldn’t like this music as much as I do, it happens to be exactly what I need to hear right now.
Enter this into Eurovision, the YouTube comments say, and I agree. I can’t think of anything more deeply English to represent us. And that representation is a good punchline. Old white men are hateable. They are supposed to be in charge of the world, or whatever. But class cuts through all of us, and some of us aren’t even in charge of ourselves. I reckon these lot are in their 60s and 70s, and I don’t understand how they’re doing it because our life expectancy isn’t great up here. Old white men are supposed to represent power, violence, and even right-wing, conservative, predatory values. But The Northern Boys never reach that level of arrogance, because they know how embarrassing it is to be alive. If a line ever gets close to a brag, the next one shows it up. ‘Bachelor pad, covered in spaff / Dorito crumbs all up in my bath.’ If a line ever feels overtly sexual, the next one is about consent, STDs, or outright rejection. ‘I said, ‘Hello there, can I fill your hole?’ / She took one look and she told me ‘No.’’ And if a line ever feels like it’s waving St George’s flag to rally the terrible majority, the next line starts waving a rainbow flag instead; ‘One, two, three to the bastard four / My ex wife is a bastard whore / Five, six, to the bastard seven / Kick us in the balls like David Beckham / Eight, nine to the bastard ten / Pecking on a crotch like a free-range hen / Raising a glass to the gays and the bi’s and the trans and the girls and the big bald men.’
‘These boys should be representing us at Eurovision,’ another YouTube comment says; ‘unironically one of the best Pride songs I’ve ever heard.’ Just put it in. Let the whole world see how depressed we really are. Nil point. Let Norman Pain and Patrick Karneigh Junior and an un-mic’d Kev sing, ‘It’s party time, get your drugs out / If you wanna make love, get your muffs out / It’s party time, get your drugs out / Do you wanna make love to a sad old man?’ The British empire is that sad old man, it’s perfect. In these short and brutal rhymes, The Northern Boys get to the core of something very familiar to me. Just this grim state of being where everything is futureless, so we might as well be animals. You know, I go to very boring exhibitions. I listen to even more boring short stories on The New Yorker podcast. I watch BEEF and Swarm. I relate to some things that some people say sometimes. But then, I hear a line like, ‘I love drugs and sketchy pills but my favourite ones are the ones that kill, quickly / When I go, will my loved ones miss me? / Well the answer’s no,’ and even though I don’t do drugs, I find myself instantly accepting what they have to say.
It just gets to a point where I can’t be doing with art, in any form, that still has the energy to dress up nicely and give us a clever little metaphor. I’m too tired. I only want art that stares at the sun for a stupid amount of time — or at itself in a bathroom mirror, smashed and existential. I want art that admits there’s a badness growing over us plebs like the mould in the beige houses we rent from jobless kings and queens. I want to read books and watch films and listen to songs that are like massive red stop signs. Air raid sirens. A slap in the face. A cold shower. So much culture talks around the weirdness of life, going around and around, and only brushing past the topic so as not to alienate anybody, and so as not to embarrass the creator for really going there. I am just finding the flowery shit is what feels off-putting lately, because I’m already off-put. After 2 years of Long Covid, I got Covid again and I’m back to spending most days rotting in bed. Is this it for me now? Post-viral illness with eternal possibility for re-infection. On one of those bed days, I got a call that someone I love has died. Tell me why the funeral is scheduled for four weeks after the fact; tell me why the local paper wants three figures to put in a funeral notice. I’m working on two texts right now, this review and the eulogy. So, black comedy it is.
You know when things are so bad that you just have to laugh? When Patrick Karneigh Junior sings, ‘Hang myself in the neighbour’s garden, when he comes back, that’s a nice surprise,’ I do, I laugh. It’s all out of our control. And yeah, at times, rhymes come to an end with a bit of a childish thud. ‘Flaking skin on my head, sunburnt flesh, let it shed.’ There are times in the songs when it feels like words were chosen for rhyme over relevancy: ‘Brother, look, wank myself with a single finger, Captain Hook / Then I go smoke my pipe with a random man in a dark and weary nook.’ The sheds and the weary nooks come off like speed bumps in the road, but even there it feels like a happy accident to help with pacing and overall aesthetic; if it seems a bit rowdy-year-9-music-class-in-an-all-boys-school at times, well, there’s nothing like an angry metaphor from a school kid to make you remember how bad it can feel to be a body in this world, when like, we never asked for this.
I own everything here but I’m still wary about publishing this review when there’s only three songs to go off. The first time I listened to Party Time, my immediate thought was, there must be a millennial behind this — one of their grandkids, someone who knows that wide shots, fixed cameras and yellow subtitles do well; and who knows that lyrics that drive a song at full speed to the very edge of propriety only to slam on the breaks again and again will curb a good oiled internet cancellation. See them.us praising The Northern Boys for singing ‘Bought a transgender man two pints / Can I get lucky and fist him tonight?’ after so much molly-coddling of trans men as ‘smol beans’ and ‘men lite.’ So much of the experience of listening to these songs feels like a test to me. Like, when someone starts a ‘three different people with identities you’d assume they’re about to ridicule in politically incorrect ways walk into a pub’ joke but then they do not proceed to target anyone’s identity and the punchline is more of a dig at the listener for assuming they’d even go there. I’m so conditioned to watch out for people being terrible, like I am lurking in the shadows of the internet ready to sound the alarm. The fact that The Northern Boys just want to shag everybody without making a fuss about it — god, I think I can relax for once, as long as I stop being so fucking suspicious.
Because I still can’t confirm the existence of a millennial in the mix, and I feel half-bad for expecting one. The Northern Boys songs get posted to a YouTube channel called Sindhu World, which is an intriguing root to grow from. Based out of an offy in London, @sindhuworld grew quite the following on Instagram between 2017-2019 by posting pictures with sort of naively beautiful captions. A picture of a dead fly reads, ‘Hello everyone today Dip told me to come into the store room and we saw this it is a dead fly on the steps, also it made me think do flies ever cry when they die, maybe one day I will know, Sindhu.’ A hand full of scratch cards on the shop floor reads, ‘Everyone gambling is very bad for you health but this is not gambling because it is free scratchcards ,today we are giving each person one free scratch card to become rich also maybe even you can buy a castle in the Forrest like a king because you must always remember you are a king even if you are a girl, happy Saturday everyone also please can you scratch with a coin because when I did it I used my finger nail and it made me feel a bit sick, Sindhu :)’. I mean, this has millennial written all over it; this is how Zarina types. But the account had its own characters, storylines, merchandise and a bizarre interview with Vice until it suddenly went silent. It never declared itself fictional, but there was something going on in the content creation around this very real corner shop that people went and bought chewies from. A slippage, a bit of fun. It’s why I started this text blending half-real memories with apocryphal songs. The Northern Boys could be a new generation of characters in Sindhu World lore, in which case I trust that everything will be okay.
‘What’s the worth? Fuck the universe ‘til it hurts. I’m not used to these kinds of mental health issues, I just wanna live in a church and find peace upon me brain, Jesus, please just stop me pain. I know you think that this is a game, but it’s not, now watch me walk away.’
Now please enjoy the music: