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Linder Sterling, performance shot of ‘The Working Class Goes to Paradise’, Tate Britain, 2006

A couple of years back, when Manchester’s post-punk avant-provocateur Linder Sterling appeared at Flourish, the Sunday-night happening in Glasgow, all preconceptions of her smuttified back catalogue were wiped clean. The faux-scat-jazz, sex-war subversion of her band Ludus had given way to a barrage of churning drone guitar and radio noise, wrapped up with the understated razor-blade force of her free-associative verbal ectoplasm.

Though small in scale, its intentions seemed derived in part from this major durational work, first performed in Manchester during 2000 and recreated here as part of Tate Triennial 2006. It was inspired by a movement manual by Ann Lee, Manchester-born leader of 18th-century religious movement, the Shakers. Over the course of four hours—the audience only present for the middle two—three bands square off in a simultaneous and cacophonous soundclash, overseen by Sterling’s long-term guitar foil Ian Devine. Meanwhile, a dozen black-clad women, austere and unobtrusive, move laboriously through the gallery space, recreating gestures derived from what is effectively a spiritual workout for women.

In the midst of it, a gamine Sterling adopts a multitude of disguises, from equestrian horsing around with bridle, pony-tail and blood-red smile, to outlaw hero of the wild north-west, eventually blowing in from the wilderness with the healing hand of a self-styled pariah. Discarding her armour, Sterling lets down her hair and lays back, spasming in controlled fits and starts.

From one end of the hall, the bands—for the record, the Pylon Boys, 3D tanx and Baby Judas—face each other down as if they’re about to strip-the-willow, and the whole ideology of a gig as an us’n’them rally is not so much flipped on its head as buggered senseless. Amid the clatter, they gradually arrive at some accord, as if synchronised by some boys’ menstrual cycle.

Witnessing such a Manchester-centred event at Tate Britain is akin to seeing an away-day of mill workers meeting the Queen. Yet this works in its favour, producing a performance of mesmerising and inclusive fluidity, as the women slalom slowly in formation, tip-toeing through the audience—a hypnotic spectacle.

Here, then, is the dignity of labour made flesh. As workers’ playtimes go, faith-healing and revivalism are still top light entertainment up north. Strictly celibate as they were, the Shakers were, on gut level, the only fun in town, the only route to release. From factory to dancefloor, the rhythms remain the same. The eventual catharsis comes through the power of repetition—and that’s what makes The Working Class Goes to Paradise so insistently irresistible.

Like any hard graft, it’s done in shifts. As bands and ringmistress take a breather, a guitar’s feedback and a silent chorus of Trojan women are all that’s in motion. When they return, the music is more proddingly euphoric, the movement more quietly urgent. Sterling wears a Clint Eastwood beard, but with her own hair let loose looks more like an approximation of Jesus, blessing each of her disciples in turn. Babbling some mantra about sin, Sterling invokes the glorious blasphemy of Siouxsie Sioux’s extended rendition of ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ at the height of punk’s first thrash. But this repeat run isn’t merely a nostalgia trip. Where many artists—both visual and musical—plunder the 1960s, Sterling prefers to signature the 1760s, but still manages to chart her own personal past.

At one point, Ian Devine, resplendent in gold lamé jacket, towers over Sterling, arms outstretched crucifix-fashion, head bowed. As the light pours out of him, one is reminded both of Morrissey and of Howard Devoto, foundermember of the seminal bands Buzzcocks and Magazine—whose propensity for selfdeification once drew comment from Sterling. Here, she might just have transcended him.

After two and a half hours, the audience is gently but firmly ushered away from the centre of activity, while Sterling and her throng carry on regardless. As the din grows distant, it’s as if last orders has been called at a wake—while those most in need of purging are respectfully left to get on with it. At last glance, Sterling looks like she’ll be dominant for hours yet.

Neil Cooper is an arts writer