Music Notes is a new Pi Arts & Culture column, curated by resident writers Livvie Hall and Martha Wright, focusing on a variety of subjects covering the past, present and future of music. In this first article, Livvie examines the gradual emergence of the kitchen sink genre.
What is kitchen sink realism?
Popularly known for its emergence in 1960s British cinema, it is ‘unvarnished grit’ that defines kitchen sink, according to the BFI. This genre rose as a rejection of glossy ‘big entertainment’, and as a working-class expression prizing authenticity. Kitchen sink realism tells ‘raw human stories’ with an unflinching focus on taboo themes such as race, gender, class, sexuality and youth. The genre is still seen today in cinema and TV. A good reference-point for our generation would be the somewhat sordid teen drama series, Skins.
What about kitchen sink realism in music?
I often hear tracks reminiscent of kitchen sink and have taken a deeper look through my music catalogue to see whether this genre exists in the music industry.
Although kitchen sink emerged in British cinema in the 1960s, I have struggled to find its influences in music at this time. One of the few examples could be Eleanor Rigby, written by Paul McCartney in 1966 as a dark story of loneliness.
All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?
This is not entirely kitchen sink, however. Yes it’s sufficiently gloomy, but its folklore style lacks the crucial element of gritty authenticity.
It was the 1980s, a period marked by anti-Thatcher working class resentment, that really saw an insurgence of kitchen sink realism on the music scene. This rise can be characterised by the political and musical collective, Red Wedge. Billy Bragg’s politically-charged tracks A New England and There is Power in a Union, raw records vocalised in his distinct northern accent, are great examples of kitchen sink.
Another fascinating example of kitchen sink realism in the 80s is the chart hit One in Ten by UB40, a Birmingham reggae band (taking its name from the benefit attendance card). The repetition of the lyric ‘I am the one in ten’ directly references the 9.6% unemployment rate seen in the West Midlands under Thatcher in 1981. Despite its upbeat reggae instrumentation, the stark political, working-class message of this song is distinctly kitchen sink.
My arms enfold the dole queue
Malnutrition dulls my hair
My eyes are black and lifeless
With an underprivileged stare
The indie rock band The Smiths, defined by Morrissey’s monotone vocals, produced a more traditional kitchen sink sound in the 1980s. The autobiographical track Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now reflects on the gloomy realities of youth, work and romance – and perhaps of life in general.
I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour
But heaven knows I’m miserable now
I was looking for a job, and then I found a job
And heaven knows I’m miserable now
Where can we hear kitchen sink realism in music today?
Kitchen sink realism has now taken on a new diversity in music. Although still associated with the indie rock genre, its influences can also be traced to rap and grime, as well as general pop.
The Arctic Monkeys are honoured representatives of kitchen sink today. I’d particularly reference the tracks Riot Van, as an expression of youth and lawlessness; Mardy Bum, as a rather grim portrayal of femininity and romance; and everyone’s favourite Fluorescent Adolescent. Meanwhile, the introductory verse of When the Sun Goes Down touches on so many kitchen sink themes that it would frankly take too long to list them.
I said, who’s that girl there?
I wonder what went wrong
So that she had to roam the streets
She don’t do major credit cards
I doubt she does receipts
It’s all not quite legitimate
And what a scummy man
Just give him half a chance
I bet he’ll rob you if he can
Can see it in his eyes, yeah
That he’s got a driving ban
Amongst some other offences
And I’ve seen him with girls of the night
He told Roxanne to put on her red light
They’re all infected but he’ll be alright
‘Cause he’s a scumbag, don’t you know
I said he’s a scumbag, don’t you know!
Jamie T is a London indie rock artist that must also be mentioned. His song Sheila is gritty, vulgar, and perfectly kitchen sink – the best way to understand this is just to listen to it!
Sheila goes out with her mate Stella
It gets poured all over her fella
‘Cause she says “Man, he ain’t no better
Than the next man kickin’ up fuss
Drunk, she stumbles down by a river
Screams calling London (London!)
None of us heard her coming,
I guess the carpet weren’t rolled out
Kitchen sink is also emerging in the rap and grime genre. Ain’t Nothing Changed by Loyle Carner is my favourite example of this. His rap style is far from the sound of indie rock, and the saxophone riff in this track may be more reminiscent of blues, yet listening to the lyrics, it fits the kitchen sink definition.
Uh, check, uh, I kind of miss my student loan
Uh, I miss sitting in the student home
Sharing stories now I simmer, sipping sorta Rome
Walking like I’ve been talking the talk but can’t afford a phone
This is not just a sad song. Carner is expressing the struggles of today’s working-class youth and the frustration that again, and again, Ain’t Nothing Changed.
The association of grime artists with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn could also be interpreted as a modern incarnation of the 1980s Red Wedge group. Are we hearing the evolution of a new, more urbanised, type of kitchen sink realism?
As I draw this exploration of kitchen sink realism in music to a close, I am disheartened to realise that I haven’t mentioned any female artists. Why haven’t they seen kitchen sink influences? Is this due to their place in society, their audiences and/or their branding? I would like to address such questions in future columns.
Personally I love the kitchen sink genre, it is ‘vital, edgy and progressive’, and I’m interested to see how this brutally authentic form of social commentary will evolve in the music industry during the post-truth, social media age.