"Our contract with EMI allowed us complete control. When we signed, they had to make a donation to the Miners' Strike": Fired up by frustration, New Model Army's Vengeance is as relevant now as it was 40 years ago

New Model Army group portrait
(Image credit: Erica Echenberg/Redferns via Getty Images)

The last time Justin Sullivan sat down and listened to Vengeance, the debut album from his band New Model Army, he was surprised to realise “I sound like I’m about fifteen years old”. The guitarist, singer/songwriter is now sixty-seven, but while his voice would inevitably mature, the searing resonance of Vengeance has diminished little. In those days, Sullivan operated under the handle of Slade The Leveller to protect his unemployment benefits. 

“In the punk scene back then, many musicians used other names, but you’re right, the last thing we wanted was for the dole office to see our names in the local paper,” he explains. “‘You appear to have done a gig, Mr Sullivan’. None of us wanted that so we used pseudonyms. I didn’t get caught, but I signed off in 1984.” 

Along with Stuart Morrow on bass and drummer Robb Heaton, Yorkshireman Sullivan had come to London to lay down the band’s debut album with Ray ‘Mond’ Cowie – co-founding guitarist of the Angelic Upstarts – as producer. 

“It was recorded at Alaska Studios, beneath Waterloo Station,” he reveals. “Listen carefully and you can hear the occasional train going by. We had five days and pleaded for two more, which we got. It was our first time in a studio – exciting but nerve-wracking. Mond was good to work with, he had some great ideas.” 

Vengeance was an angry album, its original eight songs (further down the line, two more tracks were added) fired up by the frustrations of growing up in Smalltown England, the Falklands war and, in the case of its powerful title track, which roared: ‘I believe in justice/I believe in vengeance/I believe in getting the bastard’, World War II criminals. 

“I had watched a documentary about Klaus Barbie, and that song [Vengeance] was written in five minutes,” Sullivan reveals, adding: “The early eighties was the beginning of something we’re seeing now – the moving of money, resources and power from public hands into the private sector. Forty years later we’re still doing the same fucking thing.” 

Sullivan still rues the fact that the term ‘punk rock’ became corralled into a specific form of music. 

“That was terrible,” he sighs. “People like Garry Bushell [journalist at weekly music paper Sounds] were responsible for that. Punk was never a genre. It was a cultural revolution. How perfect a musician you were didn’t matter. What were the rules? There weren’t any. With that in mind, these bands from the period – The Cure, Killing Joke, Depeche Mode, The Sisters Of Mercy – all went off in different directions.” Just before the album’s release on April 4, New Model Army appeared on Channel 4 weekly music show The Tube

“Early on, every band has its stroke of luck and when those things come along you’d better be ready,” Sullivan theorises. “We had a couple of those opportunities, being on The Tube was one of them, and we were ready.”

Vengeance knocked The Smiths’ self-titled debut off the top of the independent chart and EMI snapped them up. 

“All the major labels came knocking, but our contract with EMI allowed us complete control,” Sullivan replies. “One of the best things was that when we signed, they had to make a donation to the Miners’ Strike which they probably wrote off as a tax loss. Overall, it worked out okay.”

Dave Ling

Dave Ling was a co-founder of Classic Rock magazine. His words have appeared in a variety of music publications, including RAW, Kerrang!, Metal Hammer, Prog, Rock Candy, Fireworks and Sounds. Dave’s life was shaped in 1974 through the purchase of a copy of Sweet’s album ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’, along with early gig experiences from Status Quo, Rush, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Yes and Queen. As a lifelong season ticket holder of Crystal Palace FC, he is completely incapable of uttering the word ‘Br***ton’.