Punk, with its raging, mad-eyed, opiate-guzzling musicians, might be a far cry from the patronised, victimised stereotype of people with learning disabilities. But in the burgeoning live music scene for people with learning disabilities it is punk and heavy metal that predominate. Lyrics, stripped of opacity, punch with the fury of the sidelined: “Why don’t you understand me?/You always torture me/Force me to clean toilets/Force me to eat/I don’t understand why you don’t let me outside”.
Other songs by Finland’s Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät, one of the more established groups on the British scene, convey the disempowerment of living with autism, Asperger’s, Down’s syndrome or other learning-affected conditions: “I don’t want to live [in a] group home/I don’t want institution/I want respect.”
Now a new organisation, Constant Flux, hopes to bring the band’s music – and that of other learning disabled groups – to a wider audience. Launched last year by Richard Phoenix, a musician and music facilitator for learning disabled people, Constant Flux’s goals are simple but groundbreaking.
“The idea is to provide opportunities to perform live to integrated audiences in environments that aren’t necessarily so safe, where it’s not just a learning disability event,” he says. “We want musicians to be part of the wider community and part of the wider music scene.”
The concept builds on a gig night called The Rock House, which Phoenix set up in Brighton in 2010 while working for Carousel, a local arts charity for people with learning disabilities. “We put out an open call for musicians and bands with at least one learning disabled member to come along and either perform their material or improvise alongside a house band – The Rock House Band,” he says.
It proved a success with up to 100 tickets being sold each month, and now boasts seven different acts at each gig. It prompted some of the bands to consider touring, in turn triggering the need for Constant Flux. “I used to encounter so many musicians who were really passionate but frustrated about the lack of opportunities for playing with other bands, getting records out, or getting people to hear their music,” says Phoenix. “So it’s incredible to now be able to find ways to make that happen.”
While help is already provided by other organisations for learning instruments, reading music, remembering the music and writing words, Constant Flux, funded by the Arts Council England’s Grants for the Arts scheme, steps in chiefly around the organisation and communication essential for keeping a band together and staging a tour. “Some of the musicians are truly exceptional, particularly some on the autistic or Asperger’s spectrum,” says Phoenix. “But they can need support with things like booking rehearsals and setting up gigs. Much of my job is like that of a tour manager. We also, for example, look after a band called The Express who play and write all their own songs but it’s difficult for them to communicate so a lot of the support we offer is helping them engage with each other.”
It is not always apparent which musicians have learning disabilities or what the diagnosis might be. This challenges audiences to think about how often people with learning disabilities’ needs go unnoticed simply because they are not obviously disabled. But it also shows people what can be achieved with the right support, says Phoenix. So far, the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive – and informative. The first London gig Constant Flux staged last year for heavy metal sextet Zombie Crash’s tour was sold out, with around 700 attending. “A lot of audience members said they didn’t know what to expect or how they were going to react to the musicians but in the end people were just into the music and forgot they were watching people with learning disabilities,” Phoenix says.
Following the success of Zombie Crash’s tour, Constant Flux is now organising gigs for the electronic pop act, The Fish Police. Together for five years, the band had previously been struggling to find gigs in a more mainstream setting, let alone go on tour. But this month, they will be performing in seven cities, each time alongside three local bands: one with learning disabled members and two without.
Performing sell-out gigs for mixed audiences as part of a wider national music scene has also had profound effects on the band members. “The lead singer of Zombie Crash, who has Asperger’s syndrome, says when he’s on stage he feels like his learning disability goes away,” says Phoenix.
“We are finally blending with learning disabled and non-learning disabled bands alike in environments that befit us,” says Ryan O’Donovan, the band’s lead guitarist. “The tour was our greatest moment to date.”
• For details and tickets for the Fish Police tour visit constantflux.co.uk