Words are not to be taken for granted. Especially when they’re being bellowed, full blast, by a broad-shouldered poet with the brimstone fire of a preacher and the honesty and wisdom of a layman, over ground-shaking live beats and between anthemic blasts of melody and rousing riffage.
Words matter. History matters. People matter. And Big Special matter.
A duo who are louder than bombs, Big Special write about desperation and struggle, about a Britain in decline, about finding pride in your darkest moments, about how the real class war in the UK is always punching downwards. Theirs are songs of hope, and despair, and more hope, because, ultimately, good people win. Songs that channel that voice you hear when you look in the mirror and see your true self – fight songs for a world gone wrong.
For Joe Hicklin, the dream started early, when he first heard ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. “I was six years old,” he grins. “Freddie singing about shooting someone in the head? Shocking! That began my love of lyrics, of people saying stuff in a creative way.”
Joe later discovered Jimi Hendrix (“an underrated lyricist”), and followed this path all the way back to Delta blues legends like Son House, Charley Patton and Robert Johnson, and country mavericks like William Elliott Whitmore. “Whitmore grew up on a farm and all his songs are about death and struggle and hard work,” Joe says, about this music that spoke to him like no other had. “I’d been working as a labourer since I was 12, working with my brother and my dad during school holidays. My mum’s side of the family were all miners. So when I started listening to all those work songs, they made a lot of sense to me. I’d never heard people singing about digging the earth before, which was exactly what I was doing. I loved it.”
Music wasn’t Joe’s only love. He didn’t read a book until he was 17, but once he lost himself within Kerouac’s On The Road, there was no turning back. “Then I got into Charles Bukowski – his work was darker, more honest. I could relate to this bloke in his 40s who was doing a day job and drinking and writing poems through the night.” Kerouac and Bukowski’s words lighting a fire within Joe, he began writing poems of his own. He was reluctant at first to take them to the stage, however. “Like a lot of people who come from working class towns, I grew up ashamed of my accent.” But within that accent, within his own personal experience, he found his voice: honest, emotional, funny and true.
Joe began working as a singer/songwriter, but after some time found his muse pulling him in a new direction. “I was used to standing there singing with my acoustic guitar, and trying to make everything melodic,” he says. “But I fell out of love with it. I just wanted to shout my poems – to write my song-y songs, but fuse spoken word into it as well.”
He reached out to Callum Moloney, his erstwhile bandmate from his college days, who was now playing in function bands and session drumming. “I’d finally got a taste of okay money from music,” Callum says. “I didn’t know if I could get back in the van and join a band that wasn’t doing anything yet.” But then he heard Joe’s early demos. Among those early sketches was ‘This Here Ain’t Water’, perhaps the most fiery of the group’s first batch of anthems. “It wasn’t what I was expecting,” grins Callum. “I was like, ‘Fuck everything else off – this is the thing I need to be playing on.’”
The reunited duo woodshedded new material with their producer, Michael Clarke, taking these nascent song ideas to the stage, and then working on them some more. “There was this extra layer of aggression and energy we’d discovered from playing live that wanted to inject back into the studio tracks,” continues Joe. “Lockdown allowed us the time to really develop this material. We’re coming into it with a big box of songs and ideas we’ve been able to crack on with.”
They’ve honed that early burst of inspiration into a killer setlist, and developed a sound like no other, drawing disparate influences like Sleaford Mods’ bleakly hilarious bark, the intense power of Tom Waits-esque gospel, the healing power of soul and the electric charge of rock into something new. Something ecstatic, painful, truthful and real.
‘This Here Ain’t Water’ is, Joe says, “about mental health, and addiction, and the way the media criticises the working class, and the way all this stuff is forced on people. It’s thinking about how everything’s shit, and using that to egg yourself on.” Their rousing anthem ‘Shithouse’, meanwhile, is “a self-lament. It’s about a breakdown. It’s addressed to myself – or to the sky, I suppose – like, ‘I thought I was getting better!’” But there’s a wider theme there, too, “relating this personal depression I’ve experienced to what this country is going through. We’re all so divided right now, at odds, depressed with each other. As well as an economic depression, Britain is going through a social depression. And ‘Shithouse’ ties that personal depression into the social depression.”
Then there’s new single ‘Desperate Breakfast’. “It’s about getting up and going to work and having to force a meal down before you go and spend a day doing something you don’t want to do for someone who doesn’t respect you,” Joe grins. “We’re not one of those bands who deals in false hope. It’s an emotional reaction to a situation that is shit. This song is about it being shit. They’ll tell us it’s ‘character building’. But that doesn’t make it right.”
“We’re not into sloganeering,” says Callum. “That sort of thing cheapens everything.” Joe nods in agreement. “We’re trying to explore the universal through the personal,” he adds. “People are still blind to class issues. Really, these are human issues. I’m not saying I have any answers – our songs are reactive. They’re loud, and they’re fun, and they’re honest and emotional.”
This is serious stuff, but it’s delivered with searing focus and a sense of song that sends this music skywards, that lifts us all up. Big Special are a band who sing the truth – a radical proposition in 2023, perhaps, but that’s the game they’re playing. You can’t always get what you want – but Big Special are delivering what you need.
“I just wanted to make something pure, honest, with real heart,” says Joe, finally.
Thus far the duo can call “Mission Accomplished” on that aim. All that’s left now is to win over the hearts and minds of a nation starving for what Big Special have in store. Listen to these tunes, look into their eyes, feel the fire burning within this music: the doubters don’t have a chance.