THE TIMES - 23rd November 2004
Drummer and songwriter for New Model Army, whose minimalist punk put Bradford on the map in the 1980s
ROBERT HEATON was a key figure in New Model Army, the band that put both Bradford and bile back on the musical map in 1983. As the drummer and songwriter, he framed a new minimalist wave of punk - a surprise return for the idiom in the early Eighties, when British music languished to the tune of Bananarama, ABC and Haircut 100, and the received wisdom was that politics and fury had not worked in music and would not soon be back.
Heaton, however, was aware of exciting undercurrents even in the most mainstream pap. He could see that world music beats were replacing the four-four plod in everything from Musical Youth to Peter Gabriel, and was keen to embrace these as he was for Bradford - always his beloved home - to embrace the different cultures that had flocked to it. In 1983 New Model Army released three singles on minor labels, followed by the album Vengeance - the title track of which was a frothing four minutes on escaped Nazis, drug dealers, polluters, racists, debauched pop stars, corrupt businessmen and fat lawyers. The group was a threesome, comprising Justin Sullivan, the frontman, Stuart Morrow, the bassist, and Heaton, who became the first permanent drummer after a succession of fill-ins. They made their name playing miners' benefits up and down the country with the rather less combative Billy Bragg. When Morrow left the band in 1985, Sullivan and Heaton became the band's creative axis for the next 13 years.
New Model Army were signed by EMI in 1985, silencing the inevitable claims of mainstream capitulation with a brilliant album, No Rest For The Wicked. But they never broke in America: a condemnation of Britain's poodling to the US in the single 51st State even earned them an outright ban from the American Musicians Union.
Heaton admitted to influences as diverse as his parents' Johnny Cash records, Elvis and Sidney Bechet, and said he fell in love with the drums while watching Buddy Rich on the Lucille Ball show. Talented on several instruments, he co-wrote the music for such pointed numbers as Poison Street, The Hunt, Lights Go Out, Bodmin Pill and I Love The World.
His greatest single work may be Green and Grey from the album Thunder and Consolation (1989), a perfect marriage of Sullivan's thoughtful lyrics and his comrade's blistering rhythms. The partnership ended when a brain tumour forced Heaton's retirement. New Model Army exists to this day, but to many it never had quite the same spirit without Heaton.
Although he had been born in Cheshire, Bradford was Heaton's spiritual home. After returning to settle there he became a key figure in the city's cultural life, helping to publicise and market new bands and arts projects. He was active in Mind the Gap, a mental health drama group, and the "1 in 12" anarchist collective. He worked too on a solo project, Gardeners of Eden, and befriended the film maker David Lynch, whose work he greatly admired.
Robert Heaton, musician, was born on July 6, 1961. He died of pancreatic cancer on November 4th, 2004, aged 43.
(c) Times Newspapers 2004