FEATURE: The Black Sheep Frederick Dickens’ Five Inspirations | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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On Friday 23rd November The Black Sheep Frederick Dickens are putting on a lovely concert at The Hullabaloo in Darlington to celebrate Darlington Hippodrome’s Dickens in Darlington season (and incidentally three years since their first gig). Here’s their Bunch Of Fives, looking at the inspiration behind the tallest Dickensian darkwave duo in Darlington, maybe the North East and even beyond…

Frederick Dickens
No surprise really. It was the wastrel brother of Charles Dickens that kick-started this darkwave journey, which to be fair sounds absolutely ridiculous, but at the same time isn’t. It started when I lost my job and ended up on the dole during a time when jobs weren’t very plentiful. To stop me going mad during the daytime I would take a break from job hunting for an hour and go for a walk. One Wintery day I was walking through the historic West Cemetery looking at the various graves of some of the town’s big players when I remembered someone telling me that Charles Dickens’ brother was buried there. I knew the general locale of it but couldn’t find it anywhere so eventually had to consult the handy online West Cemetery guide. I fought my way through a load of tree/bush branches to discover an unattended grave adorned with four empty beer bottles and a blue foam scaffold cover. I started thinking about the parallels between the UK’s greatest, most influential writers and his brother who is forgotten about in a shithole grave in a small North East town.
I went back home and read a little more about his life and his relationship with Charles and his father, his struggle with debt and addiction and his tragic death. Not being in a great place at that time, I felt that I could relate to the despair and feelings of inadequacy that he must have felt. I couldn’t tell you how or why but the name The Black Sheep Frederick Dickens came into my head. I initially thought that it would make a good stage show, but I’m no thespian so thought let’s turn this into something musical. I had recently met and became friends with Rob at a battle of the bands contest we were both judging, I texted him, asked him if he was interested and he said yes. We sat down and started developing the idea and the rest, as they say, is history…

Scott Walker Vs Computer Game Soundtracks
During the time of TBSFD’s conception all I was listening to was Scott Walker, in particular the dark, head-fuck of an album that is ‘Soused’. Graphic and brutal lyrics sung within an aggressive, machine-driven purgatory of noise was the perfect soundtrack to my bleak winter. Like most people who hear him, I fell in love with his rich and perfectly controlled vocal and admired his integrity. Leaving The Walker Brothers and shunning the world of pop stardom to be more artistically expressive, sing French crooner songs and slap slabs of meat in a studio as percussion was all quite inspiring and gave me the confidence to do this non-band, slightly left field, slightly theatrical music project that everyone might hate.
During our first couple of sessions of songwriting it became apparent that Rob was going through a little musical obsession of his own. Being a producer he is a fan of a massive soundscape and was getting influenced by computer game soundtracks such as Last Of Us, The Order 1886 & Journey. Big sounding classical inspired compositions that evoke drama and set the tone. Whereas I might have come up with concept Rob’s vision of the music and production inspired by this has very much shaped the sound of The Black Sheep Frederick Dickens, especially the first EP.  

It might be because I’m getting older, or because I’m heading for a paupers grave, or maybe it’s because of my lack of belief in the afterlife but I am obsessed with legacy. How something you do can echo through society/time and influence and inspire people. Legacies don’t have to be a positive thing either, as mentioned previously, the polarised legacies of Charles and Frederick really struck me when I began to research their lives. Charles Dickens’ legacy as a social reformer has always inspired me as a child whereas Frederick’s Legacy is quite unremarkable and has had little impact… but yet it has inspired a couple of musicians in the town where he died and was forgotten about to create work around his life, which has in turn inspired other pieces of work less focused on the initial concept (the newer stuff) and is having a positive effect on the local cultural scene.
Recently we had the first EP archived in The British Library, which is lovely. What struck me however, is that the work of Charles Dickens now shares the vaults with work inspired by the brother he loved dearly in early life and later in life (if the letters written about his brother after death are to be believed). It’s like a legacy reunion of sorts and I was quite touched by it.

The Electro Duo Archetype
The harmonious simplicity of having one person doing music and the other doing the singing/lyrics has created some of the finest new wave/electronic music acts in recent times. Sparks, Soft Cell, Pet Shop Boys, Suicide, Erasure are all artists I’ve grown up listening to but have never really shown up in anything I’ve done until TBSFD. The sleazy urban grit of early Soft Cell, the industrial synth sounds reminiscent of Suicide and the neo-classical style of Sparks inspire us sonically and the dynamics of the straight faced musician / expressive singer (like Vince Clarke and Andy Bell) have inspired us as an on stage visual presence.
As a side note… logistically, being in a duo makes it very easy confirming gigs. Long gone are the lengthy consultation period of each band members as they consult a fictional calendar and consult partners, bosses and family. Now one of us simply asks the other if they can do it and it’s either yes or no. We then put the stuff into a single car and go to the gig. It is bliss.

Darlington Gothic
I like the vibe and feel of Southern Gothic music, art and literature. Flawed personalities, desperation, desire and an angst-ridden sense of alienation all presented in a way that’s very much quintessentially American. We’ve filtered the tone of this work through my hometown of Darlington with its Victorian Gothic architecture (some of which built by Alfred Waterhouse – one of the UK’s finest gothic architects), its post-industrial hangover and its small town petulance to create a Darlo equivalent.

The Black Sheep Frederick Dickens play Hullabaloo, Darlington on Friday 23rd November.

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