Earl Brutus was founded by Jamie Fry, Gordon King, Nick Sanderson, Stuart Boreman and Rob Marche in the early 1990s. The band released just two albums and neither was a mainstream hit, but the group became something of a cult phenomenon.
Their music was inspired by the likes of Gary Glitter’s Glitter Band, Kraftwerk and post-punk outfit The Fall – but with influences ranging from Wagner to Concorde, it was impossible to categorise. Tracks would feature stomping drums, glam rock style guitar riffs, lyrics which read like a stream of consciousness or chants like the kind heard at a football ground.
Gigs, too, were well-known for their sense of chaos and theatre. There were props – from a funeral wreath which spelled out ‘Fuck Off’ to neon lights and a spinning garage forecourt sign which read ‘music’ on one side and ‘chips’ on the other – as well as smoke bombs, sound effects and a homemade aftershave machine pumping the scent of Earl Brutus (a cheap cologne) out into the audience. Band member Shinya Hayashida could often be seen head banging on stage and shouting phrases like “Nick someone’s pint and start a fight” at the audience.
“The early shows were chaotic, never lasting more than about 20 minutes and usually ending in a big pile of broken equipment and beer bottles,” says Gordon King. “I used to trigger the smoke bombs and sound effects which I loved. Venues won’t allow them these days because of the fire risk.”
“There was no masterplan or manifesto [when it came to gigs], but I do remember Gordon saying that we should be able to put on a show wherever we were at any shitty venue, so we made sure we had more than amps and keyboards on stage,” adds Jamie Fry. “I guess we looked to the Public Enemy and the Prodigy for a bit of inspiration as well.”
Artwork for the band’s first album, Your Majesty … We Are Here (released in 1996) was designed by Ian Anderson of The Designers Republic. The sleeve featured the album’s title spelled out in a Blackletter font and graffiti-like scrawl, and a copy of an email from Chat magazine refusing permission to use an image from an article titled ‘Mum Wanted Me Dead’.
“There were a few ideas floating around for the cover of ‘Your Majesty … We Are Here’ – a drunk mum, a topless Israeli female soldier, a 70s burning bus in Belfast. …There was also a plan to have a massive 32 page CD booklet that was just blank pages so you can say and think what you wanted about the band. But the label didn’t like that, they though we were talking the piss out of ourselves too much and blocked it,” says Fry.
The cover for the follow-up album Tonight You Are The Special One was designed by King (his first collaboration of many with Earl Brutus) and featured a tragic yet striking image of two cars parked side by side, connected by a hose attached to one car’s exhaust pipe.
“The idea was something I’d been scribbling in notebooks for a while,” explains King. “It has the title ‘I’ve Got a Window Wednesday’ and was an idea I had for a sculpture – it was to be my first artwork should I ever become a ‘real artist’. The basic thinking was that it was a ‘yuppie suicide pact’ – two high flyers who could no longer cope, make an appointment in their diaries to meet on a Wednesday lunch time and end it all,” he adds. The reverse featured an image of a custard crème – representing “work-stations, tea breaks, sick days – the banality of office life,” he says.
These kind of imagined situations and characters – which often captured the banality, tragedy or seedier side to life in 1990s Britain – formed the basis for much of Earl Brutus’ creative output. The band was famously named after a fictitious pub – one that Sanderson described as “quite a rough sort of place but with a nice carvery on Sundays” and that Fry says would now “would have been gentrified with a blackboard with a really pretentious menu on it.” It was also the name of a fictitious club singer “who’d called himself after a crap brand of 70s jeans,” says Gordon. “We spent quite a lot of time in working men’s clubs when we lived in Sheffield (in the early 80s) and an Earl Brutus on any bill wouldn’t have looked out of place.”
Videos, too, were brilliantly lo-fi: few exist online, but there are some gems such as Navyhead, which combined footage of men dressed as sailors on a rowdy night out with shots of line dancing classes at a community centre, and Universal Plan, which was directed by Scott King and Donald Milne and pokes fun at the world of TV chat and game shows:
“We watched a lot of documentaries and Mike Leigh films on VHS so a lot of stuff came from there,” explains Fry. “The first few [videos] were very home-movieish, then Scott took over directing … and everything went up a notch,” says Gordon.
After 1998, however, the band performed together less and less, and released their final single Larky in 1999. “We all needed to feed ourselves so we got jobs,” adds Gordon. “Rob had left about a year earlier (I think he thought it had run its course) and we got our friend Martin Wright in on guitar, but without the support of a major label, the impetus was gone.” Gordon worked nights at a theatre, while Sanderson trained to be a train driver.
The band’s last gig was at Hammersmith Working Men’s Club in 2004, where they performed at a concert to raise money for Ken Livingstone’s mayoral election campaign. (Fellow performer Frank Sidebottom almost died during the event after falling down a flight of stairs while wearing his famous papier mache head). “There was always this idea that Earl Brutus would come back. That just never happened,” says Fry. Four years later, Sanderson sadly died of cancer aged just 47.
Fry and Gordon King have since gone on to form new projects – in 2010, they founded The Pre New after the remaining members of Earl Brutus were asked to perform at Glastonbury. “The band was launched in the spirit of Earl Brutus but very quickly took on another personality,” says Gordon.
“We formed it because we wanted to be in a group and had got the taste for it again,” adds Fry, “[but] it’s a completely different animal to be honest. …It’s formed with young people who believe in the internet and who don’t really remember EB.”
This month, however, sees the release of a new box set which compiles all of Earl Brutus’ musical output in a lavish package designed by Scott King with help from Rhys Atkinson. Beautifully produced by Daniel Mason at Something Else, the silk screen printed collector’s box is finished in silver glitter and features a George Shaw painting of a flat roofed pub topped with a fluorescent orange sticker. Discs are also finished in glitter and feature words used on the forecourt signs at the band’s shows.
“I wanted it – as much as a box set can be – to be a fitting memorial – not just to Nick Sanderson, but to the band and what they created… The box itself is an attempt to capture two sides of the band and a place that was hugely significant to Nick, Jim and Gordon: that is, early 80s Sheffield,” he explains.
“They were there at this great time in the Sheffield music scene, with bands like Cabaret Voltaire, Human League, Clock DVA and ABC (Jim’s brother’s band). So, Earl Brutus were schooled at close quarters in early British electronic pop music – but of course it was in Sheffield – so you’ve also got this very ‘townie’, very normal ‘punch up in the pub’ culture. The band were really a composite of these two things, a kind of high-minded hooliganism,” he adds. “I was trying to get that across in the box design – mixing the effete glitter with the George Shaw painting of the flat-roofed estate pub on the cover. …The glitter also relates to their love of Glam Rock and the eye-make up Nick used to wear on stage.”
Packaging also includes collages of the band, showing them performing live and hanging out together. There are no press shots, just pictures submitted by friends and fans including artist Jeremy Deller (a long-standing fan who created an exhibition inspired by the group in 2008).
“I wanted it to look like the kind of pin board you get at the end of the bar in a local pub,” says King. “Then I wanted this collage to contrast in the extreme with the tastefully designed, heavily foot-noted essay on the reverse. The whole idea for the packaging was to try and really capture the spirit of Earl Brutus – how complicated and artful they were, but also how boozy and chaotic and funny they were. [It] veers between hi-gloss, advertising slick and cut out snapshots on matt paper,” he adds.
Other features include a business card for Dave Mayhem, a fictitious man dreamt up by the band. “Dave is a bit of a twat and generally has a substandard record collection,” says Fry. “He prefers The Alarm to The Clash, thinks Wet Wet Wet are better than The Four Tops and [his] favourite Bowie album is Black Tie White Noise. He changed his name to Mayhem to make life more interesting.”
There’s also a calling card in the style of those once found in phone boxes around Soho (which the band used to collect). On Me Not In Me is the title of one of the band’s singles, and the phone number listed is the number for Buckingham Palace. On the reverse is a download code for Your Majesty:
An illustrated map, meanwhile, depicts a vision of Britain where Earl Brutus is in charge – one where the Bank of England has been converted into a Wetherspoons pub called the Derek Griffiths, Inverness is named Trevor Bolder and the Forth Bridge has become an allotment.
“Nick had a fantastic imagination – a very bitter comic vision of the world. He was obsessed with imprisoning Simon Cowell – either at this imaginary Gulag called Maidenhead B, or on the Isle of Wight at an unspecified location. …Nu-Bryttania is me taking the spirit of Nick’s thinking and applying it a new vision of Britain,” he adds.
The poster is laid out like a rail map and its cover when folded features the British Rail logo in fluorescent orange, a symbol that was close to Sanderson’s heart. He once taped it onto his jumper using white gaffer tape before a gig, and Fry later had a friend sew a huge version of it on to a banner in glitter. “Trouble is, it was too big for the places we played at that time and was really only seen in all its glory after Nick died at his tribute gig,” he explains. “The logo will now always be in [his] honour.”
It’s been a labour of love for King, who first met Fry in 1992 after moving to London to work on i-D magazine. (Fry was a photographer at the time and was commissioned by King to do some work for i-D).
“I had it in my head that this might be the last word on Earl Brutus – so it had to be perfect,” he says. It’s rare to see such a lavish production nowadays – with glitter, stickers, posters and inserts – but it seems a fitting tribute for a band that combined high brow concepts with delightfully lo-fi imagery, and were once described as one of “the most original and uncompromising acts of their era” by Guardian critic Alex Petridis.
“Both records have been out of print for a long time but there’s still great affection for Earl Brutus. We’re not anticipating they’re going to sell in any huge number (if at all), but to the people who know they really should be available,” adds Gordon.
You can buy the box set here.